One night during my first semester at Harvard, I was chatting with a new friend in my dorm room. We were still getting to know each other, and that night, we ended up talking about my Christian faith. At some point, she asked me if I was evangelical.

“Yeah, I’d say I’m evangelical,” I replied.

She paused, looked at me curiously, and responded, “Wait, aren’t they the crazy ones?”

This moment, to me, captures how many Harvard students – and many Americans – probably feel about anything connecting to the term “evangelical.” It is a word is loaded with baggage, including but not limited to hypocrisy, anti-intellectualism, and hatred of gays, women, and Barack Obama. This baggage is not only in the minds of the non-religious, either – it is so threatening that several of my Christian friends tell me they would never call themselves evangelical.

Before college, I shared a version of this baggage-loaded perception. In fact, that conversation during my freshman year was the first time I had ever said out loud to anyone – including myself – that I was evangelical. During high school, I was so averse to the term that once when I was looking through survey data on American religious affiliations, I was relieved to find that on this particular survey, the United Methodist Church, to which I belonged, was not placed under the “evangelical” umbrella.

So why did I start to embrace the “evangelical” label? It is not because I always was a “real” evangelical and only later decided to come out of the closet. I have embraced the term because it, too me, has been able to express the deep renewal and transformation of my faith that has been happening throughout college.

In high school, I told my parents I was not sure that I believed in God, and even when college started, I told a roommate that going to church was largely a “cultural thing” – now I trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and strive to live in conformance to the gospel.

Since I never abandoned the label “Christian,” even in the midst of all my doubt, I cannot feel honest saying I “became a Christian” in college. By using the word “evangelical,” however, I have been able to express an honest change in my identification that, for me, captures a real change in my life and identify.

But before I move on, I should answer a big question: “What is an evangelical, anyway?”

There are several possible meanings of “evangelical,” but the one that dominates the cultural consciousness today, which was most likely in my friend’s head that night during my freshman year, is largely political: an evangelical is a member of a homogeneous contingent within the Republican voting bloc.[1]

This, however, is not what I mean at all – the change in my faith and life was not an embrace of a certain space on the landscape of 21st century American political positions.

Something closer to the evangelicalism I have embraced is far older than the 21st century and spans the entire world. It is a tradition within Christianity that some date as beginning with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century and continuing through the Puritans and Great Awakenings up to its contemporary growth in the Global South.[2] One theologian traces the evangelical tradition back further, through Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, all the way back to Peter the Apostle.[3]

This historical movement has been defined theologically, too, most famously by British historian David Bebbington’s Quadrilateral of biblicism, activism, crucicentrism, and conversionism (look here if you are confused by all the “isms”).

Though this is closer to what I mean, it is not quite right, either – my life did not change only because I became intellectually convinced of a basket of doctrines.

My identification with evangelicalism is primarily as part of a gospel-centered movement, best defined not by church denominations themselves but by campus ministries like Cru and Christian Union, publications like Christianity Today, church networks like Every Nation, and the culture surrounding Christian music.

This evangelicalism carries a spirit that is grounded on certain doctrines, but transcends them. It is, as theologian Richard J. Foster puts it, “A life founded upon the living Word of God, the written Word of God, and the proclaimed Word of God.” [4] Or as theologian Michael F. Bird writes, a movement that “seeks to achieve renewal in Christian churches by bringing the church into conformity to the gospel and by promoting the gospel in the mission of the church.” [5]

To embrace evangelicalism, then, is to embrace the gospel, the proclamation that through Jesus Christ, God has redeemed and restored his people, freeing them from the curse of sin and death and pouring out the transformative power of His Holy Spirit for all who believe.

The promotion of the word “evangelical,” in this view, is a promotion of the gospel itself, and it would be beautiful to see this word, along with the gospel, accepted as good news. The problem with calling myself evangelical, though, whether or not I want to proclaim the gospel, is that no one will know what I am talking about unless I take several hundred words to explain, like I have on this blog post, what I mean by it.

Because of the ambiguity surrounding the word “evangelical,” it is not a good label to use to distinguish my past from my present. Rather than proclaiming the goodness of the word “evangelical,” then, and hopefully the gospel with it, I hope that through living a godly life, I can help redeem the already-tarnished reputation of the word “Christian.” Yet I hope also to remain an evangelical – a Gospel man – at heart, in spirit, and in love.

[1] See Johnathan D. Fitzgerald’s essay “The Fifty Shades of Evangelicalism” at Religion Dispatches. Religion Dispatches, 2 August 2012. Web.

[2] Bird, Michael F. Evangelical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013. Print. pp.19-20.

[3] Foster, Richard J. “The Evangelical Tradition.” Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of the Christian Faith. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. Print. pp. 185-233.

[4] Foster, p. 233

[5] Bird, p. 19