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Evangelicals and the Search for Credibility

May 20th, 2015 | 6 min read

By Jake Meador

There’s a sort of American Christian (almost always white and middle-to-upper class) who seems to think that the American church’s biggest problem at the moment is the previous generation of the American church.

There are various sub-groups within this broader camp. The radicals, of whom Matt has written in the past, want to critique the suburban comfort of the previous generation and replace it with a Christianity focused on doing hard things and rejecting the supposedly easy life of material affluence embraced by the previous generation.

The progressives, meanwhile, tell us that “Jesus Needs New PR” and seem to think that Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Matthew Paul Turner are the ones to lead the rebranding campaign.

That said, you can find a similar way of thinking about the previous generation with more conventional, orthodox evangelicals as well. Consider this piece written by former Covenant Seminary president Bryan Chappel on the state of the Presbyterian Church in America:

Perhaps nothing better illustrates these generational differences than the way many Christian leaders feel about major figures in prior conservative Christian movements. To mention Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jim Dobson, James Kennedy, and Chuck Colson is to identify the heroes of the 50-plus generation. Church leaders of that generation are shocked to discover that younger leaders consider these figures exemplars of failure, representing attitudes and approaches that have led to the church’s cultural ineffectiveness.

Later in the piece Chappel will suggest that one of the main goals of the younger generation, which he is certainly friendly to, is to gain credibility before the world in the aftermath of the previous generation’s many failings.

This line of thought is not unusual, though Dr Chappel has articulated it in a more helpful and gracious way than many who ascribe to it. It’s this search for credibility that seems to stand behind much of Tim Keller’s ministry in New York City as well as Gabe Lyons work with the Q Conference, to name only two examples. Lyons in particular has focused in on this issue in both his book UnChristian, which is literally market research on evangelicalism’s brand, and the aforementioned Q, which as others have noted, is basically TED for evangelicals, as if to say “hey, we have ideas worth spreading too!”

You can see similar concerns in Chappel’s letter and in Keller’s writing on sexuality and gender where he tends to work very hard to avoid giving a straightforward response to a simple question like whether or not sexual activity between two people of the same gender is morally licit. There is a concern with not saying the wrong thing, with wanting to avoid the worst excesses of the previous generation, and with trying to help non-Christians distinguish between the worst ravings of 90s era fundamentalists and the actual teachings of scripture and the historic church. They are trying to clear away some of the worst misconceptions about the church so that the central claims of Christianity can be given a fair hearing.

And, to be sure, there have been Christians whose sins have done great violence to the church’s name and the last generation certainly had its share of them. That said, there are two points that need to be made whenever we talk about evangelicalism’s image with outsiders or gaining credibility with those outside the church.

The first is that this group seems to think that a lack of credibility is one of the primary obstacles to the gospel’s advance in our culture. This idea has always been wrong-headed but five years ago it might at least have been plausible. But surely at this point it should be clear that that’s simply not the case?

Evangelicalism’s biggest problem with regards to those outside evangelicalism isn’t our image, it’s our beliefs. That’s why Louie Giglio was uninvited from President Obama’s second inaugural. That’s why there was a mass freakout about Chick-fil-a despite the fact that even gay rights activists admitted that the leadership at Chick-fil-a was consistently kind and gracious to them. That’s why laws so modest and restrained as the Indiana RFRA illicit such outrage and why the SCOTUS Hobby Lobby ruling met a similar reaction last year. The groups being attacked in these cases are not Fred Phelps clones or even Pat Robertson clones. They are simply ordinary evangelical believers trying to live out their faith.

If the issue actually was that most cultural elites outside of the church simply didn’t understand what we actually believed and had all sorts of wrong ideas from seeing one too many stories about Fred Phelps, then maybe a rebranding campaign could “work” in the way that marketing campaigns work. Trying to convince everyone outside the church that we’re cool and “get it” and care about all the things Portlandia hipsters care about would get us somewhere. I’m not sure it’s a place worth going, mind, but it’d be something.

But the events of the past five years, or at least the past three years, should make it abundantly clear that ours is not a credibility problem. The issues are much greater than that. As Rod Dreher noted several months ago (and David Sessions made much the same point here), what we’re actually talking about are two societies that have beliefs about the basic nature of reality that are fundamentally antagonistic to one another. Note that they aren’t simply fundamentally different, but antagonistic. Set next to a difference of that nature, the attempts at finding superficial similarities look rather silly–which is precisely what they are.

The second point follows from the first. If ours is a problem of credibility, then we begin thinking less about the core elements of the Christian life and public ministry and more about managing perceptions, convincing people that we aren’t like those Christians, and so on.

The trouble with this approach is that when you begin behaving like a marketer, that’s what you become. And the clear presentation of the faith is lost amidst a thousand qualifications as you apologize for this awful Christian and try to distinguish yourself from that embarrassing group. By the time your done clearing your throat and awkwardly laughing at those silly evangelicals all you’ve succeeded in doing is confusing the room and causing no small number of people to wonder what exactly you do believe. But, then, clarity isn’t really the point if you’re a marketer. Getting the sale is.

Over time, this approach begins to infect other aspects of ministry, as church life begins to mirror the business world with evangelism starting to sound a lot like sales and advertising and midweek gatherings between Christians starting to feel a lot like business meetings where you offer an update on how your product is selling/your church or small group is growing.

And as you cultivate that identity, these problems begin to reinforce themselves. Speaking in this way creates a kind of echo chamber as those people who feel aggrieved by the church tend to rally around you. As this happens, it becomes harder to say what needs to be said because your own status as the “cool” Christian who gets it becomes more entrenched. To return to our business metaphor, you’ve begun to develop an audience for your brand, which creates a pressure to keep your brand consistent and not do something to lose your “audience.”

Behind all of these issues, of course, stands the perpetual temptation that exists in front of American evangelicals, which is to look more American than evangelical. We live in a moment when marketing and sales is the air we breathe. Business metaphors inform all that we do as we talk about “investing in relationships” or “launching a church plant.”

And that, of course, is the irony of these evangelical accomodationalists who are theologically orthodox but prone to this sort of approach to Christian ministry: They think they are separating themselves from the conventional errors of American evangelicals when in reality they are simply embracing a new generation’s errors to replace those of the previous one.

(image via

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).