Can Evangelicals Become More Likeable?

Over at the New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof – one of America’s most open-minded liberal writers – says that secular left-wingers need to admit that many evangelical Christians do a great deal of good in the world, often at great personal expense and risk. He profiles the courageous work of Dr. Stephen Foster, who has labored in a rural Angolan hospital for thirty-seven years. Unlike some secularist critics who questioned the work of Dr. Kent Brantly during the Ebola crisis (see my “Those Suspicious Medical Missionaries“), Kristof admits that “a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns, or priests.”

It is a good day for evangelicals when we get positive coverage in the New York Times, but it also raises a perennial question for traditional Christians. How much should we expect, or seek, the world’s approval for what we’re doing? Dr. Foster and other missionaries like him are great examples of Christians whose undeniable self-sacrifice and benevolent work overcomes all but the most hardened secularists’ questions about why they insist on talking to patients about Jesus.

It’s nice to be liked. But it also comes with temptation – that of focusing all the church’s work on things that will engender the world’s approval. A hundred years ago, social gospel Christians began to suggest that service and aid, not evangelism, should encompass all of a believer’s missionary responsibility. Thus began one of the most important turns away from evangelical Christianity which has haunted the mainline denominations in America ever since.

“Evangelicals” are not evangelicals if they’re not evangelistic, and the mandate to share one’s faith is a major reason why evangelicals will never be in fully good standing with the secular left. Moreover, evangelicals share their faith because they think that Jesus is the only way to salvation, which seems closed-minded and intolerant to many people today. This is another area where evangelicals classically come under assault when they become popular – recall Joel Osteen’s struggle to respond on Larry King when queried about whether non-Christians were going to heaven. Finally, as seen in the recent firestorm over whether Christian business people are free to decline services to gay weddings, evangelicals generally hold views about sexuality, marriage, and other cultural issues that currently put them at odds with the mainstream secular business and political culture.

Evangelicals will never be fully likeable to secular critics, the open-minded Kristofs of the world notwithstanding, unless they stop being evangelicals. But evangelicals are also guilty of countless unforced errors that needlessly worsen their reputation. There are three main ways in which evangelicals can help avoid this kind of damage:

-Stop sending the message that we are lapdogs for any political party, Republican or otherwise. Russell Moore’s recent emphases on our status as a moral minority, not beholden to any temporal political movement,  strike a welcome tone on this subject.

-Adhere to the best of the historic and contemporary Christian intellectual tradition, and stop chasing after celebrities and faddish pop Christian writers. We have many able evangelical defenders of the faith, but the politicians and writers who get the most coverage on talk radio and Fox News are often not among them.

-Put our money and service where our mouth is in terms of missions and service. We cannot account for how the world construes what evangelicals do. But as much as we can, we should seek to be known by heroes such as Kent Brantly and Stephen Foster, people who give up their lives to take up their cross. In so doing they find their true life, whether or not anyone applauds them.

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  • kierkegaard71

    I don’t think it has been Joel Osteen’s commitment to evangelical ministry that has fueled his rise in popularity. So, it was not exactly a surprise when he struggled with the question of Jesus being the only way. To me, Joel Osteen has appeared to be more of an evangelical-friendly version of Robert Schuller.

  • John Powell

    Evangelicals are struggling in a changing world in which they are losing ground socially, politically and relationally. A dominant Christian heritage and its societal support structures are changing, and many Evangelicals are fighting against this. This makes them seem defensive, whiny, judgmental and uncivil. It is based on a premise that Christians must fight for truth and morality in the public sphere. They believe not to do so is compromise and will result in God’s judgment on the nation, whereas if we had Christian morality as the national law, then God’s blessings would ensue. So, I get the logic, but it is flawed theologically. Christianity does not need to retain a power base (political power, majority standing in society, moral support structures in society, etc.) to fulfill its mission and be influential in society. Christianity works best in a subversive, alternate community way, like the early church did in the Roman Empire. Evangelicals are fighting against something they don’t need anyway and are sacrificing grace in the pursuit of standing.

  • raylampert

    Evangelical Christians have enjoyed an unprecedented history of power, privilege and influence on the social, cultural and political landscape of this country. But in the last few years, other groups are starting to gain ground and demand equality and the right to be heard and participate. Evangelical Christianity has responded by claiming to be the victims of oppression because they enjoy less privilege than they have had.

    Where do you get the idea that Evangelical Christianity is counter cultural? Just because you no longer dominate the culture doesn’t mean you’re “counter cultural”.

  • Nonsanta Maria

    ““Evangelicals” are not evangelicals if they’re not evangelistic, and the
    mandate to share one’s faith is a major reason why evangelicals will
    never be in fully good standing with the secular left.”

    No. The political left does not object to evangelicals sharing their faith. They object to evangelicals attempting to force their faith on other people. Share all you like, we’re fine with that. Just stop trying to make us conform to your belief system. And stop acting like we’re trying to shut you up when what we’re really doing is failing to listen to you. Your right to talk does not equal a right to an audience, and frankly, we’re tired of listening to evangelicals whine that it does. We’ve heard your message. We think it blows. Get over it.

  • mikehorn

    People don’t get mad at evangelicals for the good things they do. Almost everyone does good things. What gets you derision are the bad things you do.

    Sharing faith is ok if you do it within the “Marketplace of ideas”, the American way. But realize America is not evangelical, and never was. We are many faiths and none. Our biggest faith block right now is Catholic, whom many evangelicals don’t even consider Christian. So, share. But realize that most people disagree with your notions of religion and morality.

    And most don’t like being bothered at their home, where they would like to live with their own choices in peace. This is where evangelism goes wrong and makes people mad. Evangelicals who become partisan politicians, who try to legislate evangelical laws that will affect everyone else. People will get mad. This isn’t “removing God from the public sphere,” or other psuedo martyr complex silliness. It is people who just want to live in peace. People who already said evangelical Christianity was not for them. It is stripping everyone else of their religious freedom. Let them live in peace.

    Evangelicals do not act as peacemakers. They are irritating, often overbearing. Rude. Pushy. If trying to use the gears of government as evangelical levers, evangelicals become tyrannical. None of these are good.

  • 4 WIW

    What is clear today is that Western culture is returning to the conditions (Paganism, rampant sexual immorality, non-ethical societies, etc.) that were the hallmarks of the world into which the first Christians embarked as messengers of a Holy God 2000 years ago. Evangelicals’ greatest problem is not the increasing non-acceptance by those outside the church, but their own lack of understanding and truly believing what the Scriptures teach. The process of “down-dumbing” that is so much afoot in the rest of our culture is infecting all but the most theologically stalwart of churches and denominations. Evangelicals need to look around them, “smell the coffee” and get back into God’s Word in a serious way. Only then will they have the courage to stand for the truths of Scripture that are under attack from all quarters.

  • polistra24

    In an insane tyranny, “more likable” is not what a normally functioning human should want. Being “more likeable” in US/UK/EU is a sign of terminal lunacy and infinite evil.

  • Trey Caldwell

    Socially liberal athieist here

    I live in the bible belt and a large percentage of my co-workers would describe themselves as Evangelical. We get along fine including when the discussion involves religion. I am pleased to be working with these fine people even though we disagree on many issues.

    My inclination is that the reputation of Evangelical Christians is being sullied not by most of the faithful as by the graceless firebrands that purport to speak for them in the media, in politics, and in comments on the internet. I don’t know what you can do about that, but it might be helpful if you called them out when they express themselves in decidedly unchristian ways.

    I have the same problems with the “New Atheists”. Please understand, they do not speak for me.

  • ElrondPA

    Good point. Unfortunately, those of us in the pews typically have little control over whom the media select to give air time. I can’t imagine anyone who calls themselves evangelical (or Baptist, which is not entirely a subset) who wants to give any attention to the shameful Westboro Baptist “Church,” but they’re very adept at getting media attention. Part of the problem is that the media thrive on controversy, and giving the microphone to the most outlandish speakers builds the controversy. (That it also feeds into a pre-existing narrative about hateful Christians reinforces the interest.)

    Our influence is not nil, though. When a Franklin Graham, someone who is clearly a part of classic evangelicalism, talks in ways that show at best cluelessness and insensitivity, it shouldn’t be just progressives who call him to account.

  • Maine_Skeptic

    “…Evangelicals will never be fully likeable to secular critics…”

    You’re right about one thing: likability is beside the point– for Christians and for NonChristians. The day could come when we might trust each other and live together peacefully, and it wouldn’t require Evangelicals to stop being Evangelicals. It *would* require American Christians to stop acting like the rest of us are unwelcome guests in our own country.

    If the rest of us can smile and treat you respectably in our places of business, you can grow up and act like adults, too.

  • Hal Watts

    One of the major things that made me STOP believing in Jesus was the behavior of his conservative so-called followers. No self respecting God would choose so many followers who have done what Evangelicals have done.

  • John Powell

    You missed the story of the Old Testament as the Hebrew people were no better. The point is God’s faithfulness despite his people. Yes, we should do a whole lot better, and scripture call us to that. To write off God due to his followers sounds right, but it misses the very point God is making in history.

  • Heath Carter

    Tommy, I wonder who you have in mind when you write, “social gospel Christians began to suggest that service and aid, not
    evangelism, should encompass all of a believer’s missionary
    responsibility”? This characterization doesn’t describe many of the social gospelers I’m familiar with; Rauschenbusch, for example, was deeply interested in evangelization. He hoped for the “Christianization” of the entire society!