At age 16 I fell in love with the "evangelical" brand of Christianity. It has been, ever since, a passionate affair.
Raised in a separatist church, my eyes were opened one summer day in 1998, when I met Christians from other churches, actually working together. The way these "evangelical" folk elevated Christ above their differences amazed me. They were gracious and kind, sophisticated and grounded.
I am now, at age 30, an openly evangelical Christian. The term evangelical--recently associated with political and social issues--is actually hundreds of years old. It existed before the United States. To insiders, the word bespeaks a rich heritage, unique theology and international history. The name evangelical grows from a Greek term that means "good news."
But nowadays few Americans associate evangelicals with anything good. Many identify evangelicals with homophobia, prejudice and party politics. In 2002 Americans ranked evangelicals among the least-liked groups in America. By 2007, some 91 percent of evangelicals felt that "Americans are becoming more hostile and negative" toward them.
A national survey found that 53 percent of college faculty have negative feelings toward evangelicals--more than any other religious group. Of Americans age 16 to 29, just three percent had a favorable view of evangelicals in 2007. Young Americans-raised in the evangelical heyday of the 1980's and 90's--identified the group's top three traits as "anti-homosexual," "judgmental," and "hypocritical."
This is more than a branding crisis. These negative values directly contradict the historic evangelical message of forgiveness and love in Christ. So I've been wondering: Can the evangelical brand be scrubbed clean in the United States? Or should it be tossed?
Pressed under the weight of cultural change, once-powerful brands can crumple and implode. Life Magazine, Pan Am, AMC Motors-each was ultimately cast onto the pile of unsalvageable brands. Should we now cast the name "evangelical" onto that pile? In vulgate U.S. culture, the evangelical brand has become marred and mired in misconception. Young and metropolitan believers are finding that the label has negative equity and liability in many circles.
For this reason, more sensitive evangelicals are abandoning the brand. Ironically, the ones who could best reverse the negative stereotypes are the ones refusing the label. These are not just young or liberal evangelicals. A conservative leader in his 60's, the president of a large evangelical organization, recently told me about a mandate he gave his staff: to scrub the institution's web site and literature of the word evangelical. For this leader and others, the name that should represent redemption is, well, unredeemable.
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SOURCE: The Washington Post
John S. Dickerson is author of the book "The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors that Will Crash the American Church...and How to Prepare" and senior pastor of Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Prescott, Arizona. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter @JohnSDickerson.