Tough Questions 2008: Do Evangelicals Portray Jesus Accurately?

Sermon audio: Do Evangelicals Portray Jesus Accurately? This question from the community invites me to do what some believe I do best: criticize my own subculture. Of course, I will answer, "Evangelicals often do not portray Jesus accurately." And, of course, I will try to specify which evangelical qualities are misleading. By merely asking this question, someone has presumed a negative answer.

There is a larger issue. What attitude should we have toward the deepening problems of evangelical churches?

The criticisms from emergents that American evangelicals are Christianized consumers, that they lack authentic community, that their worship is stilted, and that they are not on the side of the poor all have merit. The doctrinal criticisms from the reformed movement (MacArthur, Piper, et al.) rightly indict the lack of biblical integrity among many evangelicals. Even the criticisms that the church growth movement has made over the past thirty years -- that churches are not reaching non-Christians -- are accurate. (The criticisms just happen to be accurate of the church growth movement itself, as well.)

Put all of these criticisms together, and the picture is dire. A movement that is not growing, not intellectually coherent, and not engaged with other cultures is a movement near death.

James Stockdale, one of the most famous American POWs in North Vietnam, has been used as an example of how to survive dire situations by business author Jim Collins. (The book is Good To Great.) What kind of man did not survive the POW experience? Stockdale said the optimist, the man who was sure he'd be home by Christmas, but whose steadily retreating target dates for release were never kept. The positive thinkers died.

The survivors, said Stockdale, had two things. They had faith that they would survive, and discipline to confront the brutal facts of their environment. Collins tagged this the "Stockdale paradox," the irony that unstinting honesty about dire situations can actually bolster the faith one needs to survive.

I want to see evangelicals eschew optimism about their predicament.

Let's take, as an example, their recent explosion of support for Gov. Sarah Palin. Personally, I like her. She gives a great speech. I admire her decision not to abort her baby boy, and I respect the way she and her husband have handled the appalling media abuse of their 17-year-old daughter. I think the clash of the classes her nomination has provoked is good old-fashioned political fun.

But the adulation of her by evangelicals is in one important respect delusional. She will not change Washington from the vice president's mansion -- populists to the contrary. She will not change American culture. She will not even change the culture of evangelical churches -- though she reflects and represents them well. Her presence on the national stage simply does not address the spiritual issues we face.

We won't be freed from the dire evangelical crisis by Christmas.

A brutal honesty about our future says:

  1. Our compromise with America's consumer society has been a disaster. Consumerism will have to be rooted out of our churches soul by soul.
  2. Our transformation of churches into entertainment platforms has been a disaster. Devout worship of the living God will have to be rediscovered soul by soul.
  3. Our financial selfishness will have to be corrected by the good hand of God soul by soul, until we are once again the people who stand with the poor.
  4. Our doctrinal ignorance and folly has turned our brains to mud. Knowledge of the truth will have to be taught soul by soul.
  5. Our fear of the cultures around us, and our refusal to interact meaningfully with them -- that is, interact beyond marketing ploys -- has left us unable to articulate the gospel in our own time. Soul by soul, we will have to rebuild a vigorous way of life and witness in hostile territory.

I believe that, once we are honest about these things, we will have ground for a strong faith that Christianity will survive and prosper in the future. The moment we look at these five realities, harsh though they are, we realize that the tool for teaching soul by soul is everywhere in this country: the local church. The body of Christ in its many meetings has been doing this job for centuries. We just need to start doing the job again.

Our ultimate ground for faith is our Lord and his plan. As we follow him afresh, Jesus is well able to portray himself accurately in his churches.