‘Surprisingly few adults outside of Christianity have positive views of Christians’. So ran the headline of a media release from a US-based Christian research organisation at the end of 2002.1
Based on a random telephone poll, researchers concluded: ‘One reason why Evangelical churches across the nation are not growing is due to the image that non-Christian adults have of evangelical individuals’.
But the real sting in the tail came when interviewees were asked to express their opinion of various social groups. The list, made up of eleven groups including military officers, real estate agents, lawyers and others, also included three separate designations — ‘ministers’, ‘born-again Christians’ and ‘Evangelicals’.
Asked whether their impression of each was favourable, unfavourable or somewhere in between, ministers and born-again Christians scored highly — placing them second and third respectively in a league table, just behind military officers.
Evangelicals, however, fared badly, finishing second from bottom, just ahead of ‘prostitutes’ and just behind ‘lesbians’.
The survey leaves all sorts of questions unanswered — not least why born-again Christians should score highly when many would say they are the same people as Evangelicals. Nevertheless, the survey confirms what many of us already know — Evangelicals do have an image problem in the world.
In an attempt to explain why this is so (at least in the USA) the researchers suggest that ‘people form impressions of others on the basis of one-dimensional images created and communicated by the mass media’.
We might add that any opinion poll taken in today’s sound-bite, image-orientated world, is also likely to reflect an emotional rather than an informed response.
But the far more important question is this: does it matter what the world thinks of us?
Despised by the world
Most Evangelicals today tend to present the Christian gospel subjectively — as a ‘moral crusade’, an ‘influence for good’, or (prospectively) a ‘social corrective’. Thus the offence and power of the gospel’s message of sin and salvation is considerably mitigated.
By ‘docking’ the negative and essential starting point of the evangelistic gospel — that all are sinners before the living God — and supplanting it with the anaemic ‘Jesus loves you’ message, they think they are presenting a ‘positive gospel’.
This non-controversial, non-offensive message has become the preferred method of evangelism, which seeks to befriend the world in order to influence it by the gospel.
The irony is that by mitigating the power of the true gospel, Evangelicals are earning the world’s contempt.
As US theologian Robert Godfrey has observed, ‘Biblical Christianity has been undermined in our time by sincere people who engage in unbiblical activities for the sake of being an influence’.
The nub of Godfrey’s argument is simple. Modern evangelical Christians are often so concerned to win influence in the world, that they forget that the gospel message is innately anoffence to the world.
In other words, it is ultimately impossible to sugar-coat something quite so offensive to sinners as the gospel of Christ.
In his book Secularisation
3— a recent frank and penetrating assessment of the methods of modern church leaders — Edward Norman states his chief concern in the very first line: ‘Christianity and modern materialist Humanism ought to be at war with each other, and they are not’.
For Norman, the message of the gospel is so offensive to the increasingly dominant humanism, that open warfare is unavoidable. But in lamenting the eclipse of Christianity at the hands of ‘corrosive Humanism’, he does not put the blame on the humanists — rather it rests with a generation of enfeebled church leaders with a spineless ‘horror of controversy’.
Among other things, he notes the debilitating propensity of church leaders to seek ‘pragmatic solutions to divisive problems’, not least in their persistent compromise over biblical revelation (p.123).
What Godfrey and Norman are both saying is that, paradoxically, in specifically pursuing a spirit of compromise, aimed at gaining ‘influence’ and ‘friendship’ with the world, church leaders have conspicuously failed to achieve either.
Friendship with the world
It is as if James 4:4 — ‘Don’t you know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?’ — has been cut out of the Bibles of many modern church leaders.
Another recurrent (but far less articulated) theme of Scripture should also sound an alarm for us — the repeated warnings to errant prophets and priests charged by God with perverting true belief and leading the people astray (Jeremiah 2:8; 8:10-11; Isaiah 9:14-16).
The warning is stark enough. Church leaders do not have autonomy to preach and teach whatever they want. All Christian teaching is governed by the direct revelation of God alone, and is given to the historic church for the teaching of the whole world.
If the biblical revelation, reflected in the historic creeds and confessions, is not what is being taught, the messengers must be disregarded.
A different gospel
To mitigate the offence of the gospel is to ignore Paul’s injunction against preaching ‘a different gospel’ which is really ‘no gospel at all’ (Galatians 1:6-7).
The gospel of Christ is offensive. Let’s get used to the idea. It is a direct affront to the self-image and self-enthronement of every unregenerate human being.
Opting for a deformed gospel, in the vain hope of winning friends and influencing people, is to place human wisdom above God’s.
Perversely, though many in the church have lost sight of this truth, many in the world have not. The world often exhibits greater insight into what the church ought to stand for than the church itself — even if it does not agree with it.
It expects the church to practise integrity, and preach and live what it professes to believe. When the church fails to do so, and attempts to sell a cheerful, sweet-smelling gospel, the world smells a rat instead!
It is in these undemanding alternatives that the world perceives the sham of the modern church and its message. Many realise that the church is serving up coloured water for coke — substituting their inoffensive gospel for the real thing.
At the same time, many observers know only too well that the church is hiding its demanding and offensive message about sin and man’s lost condition. It perceives a church fawning to win friends and influence, as Christ never did; a church afraid of being ostracized and persecuted, when its Lord was not.
For many modern Evangelicals, the words ‘You will be hated by all for my name’s sake’ (Luke 21:17) apply to someone else, and not to them.
The fact is that Evangelicals today are far more likely to be despised because of public and private duplicity over their core ‘Christian’ messages, than for their public confession of Christ.
And when we observe just what is often served up as ‘evangelical’ fare today, it is hardly surprising that the world has the impression it does.
For them ‘Evangelical’ means the TV evangelist with his wealth-seeking ‘name it and claim it gospel’. It means gullible Evangelicals falling over themselves to hear fake healers and false prophets for their own emotional gratification.
It means carefree ‘happy clappers’ oblivious to the concerns of ordinary life, and evangelical antiquarians who separate themselves entirely from the real world.
Of course, this is not true historic Evangelicalism at all, but a pale modern imitation. But it is chiefly what the world sees, and has become a hindrance to the true gospel.
In all of this, it is heartening to remind ourselves of a fascinating cameo of early church life. The first Christians were ‘attending the temple … received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people’ (Acts 2:46-7).
Note that they had favour with all the people. Clearly, to live the biblical version of the Christian life can earn the respect of others.
By the very act of living and confessing our Christian faith openly, and sharing the ‘offence’ of the biblical gospel, we may yet gain the respect and influence to which so many modern Evangelicals aspire.
That it will also attract persecution should not, however, be forgotten. But godly influence will not be achieved by aiming to win friends and respect. It must rather come as a by-product of faithfulness.
This should be an incentive to us all to preach boldly the offence which is the true gospel. In all non-gospel matters, however, we are to ‘give no offence’ (2 Corinthians 6:3; Romans 12:18), becoming ‘all things to all men’ that we may win some to Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19-22).
We know we will be despised by the world for preaching Christ. But it is also our responsibility to see that we are despised for no other reason.
The author is co-pastor of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, Clacton, and Director of the Christian Research Network.
1. ‘Surprisingly Few Adults Outside of Christianity Have Positive Views of Christians’: press release from the George Barna Organisation, USA (see Barna Research Online at www.barna.org).
2. W. Robert Godfrey, ‘The Myth of Influence’, Modern Reformation Magazine (September/October 1998).
3. Edward Norman, Secularisation (London, Continuum, 2002).