Evangelicalism, in a strictly lexical, but rarely used sense, refers to all things that are implied in belief that Jesus is the savior. To be evangelical would then mean to be merely Christian - that is, founded upon, motivated by, acting in agreement with, or in some other way identified with τὸ ευαγγελιον (τὸ εὐαγγέλιον): the good news, the Gospel of salvation given to humanity by Jesus. However, the popular definition refers to people or things related to spreading the Good News, often globally, and to converting people in the name of Christ.
In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, Jesus gives his apostles instructions to spread the Gospel to all the earth. This is commonly known as the Great Commission.
Early Christian Church period
After the death of Jesus, some of the disciples or followers of Jesus travelled throughout the region to spread the teachings of Jesus. Among these include Paul of Tarsus and Saint Timothy.
During this century, there was a religious revival in the Americas which is known as the First Great Awakening. But the actual launch of the modern Evangelical movement is credited to John Wesley. His Aldersgate experience in 1738- "I felt my heart strangely warmed," is referenced in this regard. Wesley's ministry started in his native England, and spread to the American colonies, from which it spread to the rest of the world. It was never his intention to break from the Church of England, but to work within its already existing parameters. After his death, the Methodist Church was officially formed as a entity separate from the Anglican Church.
Characteristics (based on the most common definition)
Commentators and historians have described four distinctive characteristics of evangelicals (Bebbington):
- An emphasis on the conversion experience. The conversion is also called being 'saved' or the "new birth" or being "born again" after John 3:3 (Evangelicals are sometimes referred to as "born-again Christians" because of this emphasis.)
- The use of the Bible as the primary source of God's revelation to man, and therefore the ultimate religious authority.
- Encourage evangelism, that is the act of sharing one's beliefs in the gospel with others in order to convince them to convert, either in organized missionary work or through personal evangelism.
- A central focus on Christ's redeeming work on the cross, especially as the means for salvation and the forgiveness of sins.
Evangelicals generally believe the Bible to be reliable and the ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice and subscribe to the doctrines of sola scriptura and sola fide. They believe in the historicity of the miracles of Jesus and his literal virgin birth, crucifixion, resurrection, and Second Coming. It follows that they generally adhere to their interpretation of biblical views which may affect their social outlook, believing, for example, that homosexual behavior is sinful and that human life begins at conception.
Active involvement in secular society is a characteristic of modern evangelicals, who see the danger of withdrawal on the one hand, and accommodation, on the other, and try to take the middle course, that of following the biblical injunction to be "in the world yet not of the world". As such, evangelicals are highly active in social causes.
Historically, Evangelicals have often been in the forefront of movements such as abolition, prison reform, orphanage establishment, hospital building, and founding educational institutions.
Today this activism is also expressed in literacy training, adoption agencies, food banks, and day-care centers for children, as well as more politically controversial causes such as the pro-life movement and the prohibition of same-sex marriage. Within US mainline denominations there is often a political dichotomy, with the non-evangelicals and evangelicals both actively lobbying in Washington, but for opposite causes.
Evangelicals also tend to prefer individual understanding of the Bible and participation in the service by all on an equal footing to a highly structured liturgy and church hierarchy. On the other hand, there is little variation of understanding of the Bible within individual evangelical churches.
Evangelicals can be found in a wide variety of Christian traditions and locations, although they are most commonly Protestant. Many fundamentalists can also be defined as evangelicals, although not all evangelicals are fundamentalists, because they may not hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible. Some Evangelicals also identify with the Pentecostal movement. In the late 20th century, several evangelicals became involved with the informal renewal movement referred to as paleo-orthodoxy.
A 1992 survey (Green) showed that in the United States and Canada evangelicals make up both the largest and the most active group of Christians (surpassing both Roman Catholics and non-Evangelical Protestant groups).
On a worldwide scale evangelical Churches are (together with Pentecostals) the most rapidly growing Christian churches. The two are even beginning to overlap, in a movement sometimes called Transformationalism.
According to the Washington Post, John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio, said that despite many variations, evangelicals generally adhere to four core beliefs:
- The Bible is without error
- Salvation comes through faith in Jesus and not good works
- Individuals must accept Jesus as adults
- All Christians must evangelize
Barna Research  defines an evangelical based on a nine question test covering these criteria
- being born again
- say their faith is very important in their life today
- believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians
- believe that Satan exists
- believe that the eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works
- believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth
- describe God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today.
Famous evangelicals include:
Aiden Wilson Tozer (1897 - 1963) - preacher and author
Albert Benjamin Simpson (1843-1919) - preacher, writer, and founder of The Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA)
Billy Sunday - American evangelist
C. S. Lewis - British academic and author; although Lewis was an Anglican who did not identify himself with Evangelicals, he was (and his books are still) nonetheless influential within modern Evangelicalism.
Carl F. H. Henry - founding editor of Christianity Today
Charles Grandison Finney - a preacher in the Second Great Awakening
Charles Spurgeon, 19th century English Baptist preacher and advocate of Calvinism
Charles Wesley - brother of John Wesley, hymnwriter of Methodism
Dwight L. Moody - American evangelist, pastor and educator
Fanny Crosby - blind American hymnwriter of many famous hymns including Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine
Francis Schaeffer - evangelist, speaker, and writer
George Whitefield - early Methodist preacher and associate of John Wesley
Henry Venn (1725 - 1797) - founder of the small, but highly influential Clapham Sect in Britain. His grandson, also named Henry Venn (1796-1873), pioneered the basic principles of indigenous church mission theory.
John Newton - author of Amazing Grace
John Wesley - founder of Methodism
Jonathan Edwards - preacher in the First Great Awakening
- Joseph M. Scriven - Irish poet, moved to Canada and wrote What a Friend We Have in Jesus after his fiancee's tragic death.
Robert Murray M'Cheyne (1813 - 1843) - Scottish preacher and minister of St Peter's, Dundee.
William Cowper - English poet/author of numerous hymns
William Wilberforce - worked to abolish slavery in the British Empire
Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones - a famous Evangelical preacher and author
Gareth Davies - a Methodist preacher and a leader of Evangelicalism in Wales
Contemporaries: (many of these would be more accurately listed under Neo-evangelicalism)
Evangelical para-church organizations
Many Evangelical Christians share an understanding of cross denominational collaboration in mission and evangelism, while at the same time eschewing large institutional church structures. As a result of this emergence, a plethora of not local church-based but church-related organizations, often founded with a direct and limited purpose in mind which are sometimes called para-churches or para church organizations.
Some examples of larger, international organisations of this kind, are:
Parachurch organizations well-known in the United States, are:
- Bebbington, David. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. Unwin Hyman (London), 1989.
- Green, John, Guth, James, et.al. Akron Survey of Religion and Politics in America 1992. As quoted in Noll, Mark. Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Eerdmans, 1994.