A Church Without Issues
If you could pick one issue for the Christian church to represent, what would it be? Abortion or same-sex marriage? Environmental stewardship or poverty? Morality?
Some evangelicals are tossing this question around in light of the passing of the old guard: Jerry Falwell died last May, and many other prominent Christian leaders including Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, and Tim LaHaye have retired or handed over the reins of their ministries. Earlier this month, James Dobson resigned as board chairman of Focus on the Family.
The mere mention of these men elicits either a warm smile or a cold shoulder because they all were vocal on some issue. For good or bad, their words have shaped the image of the Christian church in America—both the way we see ourselves, and the way non-Christians view us. As we await new representatives who will become spokespeople for the church, one thing is highly probable: We'll identify these leaders as proponents or opponents of some issue.
And which issue will that be? John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, told the Washington Times that evangelicals currently don't have an issue to rally around. "It used to be the pro-life movement, but I am not sure there is an issue now," he said. "The issue evangelicals key on is the gay movement, but they have lost that issue. There is no cause for a leader to emerge in now."
Say what? We don't have a "cause"?
My friend Brooke offered this profound response to Whitehead's words: "Shouldn't the cause for evangelicals forever and always be evangelism? I wonder if the fact that we have become a political constituency and force has caused us to lose sight of the main thing. I also wonder if the strong public moral stands that evangelicals have taken in the political arena have undermined our ability and effectiveness in presenting the gospel."
Brooke's words really got me thinking: Perhaps the church has wrongly defined itself as an organization that's only interested in backing particular political and social issues. Perhaps we instead need to be defined by the prime directive Jesus gave us: to make disciples.
Yet it appears the church has been losing disciples. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, released by Trinity College earlier this month, the number of Americans who identify as "Christian" has dropped 10 percent in the last two decades, from 86 percent in 1990 to 76 percent in 2008. Mark Silk of Trinity College suggested one factor for this drop: "In the 1990s, it really sunk in on the American public generally that there was a long-lasting ?religious right' connected to a political party, and that turned a lot of people the other way," he told CNN, noting the connection of Christian groups such as the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family to the Republican Party.