Time to ditch ‘evangelicals’?

At age 16 I fell in love with the “evangelical” brand of Christianity. It has been, ever since, a passionate … Continued

At age 16 I fell in love with the “evangelical” brand of Christianity. It has been, ever since, a passionate affair.

Raised in a separatist church, my eyes were opened one summer day in 1998, when I met Christians from other churches, actually working together. The way these “evangelical” folk elevated Christ above their differences amazed me. They were gracious and kind, sophisticated and grounded.

I am now, at age 30, an openly evangelical Christian. The term evangelical–recently associated with political and social issues–is actually hundreds of years old. It existed before the United States. To insiders, the word bespeaks a rich heritage, unique theology and international history. The name evangelical grows from a Greek term that means “good news.”

But nowadays few Americans associate evangelicals with anything good. Many identify evangelicals with homophobia, prejudice and party politics. In 2002 Americans ranked evangelicals among the least-liked groups in America. By 2007, some 91 percent of evangelicals felt that “Americans are becoming more hostile and negative” toward them.

A national survey found that 53 percent of college faculty have negative feelings toward evangelicals–more than any other religious group. Of Americans age 16 to 29, just three percent had a favorable view of evangelicals in 2007. Young Americans-raised in the evangelical heyday of the 1980’s and 90’s–identified the group’s top three traits as “anti-homosexual,” “judgmental,” and “hypocritical.”

This is more than a branding crisis. These negative values directly contradict the historic evangelical message of forgiveness and love in Christ. So I’ve been wondering: Can the evangelical brand be scrubbed clean in the United States? Or should it be tossed?

Pressed under the weight of cultural change, once-powerful brands can crumple and implode. Life Magazine, Pan Am, AMC Motors-each was ultimately cast onto the pile of unsalvageable brands. Should we now cast the name “evangelical” onto that pile? In vulgate U.S. culture, the evangelical brand has become marred and mired in misconception. Young and metropolitan believers are finding that the label has negative equity and liability in many circles.

For this reason, more sensitive evangelicals are abandoning the brand. Ironically, the ones who could best reverse the negative stereotypes are the ones refusing the label. These are not just young or liberal evangelicals. A conservative leader in his 60’s, the president of a large evangelical organization, recently told me about a mandate he gave his staff: to scrub the institution’s web site and literature of the word evangelical. For this leader and others, the name that should represent redemption is, well, unredeemable.

Despite these happenings, some strong arguments can be made for rallying together to rebuild the evangelical brand. For one, the movement is splintering and in need of cohesion. In that light, now may be the worst time to pull the single thread that holds so many motley churches and ministries together.

Also, evangelicals still hold significant influence and assets. If sincere evangelicals abandon the brand, do we forfeit those assets to others who may further misrepresent Christ?

Exxon, BP and Texaco spent millions to clean up their names following crises. Maybe evangelicals could circle the wagons and launch a national rebranding effort. Perhaps, but this branding crisis does not result from a single disaster. It results from decades of high-profile affairs, political rallies, late-night parodies, abortion clinic bombings, pilfering TV evangelists and the list goes on.

I don’t have a simple answer to this question about the fate of the evangelical brand. There is another question, however, that I can answer: How did the Jesus of evangelicalism want his followers to be known? What brand does he want us to have?

Jesus identifies, with precision, the brand his followers should be known for-and it’s not a name. It’s an action. Jesus said “By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another…” (John 13:35). With Jesus, actions always speak louder than words-look no further than the cross. Active love is His brand.

I’m sentimental about the label “evangelical.” I long to see it born again. But if I read the Gospels honestly, I don’t see Jesus elevating a label. And maybe that’s the point–that evangelicals be less concerned with our brand, our logo, our name–and more concerned with the contagious love that Christ called His followers to model.

If our brand is not a brand name, but a brand action–to be known for loving–

and if the common perceptions about our existing label are the opposite of love-hateful, judgmental, oppositional, then I have to suspect that, were Jesus here, he would drop the religious label, to better communicate God’s heart.

Believe me, releasing the word “evangelical” to the heap of unsalvageable brands-that thought breaks my heart. But our disregard for what this word is communicating to the people Christ died for-I wonder if that breaks His heart.

It’s a question worth asking.


John S. Dickerson is author of the book “The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors that Will Crash the American Church…and How to Prepare” and senior pastor of Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Prescott, Arizona. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter @JohnSDickerson

  • Joel1

    If Americans do not associate the ‘evangelical brand’ with anything good, that’s because they have a profound understanding of what evangelic Christianity stands for.

  • SODDI

    You can change the label all you want – the judgemental hateful evangelicals will remain the same.

    Maybe you should investigate why people perceive you (correctly) that way.

  • Mistrhistre

    Jesus was hated in the world–his followers can expect like treatment. Historically, persecution and proper response to persecution have strengthened the Church. Without a Biblical anchor that elevates truth, love, honesty, etc. the detractors of Evangelicalism (and even more so, Fundamentalism) have no ethical basis for their criticism. They are only arching their back against our claim to uphold these pure ideals–and that is a self destructive path they are choosing.

  • SimonTemplar

    I agree with you on this. They hated Jesus when they crucified Him, they hate Him today. Look at the reception the world will give Him when he returns (see Revelation).

  • Who Is Jesus?

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16

    Twenty-five wonderful words.

  • SODDI

    What is that link, some kinda Fred Phelps bullsh*t?

    All you evangelicals are Fred Phelps.

  • Kingofkings1

    Why is God limited to having only one son?

  • Who Is Jesus?

    Watch the link for yourself. If you can bear it. Stop persecuting Christians SODDI.

  • Who Is Jesus?

    Atonement, Gods reconcilliation with man only required His blood. He bore the wrath of God and died for YOU. God loves YOU. God is interested in YOU.

  • SODDI

    I’m slanging off on christians and speaking the truth about your cults, Fred. No persecution involved.

    Persecution involves people in power oppressing others – like you christians have done for near on two millennia to the Jews, culminating in the Holocaust.

    But you don’t even need to go that far. Ask a few Native Americans about the suppression of their religion by church and state. They were not free to have their own religious leaders until 1978.

    Now THAT is persecution.

  • Who Is Jesus?

    No,the Jews persecuted their own Messiah as it is written in the Word; “He came unto His own and His own recieved Him not”.
    Hitler and Goebbles and the German townsfolk killed the Jews.
    The U.S. Army and 2nd Ammendment protectd Suzy from scalping and “braves on the warpath” who laid waste to innocent Christian settlers, your own blood relatives, scalping and slaughtering the townsfolk. thank God for Christianity, that it brought the peace.

  • Who Is Jesus?

    Love it or leave it soddi.

  • Ranmore

    “God is interested in YOU”

    Interesting hypothesis, but it’s not supported by any tangible evidence. The proposition comes from a heavy editied set of stories written may years after the claimed events. Thus Christianity is just one or a long series of religions claiming knowledge of the unknowable.

  • Ranmore

    “Jesus was hated in the world”

    False – Jesus was not hated by the world. He was persecuted by religious authorities for challenging their authority. This is a pattern we see associated all with organised religions – including Christianity.

    Atheists have been persecuted by Christians for nearly two thousand years – it’s only in the last 200 years that it’s been safe to come out as an atheist in the Western world. It’s can still be a fatal mistake elsewhere.

  • Ranmore

    “that’s because they have a profound understanding of what evangelic Christianity stands for”

    On the contrary, they have a clear understanding of evangelicals from their words and deeds – love and compassion towards those they despise not being much in evidence.

  • cricket44

    Ranmore, kudos for trying to get the willfully blind to see.

  • rdrift1879

    The author forgets the words of Jesus Himself: “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.”

    Read the comments here, Mr. Dickerson. Nothing has changed in 2,000 years. The evangelicals I know, in the main, are compassionate, generous, hard-working people. They are called bigots for believing the Bible is a standard of right conduct. To be accepted in these times, you will have to reject that standard. It really is that simple.

  • ThomasBaum

    Kingofkings1

    You asked, “Why is God limited to having only one son?”

    Actually, there is only One God-Incarnate but all of humanity became God’s sons and daughters and brothers and sisters.

    By becoming One of us, Jesus became the Brother of All of us.

    Jesus was not the Son of man and the Son of God until He became One of us, before the Incarnation Jesus was the Second Person of the Trinity, He still Is by the way.

  • ThomasBaum

    Who Is Jesus?

    You wrote, “Atonement, Gods reconcilliation with man only required His blood. He bore the wrath of God and died for YOU. God loves YOU. God is interested in YOU.”

    So do you actually believe this or do you think/believe that it is just for some?

  • SODDI

    Hitler and “Goebbles” issue the commands, Ordinary lutherans and catholics, good christians, machine gunned Jews and poison gassed them.

    And the “innocent christian settlers” were were bloodthirsty invaders who were intent on genociding the Native Americans out of existence.

  • usingmyvoicewell

    I’m amazed at how quickly “Christian” conversation can deteriorate on FB boards. It is for that reason, and the misrepresentation by *some* Christians, that I no longer even choose to call myself a Christian. I prefer “Christ follower”, if any labeling is required. I am intrigued by this article. Not all evangelicals are the same. Just as every human being is different, so is each “evangelical”. So is each Christian, and I certainly would not want the acts or even beliefs of any other, to be mistaken as MY acts or MY beliefs. My faith is my own. How I choose to live it out, is reflected in my own life. Not yours. Arguing about this “label” seems trite. We are not our religions; we are not our ethnicity; we are simply who we are as individuals. We’re not called to beat each other up (whether verbally or physically) about this; we are called to be in community, but more important, to be in a 1:1 relationship w/Christ. Peace. Peace.

  • akingma1

    What you call yourself is much less important than what, in fact, you are. Dickerson is right to point out that Christ himself identified his followers by their willingness to have love for one another. Are evangelicals showing their love when they judge, reject, and exclude people who are gay? It’s hard to see any of that as loving, Christ-like behaviour.

  • MikeDV

    These kind-hearted people who spew their bile toward Christians and Christianity have never met any. What they hate, and the lies they’ve bought into, are cultural caricatures of Christians. The reason this is true: ‘Young Americans-raised in the evangelical heyday of the 1980’s and 90’s–identified the group’s top three traits as “anti-homosexual,” “judgmental,” and “hypocritical.”’ Is because American culture, i.e. media, entertainment and much of education portrays Christians as just this.

    This so called branding issue has nothing to do with reality, the real lived lives of actual Christians. Are there hateful, judgmental Christians? Sure, just as there are hateful, judgmental secularists/atheists/agnostics, many of which spew that hatred right here in WaPo comments.

    We Evangelicals swim against the dominant cultural tide of our day, and no amount of brand strategy will change that. The Bible is very clear that fornication is sin, whether that is homo or heterosexual. If that is hateful or judgmental that’s just too bad. Everyone has moral values, the modern secularist liberals just don’t like ours. I don’t like theirs either.

  • xexon

    Evangelicals are a danger. Not because of their stupid religious take on Jesus, but because they’re Israel friendly.

    Got a bible stuck in their eye and just can’t see the apartheid and the zio-nazis who rule the country. Evangelicals are a danger because they tend to be patriotic and vote. Which means the foreign policy of the United States gives a lion’s share to this segregated nation and only emboldens it to continue.

    They also believe in the end of days and do everything possible to make sure we trigger the events that supposedly trigger the end of days. They also want to save all the Jews for Jesus. But that’s another story for another day. Most Jews I know want nothing to do with it.

    Evangelicals are only effective upon the spiritually infantile. They should call you legion, for you are many. Perhaps now is a good time to turn off your TV and think for yourself?

    In light of what I’ve just told you, what would Jesus do?

    x

  • SODDI

    You are a liar, “Who Is Jesus”.

    About standard for christians.

  • SODDI

    As you can see in this comments section, evangelical christians are typified by hate-filled rhetoric and vicious lies.

    That is the evangelical cult of christianity in a nutshell.

    What is good about them is that by every word and action they expose the corrupt lie that is christianity. Every sect and cult of that “religion” is just as bad – and dangerous – as islam.

    They pray for the end of the world. That’s how bad they are.

  • MKR1

    Why not call yourselves by whichever branch of Christianity to which you belong: Baptist, Episcopal, Non-Denominational Protestant, Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist, etc etc. Each of these denominations spans the liberal to conservative spectrum, so you could label yourself a liberal Episcopalian, conservative Baptist, liberal Methodist, conservative Methodist and so forth to more clearly define your beliefs. Liberal and conservative theology indicates our position on social issues but not necessarily our political persuasion. We Christians all have different ideas about the details but on the essentials we are in agreement.

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