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.
Despite these happenings, some strong arguments can be made for rallying together to rebuild the evangelical brand. For one, the movement is splintering and in need of cohesion. In that light, now may be the worst time to pull the single thread that holds so many motley churches and ministries together.
Also, evangelicals still hold significant influence and assets. If sincere evangelicals abandon the brand, do we forfeit those assets to others who may further misrepresent Christ?
Exxon, BP and Texaco spent millions to clean up their names following crises. Maybe evangelicals could circle the wagons and launch a national rebranding effort. Perhaps, but this branding crisis does not result from a single disaster. It results from decades of high-profile affairs, political rallies, late-night parodies, abortion clinic bombings, pilfering TV evangelists and the list goes on.
I don’t have a simple answer to this question about the fate of the evangelical brand. There is another question, however, that I can answer: How did the Jesus of evangelicalism want his followers to be known? What brand does he want us to have?
Jesus identifies, with precision, the brand his followers should be known for-and it’s not a name. It’s an action. Jesus said “By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another…” (John 13:35). With Jesus, actions always speak louder than words-look no further than the cross. Active love is His brand.
I’m sentimental about the label “evangelical.” I long to see it born again. But if I read the Gospels honestly, I don’t see Jesus elevating a label. And maybe that’s the point–that evangelicals be less concerned with our brand, our logo, our name–and more concerned with the contagious love that Christ called His followers to model.
If our brand is not a brand name, but a brand action–to be known for loving–
and if the common perceptions about our existing label are the opposite of love-hateful, judgmental, oppositional, then I have to suspect that, were Jesus here, he would drop the religious label, to better communicate God’s heart.
Believe me, releasing the word “evangelical” to the heap of unsalvageable brands-that thought breaks my heart. But our disregard for what this word is communicating to the people Christ died for-I wonder if that breaks His heart.
It’s a question worth asking.
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