I remember how tears streamed down my face when I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” with Billy Graham.
I was only 11 years old, sitting on my parents’ couch. About 30 minutes earlier, I had run downstairs from my bedroom out of boredom and flipped through the channels using this new handheld device called a “remote control.” I landed on a channel where a man was talking about Jesus in a stadium full of people. I didn’t know his name until the announcer said it at the end of the program.
After the man sincerely and vividly described the pain Jesus experienced on the cross on my behalf, in my child-like faith, I remember thinking, “If Jesus loves me that much, He deserves for me to love Him back.” Even though I was only 11, while the choir sang “Just As I Am,” my experience with God was real, and it changed my life.
Twenty-seven years later, as a pastor, I feel the same call that Billy Graham felt. It’s the call to be an evangelist. I don’t try to convert people like they have a target on their backs — like Billy, I believe that God’s Spirit is already active all over the world, calling people to Him, and we are all just privileged to present the invitation. In my relationship with Jesus, I have experienced a beautiful beckoning toward loving wholeness that I have never experienced anywhere else — and to me, evangelism is simply sharing my experience.
Evangelism means good news. The name evangelical means something like, “people who want to live according to the good news of Jesus Christ.” While evangelicals will go to the ends of the earth to proclaim the good news in other countries, it is the tragedy of our time that when unreached young people in the United States think of Christians, they do not associate us with good news.
According to Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons in unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity . . . and Why It Matters, when 91 percent of people between the ages of 18-29 hear the word “Christian,” they think “anti-gay.” These are the people evangelicals say they are trying to reach with the Gospel. “Anti-gay” is the number one impression unreached young people have about Christians in the United States.
No matter what your view of same-sex marriage is, I know you agree with me that this is an absolute tragedy. Even worse, it is devastating to the cause of Christ and to the Great Commission. When younger unreached people hear our proclamation of the Gospel, it does not communicate the good news of the grace of God to them.
Evangelicals believe that we are called to obey the Great Commission. In Matthew 28:18-20, the resurrected Jesus says to His followers:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Over the past few years, I have heard less talk about the Great Commission among evangelicals. Talk of the Great Commission has largely been replaced by talk of the “culture war,” “true conservatives,” and the “definition of marriage.” Can anyone disagree that, over the past 30 years, culture war politics have, at least partly, co-opted the cause of Christ among evangelicals?
Especially later in his ministry, Billy Graham avoided partisan politics. He stayed out of the “Religious Right” political fights and even refused to sign the 1978 Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, viewing it as overreaching and unnecessarily divisive among Bible-believing Christians.
Now, many evangelical churches have ceased to proclaim the Gospel to the unreached, and instead function as politically conservative enclaves, where “values voters” huddle together, easily manipulated by politicians for funds and votes.
Traditionally, evangelicals have believed in the forward advancement of the Kingdom of God and in the life-changing power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We don’t retreat from society in apocalyptic fear and self-righteous entrenchment. Doug Pagitt has reminded me that reactionary separatism was a feature of the fundamentalism that Harold Ockenga’s neo-evangelicals rejected in favor of cultural engagement the 1940s. Evangelicals have a history of winsomely engaging culture, as it was said of Billy, with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.
Rachel Held Evans posted a blog last year about the phrase, “The Bible was clear . . . ” She listed some of the ways that phrase has been used throughout American political history — to justify war against Native Americans, to keep slaves obedient, to relegate women to the kitchen, to attack science, to oppose civil rights for African-Americans and, yes, to clobber people who are gay.
Consider Alabama. Last Monday, an Alabama judge’s order to ignore the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage harkened back to 1963 when Governor Wallace nullified the federal government’s order to desegregate schools. The repeated pattern is hard to miss. No evangelical today wants to be remembered for opposing civil rights in the 1960s, but many did, and many are repeating the same mistake now.
Some Christians feel the need to defend the Bible because they assume that when culture changes, the Bible loses. That’s the essence of the so-called “Culture War.” They feel like they have to win a cultural “battle for the Bible.” But that is simply not true, and it’s easily disproven by our own American history.
It is true that when American culture changes, some parts of the Bible are interpreted more clearly in the light of other parts. We have seen evangelicals learn to interpret the Bible differently regarding slavery, science, women’s rights, civil rights, and now gay rights. How can we reinterpret and adjust to societal progress and greater human rights?
Because there is a part of the Bible that always wins. Take a look at Matthew 22:34-40:
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Despite heroic portrayals of some Civil War era politicians, according to historian Mark Noll, verse 39 is what really ended slavery in America. When Christians realized that the African-American slave was their neighbor, the teaching of Jesus was activated, and slavery was on its way to being defeated. The teaching of Jesus ended slavery in the United States.
This Great Commandment is the central teaching of Jesus Christ. It’s also the foundation of all ethics. It is empathy. It is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and realizing that we all need love and that we are called by Jesus to love, not to win politically manufactured culture wars.
Perhaps we evangelicals need to pray a different kind of sinner’s prayer, a prayer of repentance for allowing partisan politics to supplant the good news. Regarding the perception that Christians are anti-gay, I welcome and affirm those who are gay because of the Great Commandment. Because of Jesus, I love members of the LGBTQ community as I love myself. For me, the clear teaching of Jesus trumps the six or seven highly debated “clobber passages” that were certainly influenced by the culture in which they were written.
Closer to home, in a time when many evangelicals fear the future, the core teaching of Jesus heals society and creates a better world for our children. As a dad, I want to partner with God to create a more loving, just, and righteous world for my son, whose name is, for reasons you now know, Graham.
Jesus is inviting evangelicals — re-empowered by the Great Commandment and Great Commission — to get back to our roots and repair the damage partisan politics has inflicted on the cause of Christ in our country. In a time when many evangelicals defensively feel the need to help the Bible win, there is a part of the Bible that never loses.
Jesus always wins.