Brian Stiller

Podcastor

Author

Global Ambassador @ WEA

Brian Stiller

Podcastor

Author

Global Ambassador @ WEA

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Life After the Jimmies

September 12, 1989 Articles

The religious life of the 1980s will be forever marked as the decade of the Jimmies; Jimmy Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert.

Evangelicals (called conservative Protestants by sociologists and fundamentalists by those who don’t like us) will long remember the excruciating moments of watching the nightly newscasts. Watching the newscasts was like the first horror film I watched as a child; afraid to watch and yet afraid not to watch, my hand against my face with fingers opened just enough to see.

In the wake of the revelations many ask what the repercussions for evangelicals are.

First a brief description of what is meant by the term “evangelical.” There are two usages: historical and popular.

Martin Luther when he broke from the Roman Catholic church called his followers “evangelicals,” using a New Testament word “evangel,” meaning “the good news.” Primary to their faith was the Bible as final authority and forgiveness only by God’s grace.

Today the popular usage of the word evangelical denotes those protestants who hold to a conservative and more literal view of the Bible, the need for personal conversion and the expectation of a literal return of Jesus Christ.

However, many assume that to know one evangelical is to know them all. Not so. Evangelicals are not homogeneous; that is they are not all the same. While a few churches, many having formed this century call themselves “evangelical,” there are many within the mainline Protestant churches who also claim to be evangelical in their faith.

The problem has been that the American televangelists because of their broad media reach have tended to represent the evangelical community. Their demise smeared all those who also were identified as being evangelical.

So what has been the fall out?
The first was embarrassment. We came face to face with the fact that these powerful public speakers had taken over the media and used the evangelical energy for their own purposes. Many evangelicals tend to be naive and therefore gullible. We believe that God gifts people to do His work. Thus, when a gifted preacher arrives on the scene and seems to be successful in drawing a crowd, in our enthusiasm to see the Word of God preached we are supportive of the individual.

For years we knew we could trust Billy Graham. And he continues to hold our confidence. Others arrived and we extended to them that trust without considering that maybe everyone who is gifted should be trusted.

There is a distinct difference in how the American and Canadian evangelical community operates. In the U.S. there is a greater acceptance of the individualistic approach to religious faith. Thus, if a person shows talent, people will rally around, even though the person is not accountable to anyone. Canadians are not so accepting of their own. They require of Canadians careful accountability. But the strange factor is that those same who require of Canadians scrutiny are generous in supporting Americans who never give accounting of how they spend their money. What is at work is the continuing fascination Canadians have with American heroes, be they of the big screen, sports or the pulpit.

Canadian television evangelists have not seemed to have be hurt by the problems of the south. David Mainse and Terry Winter of Vancouver, the two largest broadcasters have built such a solid constituency that it seems the U.S. problems only served to reinforce support of their donors.

However, the real issue is larger than evangelical. It has to do with the credibility of Christianity in the eyes of people. We know that the average weekly church attendance in Canada is down to about 32%. While Bakker and Swaggert and in Quebec, lay Roman Catholic evangelists all contributed to the damaging of the reputation of televangelists, the moral charges against priests support the belief of some that there seems to be no one you can trust. It is this public cynicism which not only the evangelical church must address but so must also all Christian communities.

Brian C Stiller
1989