If you have ever stayed at the Holiday Inn Express hotel chain you will know they have a pretty well resourced department for consistency. I am currently in the middle of a United Kingdom tour promoting my new book, An Agenda for Change, and am fairly sure that one night my hotel room was in the city of Leicester and the following night in Norwich. But to all intents and purposes, they were the same room. Every detail was identical—the layout, the bedspread, the pictures. Even the coffee stains looked familiar. Watch the movie “Groundhog Day” and you may get some idea of my disorientation.
The irony of this is that the subject of my book is the future of evangelicalism, a “brand” that could barely be less homogenous. We come in all shapes and sizes and have spent years debating exactly who and what an evangelical is.
And while one group gets bogged down on definitions, another has embarked on an altogether more radical project. Their belief is that evangelical has such a bad public relations problem that they want to ditch the word altogether. Evangelical is seen as synonymous with a moral myopia which carps on about abortion and homosexuality, but never talks about poverty, climate change, or social exclusion.
Rehabilitating Evangelical: The Challenges
Should we ditch the word evangelical? No, I believe there is an alternative: rehabilitation. The book and the tour are the beginning of a conversation as to how we can make that happen. How do we get the word evangelical to become recognized once again as what it simply means: good news? We face three key challenges if we are to achieve this:
1. We need to humbly reassess some of our tribal theological rigidities. The theological left must accept it isn’t always right. This side often sees evangelical as an over-fifty club whose members forever discuss things nobody cares about. They are often embarrassed by the word, thinking it is linked with obsessions about personal morality rather than world hunger. Those from emerging church communities which often sit on the left can become fixated with cultural relevance and forget that history often gives us the best view of the future. No stigma-free faith wedded to its culture is likely to last the course. And whatever we feel about the sterile technicians of expository preaching, story-telling and funny jokes are no substitutes for an open Bible.
But if the left isn’t always right, the right is sometimes wrong. There is invariably a kind of intellectual arrogance which comes with the certainties of conservative evangelicals. There is a tendency to mask grace in the name of truth without realising that truth without grace feels like a lie. Evangelicalism owes a great deal to those on the right. But their certainties can lock us into certain inflexible ways of doing church, the old agendas of a Moral Majority mindset, or even an uncritical Zionism with no interest in the pain of Palestinian Christians.
If evangelicalism is to reposition itself as a transforming movement in the twenty-first century, then it is the vast majority of people in the evangelical centre who are going to take us there. They have a left-right gene and the swing vote. As long as you walk on the foundations of Christian beliefs, people in the centre will let you take risks in the public square. But they will walk away from you if you step off those foundations of our faith.
2. We must present Christ credibly in cultures which have increasing vendettas against the idea of God in the public square. I do not say that lightly. The last thing I want is to come across as a whingeing Christian, protesting at the loss of religious influence in society. But there is a difference between demanding special pleading for faith and asking for equal status. My concern in recent years is toward a secular agenda determined to ditch the place of faith altogether. This is both dangerous for our society and profoundly undemocratic.
Even for those in our culture willing to accept some voice for faith, Christ is just one god among many. Our society is signed up to equality, human rights, and civil liberties; however, it struggles with exclusive claims about truth. It recoils from the idea that salvation can only be found in Jesus Christ. It ridicules the idea of hell. It cannot cope with divine judgement. For exclusive, read fundamental.
In this context, how do we present credibly a man who said “I am the truth”? To start with, we must not dumb down Christ’s Lordship. Credible Christianity means being as confident about who he was as he was about himself. In a liberal democracy we should be free to say that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” However, his Lordship is not a truncheon with which to beat other people. Our task is not to pull down Mohammed, Krishna, or Guru Nanak; it is to lift up Jesus.
But a credible response also needs to undomesticate the Christ evangelicals have held captive in fearful subcultures. We have become too comfortable with a risk-averse Christ who is not the Christ of the Bible. I’m not convinced that Jesus would be publicly identifiable with our moral agenda. I think he would have identified more with Make Poverty History than demonstrations about sexual orientation. I think the City of London would be more threatened by Jesus than prostitutes would. And religious establishments and our internalised budgets might feel his displeasure more than a transsexual. He would defend our children above the Blasphemy Act. We have tamed him so thoroughly that few people get a chance to know him. He belongs on the pavement, but we have chained him in our pulpits.
Presenting Christ credibly will also mean not shying away from the Christ of miracles, a fundamental part of his identity and credibility. Yet there is a problem with signs and wonders in the modern Church; it’s a wonder we see so little sign of them. Miracles cause us problems because charismatics can make exaggerated claims that often end in disillusionment, while conservatives don’t invite the inexplicable at risk of losing intellectual control. But presenting Christ credibly must include the idea of mystery. Rational arguments are only a part of what makes the Bible believable. If we deny the place of miracles we may find ourselves out of step with a culture far more willing to accept mystery and magic than we are ourselves!
A credible Christ is also a conversationalist. He will never throw out statements that no one can challenge. Look at the Gospels and see that he loves to ask questions which search out the human spirit and the soul of a society. Our challenge is to get involved in the world’s conversations and to bring the mind and questions of Jesus to the issues of our day. Good questions come from informed minds, and so a credible Church must draw from good research and thought-through reasons for our faith.
3. We must integrate long-term thinking. In the autumn of 2006 I spent a weekend in the English cathedral town of Salisbury. A fascinating exhibition told me the cathedral took almost forty years to erect. During a time when life expectancy did not exceed the mid-thirties, very few of the workers saw the finished product. However, they were building for the duration, and their long-term thinking means that 750 years after its completion we can still marvel at this living house of worship.
It is this kind of thinking that will be required if evangelicals are to be part of a movement for the spiritual and social transformation of our nations. We must become cathedral builders, because God is a long-term thinker. Before the world began Jesus was already commissioned to atone for sins we had yet to commit. The entire Bible is a statement of intentionality.
The trouble is that long-term thinking does not always come easily to evangelicals. We love things to happen immediately. However, if we want what we build to last the distance, we must build cathedrals, not prefabricated huts.
Not even revivals should detract us from our long-term agenda for change. Revival reminds me of the man who complained that I had prayed for him and he ended up in the hospital. I told him that had I not prayed for him, he may be dead! Revival is a snippet of heaven and a reminder that God still has our best interests at heart. But waiting for the revival that will change public life and society may be an abdication of our responsibility to work strategically with God to witness a broader change in our culture.
As American author Charles Colson put it: “Our job is not only to build up the Church, but also to build society to the glory of God.” And so we need to mobilise our churches for spiritual and social change: proclamation and acts of kindness. Prayer and practical action. Evangelism and community engagement. Not either/or, but both/and. The old dichotomy between words and works is dying. Social action is not the same as the social gospel. As the theologian Alistair McGrath told me, “The social gospel got one thing right and everything else wrong, ‘What God has joined together let no man put asunder.'”
Christian citizenship must therefore be integral to our discipleship. Strategic Christian involvement in the marketplace, business, the arts, education, media, sports, local government, and community involvement is not an optional extra. If evangelicals become prophetically and strategically involved in the pain of our communities we may need less spiritual warfare concerning people we have nothing to do with. This is because central to our understanding of Christian citizenship is a radical commitment to serve other people, not just to protect our own interests, power, or influence. And let us have no doubts: governments and local authorities are desperate for our help—even where they are unconvinced about our faith.
So here is our agenda for change. It’s a united community of people who unveil Christ, presenting him credibly to government and culture; it’s a movement of people who are good news to the poor and marginalised; and it’s a Church mobilised for spiritual and cultural change, consumed by a long-term vision of a better society. As my friend Mike Morris once said, in this agenda for change “some will be saved, but everyone should benefit.”
[Joel Edwards’ book An Agenda for Change is published by Zondervan. Tour details can be found at www.eauk.org/a4c.]