Evangelical Identity

When is an evangelical not an evangelical? Research released from Grey Matter Research and Infinity Concepts shows people with evangelical beliefs often do not use the word “evangelical” to describe themselves.

In the study Beyond the Label: Unmasking Evangelical Identity, researchers surveyed 1,039 American adults who hold core evangelical beliefs, namely that they agree strongly with the following four perspectives:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation
  • It is important for me to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior

This is the definition of “evangelical” used by the National Association of Evangelicals. Further, the study focused solely on Protestants with these beliefs.   

While everyone in the study held core evangelical beliefs, only 27% of evangelicals would choose to use the term “evangelical Christian” to describe themselves. Seventy-three percent do not voluntarily use this term.

When directly asked whether they are evangelical Christians, 61% admit this term does accurately describe them (whether they prefer to use it or not), while 39% flatly state they are not evangelical.

When asked to describe an evangelical, 34% of those with evangelical beliefs associate the term with specific religious beliefs, mostly being saved by grace or born again, while 39% focus on a person’s willingness to share their faith.   

Just 2% define the term according to what political positions someone holds.

Only 24% of evangelicals believe the American public in general holds a positive view of the term “evangelical Christian,” with 27% feeling the public is generally negative toward this term (49% believe the public is neutral on this). Almost half (49%) feel the media sees the term “evangelical Christian” in a negative light, leaving 34% who feel the media view tends to be neutral and only 18% who believe it is positive.

The study also points out that there are widely varying definitions of, and uses for, the word “evangelical.” It has come to have a strong political connotation in some uses. Different research organizations define it according to what people call themselves, what church they attend, or a complex set of multiple beliefs. Many use the term without really understanding it.

“The results of this study are a warning,” commented Ron Sellers, President of Grey Matter Research. “They are a warning to be careful when you see the word evangelical. When it is used in a news story, question the definition. When you see research data about evangelicals, make sure you understand how they are being defined. There is a lot of contradictory information about evangelicals out there, often because the definitions of ‘evangelical’ are so vastly different.”

“These insights offer a glimpse into the intricate identity landscape of evangelical Christians,” noted Mark Dreistadt, President and CEO of Infinity Concepts. “There is a tension between self-perception and external perception. Maybe, by words and actions, it is time to do more to provide a clear understanding of what it actually means to be ‘evangelical.’”