The term “evangelist” is a great example of a word, like many commonly used by religious people, that has many underlying meanings and connotations. Complex words like this can be useful, but it is important to first understand the meanings and acceptable modern uses of the word in order to avoid misunderstanding or offense. Especially when communicating with people from different religious backgrounds, you should not assume that someone holds the same level of reverence or same definition for the word that you do.
Merriam-Webster defines “evangelist” in three ways: a writer of one of the four canonical Gospels, a person who preaches the Christian Gospel or converts others to Christianity, or an enthusiastic advocate for something (not necessarily religious). Etymologically speaking, the word simply means a messenger of good news. The word “angel” derives from the same root.
Evangelists are popular in Christian Context
Evangelists are most often thought of in the Christian context, and are often identified as missionaries or preachers; people who spread the Gospel to those who have not heard it (or maybe need a refresh). As technology has evolved, televangelists, and more recently, internet evangelists, are people, often ordained pastors, who use the media as a means to spread the Gospel.
You do not have to be ordained in order to be a Christian evangelist. In fact, many people consider themselves to be evangelists through their one-on-one interactions with others, simply sharing their faiths and the stories contained in the Gospel. One goal of evangelists is often to bring people into Christianity, and evangelism is often equated with proselytism. However, the word “proselytize” comes with its own history and nuance, which I will not fully go into here. It is commonly used in religious contexts other than Christianity and connotes more emphasis on gaining converts than on spreading the Gospel. Thus, many Christians prefer to use the term “evangelism”.
It is important to note that evangelism is not the same as evangelicalism, which refers to a belief system, not to the action of sharing the Gospel. Evangelism is an important part of most evangelical communities, but there are many Christian evangelists who do not identify as evangelicals.
Christian context of Evangelist
Beyond its use in the Christian context, the word “evangelist” is commonly used to refer to anyone who spreads information with the hopes of acquiring more followers to a particular viewpoint. One could be an evangelist for a political cause, a product, or a friend’s blog, for example. While it is a correct use of the term, some Christians may take offense at using “evangelist” in a secular context. It’s important to consider the perspective of your audience if you are describing yourself or someone else as an evangelist.
At a basic level, an evangelist is someone who shares their version of “good news” with others. However, the term has a rich history within Christianity, and many people hold strong connotations (positive or negative) with the word. If you are clear about what you mean when you use the word, you should be able to avoid misunderstanding that could be caused by differing perspectives.