Evangelicalism's Decades of Fire

New historical survey highlights twentieth-century evangelicalism's impassioned middle decades

Given the chance to survey evangelicalism's growth and development through the twentieth century, Steve Rabey and Monte Unger did what any of us might have done. In preparing their new book, Milestones: 50 Events of the 20th Century that Shaped Evangelicals in America (Broadman and Holman), Rabey and Unger spent over 50 percent of their time looking at the '50s, '60s, and '70s—over 40 percent in the latter two decades alone.

It seems clear from this book that the middle decades were, indeed, where the action was really at in 20th-century evangelicalism. From Billy Graham and the rise of mass evangelism in the 1950s to the ascension of evangelicals like Colson and Carter to political power in the 1970s, the movement again and again asserted itself—and reinvented itself—across many cultural arenas.

Don't get me wrong. This is no exercise in antiquarianism. Out of their historical material the authors have built an up-to-the-minute composite portrait of the movement. Their avowed guiding question was "What things, for better or worse, have had the greatest impact on making evangelicals who they are today?"

In choosing to survey the century just ended, Rabey and Unger do fall heir to the peculiar difficulties of doing near-contemporary history: When we look back over a period mere decades past, it's often hard to sort out the trivial from the lasting.

But when we hit the twentieth century's middle years, the time lag seems about right. In some of their best short chapters (none is longer than the average magazine article) the authors, now at some distance from the initial hype, are able to do helpful analysis and fruit-testing of such vintage but still-powerful trends as the church growth movement and seeker-sensitive ecclesiology. ...

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