Evangelicalism: Getting Our Game Back
If you believe the secular press, evangelicalism is on its way out. Even the late Michael Spencer predicted a major breakdown of the evangelical movement two years ago in his essay “The Coming Evangelical Collapse”. This week, Religion News Service distributed an article titled “Evangelicals See Declining Influence in U.S.” which ran prominently on the Christian Century and Huffington Post websites, among others. So is evangelicalism falling out of favor, or does the press have it completely wrong?
From my perspective, evangelicalism is doing fine, but the term evangelical has seen better days. I see no evidence that the core elements of evangelical theology (conversion, evangelism, Biblical authority, and the centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) are in decline. The word evangelical, however, is now a loaded term in American culture, because it has unfortunately become associated with conservative politics and the Republican party in recent years. That’s not meant to be a swipe at the GOP or at political conservatives-- because it would be just as unhealthy for the word evangelical to carry widespread liberal or Democratic connotations.
In any event, whether you believe the evangelical movement is on the decline or not, you’d probably concede that evangelical Christians could do more to avoid bad PR and inaccurate characterizations. In public perception, we’ve fallen off our game-- but the good news is it’s not terribly difficult to get our game back. Here are some ideas on how we can do it:
Major on the majors. Remember those four elements of evangelical theology I mentioned? Those are generally what unite evangelical Christians-- not political parties, economic schools of thought, preferred Bible translations, evangelism strategies, or opinions on social issues. Those elements should certainly be shaped by our theology, but they aren’t central to our faith. So let’s stop making such a big deal about them.
Focus on the grassroots. Society is transformed only when people are transformed. It’s not the other way around! Injustices and evils in the world are symptoms of what’s going on in the human heart. When evangelical Christians focus too much on electing the right politicians or passing the right laws, we’re emphasizing externals instead of changing hearts. That never produces lasting transformation. Social and political activism have their place. But some things have to change from the bottom up-- and from the inside out.
Be optimistic. No one likes hanging around negative people. Evangelical Christians should be known for spreading hope, not fear or pessimism. Finding and highlighting the potential in our society is never as easy as pointing out the things that are wrong, but it’s much more effective. As much as anything else, I believe this is where we’ve lost our way.
Stop whining. I’m not sure exactly when, but at some point, evangelical Christians developed a victim mentality. We complain that we’re portrayed unfairly by Hollywood and the news media, we think the government is out to get us, and we blow controversies like the “War on Christmas” out of proportion. People who are always complaining or making excuses don’t attract other people. Unfair things happen, and Christians do sometimes get the short end of the stick, but playing the victim card rarely solves the problem.
If you must label yourself evangelical, use it as an adjective, not a noun. This is such a small thing, but I believe it impacts our thinking about our identity. If we refer to ourselves as evangelical Christians, not evangelicals, we’re acknowledging that our identity is first and foremost found in being a Christian, not in a particular label or brand of Christianity. I actually try to avoid labels and modifiers altogether, not because I’m trying to hide my theology, but because I don’t like drawing lines unnecessarily. Labels mean different things to different people, and I’ve discovered that many who reject the evangelical label don’t necessarily reject evangelical theology. So I simply use the term “Christian” whenever possible.
Question: Do you think the evangelical movement has lost its focus? If so, what steps should be taken to recover it?