March/April 2007 Issue
Evangelicals: On the Way to Reclaiming a Great Name
By Karen Stiller
There are a lot of evangelical Christians out there, who don’t actually admit it – at least not in mixed company. They are sensitive to the fact that, sometimes at least, their next-door neighbour or their kids’ scout leader has a perception of what “evangelical” means that might not actually be the reality. They fear if they label themselves they will be labelled right back, and it’s not always pretty.
Evangelicals have a public relations problem.
What are some of the image issues Evangelicals are facing? “The public perception of Evangelicals is very narrow,” says Bruce Clemenger, president of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC, Faith Today’s publisher). “This is based on a few factors, including negative portrayals in the media. But we are starting to see that change, as Evangelicals in Canada get out the message that they are a diverse group, involved in their faith and the world in a positive way.”
And, unfortunately, probably the most recognized evangelical character on television is none other than Ned Flanders from The Simpsons. You know, that strange guy who lives next door and says “okilly-dokilly” a lot. I’ve never actually met anyone like Ned Flanders.
The reality is the evangelical community in Canada is diverse, spread across most denominations and every major political party. (So even though Protestant Evangelicals represent 12 percent of the population, any fear of an uprising on Parliament Hill is probably exaggerated.)
Evangelicals are active in a wide variety of social justice issues – not just same-sex marriage – and they get married, give birth and get divorced at about the same rate as other Canadians.
What’s particular to Evangelicals is a core set of beliefs (Read: "Are You An Evangelical?") that, when put into action, propels them to make a difference in a hurting world. Experts freely admit Evangelicals have not always been great at putting those beliefs into action.
Geoff Tunnicliffe is international director of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). In his travels around the world he meets Evangelicals from diverse nations and all denominations. “There is richness to the word evangelical that has been lost. It is calling people to a core of belief, and it doesn’t matter if you’re Anglican or Baptist. These are some of the common things we hold together,” says Tunnicliffe.
“The great social transformers of the 19th century were Evangelicals. That’s where we want to be today. We want to be the best citizens, to be known as people committed to building nations, to integrity, to all the social issues of the day.”
So why the perception problem?
Bruxey Cavey is the teaching pastor of The Meeting House in Toronto, “a church for people who aren’t into church” (and part of the Brethren in Christ denomination). He calls himself an Evangelical – but only to other Evangelicals.
“I wear that label with them because they know what it means. I don’t wear it with non-Christians because they don’t know what the word means, but they do know what the subculture means to them.” And that is “right wing with a certain subculture of Christian cheese.”
If you want to know how people really view Evangelicals, Cavey suggests: “Go and ask non-Christian friends what words come to mind when you say the word ‘evangelical.’ See how many words get listed before they say Jesus or gospel.”
How We Got Here
When someone like Ted Haggard has to resign and his moral failings become media headlines, it effects the public perception of the whole movement.
Canadian Evangelicals are more reluctant to crown kings in our country but we still fight a public relations battle when big name leaders fall. Ripples spread far and wide in the choppy ocean of public perception.
Who can blame so much of the media for lapping it up?
CBC reporter Mark Kelley discovered "there are some wonderful people who are trying to do good things and are being torn down as Christians for doing it."
To be fair, there are reporters who see past the stereotypes. Mark Kelley hosts a feature called “Seven” for The National on CBC television. He explores a series of careers in one week, in a “lite” kind of reality show. He decided to do one on American Evangelicals. “I had my own stereotypes based on the American experience of hearing about the high profile pastors getting into trouble. I had the perception that they were a high-powered group in the White House with a political and social agenda,” explains Kelley. “I thought that if they were going to change my world I wanted to understand theirs.”
Kelley came away from the assignment with a more nuanced view. “They certainly weren’t the powerful, influential group they have been portrayed as being. I learned there are some wonderful people who are trying to do good things and are being torn down as Christians for doing it. They are often doing things I actually support, but the message they send is that if you’re not an evangelical Christian you can’t be a part of it.”
Kelley stumbled upon some infighting where Evangelicals were critical of each other’s tactics for impacting the world. He also found the battlefield language of some of the American Evangelicals he talked to particularly hard to take.
“A lot of this battle language has crept into the general Christian response to culture,” says Joel Hunter, author of Right Wing, Wrong Bird (Elevate, 2007) and an American pastor from Orlando, Fla.
Hunter was in the spotlight in 2006 when he stepped down from his brief appointment to lead the Christian Coalition because that group, long known for its right-wing approach to politics, resisted his efforts to broaden its agenda to include reducing poverty and fighting global warming.
“When you start out with ‘We are against this’ you employ these biblical images of spiritual warfare. The advantage is you raise a lot of money. It’s much easier to be against something,” says Hunter. “The understandable caricature the media has produced is that Christianity is another lobby group – we are just lobbying for what is good for our own group. And we’ve earned that reputation.
“We saw some things in culture that we found alarming: abortion, removal of prayer in schools, moral decline in general. The general evangelical re-engagement in politics came for negative reasons.”
American pastor Joel Hunter belives Evangelicals should broaden their agenda to include reducing poverty and fighting global warming
Hunter compares the movement now to a kid growing up. “When you’re in middle school you define yourself by what you’re not and what you hate. But when you get older you define yourself by what you are for and what you love.”
Who Do We Love?
It takes only a superficial reading of evangelical history to know that gospel people have always loved deeper and acted better than one might think from public perception. This spring’s release of Amazing Grace: The William Wilberforce Story will acquaint moviegoers with an Evangelical who led the fight to abolish slavery. History’s pages are filled with counter-cultural Evangelicals who were exactly that because popular culture had been wrong about a few things along the way.
And Evangelicals, contrary to popular opinion, are not a homogenous movement. In Canada pollsters say that evangelical voting patterns have not been dramatically different than those of other Canadians. Evangelicals also donate money to a wide variety of causes.
“If you look at where churches spend their time and where Evangelicals give their money,” explains the EFC’s Bruce Clemenger, “there is a wide range of issues. Abortion is a distinctive concern, but sexual exploitation of children and child poverty are at the top. Evangelicals’ own stated priorities are not what people might gather from seeing rallies and protests.”
The evangelical movement, says Ronald J. Sider, “a Canadian boy” who has settled in Pennsylvania and authored many books, notably Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (W Publishing, 1978), “is so broad, so diverse. It has absolutely crazy stuff and wonderful stuff and everything in between.”
Sider is founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) and he sees the evangelical movement like this: “There is the evangelical right, the evangelical centre and the evangelical progressive side.” The latter two – “a clear majority” in Sider’s opinion – are helping to lead the evangelical response to issues like poverty, global warming and other justice issues they see as front and centre to leading a Jesus-honouring life.
The WEA’s Geoff Tunnicliffe sees an emerging consciousness among Evangelicals that the political Right is not always right. “We’re never going to get 100 percent agreement. The Moral Majority style of Christianity is part of our family. But they’ve come to define who we are around the world. And that’s not acceptable. At the [theological] core we do believe the same things but we differ on some issues and it’s okay to go public with that.”
The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in the States recently issued a statement entitled “The Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.” In the document crafted by two dozen scholars deliberately chosen for the breadth of their opinions – but all Evangelicals – the NAE reaffirms Evangelicals’ engagement with issues like abortion, pornography and “sexual libertinism” but then points out Evangelicals have “failed to engage with the breadth, depth and consistency to which we are called.” Meaning issues like “seeking justice for the poor and vulnerable, protecting human rights, seeking peace and protecting the environment.”
“I think this is a really important statement,” says Sider. “It says God cares about all these things, and then lists seven major issues. Dobson has signed it. Colson has signed it. Another marker of what is happening in the evangelical world is Rick Warren [the California megachurch pastor who authored the megaselling Purpose-Driven series]. Never in my lifetime has a prominent American Evangelical talked about the poor as he does. It is the evangelical centre asserting itself. There is growing concern about what has been a widespread disobedience to one of the most common themes in the Bible – God’s concern for the poor.”
In Canada the EFC has been a central voice in defence of the traditional understanding of marriage. But much more than that, the EFC hosts roundtables on issues like aboriginal rights, homelessness and poverty, and is a key player in the Micah Challenge, calling on Evangelicals to be engaged in the struggle against global poverty.
“We need to be asking ourselves ‘What are our priorities?’” says Clemenger. “And we need to be doing that constantly. ‘Are these Kingdom priorities?’ Then we need to make sure people are hearing what we are trying to communicate. We read in Scripture that the gospel will cause offence. Let’s make sure it’s the gospel and not us. Let us not get in the way of the gospel.”
Make Way for the Gospel
Rick Warren spoke at the Toronto International AIDS Conference in Toronto in August, 2006.
It is a fair question to ask: What does it matter what the general public’s perception of Evangelicals is? The answer to that is all tied up in the gospel itself, says John Stackhouse, professor of theology at Regent College in Vancouver. “Evangelical is quite a useful term because evangelicalism really does revolve around the gospel [“evangel” comes from a Greek synonym for “gospel”]. Its essential spirit wants to focus on the gospel. I think Evangelicals should work on their image, and for evangelical reasons, because the gospel is not just about gay marriage.”
Lorna Dueck, Canadian journalist and host of Listen Up TV, brings it close to home when she points out it’s not only up to the leaders to give life back to the image of Evangelicals. “That rebranding of the word evangelical can happen on a one-to-one level. And every pastor, every Christian leader should form relationships with secular press people. Invite them for lunch. Say ‘I just want you to know who we are in the neighbourhood.’ ”
Our only hope in the mass media, says Stackhouse, “is to connect with people who themselves are tired of exploitative type of journalism. I challenge Evangelicals not to give up on the CBC or The Globe and Mail.”
Hunter, while noting that the media will always be tempted to go for the “cringe-factor voices that present a more provocative image of Evangelicals,” is confident that as the movement matures “you will have more folks who are articulate and insightful in their explanation of the faith in relation to public policy. And I think those comments will make it into the papers.”
Sider is also optimistic these days. He cites the phenomenal growth of evangel-ical relief and development organizations with budgets in the millions as partial proof that Evangelicals are starting to live up to their heritage of seeking social justice while still retaining their passion for personal evangelism.
What's In A Name?
The ultimate hope for most Evangelicals would be that any positive public image would be honouring to God and His intentions for the world. That is why it matters how Evangelicals are perceived.
“In the end we shouldn’t be concerned about whether we are misunderstood or critiqued. Our concern is whether the gospel is misunderstood,” says Clemenger.
A few months ago John Buckeridge, senior editor of the British magazine Christianity, suggested Evangelicals might want to drop the “e” word because it carries such a heavy load of negative baggage. He wrote that the word “has the aroma of the manure that fertilizes the bush.”
Faith Today and the EFC have taken a different approach, deciding not only to keep the “e” word but to take it back, to celebrate its good associations and to capitalize it. Switching from a lower case “e” to upper case Evangelical seemed to say something good and proud and important.
Karen Stiller is a freelance writer in Port Perry, Ont., and associate editor of Faith Today.
Read the accompanying article Evangelicals in Canada: A Brief History by Gordon Heath.
For more on this topic, visit the new Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism, an initiative of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.