Jan 12, 2013

The Changing Face of Christian Evangelism

Tammy Faye was a woman ahead of her time. May she rest in peace. As discussed here, her son Jay Bakker has been on the vanguard of a movement towards a far more tolerant evangelical Christianity. In fact, his name was floated recently, by a GLAAD spokesman, as a reasonable replacement for Rev. Louie Giglio to perform the Inaugural Benediction. Giglio was pushed out when his homophobic record came to light.

There are more and more indicators that the sexual politics traditionally associated with the evangelical movement are falling out of favor. Not just with the Presidential Inaugural Committee, or with the military (the Marine Corps in particular), or with the society at large, but with the evangelical community itself. While evangelical Christianity has attracted youth in large numbers, younger evangelicals are not rallying around the sexual morés of the old guard. Even those who accept those values on a personal level, don't want to their social agenda to be defined by them. From Buzzfeed:

Ricky, a 21-year-old evangelical Christian college student, isn't necessarily committed to abstinence before marriage: "If two people are in love and are willing to take the next step, I believe God would approve." He respects both sides of the abortion debate, but thinks churches shouldn't have a say in the matter. And he's an enthusiastic supporter of gay marriage; he thinks Christian opposition to it will be "a black eye on our religion for decades."

He may be progressive, but Ricky isn't alone. A variety of experts say young evangelicals care less and less about the issues of sexual politics — abstinence, abortion, and same-sex marriage — that their forebears brought to the center of the political conversation. And churches that keep focusing on these issues may risk becoming obsolete.

A study released in December by the National Association of Evangelicals found that 44% of unmarried 18-29-year-old evangelicals had been sexually active — but the study defined "evangelical" as someone who attends church at least monthly, believes Jesus Christ is the only path to salvation, and believes the Bible "is accurate in all that it teaches," requirements that may leave out some who still consider themselves part of the group. Another study puts the figure at 80 percent. And a recent poll found that 44% of 18-29-year-old evangelicals favor same-sex marriage, lower than the national figure but much higher than their elders.

An accurate statistical representation of this very broad movement seems to be lacking, and much of the reporting is anecdotal, but there is a pronounced feeling on both sides of the cultural divide that evangelism is going to have to shift its messaging in order to stay relevant in the coming years. Younger evangelicals want to talk about the environment, poverty, war, and stopping sexual trafficking. In other words, they seem much more interested in helping people who are hurting than preventing people from doing the things that make them happy. What's evolving looks more like a compassion agenda.

The Giglio incident has sadly been very polarizing, pitting evangelism, once again, against the prevailing cultural climate. It has sparked outrage amongst the usual suspects about the perceived marginalization of Christians.

Over at Lifeway Research, Ed Stetzer pens a blog on the topic. "This Louie Giglio moment, and the Chick-Fil-A moment that preceded it, and the Rick Warren moment which preceded that, raise the question: Where do people of faith with long-standing traditional religious/scriptural convictions go from here?," he writes.

 And Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council opines:

This is another example of intolerance from the Obama administration toward those who hold to biblical views on sexuality. Why is the president surprised that an evangelical pastor would teach from Scripture on homosexuality? One would be hard pressed to find an Evangelical pastor who hasn't preached on what the Bible teaches about human sexuality.

But Perkins is mistaken. There are a number of evangelical ministers who don't share Perkins's cherry-picked and blinkered interpretation of the Bible. There's the aforementioned Jay Bakker and others recommended by GLAAD's Ross Murray. There's Jim Swilley, the now openly gay megachurch pastor. The evangelical community is changing all around Tony Perkins. He just hasn't noticed.

Meanwhile, the cultural conservatives are starting to age out of the system. Jerry Falwell, who once upon a time led the charge of the culture warriors, has gone to his reward. And some who are still with us seem to be in the horrible grip of senility -- which is my backhanded way of saying that I'm really starting to worry about Pat Robertson.

I recently wrote about Robertson's jaw-dropping comments on General Petraeus's adultery, which basically amounted to, come on, the chick was hot.

Now comes a diatribe from the ever-moralizing 700 Club preacher on the marriage killing powers of unattractive women. Asked to respond to the Maxim letter of a 17 year old boy who was concerned for his lonely mother, due to his father's immersion into online gaming, Robertson offered this penetrating insight: It's probably your mother's fault, kiddo.

“You know, it may be your mom isn’t as sweet as you think she is; she may be kind of hard-nosed. And so, you say, it’s my father, he’s not paying attention to mom, but you know mom …” he trails off and offers a spiteful little chuckle.

. . .

He launches into another story: “A woman came to a preacher I know — it’s so funny. She was awful looking. Her hair was all torn up, she was overweight and looked terrible …”

So far, this story sounds hilarious Pat, Please continue.

“And she said, ‘Oh, Reverend, what can I do? My husband has started to drink.’”

The hateful punchline is coming. I can feel it. I’m on the edge of my seat.

“And the preacher looked at her and he said, ‘Madam, if I were married to you, I’d start to drink too.’”

Methinks the reverend's Freudian slip is showing. Anyone who was paying attention to Robertson's agenda over the years had to know that underneath it all was simple misogyny. But if you had any doubt, now would be the time to the let that go. (Who is it who's always telling women to stay sweet? Oh. Right.)

Anyway, I think the one-time presidential candidate is losing control of his mouth. It's a hard call, given his long-time propensity for saying incredibly offensive things. But it looks like now he's even offending his sidekicks. It's time for him to retire before he ruins his own dubious legacy.

Many of the stalwarts of the Christian Right are not aging too well. But the evangelical movement seems to be maturing.

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