By Kristin Rudolph (@Kristin_Rudolph)
Evangelicals are in the midst of an identity crisis. Insecurity about their “culture warrior” image in recent decades has prompted some Evangelicals to question their role in the public square and reconsider evangelism in a post-Christian culture. Q Ideas, an evangelical organization founded by Gabe Lyons to pursue “Ideas for the Common Good” grappled with these questions at the seventh annual Q Conference in downtown Los Angeles, April 15-17. Several hundred mostly middle age Evangelicals gathered at the Nokia Theater for two and a half intense days of discussion about how to engage and transform culture.
Most attendees were pastors or leaders of nonprofits and businesses. Using eighteen, nine, and three minute time slots, over thirty artists, pastors, activists, entrepreneurs, writers, and others shared their insights for “the common good.”
Examining the Past
Although the views represented were diverse, there seemed to be agreement that Evangelicals need a new image that talks less (or at least differently) about “culture war” issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, and focuses instead on a broader scope of issues. Lyons brought in Tom Krattenmaker, a USA Today writer and self-described secular progressive to discuss “the media’s new perception of Christians.”
Krattenmaker, whose book The Evangelicals You Don’t Know: Introducing the Next Generation of Christians came out this week, said Evangelicals are moving in a more open direction and the media is noticing. In the past, he asserted, Evangelicals have been unwilling to engage those who disagree with them, but he sees that changing in recent years. Because publicly visible Evangelicals are speaking on issues with broad appeal like immigration and sex-trafficking, and are “open to two way communication, mutual listening and learning,” Krattenmaker said the public perception of Evangelicals is shifting away from the “culture wars” narrative.
Lyons asked Krattenmaker, “What are some more lessons we need to learn? Report back to us on a few things that we still need to work on.” He answered: “If [Evangelicals] want to have influence … you have to be willing to be influenced.” In a Q&A session, Krattenmaker suggested Evangelicals continue this trend by welcoming “dialogue [and] doing really cool things rather than arguing.”
Echoing this sentiment, Richard Stearns, president of World Vision urged attendees to stop “shaking our fist at the culture” and begin offering “a big and attractive Gospel.” He asserted ‘we haven’t offered people something to believe in,” and wondered why Christianity has become “so toxic” to our culture. “Just three weeks ago this was the scene in front of the Supreme Court as angry Christians protested against gay marriage,” Stearns said, pointing to a photo of the infamous Westboro Baptist protesters holding a sign with incendiary language.
Even most non-Christians would admit Westboro does not represent the average Evangelical. Further, posters stating “Every Child Deserves a Mom and a Dad” at the March for Marriage vastly outnumbered the nasty Westboro signs Stearns implied were representative of Christians.
He admonished American Christians for not being more outraged about child starvation and mortality around the world, stating “no one ever died from gay marriage.” If only we focused more on solving poverty worldwide and talked less about pesky moral matters, “our young people would come back” to church, according to Stearns.
The Future of Evangelical Activism
Speakers discussed the most horrifying and burdening tragedies of our day, interspersed with reminders that our world is broken, awaiting complete restoration through Christ. Hannah Song told “the story of the North Korean people” and urged a new focus on the oppressed people rather than stagnant headline politics. An immigration attorney urged attendees to join the Evangelical Immigration Table and lobby for policies that “protect the sanctity of the family.” Father Elias Chacour, a Palestinian Christian and the Melkite Catholic Archbishop of Israel requested support for the Christians in his homeland. A screening of State 194, a documentary about Palestine’s bid for statehood followed a Q&A session with Fr. Chacour.
Jason Russell, the founder of Invisible Children discussed the importance of raising “awareness” to end Joseph Kony’s abduction of children in Central Africa, and two presenters discussed domestic and international poverty. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson of the Two Futures Project advised Christian activists to be wary of utopianism.
Relationships and Beauty
Alongside this strong activist strain, other talks addressed the importance of story, art, and beauty in shaping the Christian imagination and communicating with our secular neighbors.
Mark Burnett, producer of Survivor and other popular shows reported “thousands have come to Christ” through The Bible series he and his wife Roma Downey produced. He emphasized the importance of unity in the Church, reminding attendees that Christians are the “most persecuted people on the planet.” “What would the government say if 200 million American Christians said … do something about [persecution]?” Burnett urged Q attendees to use The Bible as a “conversation starter” for sharing the Gospel in their communities.
Elaborating on new approaches to evangelism, Jon Tyson, pastor of Trinity Grace Church in New York City said the “secular story is not working,” giving Christians a prime opportunity to present the true story of Christ that fulfills all human longings. “False worldviews don’t lead to false stories, they lead to wrong eternities,” he warned. Because people generally do not jump from atheism to faith in Christ instantly upon hearing John 3:16, “most of our job is building credible plausibility structures” to help people take the next step toward Jesus as the Holy Spirit prepares their hearts.
Building relationships was a recurring theme through Q talks. In addition to Tyson’s insistence that trusting relationships offer the best opportunity to share the Gospel, Dale Kuehne, a professor at St. Anselm College said today’s licentious sexual culture is a symptom of hyper-individualism. In contrast to the culture, the Church must emphasize relationships, as God designed human beings to live closely with each other and derive ultimate fulfillment from communion with Him, Kuehne explained.
A pastor from Portland, Oregon told about the fruitful partnership his church has built with a local impoverished public high school and encouraged other churches to do the same in their communities. The president of the Orange County Rescue Mission described his organization’s relational approach that uses “beauty [to] restore lives,” as opposed to our common tendency “to warehouse the homeless.” A youth ministry veteran advised a posture of vigilance toward technology and its ever present emails, texts, and social networks. When left unchecked, near addictive use of this technology can wreak havoc on relationships, she said.
With its top down approach to influence, Q may offer a preview of the next generation of American Evangelicals. Although the past decades have seen many mistakes from prominent individuals and groups, the new Evangelicals would do well to make necessary amends and move forward rather than dwell incessantly on the past. Further, rebranding should not mean silencing their witness on inherently unpopular, but important issues like abortion and marriage. Habitual practice of this year’s emphasis on relationships and sharing the Gospel through beauty and story would enrich Evangelicals, the broader Church, and our culture. Our world needs love that runs deeper than simply being nice, and Evangelicals are poised to provide it.