Where real influence lies

Where real influence lies June 30, 2011

Where real influence lies
hiddedevries, Flickr
North American evangelical leaders are reporting a decline in influence, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Pew conducted the poll, released June 22, at the Third Lausanne Congress of World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa, in October of last year. Started by Billy Graham in 1974, the Lausanne gathering represents evangelical leaders from all over the globe.

Significantly for us, those from the U.S. seem especially dour:

Evangelical leaders from the United States stand out for their particularly high levels of pessimism. More than half of U.S. leaders (53%) see the current state of evangelical Christianity in America as worse than it was five years ago; only 17% think it has improved. And as U.S. leaders look a few years ahead, about half (48%) expect the state of evangelical Christianity to worsen, and two-in-ten (20%) expect things to remain about the same; only three-in-ten (31%) think evangelical Christianity will be in a better position in five years than it is today.

That shouldn’t be, right? At least not if we believe what we’ve been told since the late 1970s about evangelical cultural and political engagement, engagement that seems hardly on the wane. Earlier this year, for instance, Pew reported that the very influential Tea Party movement was not only conservative politically, but also religiously. The culture wars, particularly fought through the political system, promised conservative Christians greater influence, not less.

But political leadership holds false promise, or at least overinflated promise. People confuse politics with some sort of magic lever; just yank it hard enough and the world is yours. But at its most basic, politics is just legal coercion. That can only get you so far before diminishing returns set in — something we’re apparently witnessing before our very eyes.

Christian leaders should take this as opportunity to consider, to remember, where real influence lies: The gospel. The gospel turns on love, Christ’s for us and us for our neighbors. And love is anything but coercive. As the Apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13,

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Such love is highly persuasive because it answers the most basic questions of human validation, suffering, hope, and expectation. And unlike politics, as Paul continues, “Love never fails.”

The early Church flourished without any political power. Yet the influence of the gospel was undeniably felt wherever Christians took it, even the seat of world power, Rome. This is not to say that all political involvement is unprofitable or wrong. But let’s not be distracted or confused or, worse, deluded.

The love of Christ is transformative and upturns empires. So while some Christians lament a loss in influence, let’s welcome an opportunity to be reminded of what real influence looks like and from where it comes.

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  • Thanks for sharing this. I agree with your comments 100% and have been expressing that challenge to my evangelical circles more and more often. Love and compassion in the evangelical movement got largely sidelined (even killed in some places and ministries) with the grasp for power, the cultural “wars,” and the co-opting of the evangelicals into the so-called culture. It has been sad to watch. Even sadder to see the comments and likes, etc. that many evangelicals put out there in the social media. So many conservative political agendas vocally and forcefully presented by many evangelicals simply are anti-Christ rather than loving and Christlike. And don’t get me wrong, I am no liberal myself. Liberals among evangelicals tend to the same error as well. May my God increase the visible nature of the Christ within me.

    • Amen. And thanks for thanks for sharing your perspective. If you marry your agenda to a partisan movement, doesn’t it stand to reason that you’ll never get beyond plus-or-minus 50 percent of the way? Meanwhile you’ll alienate the plus-or-minus 50 percent who are on the other side.

  • What about the influence on our children long before they are a political force. I see so much cultural influence that tempts and distracts children to immorality that then holds them captive. Could the decline in influence have anything to do with a generation that is taken captive long before they are of age?

    Real influence lies in the gospel but for our children is the gospel being drowned out? Never before have children spent so much time in front of a screen or with peers at school and sports that go year round. As children spend more and more time with the culture compared to time with parents and pastors what will they hear the gospel or….?

    And then they will come of age and become a political force. Will this be more diminishing returns? I really ask your thoughts? I am hoping for an error in my thinking. I am praying for divine intervention.

    • Susan, that’s a great point. We should have the most influence with their own children, yet something like 90% of kids involve in youth ministry leave the church after high school. In other words, when they’re given the freedom to choose, they choose to embrace the popular culture instead of embracing Jesus.

      The great thing is we don’t have to choose between raising our children to love Jesus and loving the people around us as Joel suggested in this post. In fact our faith becomes real to both our kids and the people around us when we invite our children to join us in loving the people around us like this – http://bit.ly/h8vSA8

      P.S. I enjoyed lunch with your husband last week. Quite a “coincidence” to bump into you here. 🙂

      • Paul, I think this is a good point. Thanks for chiming in.

      • Paul, such a small world. My wonderful husband knows everyone I am convinced!

    • Susan, thanks for the comment and the question. My conviction is that we oftentimes raise our children with a very inadequate vision of God and the Church. We are functional materialists, distracted by work, entertainment, etc. God ends up being an add-on, almost like a lifestyle enhancement. At this point we’re reaping the fruit of generations of anemic Christianity.

      Sometimes I think of what the Church really offers. Is it distinct in the culture around us? All too often there’s very little that’s distinct and so our children can grow up and treat it like the optional lifestyle that we do.

      At some point, if there’s nothing really distinct and powerful, they might just choose another lifestyle option.

      What’s distinct is the sacraments. No other institution on earth has those. And the sacraments will never let you stay a materialist. The eternal breaking into the moment, the divine breaking into the secular — that’s what sacraments do. They’re not an enhancement. They are a way of life.

      The Church (and that includes us parents) have a responsibility to instill in our children an unmistakably powerful sense of God and our communion with him. While I think political activism and cultural engagement are important, particularly for those skilled in them, they cannot replace that. And that’s what our children need more than anything.

  • Does it strike anyone else as weird that the martyrs of our faith would have many more reasons to believe the world was going down the tubes and yet were hopeful unto death and us modern Christians with our suburban homes, AC, flatscreen tv’s, and iPhones think the world is in a downward spiral?

    I think our eschatology colors our attitude, our work ethic, our evangelistic strategies. Perhaps a good dose of postmillenialism would do modern evangelicalism a bit of good. We’ve bought too much into the nihilism of our culture and we need to repent of it.

    • David, this ties back to my point to Susan above. So much of the American or Western Church is enmeshed in a materialist worldview. I don’t mean strictly consumeristic; that’s a subset. I mean we act as if the material is all there is. We pray, sometimes. We go to church, maybe weekly. We worship, possibly. But most of the time our time is unsanctified and consumed with material pursuits and worries. As a people, we have little hope in God; our hope is insurance companies, government, bonus checks, etc. Not everyone is in this boat. But too many are.

      I am. God help me.

  • Hey Joel,

    Great post…and a really important reminder.


  • Thanks for this post. I believe the culture of fear is alive and well among evangelicals and instead of grasping the power that Jesus gives us we’ve preoccupied ourselves with fearing the “secular” movements whether they be found in culture, public schools, politics, government and social action. Thanks for the reminder that we need to rest in the influence that God provides through His word and through the collective fellowship of His people.

    • Amen. We need to rest in that, but I think that rest involves effort too. Exercising the kind of love that Paul talks about requires sacrifice — for our children, our neighbors, our coworkers, etc. Thanks for the note.

  • Does anyone ever question whether Pew has an agenda? The way that subjective data is managed is easy to dissect – look at the numbers but also how were questions asked. What is the operational definition of “influence” – the interpretive word of the data.

    Liking Paul’s: “We should have the most influence with their own children” and still wondering if the next statement is the same conclusion I would draw if I saw the data; or designed the study.

    Thanks for this post.

    • Barbara, that’s a good question. I can’t vouch for the survey but the link above has pretty extensive dive into the details of the study. It’s worth checking out.

      For what it’s worth, I don’t think Pew is grinding an axe. I think they had a rare opportunity to interview Evangelical leaders from all over the world. It’s a totally unique survey for that reason. Additionally, the pessimism was self-reported. That’s interesting because it’s not an objective fact (though it might be); it’s how these leaders size things up.

  • Deacon James Stagg

    After all the mistakes they have made regarding Catholic items, do not be swayed by PEW figures on ANYTHING.

    Be of good heart. You are doing G-d’s work!