USA TODAY International Edition
Evangelicals need to admit our failures
But we also must hold on to our hope
In 1976, the cover of Newsweek declared that, with a presidential election that featured the born- again Jimmy Carter, it was the “Year of the Evangelical.” Forty- five years later, the news media fascination with my spiritual family has not abated.
From the heady days of 2004, when once again evangelicals were crowned a defining political force, to this moment when a cottage industry of books laments our influence, the world has looked in on us and we have looked in on ourselves and have asked a perennial question, “What is our future?”
In one sense, this is a question born out of a variety of factors owing to the tumult of the hour. We live in the digital age, where every voice can be heard, where every family disagreement is public, where there is no such thing as an unheard opinion.
We are also riven by social chasms splitting society, sorting as we are over shared hatreds shaped by politics, race and a global pandemic. And there has been an epidemic of scandals among evangelical institutions, moral failures and abuses of power brought to light in the past several years.
Many are questioning the future of the movement. Some predict it will split, left, right and center, mirroring the divide among mainline denominations at the turn of the 20th century.
Some have created complex taxonomies to map out the various tribes. Others wonder whether the term evangelical is still worthy, fraught as it is with political and social baggage.
A Jesus follower, first
As the son of parents converted after Billy Graham’s crusade stopped in Chicago in 1971, I have these same questions. Yet, I can’t bring myself to quit, neither the term that loosely defines us nor the institutions that have shaped us. Though, like most, I don’t walk around calling myself an evangelical. I see myself first as a Jesus follower, then as a Baptist Christian.
Yet the term evangelical is perhaps the only one that best fits the transdenominational movement that binds our people along doctrinal and social lines. At our best, we are not a voting bloc but a people defined by the good news of grace that first rocketed out of a backwater Roman province more than 2,000 years ago.
A healthy evangelicalism will not look for something altogether new and innovative but will constantly seek renewal by seeking what the prophet Jeremiah described as the “old paths,” the well- worn body of truth passed down from generation to generation.
Our current dysfunction is not a problem of theology but of formation. We need a return to serious discipleship as a bulwark against the false catechisms of the age, those engines of toxicity flooding our social media and shouting at us on our televisions and sandpapering our souls through our earbuds. The antidote to this rootless pop spirituality is not to abandon orthodoxy, but to dive more deeply into it.
Evangelicalism needs a thick denominationalism, where local churches shape spiritual lives weekly through vibrant rhythms of worship and practice. Our movement also needs a renewal of our key institutions and a vision to build new ones. Expressive individualism is seductive, a temptation toward cheap heroism on social media, the attraction of seeing oneself as a brand. Ultimately, we serve best when we serve as we were created: in community.
Institutions are vital for human flourishing, and yet at so many levels, they have failed us in recent years, breeding deep distrust and cynicism. What’s needed in this moment is a fresh appraisal of our models of leadership.
Not who wins the next election
For too long we’ve prioritized giftedness over godliness, ignoring deficits of character in favor of charisma. We are so entranced with leaders who can move a room, we’ve failed to ask whether those same leaders are worthy of their calling.
Yet in the midst of our brokenness, we should not miss what God is doing. There are opportunities for renewal, if we are committed to being a people repentant and humbled by the spirit of God. The world needs a movement committed to the Bible’s vision of dignity, a movement that resists the tribalism that sorts people based on shared hatreds. We must be people of hope and not fear, believing that this is not a world that has eluded the guiding providence of a loving God. Christians were made for this moment, so we must believe that the same Gospel that turned frightened fishermen into fearless martyrs is transforming souls today.
Because we know our history and because we know our future, we can engage the culture with confidence and compassion. We can love our neighbors by helping to shape the social structures that lead to their flourishing. We can be unflinching about those things we know to be true and yet open- handed where people of goodwill disagree.
The Bible gives no guarantee that this faithfulness will result in more or less influence, but we can live with hope wherever we find ourselves, whether advocating in the halls of power or administering relief in a refugee camp.
Because ultimately we know a future not bound up in the uncertainty of the next election, but in the reality of our future resurrection.