We released the “Evangelical Manifesto” yesterday at the National Press Club—see http://www.anevangelicalmanifesto.com/. I joined with the other drafters in expressing worries about the way in which the “evangelical” label has gotten too closely associated in recent years with a political activism. I do feel strongly about that, and I am an enthusiastic supporter of the “Manifesto” cause. At the same time, I am conscious of some irony in the fact that I am now speaking out in favor of holding back a bit from identifying the evangelical cause with political programs.
In the early 1970s I was present for the drafting of the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concerns. My first book was Political Evangelism, in which I argued for an integration of evangelism and political action. I spent a good part of my early career on the circuit, calling for a more active social witness on the part of evangelical Christians.
I don’t disown that history. But I do see the need these days to supplement those calls to activism with two other important expressions of concern. The one is the need to engage in our public activism with the right sort of theological and spiritual sensitivities.
Jerry Falwell once observed that there was a time in his ministry when he criticized Martin Luther King for speaking out on social issues, on the grounds that preachers had no business getting mixed up in politics. But Falwell had come to the point, he confessed, where he had now acknowledged that he was misguided in that criticism.
Here is what puzzles me about Falwell’s change of heart. What was the theological basis for his shift? Had he come to espouse a different view of the church? Had he changed his theology of Christ and culture? Had he come upon new insights regarding Bible prophecy? How could someone who had once preached a separatistic Gospel, with its conception of the true church as a cognitive minority in the larger culture, suddenly decide to form a movement called “the Moral Majority”? The shortcomings of the Religious Right have been due in large part, to my way of thinking, to a lack of careful theological reflection.
And then there are the spiritual failures. Yesterday at our press conference I noted that a favorite verse for evangelicals is I Peter 3:15: we must always be ready to give a reason for the hope that lies within us. But, I also observed, we have typically not gone on to quote the rest of the apostolic mandate: that we are always to do so with “gentleness and reverence.” We evangelicals have often approached our political involvements with a crusading spirit that falls far short of the “gentleness and reverence” requirement. We have failed to nurture a spirituality for public discipleship.
The other big area of concern for me is the way in which evangelism—calling individuals to accept Jesus as Savior—so easily takes a back seat to everything else. Bill Hybels made this point a few years ago by way of a confession of failure in Willow Creek’s ministries. They had set goals for their congregation in which evangelism was twenty-five percent of what they intended to do for the year. At the end of the year they saw that evangelism had been largely crowded out by the other goals. The lesson, Hybels said, is that we need to be very intentional about evangelism. If we try to keep it as merely one thing alongside of many others it will lose even that place that we have assigned to it. If we don’t over-emphasize evangelism it will end up being under-emphasized.
I have not stopped being a social activist. Working for justice, peace and righteousness is an important demand of discipleship. But we must be diligent about pursuing those matters with the larger picture in mind.