To everyone who claims the label “evangelical,” I have something to tell you. You have a major public relations problem. I’m not sure what you’re doing wrong, but it really does look like you’re doing something wrong. Let me explain.
When I grew up as an evangelical, I was taught that being an evangelical was about trusting Christ’s sacrifice for salvation, about helping others have conversion experiences and pray the sinners prayer, about reading the Bible, about having a relationship with Jesus, and about love and service to others. We were to win others to Christ by showing them Christ’s love for them. Yes, my parents followed a legalistic sort of evangelicalism that emphasized the patriarchal family order over freedom in Christ, but we nevertheless saw the things mentioned above as the foundation of our faith and our religion.
Once I left evangelicalism I realized that those outside of it frequently didn’t view it very positively, or even understand it. However, until today I had thought that people generally understood that evangelicals emphasized things like Jesus, the Bible, and the centrality of the cross. Today came as a bit of a surprise. I attended the first meeting of a college class on evangelicalism. Twenty-five students, nearly all of them undergraduates, were asked to share how they would define evangelicalism, or simply what came to mind when they heard the term “evangelicalism.” As the students listed off various answers, the professor wrote them on the blackboard. Here you go:
What is evangelicalism?
Someone who pushes their beliefs on others
I was the last person in the room to answer the question, because I was sitting in a corner. As I looked at the board, I was totally flabbergasted. I mean, I expected someone to say “extreme” and someone to mention the politics or anti-intellectualism, but what I was not prepared for is what was missing.
Jesus. The Bible. The cross.
“I tend to follow Bebbington’s definition of evangelicalism,” I started, “and somehow none of the things he mentions are even on the board.” I’m afraid that this is where I started to sound indignant. “All evangelicals, no matter where they are on the spectrum, hold four beliefs: the centrality of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the necessity of individual conversion, the importance of the Bible, and the call to activism, be that social justice or the conversion of souls. I’m sorry, I just can’t believe that “Bible” is not on the list, or the cross – or for that matter, why is ‘Jesus’ not on the board?!”
The professor added everything I mentioned, smiling and nodding, and told me that she would be discussing Bebbington’s definition of evangelicalism on Wednesday. “Oh dear, I’ll probably find out you don’t like it or something!” I said, but she shook her head and replied that “actually, I find it’s the best definition out there.”
I have to say, today has me completely floored. How was the Bible not on that list? How was Jesus not on that list? How was conversion and salvation not on that list? Somehow, twenty-five college students asked to define “evangelicalism” could not come up with any of those things. This might make sense if these were students from a “liberal bastion” like New York City, but they weren’t. These were students from the heart of the Midwest.
This bothers me because even though I disagree with evangelicals, I do understand where they’re coming from, and I know what beliefs are most important to them. But somehow, even with all of evangelicals’ emphasis on converting others, other Americans have absolutely no idea what beliefs evangelicals see as central.
In conclusion, if you describe yourself as an “evangelical,” whether conservative or liberal, you have a serious problem. Somehow, you aren’t getting your message across. Somehow, people have no idea that you see Jesus or the Bible or Christ’s sacrifice as central and most important. Instead, they see you as crazy and pushy. I’m really not sure exactly where you went wrong, but I would posit that some serious rethinking of tactics might be in your best interests.