Reprinted from Speaking My Mind with permission of W Publishing Group.

A recent study by the Barna Research Foundation in Ventura, California, indicates that non-Christians have a very low opinion of evangelicals. On a list of people they respect, evangelicals ranked eleventh, followed by prostitutes in twelfth place.

While on Harvard's campus, I asked one of the professors why the folks there were so negative toward evangelicals. I said, "The Jews respect the Muslims, the Muslims respect the Jews, and everybody respects the Dalai Lama. But there are sneers of condescension if someone says, 'I'm an evangelical Christian'!" The professor answered, "Imagine yourself at lunch. Seated at the table with you is the leader of the gay-lesbian task force, an ardent feminist, and an angry neo-Marxist African-American. You propose playing a game in which each of them is to respond to a word with the first word that comes into their minds. You say, 'evangelical.' How do you think each will respond?" I said, "Given those three people, I suppose I would hear them say things like 'bigot,' 'homophobe,' `male chauvinist,' and `reactionary."' The professor then asked, "Now, to these same three, you say the name `Jesus.' What reactions will you get to that?" I paused a moment and then said softly, "Caring, understanding, forgiving, kind, empathetic . . ." "Does it bother you, Tony," he asked, "that the name of Jesus elicits a completely opposite reaction from the name `evangelical'?" That does bother me. However, when I explained how bothered I was to a fellow evangelical, he said, "I really don't care what people like that think about us!" Of course, that's the point. While evangelical Christians should never compromise what they believe in order to gain the approval of the secular community, we should care if people out there see little, or nothing, of Jesus in us. That being the case, we need to ask some very serious questions about ourselves. Where Evangelicals And Other Believers Part Company

A friend of mine is part of a support group for parents whose children have AIDS. As this circle of brokenhearted mothers and fathers shared their concerns, one mother said, "My other two sons don't know about their brother having AIDS. I'm not worried about the older one, because he's so kind and affirming. But my youngest son has become an evangelical Christian, and from what he's already said about homosexuals, I know he'll be filled with contempt when he finds out why his brother is sick." Last year, I had a debate with Gary Bauer on the campus of a leading evangelical college. In the course of our exchanges, I happened to say that America should show as much concern for justice for Palestinian people as they do for the security of Israel. I lost the evangelical crowd on that one. I always try to point out to critics of evangelicalism that many of us do not fit their stereotypes. While we do tend to be overwhelmingly pro-life, when it comes to other issues, a significant minority of us are not part of the religious right. We are critics of the Bush tax cuts, which we see as a bonanza for the rich that necessitates cutting services to the poor (e.g., ending after-school tutoring programs for half a million children). We want universal health care, advocate legal protection for homosexuals, oppose what we see as a growing militarism in America, and are appalled by this administration's environmental policies. Unfortunately, the religious right controls the microphone. They own almost all of the thousands of religious radio stations across the country and put on most of the religious television shows. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are the celebrities of evangelical broadcasting; hence, they are primary definers to the rest of the world of what it means to be evangelical. Those of us who do not buy into their agenda have to either find a way to tell the world that there is a broad spectrum of evangelicals or come up with a new name.
Don't Make Up Your Mind For All Time One of the first steps we must take to redefine ourselves is to overcome the primary generalization that secularists make about us-that is, that evangelicals are closed-minded. They see us as people whose minds are made up, who refuse to be confused with facts. When there is solid evidence that we might be wrong on an issue, we come across as people who dig in our heels and refuse to budge from our a priori declarations.I believe that if we are to be taken seriously, we must be ready to recast our opinions on a variety of issues when the evidence suggests that we are wrong, even as we hold tenaciously to the core truths of the Christian faith. If we are going to carry on an honest dialogue with the rest of the world, we have to entertain the possibility that we might be in error even about some of those things about which we were so sure in the past. We will earn respect for our basic gospel message only if we do that. As a case in point, I believe the Promise Keepers enhanced the credibility of evangelicalism when they publicly admitted that evangelicals had been wrong and repented of the racism that evangelicals had supported in the past. Evangelicals rise in stature when they confess that they were off in declaring the entire environmentalist movement to be a New Age plot. More and more Christians nowadays support this movement even while critiquing it. I am pleased that, for the most part, the evangelical community has confessed that it was wrong ever to say that the horrendous pandemic of AIDS was some kind of special judgment of God on homosexuals. Those who still maintain this erroneous view ignore the fact that worldwide, in the overwhelming number of cases of AIDS, heterosexuals are spreading the disease. In Africa, 67 percent of those with AIDS are women and children, who got it through no fault of their own.
We hurt the testimony of the church when we hold on to opinions even when all the evidence proves otherwise. For instance, the church is still being ridiculed for its condemnation of Copernicus and Galileo and its insistence that the world was flat, when the two astronomers offered proof that the earth is simply another planet circling the sun. I am going to argue that we evangelicals may have been wrong on some crucial social issues, even that we should question some of our theological assumptions. I believe that our credibility depends upon our being honest about our mistakes and open to new perspectives. We must not be like the little boy who, when asked to define "faith," answered, "Faith is believing what I know isn't true." We have to do much better than that. We must have a reason for the hope that lies within us (1 Pet. 3:15). I Am an Evangelical Right now I deem myself very much within the evangelical camp. My theology, my convictions about the authority of Scripture, and the self-transforming relationship that I have with Jesus are the credentials I offer to make this claim. However, there is much that I find worrisome and disturbing about some things a few prominent evangelical leaders have said over the last couple of decades, as well as some of the beliefs and practices these leaders have declared to be normative for evangelical churches.

.I believe that if evangelicalism becomes frozen in practices and thought patterns that are not biblically founded, it will die. What worked in the past-as we "circled the wagons" and tried to ward off the attacks of biblical criticism coming out of German universities during the late nineteenth century and the modernist theologies that spread across America in the early years of the twentieth century-will not work in the years that lie ahead. New times bring new challenges, and evangelicals must be willing to take the risks that go with the creativity that is essential for dealing with those challenges.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad