The sudden Aug. 27 termination of National Religious Broadcasters chief spokesman Dan Darling has focused attention on how evangelical Christianity is perceived in an increasingly secular culture.
Not long ago, evangelists such as Billy Graham could fill large stadiums where nonbelievers felt comfortable hearing appeals to embrace the Christian message.
Liberty University, the sprawling evangelical campus in Lynchburg, Virginia, reported exponential growth over the past 10 years, largely fueled by online student enrollment.
Chicago-area Willow Creek Community Church, a megachurch, was held up as an example of how to “do” evangelical Christianity.
Today’s picture is vastly different. Gay rights advocates protest public outreach “festivals” held by the Rev. Franklin Graham, the late evangelist’s son.
Liberty University is rebuilding its image after a sex scandal involving former university President Jerry Falwell Jr., his wife and another man.
And Willow Creek? That church lost hundreds of members and much of its luster after founding pastor Bill Hybels was forced out over charges of sexually abusive behavior.
Mr. Darling was ousted from the National Religious Broadcasters, which represents evangelical broadcast and cable stations as well as the ministries that provide content to those outlets, after he appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program on Aug. 18 and encouraged Christians and others to receive vaccinations against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Troy Miller, the trade group’s CEO, said Mr. Darling was terminated for “insubordination” for violating an Aug. 8 directive telling NRB staff not to make public statements about the vaccination issue, which has divided evangelicals.
This latest headline-making incident, after at least 18 months of periodic scandals, raises a question: Is there a crisis of confidence in the “brand” known as evangelical Christianity?
“We are sadly seeing too much scandal and too much of failed leadership at some of our key institutions,” Mr. Darling, a Southern Baptist pastor and author, told The Washington Times.
“It’s really tragic and shocking when you see it, especially in Christian evangelical institutions. I think it’s contributing to the kind of distrust that ordinary people have about our elite institutions of public life,” he said.
“I do think this is a moment that calls for good Christian leadership that fulfills the character traits that we see Paul gives to Timothy, in the [New Testament’s] pastoral epistles. Not just the moral questions, which are important, but also the temperament questions of what kind of leader you are,” Mr. Darling said.
The evangelical image has suffered in recent years, one scholar noted.
“I think that the brand is tarnished,” said Elesha J. Coffman, a history professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “I think that the tradition is losing credibility with younger people [and] with more educated people.”
Ms. Coffman, the author of “Margaret Mead: A Twentieth-Century Faith,” which examines the anthropologist’s spiritual life, said the vaccination issue and other controversies are driving away younger adherents.
Surveys reveal a drop in affiliations with Southern Baptist Convention churches and a rise in the number of young Americans calling themselves “nones,” or “spiritual but not religious.” Others are leaving the evangelical camp altogether.
Tiffany Yecke Brooks, author of the forthcoming book “Gaslighted by God: Reconstructing a Disillusioned Faith,” is one of those driven away from the evangelical faith of her youth. Raised in a Churches of Christ congregation in suburban Virginia, she is now a member of the Disciples of Christ denomination.
Ms. Brooks said she became disillusioned by conflicts between her church’s teachings and what she experienced in real life. Finding accounts similar to hers on social media reinforced the dissonance.
She recalled, in particular, a moment when she was teaching literature at Florida State University. A coed Bible study group in her church said she couldn’t host one week’s meeting because her husband, a Marine Corps officer, was deployed overseas and could not attend the session.
“The added insult to injury there was that it was actually regarding a text that I had written about in graduate school. So I just said to myself, ‘I have more freedom to talk about my faith in a secular classroom than I do in my church,’” she said.
Her dilemma drove her to search elsewhere, and she found similar accounts on social media.
“People find like-minded people or learn more quickly that their experiences are not unique,” Ms. Brooks said. “That’s when you start to realize that maybe something isn’t just unique to your specific congregation or even your specific denomination, but systematically, there are problems in the way the entire branch of the faith operates and some of its fundamental principles.”
Tim Head, a former pastor and missionary who is now executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, said the COVID-related restrictions of the past 18 months are not much of a factor in the “weakened bond” among churchgoers.
“The idea of churches is more than just you kind of go to a building and see a performance or something like that,” he said.
Congregations “really are our functioning community. And whenever those functioning communities become more disparate, it weakens that bond if it goes on too long,” he said. At the same time, a smaller evangelical community might have a stronger expression of faith.
“When things get tougher, the overall national, or maybe even global, number, sometimes will contract,” Mr. Head said. “But the number that remains actually solidifies.
“There’s a decent number of people that have kind of moved to no faith, but also the ones that have stayed in faith that have retained faith. So that faith is even higher, more important to them now than it was two years ago.”
Karen Swallow Prior, who left a 21-year career at Liberty University to teach at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said a “distorted application” of fundamental evangelical beliefs has led to the movement’s course correction.
In the scandals that have surfaced, “we were basically seeing a long-standing fracture that is resulting in an earthquake within evangelicalism,” Ms. Prior said. “And it’s painful and hard, but I think that there’s some sorting and sifting that needs to be done, and we need to endure through it.”
At the same time, she said, evangelicals need to take greater care in their own spiritual formation. She chided the movement for “a longtime lack of really good discipleship and spiritual life among believers.”
“Even 75% of the teaching that we all get out there from the rest of the world, whether it’s social media or, you know, our political communities and geographical communities,” Ms. Prior said. “I mean, we’re being taught and discipled by so many other communities outside the church that we’re being malformed in many ways.”
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler said the challenges to the evangelical movement’s image are not new.
“It will take some time for evangelicalism to wrestle through some of these issues,” he said. “But I must have hope that evangelicals can resolve these issues without theological compromise and maintain evangelical unity.”
Mr. Mohler, who was a candidate for the Southern Baptist Convention‘s presidency this year and is noted as a conservative voice within the denomination, said part of today’s tensions originate in larger cultural struggles that must be answered from Scripture.
“Evangelicals must be theologically defined by an uncompromising view of Scripture and, frankly, a commitment to truth, and to all of the truth, including the morality that is revealed in Scripture,” he said. “Even an issue as straightforward as the roles of men and women in the home and in the church.
“I believe that the cultural pressure from a secular world and the hostility that will be coming in that world will force evangelical Christians to be really clear about our beliefs, and we’re about to find out who is unwilling to bear that burden,” Mr. Mohler said.