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WORLDVIEW: The evangelical identity crisis

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–American evangelicals always seem to be going through some sort of identity crisis.

Often it’s projected upon us by outside observers who admire, vilify or study evangelicals as a sociological phenomenon:

— We’re actively engaging the culture, some declare. No, insist others: We’re withdrawing from the culture.

— We’re growing more inclusive. No, we’re more exclusive than ever.

— We remain people of the Book. No, insist others, we’re losing our biblical distinctives as we become too comfortable and socially influential.

— We’re trying to take over the government and force everybody to accept our beliefs. No, we’re losing interest in politics as we struggle to shore up our own families and churches in an age of pluralism and decadence.

After the bitter fall election with its religious overtones, our most rabid detractors took the gloves off — if the gloves were ever on. Angry secularists on both coasts retreated to their urban strongholds, muttering about how to fight off the barbarian hordes out there in “Jesusland.” If you haven’t heard of “Jesusland,” it’s the worst nightmare of the fevered secular imagination: a vast middle region of red-voting counties, populated by slack-jawed Christian hillbillies who patrol rural highways in armed SUVS — like the gangs who chased Mel Gibson around a post-nuclear Australian wasteland in “Mad Max.”

Bill Maher, former host of the now-defunct “Politically Incorrect” and current HBO loudmouth, typifies coastal extremists. He loathes religious believers in general, abhors evangelicals in particular and makes no bones about it.

“We are a nation that is unenlightened because of religion,” Maher said recently on MSNBC. “I think that religion stops people from thinking. I think it justifies crazies. I think flying planes into a building was a faith-based initiative. I think religion is a neurological disorder.”

Clear enough?

Maher, you may recall, is the same guy who made an interesting observation after the accidental shoot-down and killing of independent Baptist missionary Roni Bowers and her adopted baby by a Peruvian fighter jet in 2001. For Maher, this was an opportunity to compare missionaries with drug dealers — unfavorably. As his studio audience laughed, he wondered aloud if missionaries were morally inferior to the flying drug runners for whom the Bowers family was mistaken when the small plane carrying them was shot down. Missionary claims to absolute truth, Maher contended, have done far more damage in the world than recreational drug use.

“I am just embarrassed that [America] has been taken over by people like evangelicals, by people who do not believe in science and rationality,” Maher said on MSNBC. “It is the 21st century. And I will tell you, my friend, the future does not belong to the evangelicals. The future does not belong to religion.”

Voltaire, the French Enlightenment philosopher, said essentially the same thing about religion and its future — with a lot more style and wit. He died in 1778, shortly before the first great age of Protestant missionary expansion began spreading the Christian Gospel around the world, bringing hospitals and schools to a host of poverty-stricken places and helping end all manner of abuses against the downtrodden.

Friendlier observers give today’s evangelicals credit for continuing that noble tradition. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who disagrees with evangelicals on many issues, recently reiterated his praise for their activism abroad.

Conservative evangelicals, says Kristof, “are the new internationalists, increasingly engaged in humanitarian causes abroad” –- from fighting against sex trafficking to fighting for human rights and religious liberty in many places.

TIME magazine, interested in the national impact of evangelical leaders, devoted a recent cover story to the 25 movers and shakers it considers most influential.

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary is sponsoring a series of conferences on public perceptions and misperceptions about evangelicals, including the myths that all evangelical believers are anti-intellectual, that belief in the exclusive divinity of Christ equals intolerance of others, etc.

More important than how others see us, however, is how we identify ourselves — and act on that identity. Are we cultural warriors or cultural peacemakers? Are our churches family bomb shelters built to keep out the moral chaos around us, or Christian entertainment centers built to pack ‘em in?

Or does the chief end of man, and primary mission of the church, remain what the much-debated word “evangelical” implies: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, and to declare His glory and mercy to all nations?

“God created me –- and you -– to live with a single, all-embracing, all-transforming passion,” writes John Piper. “Namely, a passion to glorify God by enjoying and displaying His supreme excellence in all the spheres of life.

“… The wasted life is the life without a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.”

It’s easy to become distracted from our chief purpose by all the other important challenges believers face. But it is who we are, or should be.

Otherwise, we don’t deserve the name evangelical -– or Christian.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.

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  • Erich Bridges