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Why Are Evangelicals Losing Influence?

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The Pew Research Center recently conducted a survey of global evangelical leaders which yielded some interesting results.

For one thing, 92 percent of those surveyed believe taking a yoga class is incompatible with being a good evangelical. Seriously? We're against yoga? Only 3 percent of participating evangelical leaders said they believe in evolution through natural selection. However, the number increases to 41 percent if you posit God, as opposed to natural selection, as the source of any actual evolution. (There was no indication of whether those surveyed have ever used the Darwin Awards as a sermon illustration.)

There were a few surprises in the poll. The "prosperity gospel," which teaches that God will give you health and wealth if only you have enough faith, has been rejected by 90 percent of evangelicals. Only 39 percent of those surveyed say they sympathize with both Israel and the Palestinians equally -- a number which should be much higher, but which could easily have been lower. Seventy-five percent say women should be allowed to be pastors, and 73 percent said that working to help the poor and needy is essential to being a good evangelical.

The result that has gotten a lot of press, however, concerns the consensus that evangelical influence over culture is in decline. When asked, "Do you think evangelical Christians are having an increasing or decreasing influence on life in your country?" the responses were overwhelmingly dubious. Eighty-two percent of U.S. evangelical leaders surveyed said evangelical influence over culture was decreasing. Fifty-three percent from the U.S. said the state of evangelicalism is worse off than it was five years ago, while nearly half expect that trend to continue.

Douglas Birdsall, who cooperated with Pew on behalf of the evangelical group whose members were surveyed, seemed to blame the discouraging response on the rising tide of secularism. Birdsall referred to the banning of school prayer and the retreat of Billy Graham from public life as important factors.

"There was a time," Birdsall said, "when there was a Ten Commandments in every classroom, there were prayers in public places ... the sense is that it's slipping from our hands."

The survey seems to indicate that Birdsall's belief is fairly widespread among American evangelicals, as 92 percent of those surveyed from the U.S. said that secularism is the major threat to evangelical Christianity.

That evangelical influence is waning is probably an accurate self-observation. Yet the blame for this can hardly be placed at the feet of secularism. If evangelical influence is nose-diving we have no one to blame but ourselves. Evangelicals have lost influence not because the culture has become secularized, but because evangelicals have failed to embody the life and teachings of Jesus. Ronald Sider all but predicted this new reality in his 2005 book "The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience." His argument, based largely on polling data, was that in nearly every appreciable category evangelical Christian reflect the culture at large. The great American theologian Stanley Hauerwas often says the church's first job is simply to be the church -- a teaching that, when ignored, will come back to bite you.

The evangelical church will have its impact on American culture not through political maneuvering, lawsuits, electing evangelical candidates, controlling the arts, or boycotting movies and products, but when evangelicals begin to embody the virtues derived from our faith. Kindness, generosity, peacefulness, hospitality, patience, self-control -- these are radical virtues that should define the people called evangelicals. Instead we are largely defined by what we are against (like yoga and evolution).

Popular evangelical leader Rick Warren once noted the church was meant to be the body of Christ, but it seems "The hands and feet have been amputated and we're just a big mouth." He's right. The evangelical church will enjoy great influence on American culture when it once again becomes the hands and feet of Christ, when it begins to act like the church. How this works out is always different in every context, but Jesus taught it always involves two simple things: love God, love your neighbor.

Ninety-eight percent of those who participated in the survey agreed that the Bible is the word of God. Central to the teachings of Jesus in the Bible is the idea that humans can only find their lives by losing their lives on behalf of others. Not that we must all die a martyrs death, but we must be willing to lay down our lives everyday -- in ways big and small -- for those in our community. We simply serve a neighbor, feed the hungry, visit the sick, comfort the dying and clothe the naked. When the church embraces the call to lay down her life unselfishly, she moves in harmony with ultimate reality. When the church refuses this essential vocation, it is as though the universe conspires against her. If evangelicals are losing credibility, power and influence in our culture, it is because we have sought credibility, power and influence instead of losing our lives on behalf of others. When the self-emptying mode of being the church becomes our defining characteristic, my guess is we'll enjoy all the influence we could ever want.

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