Who ought to speak for evangelicals?


Evangelical Christianity doesn't have a Pope or a Presiding Bishop to speak with authority on behalf of such a diverse movement, which includes entire denominations like the Presbyterian Church in America and the Southern Baptist Convention, megachurches like Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, parachurch ministries like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Campus Crusade for Christ, and Prison Fellowship, independent seminaries and colleges like Wheaton College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and individual congregations and individual believers who belong to denominations that are not as a whole identified with evangelicalism. While it would be tough to come to a commonly-agreed definition, groups like the National Association of Evangelicals and the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization have made an effort.

With all this diversity in the evangelical movement, it's disheartening to see Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson plopped in front of a camera every time the media needs a spokesman from the evangelical community, when there are far more credible and eloquent spokesmen who can communicate effectively beyond the evangelical subculture with the rest of the world. I cringed when I saw a recent talk show pitting Falwell against Al Sharpton. Our faith deserves better representation.

David Wayne, the Jollyblogger, writes about the recent column by David Brooks, in which he says the media and the Democrats should acquaint themselves with the real leaders and voices of influence in the evangelical community. As an alternative to Falwell and Sharpton, Brooks nominates John R. W. Stott, the rector emeritus of All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London:

[Stott] was the framer of the Lausanne Covenant, a crucial organizing document for modern evangelicalism. He is the author of more than 40 books, which have been translated into over 72 languages and have sold in the millions. Now rector emeritus at All Souls, Langham Place, in London, he has traveled the world preaching and teaching.

When you read Stott, you encounter first a tone of voice. Tom Wolfe once noticed that at a certain moment all airline pilots came to speak like Chuck Yeager. The parallel is inexact, but over the years I've heard hundreds of evangelicals who sound like Stott.

It is a voice that is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic. Stott's mission is to pierce through all the encrustations and share direct contact with Jesus. Stott says that the central message of the Gospel is not the teachings of Jesus, but Jesus himself, the human/divine figure. He is always bringing people back to the concrete reality of Jesus' life and sacrifice.

I have read some of Stott's books, including Basic Christianity and Baptism and Fullness, and have had the privilege of hearing him preach at All Souls, including a wonderful sermon, just before New Year's Day 1992, about living in the tension between "the already and the not yet," the reality that God's Kingdom is at hand, but has not yet been fully consummated. He has a wonderful clarity of thought and expression.

But there are other evangelical leaders, and in particular, American evangelical leaders, who are well equipped to speak intelligently to matters of faith in a cultural and political context. To name a very few: Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship, Marvin Olasky of World magazine, Al Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Cal Thomas. Behind giants like these is a deep bench of columnists, pastors, seminary professors, and bloggers who combine passion for the truth with wit, precision of thought and expression, and compassion.

Wouldn't it be refreshing to hear important moral issues discussed with the sophistication of thought and expression that these issues deserve?

UPDATE: Comments from readers after the jump.

Ron Warnick writes:

I'm gonna take a different tack. I think the spokesmen should be a little more working-class types who have the fire in their bellies and a faith that's been tested by experience and tribulation.

I'm mainly thinking of several musicians who have this faith: country-rocker Buddy Miller, who has a marvelous gospel album out now; gospel soul singer
Mavis Staples, ditto; country songwriter and actor Billy Joe Shaver, a pal of Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson who's professed his faith for two decades; and a new one I just heard lately, Rutha Harris, who was part of the Freedom Singers in the 1960s.

Before he died, I also would have suggested Johnny Cash.

It's a suggestion. It might be worth trying.

Stan Geiger writes:

I just read your piece on evangelical spokesmen. I agree. Better could be found. It's part of our recent-decades culture. In order to be smart one has to spurn God. I believe many that believe they are part of the "smart sect" just love to find the biggest moron possible to put in front of a camera to speak for Christianity, thereby promoting the notion that every believer is an absolute idiot and only those that refute the existence of God are reasonable and deep-thinking. I, of course, think that's nonsense. There are many brilliant people that are believers. I may never have heard of many of them, but they are there. You mentioned Billy Graham. He's no idiot. I've seen him speak many times on television. He is obviously well-educated, well-read and quite deep-thinking. It appears to be much the same in politics. Many believe one cannot be a Republican and be smart at the same time. I suspect that goes to nostalgia and the interesting retroactive euphoria with which many view the Kennedy White House. Ever since the assassination, it seems, conservatives have worn the label of being big, dumb, plodding and uncaring, while liberals thinkers are hailed as brilliant---even if what they propose is unattainable, unaffordable or ludicrous.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on December 7, 2004 1:32 AM.

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