In what is clearly one of the most dramatic reversals in history, evangelicals have transformed the meaning of good news into bad news. The very word “evangel” rings in the ears of non-believers as some sort of curse. Evangel now means God has come to condemn us, not to save us.
Most recently, Barna and his research team put together a survey designed to measure non-Christian perceptions of Christian groups. The survey asked non-Christians to give their impressions of 11 different categories of people: military officers, ministers, evangelicals, born-again Christians, Democrats, Republicans, real-estate agents, movie and TV performers, lawyers, lesbians and prostitutes.
The results were a bit surprising and disturbing. Evangelicals came in next to last in favorability. Only 22 percent of the non-Christians interviewed ranked them favorably. The only group ranked lower than evangelicals was prostitutes. Evangelicals scored lower in favorability than lesbians and Republicans who scored 23 percent.
Barna blames negative media coverage for evangelicals’ low favorability among non-Christians. But that seems a gross oversimplification. Possible sources of evangelical bad press can be found much closer to home.
The most familiar faces of modern evangelicalism are Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson and D. James Kennedy. These leaders are all advocates of a hard-edged, almost militant Christianity that has no tolerance for differing points of view. They are absolutists on matters of faith and practice. There are only two sides to every issue—their side, and the wrong side. To be on the wrong side is to be on the wrong side of God. And with that comes eternal condemnation.
The irony here is lost on most people. The word “evangel” is the Greek word for “good news.” In the New Testament the “evangel” is the news that God has drawn near in Jesus of Nazareth. As God draws near, the hope of salvation for the downtrodden and the poor comes to life.
But now, in what is clearly one of the most dramatic reversals in history, evangelicals have transformed the meaning of good news into bad news. The very word “evangel” rings in the ears of non-believers as some sort of curse. Evangel now means God has come to condemn us, not to save us.
It is interesting to note at this point the positive impressions non-Christians hold toward “born-again Christians” in Barna’s survey. Born-again Christians drew a 32 percent favorable rating—10 points higher than evangelicals. Barna correctly points out that born-again Christians and evangelicals are essentially the same group of people, but non-Christians are not always aware of this.
Why do non-Christians find the “born again” group more favorable? Maybe it’s because the very phrase “born again” suggests the hope of a second chance, the opportunity to start over. Being born again points to the prospect of personal transformation. It hints at the possibility of new life. That sounds like good news.
This is not to say that churches should shape their beliefs on the basis of marketing data. There are obvious dangers when we begin shaping theology on the basis of public opinion. Jesus said, “Beware when all speak well of you.” He knew how easy it is to lose our prophetic edge to the lure of public approval.
But Jesus also said, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”
Evangelicals must face the prospect that they are reaping the whirlwind of a belligerent intolerance. After all, as Jesus said, “The measure you give will be the measure you get.”
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.