08/01/2011 03:28 pm ET | Updated Oct 01, 2011

Evangelical Leaders Gloomy Over Losing Influence in America

According to the most recent report of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 82 percent of all Evangelical leaders believe that they are losing influence in the United States.

Really? Like this is surprising? It is only surprising to the Evangelical leaders who have been pretending for years that their churches were gaining more people than they were actually losing.

For decades now, Evangelical leaders have gathered annually at church growth conferences where the few mega-churches that were actually growing were showcased, as well as their leaders, like sideshows in a city circus. What they were not telling the younger Evangelical leaders who enviously observed the ministerial stars with an almost desperate aspiration of being just like them one day, is that it was all an illusion. The few mega-churches that were growing experienced their numerical successes from two sources primarily, one source from those who desired a more entertaining worship experience (and, of course, mega-churches could afford the best talent in town); and the other from among the disgruntled or disillusioned members of other churches nearby.

But, this illusion appears to be finally ending for Evangelical leaders. They now appear more willing to be honest about what everyone else has known for a long time: the church is not only declining, so is its influence, along with the influence of its leaders.

But why? There are likely many reasons for the declining influence of the church. What's certain it is not the cause of liberalism in Christian seminaries or secularism in the American culture, the two most commonly identified causes by Evangelical leaders themselves. Here's a reason worth contemplating that comes immediately to my mind ...

Evangelical leaders and their followers have made the same mistake that Billy Graham once made when he pitched his tent, so to speak, on the White House lawn under the shadow of the infamous Richard Nixon. When Nixon publicly disgraced himself and left office, Graham was so embarrassed by the debacle that he purportedly said something to the effect, "I'll never get that close to another president." As far as I know, he never did. The difference between Billy Graham, however, and most other Evangelical leaders is that Graham learned from his mistake.

Evangelical leaders have used the political process, as well as politicians looking for votes, in order to promote their religious and social agenda for as long as I can remember. And, in my own opinion, it is a gross error in judgment, as the history of failed organizations like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition clearly demonstrate.

Many of these leaders mistakenly believe that Jesus' command that they "go" and "make disciples" of all nations means that they are to convert everyone to Christianity and the western version of Christianity at that! This is not only a misreading of Jesus' words in Matthew 28:19-20 but a misapplication of their meaning as well.

Here's how.

Jesus was not commissioning the church with these words. At the time he uttered these words, there was no church to commission. At best, he spoke to a handful of disillusioned friends whom he had every right to feel were his enemies, since they had all deserted him just days before. And, why did they desert him? It is precisely because he turned out to be a big disappointment to them. They wanted a leader who would launch a rebellion against Rome. Instead, he compassionately submitted himself to service and suffering. The way of submission has never been too popular to the church at any time in its history.

What Jesus was instructing this group of deserters to do was to learn from their debacle and then go about teaching and preaching his path to knowing God, living compassionately, and pursuing a Divine and ethical life. It would be decades later, even centuries, before Jesus' teachings would be institutionalized by a Church that all too quickly became more interested in preserving itself and canonizing its doctrines, dogmas, and demands or, better, controls over people.

I'm not suggesting that, with the birth and development of the institutionalized church, everything about it has been wrong or misguided. It has not. While it is true the Church has done much harm throughout the centuries, it is equally true the church has done much good. Just try to imagine this country without the benevolence and generosity that has motivated countless people and congregations to compassionate activity here and abroad. The church's concern for the well-being of people, for example, has given birth to many of the hospitals in this country, as well as abroad. Furthermore, virtually every great educational institution in this country owes its gratitude to Christian ministers and Christian people.

Some readers of my blogs mistakenly conclude I'm a disgruntled former churchgoer whose only interest is pointing out the problems within the Christian Church. Well, I do that, of course. But it is because I'm qualified to do so. I love the church and I remain hopeful for comprehensive change within it.

I'm also quick to remember not only the good the church has done but to remind others of it, too. And whenever I do, I intentionally remind the critics of the church, particularly educated ones who received their degrees from the likes of Harvard, Princeton, Yale and other such notable institutions of higher learning, that there's a good chance none of them would be in existence today were it not for Christian ministers and benevolent Christian people committed to educating the masses.

So it is highly disingenuous for any critic of Christianity to fail to exercise respectful restraint when the inclination wells up inside them to bite the proverbial hand that's fed them -- or, at a minimum, made possible their dining at some of the finest educational tables in the world.

The church has done much good. Only a fool would say otherwise. It seems also clear to me that, throughout history, the church has been at its best, not when it has mistakenly thought Jesus' mandate was to convert the world to Christianity, but when it has simply gone about, as Jesus did, doing good to and for all people (Matt. 9:35).

The good Jesus went about doing was preaching and teaching that all people are loved by God, welcomed into her family, and deserve the opportunity to live a joyful, peace-filled, and abundant life.

What Evangelical leaders have preached, however, has often been the very opposite: that everyone is wicked and deserving of suffering in an eternal inferno. Furthermore, had it not been for the cosmic Superman named Jesus, they would. He showed up to take the wrath of his psychotic Father whose rage was so out-of-control it had to be vented on something or someone.

What's good about this? Not a thing. Yet, it is this narrow-minded misreading of scripture and the consequential theology that grows out of this kind of mindset that has contributed to the declining influence of Evangelical leaders and churches. It is also this theology that, when carried to its extreme -- and it always does -- gives birth to radical fundamentalist thinking, whether Christian or Muslim, as demonstrated in persons like Anders Behring Breivik and Osama bin Laden.

So again, I say, the church is at its best whenever it is behaving like Jesus ... when it is caring for the sick and infirm, founding and funding educational institutions, providing clean water and purification technologies, creating more sanitary living conditions for all, teaching people to farm and improve their living conditions, serving meals to hungry and displaced people, speaking out against the political and social structures that dehumanize, demoralize, or discriminate against people, and, ultimately, modeling for all what it means to walk with God and live a compassionate, ethical, and joyful life.

Now, when Evangelical leaders and their congregations decide to return to preaching and teaching Jesus' real mandate -- that of learning, living, and loving -- then you'll see the church and its leaders restored to a place of influence.