TC Verbum No 14 Jan 2009

By Joel Edwards

Verbum: Welcome to Verbum—a page of thoughtful comment and insight giving perspectives and overviews of topical issues. It appears in both our print and electronic editions. Reproduction and wider circulation is encouraged. Please acknowledge as "Verbum: WEA Theological News Jan 2009"

Evangelicals—Good News People

Joel Edwards, International Director, Micah Challenge

The word ‘Evangelical’ has a very bad press. So no wonder many evangelicals are desperately looking for alternatives. But after twenty years in evangelical leadership it seems to me that this is only half of the story. I am keen to write about an agenda for change in which evangelicals can recover the idea of evangelicalism as Good News.

I have discussed with over thirty senior church leaders across the world what they feel about an agenda which presents Christ credibly, rehabilitates evangelicalism as Good News and challenges evangelical witness to become a long term movement for spiritual and cultural change.

Opinions varied: Tony Campolo said the word was beyond redemption: he was substituting ‘Red Letter Christians’. Peter Jensen, the Archbishop of Sydney, thought it provides a rallying point for ‘a certain type of Christian’ and Bishop Tom Wright said it was ‘one of the greatest words in the world.’

Understandably for a lot of people, ‘evangelical’ is another name for a moral myopia which carps on about abortion and homosexuals and never talks about poverty or exclusion. ‘Evangelical’ has become an American export which makes God a Republican mascot. But if people are going to think differently about evangelicals, the only people who will be able to get them to change their minds will be evangelicals themselves!

I am not talking about a mindless and unquestioning veneration of the word ‘evangelical’. There will be no shrines built to an adjective! But my contention is that we can recover the idea. At least two surveys in 2005 made it clear that most people are still opened to be convinced. Words can change their meaning. Once upon a time the word ‘gay’ meant ‘happy’! The WEA alone claims to represent 420 million evangelicals in over 130 nations. If all these people wanted it to happen then ‘evangelical’ could mean ‘good news’. If we are to accomplish this there are some important challenges for all evangelicals—including those on the ‘theological right’ as much as those on the centre and left.

What we are about is a great deal more than a name. It’s the Name. We must present Christ credibly. And in doing so we are faced with many serious challenges. There is a secular vendetta against the idea of God in the public square. In the constellation of gods Christ is now one among many. A credible response to our culture does not mean neutralising his Lordship. In a liberal democracy we should be free to say that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’. The claim that Jesus is God is the enduring strength of orthodox Christian faith. But his Lordship is not a truncheon with which to beat other people. Our task is not to pull down Mohammed, Krishna or Guru Nanak: it is to lift up Jesus.

A credible response should be prepared to undomesticate the Christ whom evangelicals have held captive by our myopic and fearful subcultures. I am not convinced that Jesus would be publicly identifiable with our moral agenda. I think He would be identified more quickly with Make Poverty History than any demonstration about sexual orientation. He belongs on the pavement but we have chained Him in our pulpits and locked Him in our pews.

Evangelicals are known to be activists, and with good reason. But there is no substitute for long term thinking. An evangelical agenda for change must develop a kind of biblical tenacity which is in for the long haul. Not even our passion for revival should detract us from our long term agenda for change. And we do this both by proclamation and by acts of kindness. The old dichotomy between words and works is dying. As Alistair McGrath told me, ‘The social gospel got one thing right and everything else wrong.’

An evangelical church which takes its ministry of mercy seriously will have less concern about the idea of ‘public benefit’ central to our understanding of Christian citizenship is a radical commitment to serve other people not just to protect our own interests, power or influence.

So it turns out that an agenda for change begins—not in the world at large—but in our hearts and minds.

For further reading: Joel Edwards, An Agenda for Change: a global call for spiritual and social transformation Zondervan, 2008