Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?

Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?

by Philip Yancey


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Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News? by Philip Yancey

“Why does the church stir up such negative feelings?” Philip Yancey has been asking this all his life as a journalist. His perennial question is more relevant now than ever: in a twenty-year span starting in the mid-nineties, research shows that favorable opinions of Christianity have plummeted drastically—and opinions of Evangelicals have taken even deeper dives.

The end of the politics-oriented Evangelicalism that was so dominant in the second half of the 20th century is a strong example that we are living in a post-Christian culture.

Yet while the opinions about Christianity are dropping, interest in spirituality is rising. Why the disconnect? Why are so many asking, “What’s so good about the “Good News?”

Yancey’s writing has focused on the search for honest faith that makes a difference for a world in pain. In his landmark book What’s So Amazing about Grace he issued a call for Christians to be as grace-filled in their behavior as they are in declaring their beliefs.

But people inside and outside the church are still thirsty for grace. What the church lacked in its heyday is now exactly what it needs to recover to thrive. Grace can bring together Christianity and our post-Christian culture, inviting outsiders as well as insiders to take a deep second look at why our faith matters and about what could reignite its appeal to future generations.

How can Christians offer grace in a way that is compelling to a jaded society? And how can they make a difference in a world that cries out in need?

Yancey aims this book at Christian readers, showing them how Christians have lost respect, influence, and reputation in a newly post-Christian culture. “Why do they hate us so much?” mystified Americans ask about the rest of the world. A similar question applies to evangelicals in America.

Yancey explores what may have contributed to hostility toward Evangelicals, especially in their mixing of faith and politics instead of embracing more grace-filled ways of presenting the gospel. He offers illuminating stories of how faith can be expressed in ways that disarm even the most cynical critics. Then he explores what is Good News and what is worth preserving in a culture that thinks it has rejected Christian faith.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780310339328
Publisher: Zondervan
Publication date: 10/21/2014
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 410,453
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Philip Yancey serves as editor-at-large for Christianity Today magazine. He has written thirteen Gold Medallion Award-winning books and won two ECPA Book of the Year awards for What's So Amazing About Grace? and The Jesus I Never Knew. Four of his books have sold over one million copies. Yancey lives with his wife in Colorado. Learn more at

Read an Excerpt

Vanishing Grace

By Philip Yancey


Copyright © 2014 Philip Yancey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-310-34212-0



In general the churches ... bore for me the same relation to God that billboards did to Coca-Cola: they promoted thirst without quenching it. John Updike, A Month of Sundays

As a Christian, I have deep concern about how we represent our faith to others. We are called to proclaim good news of forgiveness and hope, yet I keep coming across evidence that many people do not hear our message as good news.

I decided to write this book after I saw the results of surveys by the George Barna group. A few telling statistics jumped off the page. In 1996, 85 percent of Americans who had no religious commitment still viewed Christianity favorably. Thirteen years later, in 2009, only 16 percent of young "outsiders" had a favorable impression of Christianity, and just 3 percent had a good impression of evangelicals. I wanted to explore what caused that dramatic plunge in such a relatively short time. Why do Christians stir up hostile feelings—and what, if anything, should we do about it?

For more than a decade I've had a window into how the modern secular world views Christians, through a book group I belong to. These informed, well-traveled readers include an environmental lawyer, a philosopher who got fired from a state university because of his Marxist views, a child-development expert, a pharmacology researcher, a state auditor, a bankruptcy attorney, a librarian, and a neurologist. Our diverse careers and backgrounds make for lively discussion.

After ranging over ideas sparked by whatever book we've just read, the conversation usually drifts back to politics—a sort of substitute religion, apparently. All but one of my book buddies lean strongly to the political left, the sole exception a libertarian who opposes nearly all government. The group views me as a source of information about a parallel universe that exists beyond their social orbit. "You know evangelicals, right?" I nod yes. Then comes a question like, "Can you explain why they are so opposed to gay and lesbian marriages?" I do my best, but the arguments I repeat from leading evangelicals make no sense to this group.

After the 2004 reelection of George W. Bush, the Marxist professor launched into a tirade against right-wing evangelicals. "They're motivated by hate—sheer hate!" he said. I suggested fear as a possible motive instead, fear of society trending in what conservatives see as a troubling direction. "No, it's hate!" he insisted, uncharacteristically raising his voice and turning red in the face.

"Do you know any right-wing evangelicals personally?" I asked.

"Not really," he admitted a bit sheepishly, though he said he had known many in his youth. Like most of those in my book group, he had grown up in the church, in his case among Seventh-day Adventists.

Many similar conversations have taught me that religion represents a huge threat to those who see themselves as a minority of agnostics in a land of belief. Nonbelievers tend to regard evangelicals as a legion of morals police determined to impose their notion of right behavior on others. To them, Christians are anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-women—probably anti-sex, for that matter—and most of them homeschool their children to avoid defilement. Christians sometimes help with social problems, say by running soup kitchens and homeless shelters, but otherwise they differ little from Muslim fanatics who want to enforce sharia law on their societies.

A research group based in Phoenix was surprised to encounter the degree of abuse directed toward Christians, antagonism that went far beyond a difference of opinion on issues. According to the company president, "Evangelicals were called illiterate, greedy, psychos, racist, stupid, narrow-minded, bigots, idiots, fanatics, nut cases, screaming loons, delusional, simpletons, pompous, morons, cruel, nitwits, and freaks, and that's just a partial list.... Some people don't have any idea what evangelicals actually are or what they believe—they just know they can't stand evangelicals."

The good news isn't sounding so good these days, at least to some.


In a clever metaphor the apostle Paul writes of "the aroma of Christ" that can have a very different effect depending on the nose: "To the one, we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life." My assignments as a journalist take me to places where Christians give off a perfumed aroma and also to places where Christians offend the nostrils.

The United States is undergoing a marked change in its attitude toward religion, and Christians here face new challenges. When a blogger named Marc Yoder wrote about "10 Surprising Reasons Our Kids Leave Church," based on interviews in Texas (a comparatively religious state) his post went viral. Instead of a hundred or so hits, his website got more than half a million. "There's no easy way to say this," wrote Yoder, in words that struck a nerve: "The American Evangelical church has lost, is losing and will almost certainly continue to lose our youth." If we don't adapt we will end up talking to ourselves in ever-dwindling numbers.

What lies behind the downward trend? I got some insight from a friend of mine in Chicago who once worked on the staff of Willow Creek Community Church, one of the nation's largest churches. Daniel Hill took a side job as a barista at a local Starbucks where, he now realizes, his pastoral education truly began.

One of his customer said, when the conversation turned to religion, "When Christians talk to you, they act as if you are a robot. They have an agenda to promote, and if you don't agree with them, they're done with you." Often Hill heard an anything-goes attitude: "I don't personally follow Christianity, but I figure whatever makes you happy, do it." As one person told him, "Look, we all know that 'God' is out there at some level, but no one has a right to tell another person what 'God' looks like for them. Each person is free to express that however they want, but they should keep their opinions to themselves."

During his time at the coffee shop Hill heard two distinct approaches to the faith. "Pre-Christians" seemed open and receptive when the topic of religion came up. They had no real hostility and could imagine themselves connecting with a church someday. In contrast, "post-Christians" harbored bad feelings. Some carried memories of past wounds: a church split, a domineering parent, a youth director or priest guilty of sexual abuse, a nasty divorce which the church handled clumsily. Others had simply absorbed the media's negative stereotypes of rabid fundamentalists and scandal-prone television evangelists.

Listening to Hill's stories, I thought back to C. S. Lewis's analogy of communicating faith in secular Britain. It's the difference between courting a divorcée and a virgin, Lewis told a friend in a letter. A divorcée won't easily fall for sweet nothings from a suitor—she's heard them all before—and has a basic distrust of romance. In modern America, Hill estimates, around three-quarters of young "outsiders" qualify as post-Christian, the divorcées of faith.

Not everyone falls into a neat category, of course, but I found Daniel Hill's perspective helpful. I began to think through my own contacts with people who have no faith commitment. Having lived in Hill's home city of Chicago, I must agree with his assessment of young urban dwellers. No one else in our six-unit condominium went to church, and most of them viewed Christians with suspicion. Some of my book group friends in Colorado also fit the post-Christian category.

On the other hand, large portions of the American South and Midwest remain open to faith and qualify as "pre-Christian." I grew up in the religion-soaked South, and on return visits I'm always struck by the difference in attitudes toward religion there. The Bible Belt largely accepts the framework of the gospel. There is a God (don't our coins affirm "In God We Trust"?); we have sinned (country music spells out the salacious details); and Jesus provides a way to forgive those sins (you can still see "Repent" or " Jesus Saves" slogans on some Southern barns and billboards). Hit the radio's Scan button while driving in the South and there's a good chance you'll hear a testimony from someone recounting their once-wayward life, now transformed by a born-again conversion experience.

On my travels to other places too—Africa, Latin America, parts of Asia—I see the continuing appeal of the basic Christian message. People there associate Christians with missionaries who came to them as pastors, teachers, doctors and nurses, agricultural experts, and relief workers. The gospel answers questions of meaning, holds out the promise of an afterlife, and provides a community of support for those in need. To many in the world it still sounds like good news, a Godspell to break the dark spell that shadows so much of life on earth.

When I return from those trips it comes as a shock when people in my home country speak of Christians more sinisterly. Post-Christians hear the same music as if distorted through cracked speakers. Evangelists who speak of sin come across as shrewish and hectoring: What gives them the right to judge my behavior, especially when so many of them mess up their own lives? Doctrines such as the Trinity, the Atonement, Original Sin, and Hell seem baffling, even incomprehensible, and who can legitimately claim truth anyway? People who live in prosperous countries, intent on enjoying this life, pay little heed to the idea of an afterlife. And a string of New Atheists upbraid all religion as bad news, a primary source of fanaticism and wars—one called the atrocities of 9/11 "a faith-based initiative"—and long for the day when the human species will finally outgrow its need for religion.

In Europe, the seat of Christian faith for most of its history, many do not give it a thought. Barely a third of French and British respondents even believe that God exists. While visiting France I spoke to a Campus Crusade worker who had practiced evangelism in Florida before moving to Europe. Carrying a clipboard, he would walk up to strangers and ask, "If you died and God asked why you should be allowed into heaven, what would you say?" That approach got mixed results in Florida, but in France he was met with blank stares; he might as well have been speaking Urdu. Now he leads with the question, "Do you believe in God?" and the typical French response goes something like this: "What a fascinating question! Let me think. I've never really considered it before."

As I travel internationally I feel like a commuter between post-Christian and pre-Christian societies. The cultural divide stands out sharply in the U.S., where Christians remain a force to be reckoned with. Some Christians respond to the divide by making harsh judgments about the people they disagree with—one of the main reasons evangelicals have an unsavory reputation. I cringe when I hear such words, and respond by keeping mostly quiet about my faith. Neither approach is healthy.

Jesus granted his followers the immense privilege of dispensing God's grace to a thirsty world. As one who has drunk deeply of that grace, I want to offer it to a world adrift. How can we communicate truly good news to a culture running away from it?


The Quakers have a saying: "An enemy is one whose story we have not heard." To communicate to post-Christians, I must first listen to their stories for clues to how they view the world and how they view people like me. Those conversations are what led to the title of this book. Although God's grace is as amazing as ever, in my divided country it seems in vanishing supply.

I've asked strangers and casual acquaintances, "Why do Christians stir up such negative feelings?" Some bring up past atrocities, such as the widespread belief that the church executed eight or nine million witches (a figure that serious historians believe is exaggerated by 99 percent). I've heard complaints about strict Protestant or Catholic schools and tales of clergy intolerance—didn't John Lennon get kicked out of his boyhood church for laughing at an inappropriate time? Others repeat stories similar to that of Steve Jobs, who left church when the pastor had no answer for his questions about God and the starving children of Africa. The comedian Cathy Ladman expresses a common view: "All religions are the same: religion is basically guilt with different holidays."

Neighborhoods that once welcomed churches now file lawsuits against them, not just because of traffic and parking issues but because "We don't want a church in our community!" Animosity goes public when a prominent sports figure talks freely about faith. A few years ago NFL quarterback Tim Tebow and NBA guard Jeremy Lin attracted praise from Christians who appreciated their clean lifestyles and their willingness to discuss their beliefs. At the same time sports-talk radio, websites, blogs, and late-night comedians mercilessly mocked the two.

To our shame the church, or pockets of it here and there, can give good reason for aversion. When I took a break from writing this chapter I turned on CNN and watched a report on a pastor in North Carolina who proposes that we round up all "lesbians and queers" inside a huge fence, perhaps a hundred miles around, and air-drop food to them. Eventually they'll go extinct, he crows, since they don't reproduce. That same week a congregation in Indiana wildly applauded a seven-year-old boy who sang his composition, "Ain't no homos gonna go to heaven." And after the Sandy Hook school shootings in Connecticut, a prominent evangelical spokesman placed the blame on gays, iPods, evolution, and Supreme Court rulings against school prayer.

Recently I received a letter from an agnostic friend furious about Christians' behavior at her mother's funeral. She described the "fear-mongering come-to- Jesus-now proselytizing from the pulpit" by a pastor from "Grace (ironically) Community Something Megachurch." She added, "The only reason I did not climb over the pews and flee was the respect for my mother's evangelical faith." Several who attended the funeral said to her, "If one person accepted Christ during the ser vice, then your mother's death was worth it."

The 2004 movie Saved! gives a glimpse into how the broader culture views Christians. Directed by Brian Dannelly, who as a kid managed to get expelled from both a Catholic elementary school and a Baptist high school, the movie wavers between biting satire and over-the-top comedy. A prissy believer named Hilary Faye leads a singing group, the Christian Jewels, who kidnap potential converts and try to exorcize their demons. The school's sole Jewish student, a rebel, fakes speaking in tongues and rips open her blouse during chapel. The parents of a gay teenager send him to a Christian rehab center—with the incongruous name Mercy House—for a one-year treatment program. Meanwhile Mary, who seduced him in an attempt to cure him of homosexuality, learns she is pregnant. The unfolding plot exposes all the Christians as hypocrites, with Hilary Faye at the top of the list, just above her philandering pastor.

In the final scene the gay character escapes from Mercy House and joins others in Mary's hospital room after she gives birth. Even the judgmental hypocrites begin to soften. The message is clear. Why can't we accept each other's differences—in beliefs, morality, sexual preferences, and everything else? Why can't we all just get along?

Nowadays the principle of tolerance rules above all others, and any religion that claims a corner on truth is suspect. Combine that with Christians' reputation for judging others' behavior, and no wonder opposition heats up. As one critic remarked, "Most people I meet assume that Chris tian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, anti-gay, anti-choice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn't believe what they believe."

Jesus never commanded us to score well in opinion polls, but as I mull over the list of words people use to describe Christians I wonder how we can act as salt and yeast within a society that views us so negatively.


Excerpted from Vanishing Grace by Philip Yancey. Copyright © 2014 Philip Yancey. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface 11

Part 1 A World Athirst

1 A Great Divide 15

2 Grace Endangered 31

3 Soul Thirst 49

4 Reclaiming the Good News 69

Part 2 Grace Dispensers

5 Pilgrims 91

6 Activists 111

7 Artists 131

Part 3 Is It Really Good News?

8 Does Faith Matter? 153

9 Is There Anyone Else? The God Question 175

10 Why Are We Here? The Human Question 197

11 How Should We Live? The Social Question 217

Part 4 Faith and Culture

12 Uneasy Partners: Christians and Politics 237

13 Holy Subversion 255

Sources 273

Acknowledgments 297

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Vanishing Grace: Whatever Happened to the Good News? 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Steve_Doc_Hilton More than 1 year ago
Philip Yancey, obviously, is not afraid of a challenge.  In VANISHING GRACE:  WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO THE GOOD NEWS?, Yancey takes on the entire population of modern-day Pharisees . . . that populate the pews of the 21st Century mainstream denominational churches.  People who are content, complacent, and contemptuous of those who don’t attend “their” church, or believe the way “they” believe.  And he does so in a journalistic fashion; asking questions, searching for answers . . . and yes, reporting the truth as it is, not how we would like it to be. It’s a difficult book to get into.  I had to re-start it several times, before it started clicking for me.  You see, I’m probably one of those modern-day Pharisees.  I want the people to walk through the door, and sit down in the pew, and listen to me.  Do I work hard at preparing messages from the Word of God?  Absolutely – ask my family.  After a 40-hour week job, and preparing for Sundays and Wednesday evenings, the only time they see me is in church.   But Yancey has shown me, through this book, that things need to change.  Scripture calls us to be salt and light to a lost and dying world.  We are to shine the light of the gospel – but in order for light to be effective, it has to reach the optical sensory receptors of another person.  Light shown in a closet – read “church,” – isn’t going to do anybody else any good.  Salt seasons the Word of God, but it also serves as a preservative – and it makes people thirsty for more.  But the salt isn’t going to do any good if it doesn’t come in contact with the taste buds of another person. A city set on a hill cannot be hid; unless it is draped in the camouflage of traditional programs and dry-as-dust presentations. In another challenging book (the author is simply known as Fynn) entitled MISTER GOD, THIS IS ANNA, the precocious 6-year old engages Fynn in a simple, yet profound, conversation: “Fynn . . . why do people go to church?” “Fynn:  Well, I suppose to learn about God.” “Anna:  Well then . . . WHY DO THEY KEEP GOING BACK?  I think it’s because they didn’t get Him in the first place . . . or they’re just pretending.” For Anna . . . and I feel, for Philip Yancey . . . once you get God, you’re supposed to spend the rest of your life giving Him away.   The good news isn’t good news . . . until someone gets the good news. 5 stars for a challenging book that will change your life for the better
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Timely and thought provoking at a time when clarity of thought and faithful action is needed by Christ followers as they speak the good news of grace to a world in need of love.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not an easy or comfortable read, but the really good ones never are. Philip Yancey is a gifted writer and this book will challenge the way you think about how we as Christians should behave in the world. Current events have left many of us frightened and unsure of where this country (and the world) is headed. "Vanishing Grace" is balm for my soul.