Evangelicals have taken a beating in recent months and years for their definitive spiritual priority of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, according to the leader of the North American Mission Board's efforts to reach the nation's cities with the gospel.
"When we hear that we're accused of hate crimes, evangelicals are legitimately shocked," said Phil Roberts, vice president for NAMB's strategic cities strategies group. "When we are accused of being bigots, or being intolerant, or expressing hatred towards people, we're obviously put in a situation where we're looking around saying, 'Whom are they talking about?'"
Roberts presented a paper titled, "Are Evangelism, Apologetics, and Mission Work Hate Crimes?" at a Feb. 18-20 conference in Denver. The conference - which addressed the theme, "Postmodernism and Spirituality: Do the Pieces Fit?" - was sponsored by Evangelical Ministries to New Religions.
Roberts gave an overview of recent opposition to Southern Baptist evangelistic efforts, particularly those designed to reach individuals of other faiths - including a resolution on evangelism to Jews passed by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1996, a series of guides on praying for people of other faiths released last year by the International Mission Board; and opposition in Chicago last fall to focused efforts in that city to proclaim the gospel.
It was the Chicago response - in a statement from the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago - that suggested Southern Baptist efforts "could disrupt the pattern of peaceful inter-religious relations in our community, and unwittingly abet the designs of those who seek to provoke hate crimes by fomenting hate-based prejudice."
One reason Southern Baptists are so shocked by such language, Roberts said, is the way they view their calling. They are simply sharing the "good news" they have discovered in Christ, whose death on the cross has released them from the bondage and eternal death of sin. He compared it to discovering a cure for cancer, yet being ridiculed for trying to share that cure with others.
"You can find a way to destroy that dread disease, and there may be some people out there who think that cancer is not a dread disease and don't believe it affects them," he said. "... Our job is first of all to convince them there is a problem, but then to announce the wonderful news - that there is a sure and certain cure."
Also, Roberts said, Christians are shocked because their guiding motivation is in fact the love of God that they are commanded to show toward others. The charge of anti-Semitism particularly is felt deeply because of the profoundly Jewish nature of the gospel, he said, and the support evangelicals have shown for the Jewish people and their place in God's plan.
"If we were genuinely anti-Semitic, you know what we would do? We wouldn't share the gospel, and we wouldn't share our concern with the Lord in prayer for Jewish friends and neighbors and others of other religions," Roberts said.
Charges that Southern Baptists are using coercion to propagate their faith also are particularly stinging, he said, because of the foundational Southern Baptist appreciation of religious liberty. He noted the persecution of the Anabaptists in the sixteenth century, and later the experience of Roger Williams and the early Baptists in Rhode Island after they had been driven out of Massachusetts because of their beliefs.
Acceleration of the attacks in recent years, Roberts said, is based in part on the natural opposition to the gospel that Christ Himself experienced. It also is an issue of ignorance.
"There are simply a lot of people out there who have no sense at all where our genuine convictions are," he said.
One response, Roberts suggested, is for evangelicals to unite behind "a declaration, a covenant together, to demonstrate clearly what we mean by evangelism. What is it? Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ - without coercion, manipulation, proselitization, deception - and leaving the results up to God."
Such a declaration also should include a "foreswearing of prejudice of all types;" a reaffirmation of "our commitment to uphold, protect, and defend religious liberty;" and a willingness to encourage those of other faiths - including some Jewish leaders - who have stood in support of the right of evangelicals to proclaim their faith. Most importantly, Roberts said, evangelicals need to "just keep on keeping on with the gospel."
"After all, this struggle is not a political one - as important as political means are in a democratic situation. It is a spiritual one. And the ultimate task is who will win the souls and the hearts of the American people, the generations of the future," Roberts said.
"If we're faithful about sharing the gospel, giving an answer for the hope that lies within us, then in God's good time that answer is very sure."