“Whatever people think of evangelical Christians, if people are going to think differently about evangelicals the only people who can actually change their minds are evangelicals.”
These were the words of Joel Edwards, former head of the Evangelical Alliance UK and new international director of evangelical anti-poverty movement Micah Challenge, to the World Evangelical Alliance General Assembly on Sunday night.
Edwards spoke candidly of the scale of the challenge to salvage the word ‘evangelical’ from its current image crisis. Evangelicalism’s bad reputation had, he noted, been brought on largely by its associations the policies of the US Republican Party, controversial televangelists, radicalism and a moral agenda confined to homosexuality and abortion at the expense of poverty and social justice issues.
Such caricatures fed into the “great misrepresentation” of evangelicalism, he said.
“The word ‘evangelical’ has a very bad name and bad reputation. But evangelical actually means at its biblical root, ‘good news’. We are called therefore to be a good news community,” said Edwards.
“Far from evangelical being an embarrassment, I wonder if we shouldn’t be thinking of ourselves as an integral part of God’s good news community and also a vital part of active citizenship in public life.”
He warned that the stereotype of angry, protesting evangelicals was compromising the effectiveness of evangelical relief and development agencies in their efforts to lobby governments and campaign within wider society on behalf of vulnerable people.
“We must reinvent, rehabilitate and re-inhabit what evangelical means as good news. We must present Christ credibly to our culture and we should seek to be active citizens working for long-term spiritual and social change.”
The fact that there are 420 million evangelicals worldwide is a cause for optimism, he further noted.
“Words can change their meaning. If 420 million evangelicals in over 130 nations across the world really wanted it to happen, evangelical could mean good news.”
He pointed to the important role that evangelicals have played historically in bringing about social justice, most notably in securing the abolition of the slave trade, providing social welfare in developing countries, and campaigning for religious liberty.
“You and I have nothing to be ashamed of in relation to our commitment to the common good in nations across the world,” he told Assembly delegates.
“If we are a growing people with a commitment to the Bible, who believe that the forgiveness of sins, the cross of Christ and the mission of God to free the oppressed are essential to who we are, then why should we not reclaim and live up to such a legacy as God has given us? My contention is that we really can do that.”
Edwards highlighted research conducted in the US in 2005, which found that 55 per cent of people were not sure what the term ‘evangelical’ meant, and the results of a similar poll carried out in the UK in the same year, which found that 52 per cent were neutral towards the term.
“Most people are waiting for us to live up to our heritage and there is room to change hearts and minds if we are so inclined to do it.”
Rehabilitation of the term ‘evangelical’ would depend on moderate evangelicals like John Stott taking precedence within the movement, over and above extreme leftwing or rightwing evangelicals.
“I believe a central evangelical, balanced faith will take us into a more confident and transforming future under God,” said Edwards. “The name of evangelicalism is safeguarded by centre evangelicals.”
He urged evangelicals to present Christ credibly to today’s culture and its rebellion the supremacy of Christ and God in public life, and abandonment of the Holy Spirit in favour of spirituality.
“A credible response to our cultures does not mean limiting the lordship of Jesus Christ. I believe it will always be our responsibility as a transforming agency to say that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father,” said Edwards.
“Our task is not to pull down Buddha or Muhammad or Guru Nanak. It is to lift up the Lord Jesus Christ. A credible response is prepared to present an untamed, undomesticated Christ.”
He urged Christians not to settle for a “risk-averse” Christ but also questioned the extent to which the traditional evangelical moral agenda would be supported by Jesus.
“I am not convinced that Jesus would so easily be publicly identified with the moral agenda we so exclusively represent,” maintained Edwards.
“He would have perhaps identified more quickly with Make Poverty History than a demonstration about sexual orientation.
“I think the City and the financial institutions would probably find him more uncomfortable than a prostitute would.
“And I believe some of our religious establishments would find that he condemned our selfish budgets more than he might a transsexual.
“I believe he would defend our children perhaps more than the Blasphemy Act in the UK or even the Declaration of Independence in the US.”
Edwards added, “We have tamed him so thoroughly that few people actually get the chance to know the Christ of the Scriptures. He belongs on our pavements. We have locked him in our pulpits; we have chained him in our pews.”
A credible Christ would, he added, dialogue with the surrounding culture.
“Sermons which tell people rather than engage with our culture may not engage Christ as credibly as he could be. The challenge is to get involved in the world’s conversations in order to give them a credible Christ-like alternative.
“The church’s credibility is the thing that most determines Christ’s credibility in the world. We are his sole PR agency. We are the sole ones who will promote a credible Christ to our culture.”
Edwards capped his 11 years as head of the UK Evangelical Alliance with the publication of a book, ‘Agenda for Change’, tackling the issue of evangelicals as good news people.
The agenda for change would demand that evangelicals be part of a “long-term movement for transformation”, he said.
Edwards stepped down from the EA in September to take up the leadership of the evangelical anti-poverty movement, Micah Challenge. He was commissioned in his new role at the WEA GA on Sunday.
He concluded with a call to evangelicals to be active citizens.
“Our greatest calling is not to change legislation but to serve the people. And governments and local authorities are desperate for help even if they are not convinced about our faith.
“It is a challenge for us to consider ourselves not only as disciples of Jesus but as active citizens of the Kingdom of God living out our discipleship here.
“Evangelicalism is at its best not when it defends our own interests but when it fights for the common good.”