[Note that this essay neither utilizes nor refers to the work of Mr. Calvin Wall Redekop or Mr. Kenneth Rempel-Enns, but rather relies on personal experiences within the Brüderthaler Mennonites and documents produced and released by their primary church organization.]
Post-Modern religious writer, Kathleen Norris writes of the term Evangelism, “’Evangelism’ is a scary word even to many Christians. I have often heard people who are dedicated members of a church say “I hate evangelism” or “I don’t believe in it,” or, usually from the shy, more introverted members of a congregation, ‘I’ll do anything else for this church, but don’t ask me to serve on the evangelism committee.’ … The word comes from the Greek ‘euangelos,’ meaning a messenger (or angel) bringing good news. The authors of the four Christian gospels -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John -- are referred to as evangelists, as are those who preach the gospel. The bad news about evangelistic might be personified as the stereotypical glad-handing Christian proselytizer,” (Norris, Kathleen, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (1998), Riverhead Books, New York, NY, p. 300).
Part of the problem that the Brüderthaler - EMB communities have always had is the definition of Evangelical -- a word as prevalent and eventually longer lasting than either the words Defenseless or Mennonite in their tradition. In a sense, this is not their fault -- Mr. Martin Fast, of Montana’s Grand Prairie community, once defined Evangelical, quite correctly in my understanding, as the mission that Christ’s church inherited from the angels who gave to the shepherds that first Evangel or message -- Evangelical means to spread the message or evangel of Christ, more or less in response to the Great Commission.
At least recently, Anglo-America usage and understanding of this term has changed to focus on the conservative, literalist or fundamentalist focus of many Evangelical churches. Evangelical has become a politically loaded term used by Fundamentalist churches to exclude other faith traditions from the Christian family. Evangelical has also become a term of derision used to exclude Fundamentalist “red necks” from serious consideration regarding intellectual high church endeavors and pursuits.
A recent non-scientific survey of former Mennonites attending churches in the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches and in the Evangelical Fellowship Conference produced a third definition possibly confusing the term with Literalist or Fundamentalist in that they defined Evangelical as referring to the fact that their Christianity was based solely on the Truth of the Scriptures.
Part of the problem that too many former Brüderthaler may have encountered in understanding their identity is that term -- Evangelical. Arguably, the connotations associated with that word have changed more than did the people identified by it in the former Brüderthaler conference. At their first conference in 1889, O.J. Wall indicates that the then, “Conference of United Mennonite Brethren of North America,” established a committee on Evangelism (A Concise Record of Our Evangelical Mennonite Brethren Annual Conference Reports, 1889-1979, Pine Hill Press, Freeman, South Dakota, p.5) -- no, this was not meant to be a sort of Fundamentalist Christian Inquisition, but rather a two-fold mandate of calling the Faithful to repentance (at this time, the three founding churches in Mt Lake, Minnesota, Henderson, Nebraska, and Jansen, Nebraska, were seemingly focused on renewing the lifestyles of the Anabaptists), and to spread the evangel or gospel message to the unchurched. In his 1933 report on EMB missions, G. S. Rempel clarifies this definition, “Our forefathers knew Jesus, our Saviour and Lord. The Love of God was poured out into their hearts. And as they were led by the Holy Spirit, they saw that they, the individual churches, were not strong enough for the great task of spreading the Gospel. So they united in 1889,” (p. 7). Rempel goes as far as to define Evangelism (for which the committee was established in 1889), “[Evangelization] is the preaching of the Gospel among the native unbelievers and is done as much as possible by native workers. The evangelist travels from one village to another, preaches the gospel, sells portions of the Bible and distributes tracts. As soon as there are some believers at one place, the missionary from the main station sees to it that such a place gets a teacher and it becomes an outstation,” (Rempel, p. 10). Both Wall and Rempel indicate that there is a difference between Evangelization and Missions, presumably as indicated in the Scripture quoted by Rempel, “In I Corinthians 3:6-8 we read: ‘I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that wateresth; but God that giveth the increase. Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour,” (Rempell, p. 9). Wall mentions three areas of godly service of concern to the Conference at the 14th Conference in 1902, “Are we encouraging those that feel the call to serve as missionary, evangelist or nurse?,” (Wall, p. 10). Including the writings and report of G. P. Schultz, the definition of Evangelical provided by Martin Fast would seem to be entirely consistent with usage by Schultz, Wall, and Rempel.
By 1985, there is a seeming shift in the definition. While the early definition of Evangelical did mean according to Schultz, at least, to reach the fallen -- the drunks, the runaways, the harlots of Chicago (Rempel, p. 13), the focus is still on reaching them with the Evangel, not on holding them accountable to “Evangelical Values.” …..
This is the point to show how the term Evangelical has changed with some quotes.
If I had to guess, I would look towards the moment that Richard Nixon and Rev. Jerry Falwall cooperated to form the politically-motivated power movement, the Moral Majority, in the 1970s as the time that this term began to shift meanings. Lacking a better qualifier, the term Evangelical Non-aligned Movement, was coined to create a group identity for these “non-denominational” churches. Seemingly, the term was further popularized as a set of beliefs by groups such as Charles Dobson’s Focus on the Family, which purported to reach out to members of the Evangelical faith. Dobson’s target was not a select group of preachers and evangelists, but rather the membership of churches who were financing and supporting those evangelists. So the term gradually went from referring to a calling of the church to referring to the beliefs of those most conservative of Christians engaged in the calling.
By the 1990s in the United States, the term Evangelical had become tainted by overt political connotations -- The Evangelical Far Right, the Evangelical Wing of the Republican Party, Evangelical Interest Groups, all became common phrases. As someone who no longer affiliates himself with the conservative policies of the Evangelical Far Right or the Republican Party, I am often amused as to how many explanations regarding the FEBC name change I had to sit through wherein the speaker explained that he or she no longer identified with the term Mennonite values though few ever bothered to indicate just what the conflicting values were. On the other hand, I never did hear from anyone that they did not associate themselves with the values represented by “the Evangelical Far Right,” either in the United States or amongst the Canadians. In fact, the conflict over values seemed to center around an opposition to Pacifism, a sense of alienation from groups such as the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), and the loss of any German-language ethnic identity. On the other hand, not even my community was isolated enough to avoid familiarity with the connotations surrounding the new term Evangelical -- Republicanism, the United States Hegemonic Empire, anti-Communism, a distrust of the United Nations (UN), big defense, and no taxes. The worry over the name change was that we would lose churches if we dropped the term Mennonite as more traditional congregations searched to maintain their traditional affiliation, or that we would lose newer, more urban church plants if we did not sacrifice a tradition to which the majority no longer identified. On the congregational level at least, very little was said about the potential alignment with the Far Right Movement and the possibility that centrist and Democratic Christians could be turned off. In many ways, the change was not towards greater openness and service as the old definition of “Evangelical” would have indicated, but rather the mere exchange of a cultural and lifestyle conservatism for a purely American-style political alignment. Of course, with the rise of Joe Day and Steve Harper in Canada, the same politically charged identity markers would increasingly become an issue in Canada as well.
Ironically, as we have seen, the term Evangelical was originally adopted to reflect a desire to reach the world and to recognize a focus on evangelism, missions, and service as exemplified by works such as that pursued by the Wiens and Schultz families in Chicago -- work that would eventually be frowned upon by the political adherents to the same term, about 100 years later. In a complete 180, Evangelical has shed its associations with the service-oriented awareness of reaching people’s needs – spiritually and physically, to become associated with political movements often publically opposed to those same, traditional Evangelical values.