I am often asked why we have the word “Evangelical” as a part of our church’s name. I think there are two reasons I am asked. One is to know if we consider ourselves part of the broader Evangelical Movement in America, the one that since the 1960s has often been associated with a political voting block, emotional enthusiasm, and moral crusades on the important topics of the day. The second is to find out if we are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). After all, we share three words in the same order! So for clarity’s sake, I’d like to offer a brief answer.
As to the second question, it is an accident of history that we share three words in the same order in our name as the ELCA. We were, in fact, a part of the ELCA from 2002-2011, but we voted to leave the ELCA in 2011 due to their fundamental abandonment of scriptural and confessional fidelity. So if you are hoping we are part of the ELCA, I am sorry to disappoint. Some have quipped in the past that the ELCA is neither evangelical, lutheran, or a church, but they are in America. Alas, the way the ELCA decided on its name as a result of a merger in 1988 has nothing to do with how we arrived at our name some 137 years before.
Our name is primarily the result of our being the first Lutheran church formed in Houston. That explains the “First”. We were a German immigrant church, so that explains the “German.” (Of course, that word was removed when it became obsolete and perhaps even detrimental to the ministry.) We were “Evangelical” because in Germany, you are either Roman Catholic or Evangelical. The word “Evangelical” simply is synonymous with Lutheranism or Protestantism at-large. This was a way to convey to German immigrants who were new to Houston that we were a German church true to the Lutheran confessions. So the use of this word precedes the American modern usage by many centuries. And we were a Lutheran church so it made sense to let folks know that. Hence, our first name in 1851 was “First German Evangelical Lutheran Church.”
Regarding the modern use of the term, I want to be clear that I do not seek to distance myself in every regard with modern Evangelicals. Indeed, I want to be thought of as an evangelical! That doesn’t mean I embrace every belief,
tactic, or aesthetic choice of the modern evangelical movement in America. Indeed, I reject much of what is thought of as “evangelical”: huge churches with rock music, overly charismatic and emotional preaching, the prosperity gospel, decision theology, phony charismatic claims, etc. But on social issues, I’m often in agreement with evangelicals and appreciate their vigor and clarity in troubling times.
Indeed, its worth noting that the word “evangelical” is taken from the Greek word for “good news” or what we would call in English over time, “Godspell” and finally “Gospel.” So to be “evangelical” is really just to be bold in your proclamation of the Gospel, that Jesus died for sin, that those who believe might have eternal life. What Christian wouldn’t want to be called Evangelical if that’s what it really means?
I regret that some may not visit our congregation because they assume we are affiliated with the ELCA, given that we essentially sound like we are Houston’s First church of the ELCA. Perhaps changing our name would be a worthy conversation. But darn it, it was our name and word order first, and I would hate to give up all of the history that is embedded in that name. Hopefully, when you hear the name, you will know that our name is the result of our unique history in Houston and our passion for the Gospel. Any other associations are incidental. One way or another, don’t judge us by our name. Come and get to know us some Sunday morning.