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.
There's tremendous danger in defining Christianity solely as a social justice group or a morality enforcement agency. If we end world hunger or make abortion illegal, we'll save lives. But if we lose the gospel message in the process, we'll lose souls.
I'm not suggesting that Christians completely give up political and social activism. Rather, we need to analyze our conversations. Ask yourself: How frequently am I sharing my faith? Do I tend to discuss political or social issues more often than spiritual matters? Could my neighbor or co-worker identify 10 things about me that have nothing to do with my political leanings?
There's a time and a place for us to be passionate about political and social issues. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, the late Christian apologist C.S. Lewis refused to moralize on the homosexual activity he'd witnessed in boarding school. Why? For one, he was sticking to the purpose of the book, which was to discuss his journey to faith. I deeply admire that Lewis kept his focus on evangelism, and suspect he received some criticism for it. Second, Lewis recognized that others were better equipped to discuss homosexuality, since he'd never personally struggled with it.
So here's my first radical proposal: Christians should reserve discussion about abortion and homosexuality solely for these situations: (1) if you're at the forefront of a campaign on one of these issues that involves petitioning the government; (2) if one of these issues comes up for a vote; (3) if someone who is struggling with one of these things asks for your help; or (4) if someone asks for your opinion. I'd add this caveat to the fourth situation: You shouldn't offer your opinion until you've researched the issue and can articulate your stance in a diplomatic manner.
My second radical proposal is associated with the first: Christians should focus on making disciples. Let's get our cause back in line with the one Christ gave the church. And let's demand that our church leaders focus on the same mission that our Founder gave us.