By Tom Krattenmaker
For many progressives and/or seculars, there’s a certain five-syllable word that often triggers irritation: “evangelical.” This is understandable. Many of the evangelicals we have gotten to “know” from politics and media say and do a great deal that offends progressive values and sensibilities (not to mention common sense and simple decency). Think Robertson. Think Bachmann. Think Palin. Think Dobson.
But in the words of Jim Daly, the man who replaced Dobson as head of Focus on the Family, a new evangelical leadership is emerging. And while they share much of the old guard’s theology, they scarcely resemble the evangelicals we have gotten to know over decades of culture war. Meet six “new evangelical” leaders who embody aspects of the change under way in evangelical America, and whose work is clearing out a larger space for the common good.
The son of Luis Palau, one of the Americas’ world’s best-known evangelists, Kevin Palau is leading a wave of innovation among evangelicals keen on finding new and attractive ways to bring the gospel forward in a culture that is increasingly pluralistic, secular, and “post-modern”– disinclined, in other words, to be swayed by evangelism of the type exemplified by Billy Graham or the televangelists you’ve happened upon while channel-surfing.
Concerned that his family’s U.S. evangelistic campaigns were preaching mainly to the converted, Kevin Palau started searching for ways to connect beyond the walls of evangelical subculture. The way to do it, Palau has found, is service–service with no strings (i.e. overt Jesus pitches) attached. For five years running in the Portland, Ore., area that the Palaus call home, a united front of church people have been serving the homeless, volunteering in public schools, running free medical and dental clinics, and the like. Think of it as evangelism 2.0 – the kind that relies on believers’ hands and feet more than their mouths.
Not that proclamation-style evangelism is dead in the Palau family. Luis Palau is still proclaiming the gospel from evangelism stages, and Palau’s younger brother, Andrew, has taken up their father’s preacher mantel. “We don’t try to hide our desire to see people’s lives changed by Christ, ” Kevin Palau says. “And we are wildly enthusiastic about loving and serving the city with no strings attached.”
While many of his older evangelical compatriots were busy arguing with liberals about whether the United States is a “Christian nation,” Gabe Lyons has been doing something more reflective and constructive: researching evangelicals’ negative reputation and modeling a more credible way to be Christian in an increasingly diverse and skeptical culture.
Despite growing up in Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., and getting his higher education at Falwell’s Liberty University, Gabe Lyons is no right-wing culture warrior. Rather than fighting non-evangelicals, Lyons is in the habit of listening to them. With his friend David Kinnaman of the Barna Group, Lyons initiated a public-opinion study of non-church people’s perception of Christians. Judgmental, arrogant, antigay, pushy–these were the ideas about Christians that emerged from the research; Lyons and Kinnaman summed it all up in the arresting title of their influential book: Unchristian.
Since the release of the book in 2007, Lyons has launched what is now one of the signature annual events for post-culture-wars evangelicals: the Q gathering. (Think of it as an evangelical version of the Ted Talks.) Through his second book, The Next Christians, and the relocation of his family from Atlanta to New York City, Lyons is showing his Jesus-loving fellows how to be calmly and credibly evangelical in an environment where Christianity no longer calls the shots as it once did.
“Christians can bemoan the end of Christian America,” Lyons says, “or we can be optimistic about it. What’s good is that it forces us to get back to the basics of serving people and loving our neighbors. Through history, Christianity has affected more people from that position than from a position of dominance.”
Lisa Sharon Harper
When Lisa Sharon Harper accepted Jesus in her teen years, she did so under the wing of white evangelicals. And they instructed her that accepting Jesus also meant a political conversion–to the Republican Party. Never mind Harper’s budding progressivism and the fact she was black and growing up in a staunch Democratic home. For the most part, there has been a clear understanding in evangelical America that to be born-again is to be a Republican– to the point where those two words, “evangelical” and “Republican,” have become virtually synonymous.
Experience would quickly dispel Harper of that notion, though not of Jesus. As a young adult activist, she rubbed elbows with evangelicals who were Democrats, and found herself in churches with evangelical worshipers who were both liberal and conservative. Harper realized it’s OK to be Christian and Democrat. But to the deeper point, Harper, now director of mobilizing for the progressive evangelical group Sojourners and co-author of the book Left, Right & Christ, realized that “indiscriminate allegiance to any political party is idolatry.”
Harper’s story evokes the post-partisan politics of an emerging generation of new evangelicals–one likely to frustrate died-in-the-blue Democrats and as much as the GOP strategists accustomed to counting on evangelicals as a reliable voting bloc. In the words of young evangelical writer Jonathan Merritt, “We aren’t forced to choose a human-formed party with a systemized divide-and-conquer agenda. We can stand in the gap and claim loyalty only to Jesus.”
When it comes to atheists, the evangelical instinct has typically been fight or flight–or convert the heathen. Jim Henderson has a radically different suggestion for his compatriots: Converse with atheists. Learn from them.
Learn from atheists? “I owe many of my insights to my interactions with atheists,” Henderson explains. “They have helped me grow closer to Jesus and more honest in my faith.”
This Seattle-based author, speaker, church consultant, and impresario has been nudging the evangelical church in a new, friendlier direction through his several books, stage productions, and winsome deeds. Speaking of the later, when atheist Hemant Mehta put his soul up for auction on eBay, Henderson was the Christian who bought it. But Henderson didn’t convert that soul. Instead, he went into partnership with Mehta (well known today as the “Friendly Atheist” blogger and author) to visit and evaluate churches.
More recently, Henderson has teamed up with atheist Matt Casper to speak at numerous churches and to write two books exploring Christianity through atheists’ eyes and ears. (The latter, Saving Casper, is due out in October.)
Paul Louis Metzger
“The evidence that demands a verdict.”
This is a line you’ve encountered if you’ve had a brush with the presentations or writings of Josh McDowell and other practitioners of old-school Christian apologetics. And perhaps you’ve had the case for Christ presented to you as if to a jury: Consider the “evidence” and leap to the hoped-for conclusion: Jesus is Lord!
Paul Louis Metzger, a professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland and founder of the New Wine, New Wineskin Institute, has coined an inversion of that “evidence that demands a verdict” phrase that perfectly encapsulates the changing awareness in evangelical America. “Much has been made of the factual ‘evidence that demands a verdict,'” Metzger writes. “But today, ‘Jesus is Lord’ is a verdict that demands evidence in our lives. Otherwise, our faith is fiction.”
Hear Metzger out on this, and you’ll learn what kind of evidence he and his new-evangelical fellows have in mind: inconvenient and uncommon honesty, earnestness, compassion, and commitment to giving up their own comfort, security, prerogatives, and power for the benefit of others.
Tony “the Beat Poet” Kriz
Recent headlines furnish a fresh example of a disarming trend afoot in evangelical America. Alan Chambers, head of a group that has been busy for decades teaching homosexuals to “pray away the gay” (as cynics like to phrase it), issued a public apology for the hurt his work has inflicted on gays and announced he was shuttering his organization, Exodus International. Stunning–but not the first instance of evangelicals saying “sorry” and repenting for the misdeeds of the church.
Chambers’ moving apology has a forerunner in a creative act of humbleness and vulnerability captured in Donald Miller’s seminal Christian spirituality book Blue like Jazz. Meet Tony “The Beat Poet” Kriz, the iconoclast Christian and Miller compatriot who decided it would be crazy–in all the right ways–to set up a confession booth at the end-of-year festival at ultra-secular Reed College. No, not to take the pagan Reedies’ confessions, but to confess to them.
In the decade since, Kriz has gone to be become an influential, and at-times controversial, speaker, teacher, and author. Informally, sporadically, and very unofficially, more evangelicals have been reproducing the legendary confession booth at Reed and making confessions of their own–for evangelicals’ undiscerning attachment to partisan politics, for loud mouths and closed ears, and for rhetoric that has demonized atheists, sexual minorities, and liberals.
Consider it an on-going truth-and-reconciliation process–but one, alas, where the participation has been generally one-sided. As more evangelicals steer clear of culture wars and venture into the “gap” of which Jonathan Merritt speaks, or the radical middle as some prefer to call it, will progressive non-evangelicals reciprocate?