What Is an Evangelical Church?

Graphic with a church building in a photo and an E representing the evangelical church

In the years since the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, evangelicals have become arguably the most controversial religious group in America. Almost all mainstream news coverage of evangelicals relates to politics—or to scandals, such as the moral failings of megachurch pastors. As newsworthy as these topics may be, they surely don’t define what counts as an evangelical church. Evangelicalism existed as a religious movement for hundreds of years prior to the advent of the “Religious Right” of the 1970s and 80s. Evangelicalism today is also a fully global movement, with its areas of greatest growth in places such as sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. So there must be more to being an evangelical church than current American political alignments.

Historically, evangelical Christians have been united by a common set of beliefs and spiritual experiences. Chief among these is the experience of being “born again,” or receiving God’s gracious offer of forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ. Evangelicals also typically have a very high view of the authority of the Bible for the Christian life and for moral standards. Finally, evangelicals believe that a true Christian has a daily sense of “walking with God.” To evangelicals, God is no mere intellectual concept or distant deity. He is an active, powerful presence in one’s everyday affairs.

Churches and denominations

By “church,” I am referring to a local congregation of Christian believers. “Church” and “denomination” are sometimes used as synonyms. But for evangelicals, this conflation of church and denomination is somewhat problematic. Virtually all Protestant denominations, except perhaps for the most liberal ones, have some evangelical members. The United Methodist Church, for example, has suffered deep divisions between evangelicals and liberals in its global communion. Conservative Methodists are especially prominent in the denomination’s growing African churches. Liberal Methodists are concentrated in the denomination’s leadership in the US, but many rank-and-file American Methodists are broadly evangelical. Some denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), are more uniformly evangelical today. But even the SBC was not consistently evangelical in the 1970s, before the denomination went through what evangelicals call the “Conservative Resurgence” of the 1980s and 90s.

Adding to the potential confusion, some denominations have “evangelical” in their name but are not doctrinally evangelical in the modern sense of the word. This is most obviously the case with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which is a liberal mainline denomination, although the ELCA presumably has some evangelical adherents within it too. “Evangelical” in the ELCA’s name hearkens back to the German word evangelisch, which in the Reformation era of the 1500s and 1600s often denoted “Protestant,” as opposed to Catholic. The largest evangelical Lutheran denomination in America is the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. Other denominations with the word evangelical in their name, such as the Evangelical Covenant Church or the Evangelical Free Church of America, are more clearly evangelical than the ELCA is. In any case, it is often easier to label an individual congregation or a particular Christian believer as evangelical than it is an entire denomination.

Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and fundamentalists

What about the relationship between evangelicals and related groups, such as Pentecostals and fundamentalists? Some evangelicals would not regard Pentecostals as evangelicals, seeing the doctrinal differences between the groups as too stark. But for our purposes, we can consider Pentecostals as a large and distinctive subset of the evangelical movement. Pentecostals share mainstream evangelical convictions about being born again and the authority of the Bible. But Pentecostals part ways with other evangelicals on the doctrine of the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and the experience of speaking in tongues. The baptism of the Holy Spirit, evangelicals believe, is the moment at which God the Holy Spirit fills a Christian with spiritual power. Non-Pentecostal evangelicals believe this happens when a person is born again. Pentecostals believe it happens after a Christian is born again, as a “second blessing” marked by speaking in tongues. The gift of speaking in tongues is mentioned regularly in the New Testament. Pentecostals believe this gift is granted to all Christians when they are baptized in the Holy Spirit. Non-Pentecostal evangelicals typically either downplay the centrality of tongues in church life, or they argue that the gift of tongues ceased to operate after the apostolic period of early church history. The largest Pentecostal denominations in America include the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ—which is also one of the largest African American-majority denominations.

What about fundamentalists and evangelicals? In the early twentieth century, “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” were effectively synonyms. Fundamentalists saw themselves as defending the “fundamentals” of Christian faith and of the Bible, against innovations such as evolutionary theory and the higher criticism of Scripture. In the 1940s, however, some fundamentalists began using the terms “neo-evangelical,” or just “evangelical,” as self-descriptors. The National Association of Evangelicals (founded 1942), for example, became one of the chief advocacy groups for a wide range of evangelical denominations. Some of the new evangelical leaders believed that the “fundamentalist” movement had become too fractious and anti-intellectual, especially in its campaign against teaching evolution in public schools in the 1920s. Neo-evangelicals, such as Harold J. Ockenga of the Park Street Church in Boston, wished to project a more cosmopolitan, winsome image than fundamentalists had done. Since the 1970s, relatively few Christians have embraced the fundamentalist label, as it has taken on mostly pejorative connotations in mainstream American culture. Today, those who identify as fundamentalists, such as many independent Baptist churches, are critical of evangelicals as doctrinally liberal and socially permissive.

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Evangelical beliefs and experiences

The word “evangelical” derives originally from the Greek word evangelion, meaning “good message” or “good news.” Evangelion is usually translated as “gospel” in the New Testament. (Click here to see this word in the Logos Bible Word Study.) Historically, an evangelical church is defined by a set of distinctive Christian beliefs and experiences. Perhaps the most uniquely evangelical trait is a person’s experience of being “born again.” The New Testament repeatedly refers to this experience, such as in John 3:3, when Jesus tells the inquirer Nicodemus that “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Similarly, 1 Peter 1:3 explains that God has caused Christians “to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Different Christian groups have taken different views of what it means to be “born again.” Non-evangelicals typically put less weight on this concept than evangelicals do, and some suggest that infants are born again when they are baptized. For evangelicals, however, being “born again” is generally a discernible moment in one’s spiritual journey when a person consciously repents of his or her sin, receives Jesus Christ’s gracious offer of forgiveness, and is transformed into a “new creation” in Christ. Evangelical preachers often speak of the born again experience as the “new birth” in Christ.

Another distinguishing trait of an evangelical church is belief in the final authority of the Bible for spiritual truth and moral guidance. If a professing Christian believes that parts of the Bible are out-of-date or erroneous, they are not an evangelical by our definition. Similarly, traditional Catholics are generally not considered evangelicals because they affirm church tradition as having an authoritative role alongside Scripture. Many evangelicals concede that some biblical topics (such as the events of the last days) are mysterious or hard to understand, but they would not consider any part of Scripture as imperfect or mistaken.

Evangelicals often see church tradition, great Christian teachers, and historic creeds as important supplements to understanding Scripture. Other, more strictly “biblicist” evangelicals downplay the value of creeds and tradition, saying that they depend on the Bible alone for authoritative guidance. But they all see the Bible as having a foundational authority that is unequaled in the life of the church. Individual Bible reading is an essential evangelical practice, as is “expository” preaching of Scripture. Expository preaching seeks to draw out the meaning of the biblical text. Expository preachers disdain using Scripture as a launching pad to offer opinions or applications not warranted by the text itself.

Evangelical churches also believe that after being born again, Christians have access to God in a vital, personal way. Non-Christians do not have such access to God unless and until they are born again. Evangelicals point to verses in the Bible that speak of a Christian walking with God, or keeping “in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:25). Where other traditions may put more focus on church attendance, liturgy, or Christian fellowship as the primary ways to encounter God, evangelicals see their relationship with God as suffusing daily life, not just Sunday mornings. Churches encourage average Christians to cultivate a devotional life of Scripture reading and prayer, and believe that it is normal for God to guide a believer through everyday decision-making.

Some believe that God, via the Holy Spirit, may prompt believers on an hour-by-hour basis to say a prayer, to offer someone an encouraging word, to assist someone in distress, or to witness to someone about Christ. The personal nature of one’s relationship with God has sometimes given evangelical faith a heavily individualistic cast. But most practicing evangelicals affirm that an individual should pursue God in vital relationship with other believers in a church, since that is commanded in Scripture (in Heb 10:24–25, for example).

Some observers have proposed other factors as essential evangelical attributes, including other beliefs, such as particular views of the end-times. Others have argued that American evangelicalism has become inextricably connected to certain political views, or to certain cultural and commercial products, such as popular Christian music, books, or other media. No definition of evangelicalism is perfect, but the tripartite emphasis above (born again, the Bible, and a personal relationship with God through Christ) accounts well for commonalities in the long history of evangelicalism across the globe.

The history of evangelicals

Evangelical churches believe that their movement is essentially biblical, drawing on the New Testament’s teachings about the new birth in Christ, among other beliefs. Historically, the evangelical movement also depends upon deep traditions in church history, particularly from the Protestant Reformation. But most historians believe that the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 40s signaled an important transition for the emergence of evangelical churches in recognizable, modern form. The history of Christianity is full of renewal movements, and evangelicals represent one of the most vital of them. But evangelicalism also intersected with broad philosophical and cultural trends associated with the Enlightenment, such as an increased focus on individual rather than communal identity. The idea of individual conversion is as old as the apostle Paul’s dramatic encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus in Acts 9. But evangelicals viewed the new birth with eyes freshly sensitive to individual religious experience, due in large measure to the heightened cultural individualism of the early 1700s.

The First Great Awakening was a vast international movement in which many thousands of people either experienced the new birth or had their faith renewed. The Great Awakening affected much of Protestant Europe, Britain, and the British American colonies. Most observers trace the beginning of the awakening in the English-speaking world to revival in the Northampton, Massachusetts, church of Jonathan Edwards in 1734/35. Edwards wrote A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God to document this revival. A Faithful Narrative was first published in London, illustrating the way that print publicized the awakenings and set expectations for revival in other evangelical churches.

Jonathan Edwards became the most influential theologian of the Great Awakening, but the revival’s key personality and preacher was the evangelist George Whitefield. Whitefield was an Anglican minister and spent most of his life in England. But Whitefield saw enormous successes in Wales, Scotland, and especially in the American colonies, which he took by storm starting in the late-1730s. Whitefield was by all accounts a phenomenally talented orator. But he was also a master of the print media of his time. He published best-selling editions of his sermons and personal journals with the assistance of printers such as Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was no evangelical, but he liked Whitefield personally and saw a business opportunity in publishing Whitefield’s works. (He also published anti-Whitefield tracts, which was fine with the evangelist, since controversy brought more attention to Whitefield’s gospel.) Evangelicalism has depended on new communication technologies, from newspapers to social media, to promote its message of the new birth in Christ.

Evangelical churches have had a complicated relationship with the issues of race and slavery. Both Whitefield and Edwards were slaveowners. But unlike many traditional ministers, they both sought to preach the new birth to African Americans, including to the enslaved. By the mid-1700s, African Americans had begun to convert in significant numbers to evangelical churches. Lemuel Haynes, a former indentured servant, became the first formally ordained African American in 1785, and he went on to pastor a Congregationalist church in Vermont. But most African American converts in the 1700s and early 1800s joined Baptist churches.

Probably the first African American church, led by the enslaved man and Baptist preacher David George, was the Silver Bluff Church in South Carolina, founded around 1773. By the early 1800s, massive numbers of African Americans and Afro-Caribbean people were joining Baptist and Methodist churches. In 1816, the Black Philadelphia pastor Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first Black-led denomination. African American Christians have, for a variety of reasons, often not identified with the formal evangelical movement or described themselves as “evangelical.” But their conversionism, vital piety, and high view of the Bible was influenced by the historic evangelical tradition.

The Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s was arguably the greatest era of white and Black church growth in American history. But the Second Great Awakening was a more amorphous movement than the First Great Awakening. Many scholars see the Second Great Awakening more as an organizing process than a singular event. The Second Great Awakening lasted roughly from the Cane Ridge revival in Kentucky in 1801 to Charles Finney’s popular evangelistic ministry of the late 1820s to early 1830s. The “process” of the Second Awakening was punctuated by revivals. But arguably of more significance, it saw the founding of thousands of churches that kept pace with the great antebellum American expansion of the white and Black population in places from New York to Texas. Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Anglican/Episcopalian denominations were at the forefront of the First Great Awakening. But in the Second Great Awakening, Methodist and Baptist churches became America’s largest Protestant denominations.

Evangelicals and missions

One of the most consequential developments in the early 1800s for the future of evangelical churches was the growth of the missionary movement. Large-scale Catholic missions preceded Protestant ones by centuries, but the First Great Awakening spawned a new Protestant zeal for evangelism. Many of the early evangelical missionaries were either itinerant evangelists such as Whitefield, or Christians who simply moved to new places and took their faith with them. For example, the Silver Bluff Church’s David George moved to Nova Scotia after the American Revolution, founding new churches in Canada. Then George left Nova Scotia, along with much of his Canadian congregation, to move to Sierra Leone, West Africa, in the 1790s. By that time, evangelicals in Britain and America had begun creating formal missionary societies. The largest of the American societies was the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, or ABCFM (founded 1810). Groups such as the ABCFM commissioned evangelists and educators to work among domestic and overseas groups, especially those that lacked churches and an effective gospel witness. Early missionaries went to places including India, Hawaii, and to various Native American tribes.

The early missionary movement has been justly criticized for conflating the Christian message with trappings of Western culture, such as styles of dress. Missionaries often cooperated with British and American imperial and military power, as well. Nevertheless, missionary workers set the stage for evangelicalism, and later Pentecostalism, to become fully global religious movements. Evangelical churches tended to grow exponentially once missionary agencies and denominations turned their work over to indigenous evangelists and clergy. The twentieth century saw explosive Christian growth across almost all Christian denominations in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, which had previously been dominated by animistic religions. Latin America experienced huge gains for evangelicals and Pentecostals during the same era, typically attracting people of a culturally Catholic background.

Christianity has grown by leaps and bounds in the “global South” over the past century, while Europe—the traditional center of both Catholicism and Protestantism—has faded in demographic significance. In 1900, Europe had two-thirds of the world’s Christians; today it probably has less than 20 percent, and that percentage is falling fast. The success of the missionary movement and the growth of evangelical churches in the global South has had unexpected consequences for old, white-led denominations such as the Anglican Church and the Methodist Church.

Anglicanism (or the Episcopal Church, as it is called in the US) has historically produced many important evangelicals, such as Whitefield, but it was never uniformly evangelical. The Methodist Church, founded by the one-time Anglican John Wesley, was uniformly evangelical in the era of the First and Second Great Awakening, but it had become a moderate-to-liberal denomination by the mid-twentieth century. However, both the Anglican and Methodist churches have a major presence in Africa, where their churches are mostly conservative and evangelical. The African churches have helped to lead the global Anglican communion to the edge of permanent schism today over controversies such as gay marriage. Likewise, African churches prevented the United Methodist Church from fully endorsing gay marriage and LGBTQ clergy in the 2010s. Now that denomination is also poised to divide into two groups, one led by white Western liberals, and one a global communion of evangelical Methodists, including African congregations. Globally, evangelical and Pentecostal churches are becoming less white and less Western with each passing year.

Evangelicals and politics

Despite this de-centering of the evangelical movement from its European and American cores, today’s media portrayals of “evangelicals” typically focus on the political behavior of self-identified white American evangelicals. Like most Christian groups, evangelicals generally believe that their faith has political consequences. They have often disagreed, however, about how to apply their faith in the public square. Evangelicals had strong but conflicting views of the American Revolution, for example, with many white American evangelicals supporting the Revolution, and prominent British evangelicals such as John Wesley opposing it. American evangelicals also did not agree about the morality of chattel slavery prior to the Civil War. Across their history, evangelicals have often supported moral reform movements, such as campaigns to require Sabbath observance, to prohibit alcohol sales and consumption, and to encourage prayer in public schools. Other evangelicals, however, have opposed such movements, citing the dangers involved with blurring lines separating church from state.

The rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s gave the impression that white evangelical churches had become conspicuously political. Spokesmen such as Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority urged evangelical and fundamentalist churches to mobilize their members to vote in accord with biblical values on issues such as school prayer and abortion, which had been legalized in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. The white evangelical alliance with the Republican Party was cemented by the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan as president. Many Southern evangelicals had supported the moderate Baptist and Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976. The defection of many Southerners to the Republican camp in 1980 heralded a durable evangelical-Republican fusion that persisted well into the twenty-first century. The extent to which partisan politics are a focus on an average Sunday in evangelical churches is unclear. It is also unclear whether evangelical churches are more partisan than, for example, a typical Black or mainline church is.

The controversy over white evangelical politics crested in 2016, when the media widely reported that 81 percent of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Some writers were careful to note that these “evangelicals” were only self-identified white evangelical voters. Most election polling only asks about the votes of white evangelicals, not evangelicals of other ethnicities. (Also, nearly half of self-identified evangelicals do not vote in any given election.) While millions of white evangelicals certainly vote Republican in American elections today, in most polls the category “evangelical” depends entirely upon self-identification.

In the minority of polls about evangelicals that do ask additional questions about beliefs and church attendance, significant numbers of self-identified “evangelicals” express non-evangelical beliefs, and/or they rarely attend church. This may indicate that they attach an ethnic or political meaning to the term “evangelical” as much as a theological or churchly one. These types of definitional problems are hardly limited to religion polling, but they should give us pause about assuming that evangelical churches are uniquely or uniformly partisan. It further suggests that “evangelical” politics may not exactly overlap with evangelical church life. Also, American evangelicals are in an unusual position of being a large enough segment of the population that they can imagine themselves being part of a “Moral Majority.” In much of the rest of the world, in places such as Britain, evangelical churches represent a much smaller percentage of the population. Other evangelicals may not live in a democracy, or may face dire threats to their religious liberty, such as in China or parts of the Middle East. Evangelical churches outside of the US thus often view politics differently than those evangelicals in democratic nations with a relatively large evangelical cohort.


Evangelical churches have taken many forms across history and around the globe, from massive megachurches in the US and South Korea, to secret house churches in China or Iran. A historic and global perspective reminds us that while American evangelical churches have been exceptionally influential, they are only one segment of a much broader movement. The American evangelical demographic share will presumably continue to decline in coming decades, and the global South will become ever more central among evangelical churches and adherents. The priorities and political dispositions of these churches have varied a great deal, but essential spiritual beliefs and experiences—being born again, a high view of the Bible, and a daily walk with God—still give an essential coherence to evangelical churches around the world.

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Written by
Thomas S. Kidd

Thomas S. Kidd is research professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the author of books including Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis (Yale University Press, 2019).

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Written by Thomas S. Kidd