What to do with an inaccurate reputation? Senior writer Patricia Paddey investigates in our new cover article.
It’s a hard time to call yourself evangelical in Canada. So hard, many of us don’t readily apply the label to ourselves anymore – at least not in non-evangelical company. I don’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a closeted Christian. Even people who don’t know me well might recognize my primary allegiance is to Jesus. But they probably wouldn’t ascribe the e-word to me because they’ve not heard me ascribe it to myself. They’d be unaware that for most of my life I’ve willingly done so because I consider evangelicalism a vibrant, orthodox, life-giving expression of Christian spirituality.
The Evangelicals I know humbly pursue God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe God is with us, that He speaks to us, guides us and works through us as we participate in His mission to bring about wholeness and healing to the world He created and loves. Evangelicals are deeply committed to doing justice, to being good neighbours and sharing the best news there is. I feel no shame in any of that.
The turning point in my relationship with the descriptor came when I began to realize people who don’t move in evangelical circles don’t have the same associations with the word I do. They have a different understanding. Whether used as an adjective or noun, evangelical carries a lot of unpleasant baggage that makes it more of a hindrance than an asset in meaningful conversations with those who don’t share my beliefs.
Marilyn Draper teaches practical theology at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto. She says it’s important to think through the baggage – the things that spring to people’s minds when they hear the term evangelical. She senses, increasingly, that the word is associated with "white, American, fundamental[ism], conservatism" – and each of those ideas, she says, "is loaded."
"Evangelical means we are people of the evangel," Draper says. "That means Good News. It’s ironic if we use that term, but the people around us don’t see the Good News." Many people today, she says, see primarily judgment, arrogance, an emphasis on personal rights and protection, or a certain kind of politics.
Many students, pastors and faculty members don’t want to use the evangelical label anymore either, Draper notices, because "As soon as you use the term, you have to qualify it."
If reluctant Evangelicals want data to back up our hesitation, it came this spring in a Canadian survey. Conducted by the Angus Reid Institute in partnership with Cardus, the survey offered a comprehensive look at the faith journeys of Canadians across the religious spectrum – Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, evangelical Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, atheism.
It found only evangelical Christianity was seen by every other group as more damaging than benefitting to our nation’s public life (https://angusreid.org/canada-religion-interfaith-holy-week).
"I think there is this general sense among Canadians that Evangelicals are this peculiar minority who refuse to get with the progressive program," says John Stackhouse, professor of religious studies at Crandall University in Moncton, N.B.
"There are a couple of things going on there. First, the most obvious problem is the equation of Evangelicals with Trump and the American right wing which, while it has its fans in Canada, provokes very strong reactions against everybody who isn’t. There’s almost no one who’s neutral about Trumpism."
Second, he says, is that the vast majority of people who publicly stood against our public health officials and their mandates during Covid-19 were evangelical churches and pastors. There were others, of course. "But the ones who got most of the media attention by far were various kinds of evangelical churches and pastors. Again, not a subject on which most people have neutral opinions."
Lee Beach of McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ont., is codirector of its Centre for Post-Christendom Studies. He says that fair or not, the reputation of Canadian Evangelicals is "inextricably tied" to American evangelicalism. "The public perception is that Evangelicals have a very narrowminded view of the world," he says. "A very parochial, bigoted, racist view of life, misogynist."
That public perception is vastly different from Evangelicals’ self-perception. According to the Angus Reid Institute/Cardus study, almost three-quarters of us, 74 per cent, think our brand of Christianity benefits Canadian society. Only 18 per cent of Canadians do.
74% OF EVANGELICALS THINK THEY BENEFIT CANADIAN SOCIETY. ONLY 18% OF CANADIANS DO. –ANGUS REID INSTITUTE/CARDUS
There are indications we’re not just deceiving ourselves. Sam Reimer and Michael Wilkinson’s A Culture of Faith (McGill-Queen’s, 2015) offers an academic look at Canadian Evangelicals and demonstrates that nearly all our congregations are missionally focused, providing services to their communities.
"The long-held assumption that Evangelicals evangelize and leave service provision to other faith traditions no longer holds," they write. In fact, Evangelicals do a good deal of meeting "felt needs" in their communities, co-operating with local service programs "like food banks, nursing homes, English as a second language (ESL) programs, addiction services and thrift stores." Further, this co-operation "was not limited to other evangelical organizations. Churches often co-operated with nonreligious service providers, and sometimes with nonevangelical churches."
It’s tempting to feel defensive. The Evangelicals in my community work hard at following Jesus. We take seriously His call to love our neighbours and our enemies, to care for the least of these, to pick up our crosses, lay down our lives, give sacrificially of our time, talents and money. And what’s the result? A bad reputation.
"It’s easy to get defensive," agrees Andy Bannister, director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity, which from its home base in Scotland trains Christians worldwide to share their faith with compassion and conviction. (He also teaches at Wycliffe College in Toronto.) "I think the first point would be to look at ourselves and ask, ‘Might there be a reason for that?’ We’ve spent too much time fighting the culture wars and not enough time sharing the gospel and the message of Christ in a way that people understand.
"I’d want to begin by asking, ‘Could there be even the slightest bit of truth in the way that we are perceived?’" he asks. "Because that’s the way of Christ, to begin by taking the criticism on board and take a hard look at it before we dismiss it too quickly. We can gripe, but if that’s a perception people have, that’s a stumbling block to the gospel and I think we should take it seriously."
Taking it seriously
Bannister is pointing to the need to embrace the present opportunity for some serious evangelical soul searching.
Draper says every generation needs to re-examine who we are and what it means to be the Church in our culture in our time. "This is a chance to ask the question, ‘What does it mean that Jesus has come and that it’s actually Good News for the world?’ "
Lee Beach agrees. He says good can come out of our bad reputation if it provokes the Church to engage in sober reflection. "It’s like self-analysis," he says. "The data remind us to ask, ‘What does it mean to use the [evangelical] label?’ and to recognize that for most Canadians that’s not a positive word."
Historically Christianity has often been deeply misunderstood by outsiders. During the first 300 years of the Church, believers were accused of everything from cannibalism to atheism. So is redeeming our reputation even something we should be worried about?
"Yes," says Stackhouse. Otherwise we risk "Evangelicals licking our wounds and turning our failure into a kind of triumph." Religious groups often do this, he says, consoling ourselves with the idea people don’t like us because we’re so holy, so faithful. But that kind of thinking can lead to inertia when action is called for.
"Our Lord tells us in the Sermon on the Mount to ‘Let your light shine before your neighbours that they can see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven,’" Stackhouse explains. And Jesus tells the disciples at the Last Supper "that we are to love one another so conspicuously that everyone will know we are His disciples."
Concern for reputation then is not a sign of worldliness or capitulation, but a sign of faithfulness and a missional concern to bless the world God loves. "Our ability to bless the world is seriously compromised if the world despises us and fears us," Stackhouse says.
56% of evangelicals say they feel "shut out" by society. Is that paranoia or perception?
There is biblical precedent for wanting to bring our reputation in line with our values. Acts 5:12–16 makes clear God used the positive reputation of the first believers – who were "highly regarded by the people" – to grow the Church. So it seems we have work to do. But where to begin?
An attitude check
We could start with an attitude check. Another statistic from the Angus Reid Institute/Cardus survey is this – 56 per cent of evangelical Christians say they feel "shut out" by society. Does that point to paranoia or perception?
Beach says it’s paranoia. He wrote a book on the marginalization of the Church today (The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom, IVP Academic, 2015) and says, "I understand we feel like our beliefs are not in the majority, but in the vast minority. That some of the most important things in my life are things most people don’t agree with. But I can live with that. I don’t necessarily feel shut out because of that."
Draper agrees, reminding us Evangelicals are still "invited to be involved" on national issues. She points to how The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada is welcomed to public policy discussions. "We’re still being invited to the table. So sometimes there’s a tendency to feel shut out when people aren’t actually being shut out."
Bannister points to two key issues underlying our feelings of cultural estrangement. The first is that "Christians once had massive cultural power." The second is that we’ve now lost it.
Reimer and Wilkinson’s A Culture of Faith documents this. "Evangelical Protestant religiosity held sway in English-speaking Canada throughout the 19th century until about the middle of the 20th century," they write. "The Protestants shaped the politics, economy, health care and education of English-speaking Canadians."
Our evangelical ancestors didn’t always use cultural power to good effect. The legacies of colonialism and residential schools, for example, continue to damage the Church’s reputation today. Such things should remind us, says Bannister, that "The gospel is not designed to work from above. Jesus didn’t intend for us to grow in numbers such that we could finally get our hands on the levers of power and give the things a yank.
"You read Acts 2, the Church is 120 frightened men and women hiding out in fear of the authorities," he adds. "Within 300 years the Church has grown to become 51 per cent of the Roman empire, which is just unbelievable. It showed that gospel growth can come from below, and that’s in a very pagan, very hostile society."
People in Canada generally think they know about Evangelicals. We would say they manifestly don’t.
Gospel growth from below
What does gospel growth from below look like? Bannister says it starts with thinking through where we as individuals are focusing our energies because the gospel is about more than winning cultural battles.
Most of us "are probably not in a position to influence what Canadians think about the Church," says Bannister. "But maybe you can influence what your neighbours think about Christians. Maybe you could prayerfully ask the Lord, ‘Is there anyone on my street or in my workplace I should ask to dinner?’ And start building hospitality. ‘Is there anything I can do in my community to make a difference?’ "
Beach says a proper evangelical commitment should never be a negative in society. It should always be a positive because it’s "a commitment to the God of justice, love, inclusion, grace, patience," he explains. "Sometimes that may be very countercultural and therefore difficult. But a proper evangelical commitment should always be good for the society in which it finds itself. It’s going to be salt and light."
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Salt – in right measure – will preserve, flavour and heal. And light, Jesus tells us, should be held high so all may benefit from its radiance. Can we think about whether Evangelicals have sometimes been a little too salty, remembering that too much salt is both unpleasant and unhealthy? Or maybe we need to consider whether we’ve been hiding the best of our evangelical light under a bushel.
John Stackhouse thinks so. He says Evangelicals have a serious public relations problem. "People in Canada generally think they know about Evangelicals. We would say they manifestly don’t," he says.
"We need to understand the game that’s being played. We need to understand the discourse and find people who can literally help us get our message out. It’s about marketing, communication. And we can’t be embarrassed about that. We have been innovative. We have to be again."
But it starts, he says, with being persuaded that this is a worthwhile effort, a campaign where progress is possible. "When we manifestly have been doing a bad to negligible job of our public relations, I think it’s too early to quit. Let’s at least set the record straight. Let’s at least give people truth to deal with rather than stereotypes."
Here is a truth in my little evangelical church. I see people serving others with decency, kindness and humility all the time. Evangelical may have become a bad word, encumbered with too many negative associations in the minds of non-evangelical Canadians to redeem it. Or maybe not. Maybe new strategies and a renewed embrace of communicating the beauty and goodness that we know the term ought to convey will make a difference. Time will tell.
But Jesus is still a word that attracts, compels and piques curiosity. And He continues to call us to love God and others, whether or not those others think they know us.
We can feel sorry for ourselves, become defeated, defensive or immobilized, or we can continue trying to make a difference in this highly non-Christian culture in Jesus’ name.
Patricia Paddey is a senior writer for Faith Today. She lives in Mississauga, Ont.
We think our cover stories would be great to discuss with your small group or Bible study. Point members to www.FaithToday.ca/Evangelical. Let us know how it goes ([email protected]).
- Do you publicly refer to yourself or your church as evangelical? Why or why not?
- Consider and try to act on Andy Bannister’s question: "Is there anyone on my street or in my workplace I should ask to dinner?"
- Lee Beach discusses an evangelical commitment to society as being a positive force, even if it’s countercultural. How could your local church live out that challenge in your own neighbourhood?
The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom by Lee Beach (IVP Academic, 2015). Offers a biblical and practical theology for the Church in a post-Christian age.
The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church From Western Cultural Captivity by Soong-Chan Rah (IVP, 2009). Rah writes from an American perspective, but still has connections to the Canadian experience.
Overlooked: The Forgotten Stories of Canadian Christianity by James T. Robertson (New Leaf, 2022). A historic overview of how the Church got to the place it is today with some prescriptive thoughts near the end.