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  • Writer's pictureDave Verhaagen

What is an Evangelical?

Updated: Aug 29, 2022

In my new book, How White Evangelicals Think, I dig into the complex psychology of white evangelicals. I explore why they deny systemic racism, fixate on the LGBTQ community, believe conspiracy theories more than other groups, and embrace nationalistic dogma, among many other topics. I set out to answer these questions, not by offering my own opinions or speculation, but by laying out what we have learned from solid research.

One of the first lessons learned in sifting through this research is that evangelicals, like many other groups, are surprisingly hard to define. Is an evangelical someone who holds certain beliefs? If so, which ones and how many of them? How firmly must they hold those beliefs?

Or is an evangelical someone who behaves in certain ways? Do they pray and go to church and have personal Bible study, for example? If so, how many of those things must they do—and how frequently must they do them?

Or is an evangelical someone who identifies as being an evangelical? Do they call themselves an evangelical or even something evangelical-adjacent, like a “conservative Christian” or “very committed Christian?”

Researchers have explored all of these ways of determining if someone is an evangelical. George Barna, the great evangelical pollster, had a litmus test of 9 doctrinal statements that determined whether someone was an authentic evangelical. Historian David Bebbington developed his 4 point test: an evangelical is someone who holds four attitudes or beliefs: conversionism (belief in a transformed life through a “born again” experience), biblicism (high regard for the Bible and obedience to its tenets), activism (missionary and evangelistic efforts), and crucicentrism (the centrality of the cross, the death and resurrection of Jesus).

Other researchers focused on behaviors like church attendance or prayer instead of simply belief. They measure how much a person tithes, reads their bible, or does other things associated with authentic faith.

Finally, others simply looked at self-identification. Does a person identify as an evangelical? Do they see themselves as part of the evangelical church?

These three ways of measuring evangelical status has been called The Three B’s:

Belief - what doctrinal statements do you endorse as true?

Behavior - what religious practices do you engage in regularly?

Belonging - what group do you identify and affiliate with?

The last way of determining if someone is an evangelical is obviously flawed and limited, but better than the other two. If we use the Belief standard, this opens up all kinds of questions: How many statements do you have to believe to be considered authentically evangelical? What if you endorse 8 of 9 doctrinal statements proposed by Barna? What about 7? How strongly do you have to believe them? Can you have any expressed doubt or questions about them? What about others who boil the essential doctrines or beliefs down to 4 instead of 9? Do you have to endorse all 4 of them? From a research standpoint, you can imagine how much of a mess this would be.

But what about Behavior as the standard? Shouldn’t that be easier to measure? Actually, no it is not. One simple reason is that people lie. There is no way to know if a person prays, and if so, how often. Similarly, who knows how often someone goes to church or reads their Bible or tithes? Research where participants have some outside measures of their behavior, like church attendance, finds that people lie about how often they attend corporate worship. Other research out of the UK finds people lie about how often they read the Bible. With any behavior esteemed by a subculture or by a valued group within that culture, there is always the incentive to inflate, embellish, or flat-out lie. This is true of exercise, charitable giving, wearing seatbelts, you name it. It’s certainly true about prayer, reading the Bible, and church attendance for some people. Also, what happens when someone engages in behavior that is frowned upon in evangelical circles? Maybe they live with their girlfriend or boyfriend or smoke marijuana or gamble. How much is too much before they are out of the club? So self-reported behavior is not a great measure of inclusion in the company of evangelicals.

You can imagine how complicated this becomes. Is a harried single mother of two kids who is so exhausted on Sundays that she never goes to church, rarely prays or reads her Bible, but endorses seven of nine doctrinal statements an evangelical? Is a young professional who is in a men’s Bible study and goes to church most weeks, but lives with his girlfriend, never tithes, and doesn’t believe people should “push their religion on others” an evangelical?

That leaves Belonging, which, admittedly, also has some limitations. This is measured by simply asking people if they consider themselves to be an evangelical or something similar like a “conservative Christian” or a “Born-again Christian.” Here, we know they are less likely to lie about whether they perceive themselves to be in the group, even if their personal belief system isn’t always congruent with evangelical thought or they aren’t consistent with Christian disciplines like Bible study, prayer, or corporate worship. Those who self-identify with the group are more likely to act and think like the larger group because they have an emotional connection to it. They find a sense of identity from the group in a way that Belief and Behavior don’t always detect. These are the people who attend church retreats and get involved in small groups and go on short-term missions projects and have coffee with their pastor.

Using Belonging as the standard, researchers are really looking at the people who self-identify as part of the evangelical or conservative Christian subculture. It is the most straightforward and cleanest way to measure inclusion in the group. Barna considered a person an evangelical in his polling based on his or her belief system, which might make good sense from a theological point of view, but determining it based on a sense of Belonging makes more sense from a research standpoint. Self-identification proves to be a more robust way of regarding whether someone is an evangelical, better than assent to a specific number of beliefs or engaging in certain hard-to-measure spiritual disciplines. Belonging, or self-identification, is the standard that Dr. Robert P. Jones, founder of The Public Religion Research Institute, and others endorse.

This is only a partial explanation for why some Christians behave in ways that seem counter to historical Christian belief and behavior. They simply identify as Christian, but their belief structure and their personal actions don’t always line up with this. However, even when they hold more Orthodox beliefs, their behavior and attitudes are often at odds with historical concepts of Christian grace, love, meekness, kindness, goodness, and charity. Exploring why that is forms the basis for my book and the articles to follow here.

To order "How White Evangelical Think," click this link.

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