From time to time someone raises a concern about how a particular event, trend, or activity will harm the “evangelical witness.” “Evangelicals” are warned that their “witness” will be damaged because of high-profile scandals from “evangelical” leaders, too much involvement in the culture wars, unpopular responses to the current pandemic, being too political (especially Republican), etc. Typically, the argument seems to be that society will view “evangelicals” more negatively, thus making evangelism more challenging. While there may be some value in these warnings, I think many people should care less about the “evangelical witness.”
First, the issue is very often outside of your control. While estimates vary, generally 1/3 or more of the American population is considered “evangelical” or sometimes “born-again.” What kind of ability do you have to influence that group? Further, many, if not most, of those considered “evangelical” are not truly believers. For example, a 2016 Barna survey noted that 35% of Americans are “born-again,” defined as having made a personal commitment to Christ, but that number drops to 23% when you add the additional criteria of 1) reading the Bible in the last week and 2) believing it is accurate in all it teaches. It falls to 7% when you include criteria like:
- Saying their faith is very important in their life today
- Believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians
- Believing that Satan exists
- Believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth
- Believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works
- Describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today.
That means that much of the “evangelical witness” is shaped by unbelievers.
It’s also outside of your control because it is often not formed by the actions and beliefs of those who consider themselves “evangelical” but by the agenda of those already antagonistic toward them. Does the perception of “evangelicals” in our culture match up with the believers you know? Does the portrayal of Christians in the news and entertainment industry accurately reflect those in your church? If not, then how will your being concerned about the “evangelical witness” change that portrayal?
Second, the “evangelical witness” is a largely undefined, amorphous phenomenon. Is the “witness” based on the opinion of the average American, a particular subset or group in American, people worldwide, or something else? Depending on the group, different issues might result in different perceptions. For example, evangelical opposition to gay marriage would be viewed negatively by a large group of Americans but favorably by a different large group of Americans. Thus, the “evangelical witness” would be harmed among some and helped among others. My impression is that most of those concerned about the “evangelical witness” are really focused on the perception of the cultural elite in the West, not the witness at large. We should want to see all kinds of people come to saving faith, but must be careful about having our concerns for evangelism be driven by a small but influential segment of society.
A third reason to care less about the “evangelical witness” is that society’s view of true believers will never be accurate or favorable. Believers are not of the world, so the world will always hate them (Jn 15:18-20). Believers are to expect to be slandered, or to be accused of evil they have not done (Matt 5:11). Even if Christians never sinned—an impossibility in this life—they would not be able to obtain approval in society. We know that, because our sinless Lord and Savior Jesus was rejected by those in his day. To be clear, that reality should not cause believers to be careless about their sin—their lives do reflect on the goodness and beauty of the gospel. But it does mean the focus should be less on the perception of believers in broader society and more on Christians pursuing integrity in their own lives.
That leads to the fourth reason: the “evangelical witness” matters less than your personal reputation. If you are concerned about evangelism, you should primarily be concerned about your own efforts. And the best way for you to seek to share the gospel is with the people God has providentially placed in your life, most of whom you should have regular contact with. Which will be more compelling to those people: what they know about you, or a vague impression they have of “evangelicals?” If “evangelicals” had a great reputation but you were a jerk, people would be unlikely to listen to you. If “evangelicals” had a bad reputation but you, by your faithful lifestyle, demonstrate godliness and integrity then people would be more likely to listen to you. You could expand that concern more broadly to your local church—what kind of reputation does it have in your community? People do not encounter or engage with “evangelicals.” They encounter you and your fellow church members. You should be much more concerned about your personal reputation and, after that, the perception of your church than about the “evangelical witness.”
Finally, the concern about the “evangelical witness” often misses the underlying theological reality. The argument implies that people would be more likely to accept Christianity if they were not turned off by the supposedly objectionable behavior/attitude of “evangelicals.” Yet the biblical picture of conversion is not of someone carefully weighing the options and being pushed one way or the other as a result of their view of generic Christianity. Rather, it is of a blind person having their eyes opened, or a dead person being brought to life. Conversion can only happen by an act of God and occurs in connection with the proclamation of the gospel. Granted, a person may be more or less likely to listen to the message in light of their antagonism toward the messenger, but that will mostly be driven by their perception of you, not some generic “evangelical.”
The success of the gospel message will not rise or fall based on the “evangelical witness.” What will be much more affected is the cultural and societal acceptance and influence of professed “evangelicals.” My suspicion is that many of the people expressing concern about the “evangelical witness” are actually most concerned about being welcomed and treated with respect by the broader culture—especially the “cultured” or “elite” elements of society. They are concerned that “evangelicals” will be viewed as strange, weird, or fringe and thus they will lose their cultural cachet (unless they repudiate their fellow “evangelicals”).
But Christians should not be concerned with winning the approval of a world that hates God. We should be concerned about our personal testimony and our faithful proclamation of the gospel; we need not be concerned about some vague “evangelical witness.”