With the passing of John Stott, we are reminded of evangelicalism at its best—and, by contrast, its worst. It's the worst that has caused us so much angst of late, giving reason for many to become deeply alienated from the movement. But it's the best, which Stott represented, that should give us pause about our understandable cynicism.
For many, the disaffection started with the rise of our movement's two crazy uncles, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. This brought no small amount of joy to the political conservatives among us, and no small amount of consternation and embarrassment among moderate and liberal evangelicals. Add to that the televangelist scandals (Baker and Swaggart, in particular), the flooding of the Christian marketplace with Christian kitsch (made possible by our phenomenally growing buying power in the eighties and nineties), and the crass self-promotion of evangelical mega-pastors and mega-authors—well, it made the ordinary and thoughtful evangelical wonder if something is wrong at the core of the movement.
So for a few decades now, we've witnessed many evangelicals grow weary of arm wrestling about dispensationalism or egalitarianism or annihilationism or atonement or a host of other issues. They look longingly to Rome and that glorious magisterium, where supposedly one fiat ends all debate.
Or we compare our trivial services that pass for worship and become infatuated with the bells and smells of Orthodoxy.
Or we grow tired of rationalism and all things modern, so drift into emergent and postmodern Christianity.
Or we are frustrated with privatistic pietism and long for a faith that engages the world on its own terms.
There are many good reasons to be frustrated with evangelicalism—at its worst. But it's hard to be anything but grateful and admiring of evangelicalism at its best.
This week, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof waxed eloquent about the movement.
Evangelicals are disproportionately likely to donate 10 percent of their incomes to charities, mostly church-related. More important, go to the front lines, at home or abroad, in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide, and some of the bravest people you meet are evangelical Christians (or conservative Catholics, similar in many ways) who truly live their faith.
He goes on to say, "I'm not particularly religious myself, but I stand in awe of those I've seen risking their lives in this way—and it sickens me to see that faith mocked at New York cocktail parties."
(He hasn't heard mocking if he hasn't attended an evangelical theological conference or been in a room full of evangelical journalists. New York cocktail party banter is bush league in comparison.)
In their better moments, the disaffected cry out "Evangelicalism is bankrupt" or "It's lost its way" or "The center no longer holds" or a host of other one-liners that attempt to dismiss with a wave of the hand the most powerful and influential Christian movement in modern history (I am of course including Pentecostalism—the bleeding edge of global evangelicalism in many ways). And then they look longingly at another tradition, hoping to find something better.
What many don't see is that every Christian movement and tradition—Catholic, Orthodox, emergent, liberal, and so forth—has their crazy uncles (Episcopal Jack Spong), scandalous behavior (priestly abuses), and boorish attitudes (Orthodox ethnocentrism). It's called sin, and no movement escapes it.