Trying to determine when modern evangelicalism began is like dating an ancient artifact: You know what time period it came from, but it’s hard to know what date to celebrate the anniversary. We picked the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942 as our excuse for looking at 50 years of a wonderful work of God. To accomplish this, we asked Nathan O. Hatch, a leading evangelical historian, to reflect on the changes in evangelical identity over the last five decades. Beginning with his own experiences of growing up as a conservative Christian in South Carolina, he documents and analyzes the vast changes in evangelicals’ expectations, organization, and prospects. In the following article, Kenneth S. Kantzer, former editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, describes the theological debates and controversies that have shaped the evangelical movement in the past and the theological issues that await it in the future. Sprinkled throughout are short reflections by several leaders on what they see on the horizon for the church. Our goal is to do more than celebrate the past. We also look soberly at the present in the hopes of preserving for the future what is at the heart of our heritage: a radical commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
While visiting my parents in Columbia, South Carolina, recently, I started to reflect on what had changed since the early 1950s when I was growing up there. Like much of America back then and unlike now, Columbia had had no fast-food restaurant or suburban shopping mall. But it also lacked something that we now take for granted: that medley of religious influences we associate with modern evangelicalism.
Columbia was a religious place, to be sure, with Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian spires punctuating almost every corner. But religious life had a one-dimensional quality, being confined largely to church programs and activities. The broader culture was mildly supportive of Christian belief, but churches had a virtual monopoly on winning the lost and sustaining the faithful.
When I was a boy, Columbia had no Christian radio and nothing on the airways comparable to Amy Grant, Sandi Patti, or Larnelle Harris. When Elvis Presley became the rage in 1955, all of us in the fourth grade crooned, “You Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog.” By contrast, the church’s stodgy hymns and limp gospel songs could not compete for our hearts and minds. While one could tune in Sunday church services on the radio, there was no James Dobson, Charles Swindoll, or John MacArthur offering insight for daily living—and nothing like the string of over 1,000 Christian radio stations that currently blanket the country. Television in the age of “I Love Lucy” and “The Wonderful World of Disney” was just gaining a foothold and did not seem menacing to serious Christians. But one could not look to television for daily Christian instruction as cable television now permits.
While midweek prayer meetings were a staple of church life, small-group fellowships or care groups were unknown, as were Bible Study Fellowship and Walk-Thru-the-Bible. Churches spoke of revival but had few means to bring the laity into the process like the Four Spiritual Laws or Evangelism Explosion. Churches had not yet developed specialized ministries to singles, single parents, or the divorced. Church-growth seminars had not yet interrupted the weekly routine of pastors.
At local high schools there was no Young Life or Youth for Christ, and at the University of South Carolina no InterVarsity, Campus Crusade, Navigators, or Fellowship of Christian Athletes. College students had nothing at their disposal like the popular apologetics of C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, or Josh McDowell. The 75-member Christian College Coalition had not yet articulated its educational alternative to denominational colleges. Young people interested in the ministry thought in terms of regional denominational seminaries rather than the national evangelical schools of today, such as Fuller, Gordon-Conwell, or Trinity. There was a Southern Baptist bookstore in Columbia with Bibles and Sunday-school materials, but Christian publishers like Zondervan, Word, and Multnomah had not yet flooded the market with an array of books for Christian living—from child rearing to Christian fiction, from financial planning to biographies of Christian celebrities. And fundamentalists could boast no phenomenal best sellers like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) or Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness (1986).
There were few Christian grammar schools or high schools, no Christian counseling centers, no CHRISTIANITY TODAY, LEADERSHIP, or Decision. There were no appeals to relieve Third World hunger from World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, or Food for the Hungry. One could not join hands in service with other Christians through Habitat for Humanity or Prison Fellowship. None of my high-school friends had the opportunity to serve overseas in summer missions projects. No mainline churches in Columbia had been touched by charismatic renewal, and Pentecostal churches remained small and restricted largely to the mill section of town.
These stark contrasts between the texture of evangelical life today and that which existed at the end of World War II highlight the success the movement has had over the last 50 years. But they also raise other questions: What will evangelical life look like in the years ahead? Will evangelicalism be able not only to survive but to continue its success? While these questions cannot be answered yet, pursuing them is still profitable. By assessing what has happened to evangelicals in the last 50 years, we will be better equipped to take stock of the current trajectory of the movement.
From Embattled Minority to Entrepreneurs
Fifty years ago most learned interpreters of American religion expected revivalists, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals simply to wither and die. It was thought that these remnants of a bygone era, these expressions of old-fashioned orthodoxy and overt supernaturalism, could not hope to keep pace with the modern world. They would continue to recede to the margins of American life. In the theological battles of the 1920s and 1930s, most mainline Protestant denominations had purged themselves of these reactionary forces. Mainline Protestants looked forward to growing religious influence in American life as they sought to reconcile faith and modern culture and to narrow the differences among themselves.
What neither scholars nor denominational leaders counted on was the persistence of revivalistic Bible Christianity among ordinary American churchgoers and the furious organizational counteroffensive launched by those who spoke for them. Taking up positions in a variety of marginal denominations (holiness, Pentecostal, Southern, ethnic-immigrant, Adventist, fundamentalist) and in the transdenominational parachurch agencies, theological conservatives labored to organize Americans around alternative visions of Christian faith that stressed personal conversion, holy living, and direct experience of the divine in daily life.
Their unexpected achievements have surprised, and often flustered, outside observers. Church membership as a percentage of population is up 10 percent in the past 50 years, despite the fact that mainline membership has dropped off. Half the increase is due to Roman Catholic growth, which has tapered off dramatically in the last decade. The other half is the direct result of ongoing evangelical expansion. Evangelicals also present the mainline with a renewed challenge from within. Most mainline denominations now host large, grassroots evangelical caucuses, which function as a kind of loyal opposition, and increasing numbers of mainline pastors have been trained in evangelical seminaries.
Denominational competition is not, however, the most important story of the past 50 years. The organizational structures that house the throbbing heart of evangelicalism are not denominations at all, but the special-purpose parachurch agencies that sometimes seem as numberless as the stars in the sky. These evangelistic agencies, missionary agencies, Bible societies, publishing houses, periodicals, radio and television programs, women’s ministries, men’s ministries, youth ministries, prison ministries, summer camps, colleges, Bible institutes, day schools, professional societies, avocational societies, charismatic groups, Bible study groups—even the categories seem numberless—all stand outside America’s denominational structure. Parachurch groups have picked the denominations’ pockets, taking over denominational functions, inventing wholly new categories of religious activity to take into the marketplace, and then transmitting back into the denominations an explicitly nondenominational version of evangelical Christianity.
Evangelical innovations have swept through America’s increasingly permeable denominational walls. The church-growth movement, an emphasis on small groups, and the utilization of spiritual gifts have colored a broad range of American churches since 1970. Similarly, charismatic-style worship has spread far beyond churches that speak in tongues. Churches of long sectarian pedigree, like the Seventh-day Adventists and the Churches of Christ, increasingly take on an “evangelical” cast. (At a recent meeting of Church of Christ pastors in southern California, someone noted that several had taken time to go hear the preaching of Charles Swindoll.)
Liberated from denominational constraints, evangelicalism has turned loose its women and men of entrepreneurial bent upon American’s spiritual problems. The movement’s decentralized arrangement has encouraged people with a unique vision to tailor innovative outreach methods to specific groups of people in specific circumstances. Charles Colson’s term in prison opened his eyes to prisoners’ need for the good news of Jesus Christ, and it also gave him valuable insight into how to go about meeting that need. Evangelicalism’s free-market structure gave him the freedom to build a new ministry around his vision, and it gave him mechanisms for selling it in the marketplace. Like George Patton’s tank brigades, evangelical parachurch groups can strike wherever and whenever a capable commander sees an opening.
But also like Patton’s tank brigades, some ministries are in constant danger of outrunning their supply lines. Their detachment from denominations has loosened their connection to the church and its two thousand years of Christian wisdom and experience. In their freedom to adapt programs to the needs of a particular time and place, they are also at liberty to make the mistakes that Christians have made in the past.
Sophisticated in their use of all forms of mass media and highly attuned to their audience, evangelical entrepreneurs have transformed a popular religious movement into the most dynamic sector of modern religion. One-third of all Americans identify themselves as “born-again” Christians—a phrase given currency by transdenominational evangelicalism. The percentage is even higher for the young adults of the “baby boom” generation, testimony to the evangelicals’ unsurpassed ability to gather young people into the Christian fold. Youth ministry continues to be a central and effective thrust of evangelism today—Young Life, for instance, will bring 22,000 high schoolers into summer camps this year.
Nor has evangelical energy been contained by national boundaries. Evangelicals have virtually taken over the field of foreign mission. Fifty years ago evangelical agencies sponsored 40 percent of all American missionaries; today the figure is over 90 percent. Wycliffe Bible Translators alone now has more missionaries in the field than all Protestant American mainline agencies combined.
Its decentralized structure, audience orientation, and what the sociologist has called its “willingness to confront strangers” have helped make evangelicalism remarkably adaptable to differing social contexts. Abroad, evangelical Christianity in its various forms is the most rapid-growing religion in many parts of the world, redrawing the religious maps of Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia. In the U.S., evangelicalism has been able to translate its message into terms relevant across a wide ethnic and social spectrum, from Hispanic-Americans to African-Americans, from the impoverished underclass to the materialistic middle class.
It has not, however, proven universally adaptable. The truly wealthy are noticeably absent from evangelical circles; and evangelicalism has yet to fiad a way to communicate in an effective way with the ambitious and well-educated shapers of American culture who guide the mass media, the educational system, the universities, the courts, and the national government.
The Influence of Billy Graham
It would be difficult to overestimate Billy Graham’s importance in the last 50 years of evangelicalism. Raised in Southern fundamentalism and educated in northern fundamentalism, he distilled out of those movements their positive thrusts and brought them onto the national stage.
Graham personally embodied most of the characteristics of resurgent evangelicalism. He stressed personal conversion and the importance of holy living, while de-emphasizing doctrinal and denominational differences that often divided Christians. He was a leader in postwar youth ministry. He worked not through any denomination but through independent, parachurch organizations, taking the gospel into secular arenas—stadiums, television, newspapers.
Graham had strong ties to the National Association of Evangelicals, Fuller Theological Seminary, and CHRISTIANITY TODAY. He supported the neo-evangelical intellectuals who sought to reform fundamentalism’s dispensationalism, moralism, and anti-intellectualism, thereby legitimizing their efforts to a popular constituency that might have otherwise been quite suspicious. He recognized the worth of Pentecostals’ and charismatics’ forms of Christianity and welcomed them into fellowship. He helped make it easier for evangelicals to return to the public square through his association with major politicians and by taking cautiously progressive positions on a few social issues like civil rights, poverty, and the nuclear arms race. He has been able to adapt his delivery to his audience—for instance, he preaches less about the terrors of hell than in his early years—without compromising his message of salvation through Jesus Christ.
It has often been written that Billy Graham thoroughly reflects the American middle class that attends his crusades. His politics, his language, his concerns, and most important, his religion, are pegged to the values and the aspirations of the middle sectors of American society. But Graham has also transcended the American middle class in his ability to speak to the spiritual aspirations of a broad spectrum of people in other societies. From Latin America to Asia he has been able to draw widespread cooperation and enormous crowds with the same message he preaches in the U.S. However, like evangelicalism generally, Graham has been less successful in winning over the educated classes, who have tended to regard him with skepticism and condescension.
For evangelicalism, Billy Graham has meant the reconstitution of a Christian fellowship transcending confessional lines—a grassroots ecumenism that regards denominational divisions as irrelevant rather than pernicious. Graham was at the storm center when separatist fundamentalists finally split off from the rest of evangelicalism, but he nevertheless led most American fundamentalists out of their enclaves into broader fields of fellowship and activity. In doing so, he gave popular American Christianity an enduring evangelical flavor. Today Graham’s is not the most frequently heard voice on the American evangelical scene, but it is still the most respected, still the most winsome.
From the Theological to the Relational
The last five decades of american evangelicalism encompass stories of both continuity and change. Much remains the same—the indispensability of personal conversion, the quest to live lives pleasing to God and in line with his purposes, the firm belief that God acts in individual lives and in human history, the preference to read the Bible literally whenever possible, the centrality of lay leadership and parachurch groups for transmitting the evangelical vision, the ambivalence toward churches belonging to mainline denominations, the democratic bias toward grassroots authority.
There have also been a number of changes that might be understood collectively as a shift away from the theological toward the relational. Fifty years ago evangelicals were fully engaged in battling modernists’ attempts to detach Christianity from historic orthodoxy. This kept evangelical concerns centered on the content of Christian belief—on the propositional truths of Scripture. Today evangelicals seem far more interested in questions of worship. This has led in two different directions: a movement toward the liturgical by the intellectually inclined, and a movement toward the charismatic by the average churchgoer. Both represent a shift in emphasis away from knowledge about God toward the experience of God.
Fifty years ago evangelicals were taught that everyone should witness to non-Christians about Christ at every opportunity. This was understood as plain, direct talk about every human being’s sinfulness and need of regeneration through faith in Jesus Christ. The corollary of this teaching was that anyone who could not testify to an evangelical-style conversion experience was presumed not to be a Christian. Today, however, the concept of witnessing has taken on more nuanced forms, such as “lifestyle evangelism.” Human spiritual distortion seems more often discussed in terms of psychological maladjustment than as inbred sinfulness. Occasionally, it sounds as though the gospel is directed more toward personal well-being—health, financial security, and stable human relationships—than toward the eternal life of the soul.
Fifty years ago a huge wave of missionaries traveled overseas with the single-minded goal of carrying the gospel to people groups around the globe that had never before heard it. The focus was more on the next world than this—rescuing the souls of all who had never heard the gospel from an eternal death that was as certain as it was terrifying. Today the concern for souls has not diminished, but evangelical missionaries now tend to go abroad with an equal concern for the physical well-being of their hosts. Modern mission agencies are as devoted to the relief of bodies as they are to the relief of souls.
Fifty years ago evangelicals—not without reason—saw secular society as unremittingly hostile toward their faith. One response was to follow moral standards that set evangelicals off from the rest of the world. Movies, dancing, swearing, and alcohol were strictly off limits; tobacco, mixed swimming, jewelry, makeup, and certain hairstyles and types of clothing might also be prohibited. Associating with nonevangelicals for purposes other than evangelism was also usually regarded as worldly.
Today the interest in hard-and-fast moral codes has moved a few notches down the scale of priorities. Fewer evangelical leaders call Christians to self-denial; more provide roadmaps to self-esteem. The original version of E. Margaret Clarkson’s missionary hymn—“So send I you to leave your life’s ambition! / To die to dear desire, self-will resign! / To labor long and love where men revile you—/ So send I you to lose your life in Mine”—is rarely printed in hymnals anymore.
Fifty years ago most evangelicals read the Bible through the dispensationalist lenses of the Scofield Reference Bible. This stimulated keen interest in the fulfillment of prophecies preceding Christ’s return; along with the tendency of their liberal opponents to emphasize the social obligations of Christians, it gave evangelicals a second rationale for their lack of interest in social concerns. Now, however, dispensationalism does not seem nearly so widespread. Passion for the coming of the Holy Spirit today may have partially displaced passion for Christ’s return tomorrow. Evangelicals have shown a new willingness to work in concert with nonevangelicals to effect social change—perhaps a sign that we now read in the prophets a call to work for justice as well as a timetable for the Second Coming.
Fifty years ago evangelicals had virtually abandoned the life of the mind, concentrating instead on communicating their message to a popular audience. All the evangelical scholars in America could have, as one historian put it, “fit into a single boxcar.” Today there is a sizable and growing contingent of evangelical scholars making their voices heard in intellectual circles, committed to the proposition that God can redeem even serious intellectual life.
Many doubtless regard these changes as regress rather than progress, but it is clear that they have stemmed to a large degree from evangelicals’ reactions to their experiences in spreading the gospel. Fifty years ago evangelical subcultures were highly insular, equipping talented men and women with a clear and unambiguous ideology. But as they went out into the world to proclaim the Christian faith, they contacted human realities for which their ideology had not entirely prepared them.
Evangelists found that direct proclamation of the gospel sometimes hardened people against the gospel, but long-term personal relationships would sometimes soften those same hearts. They discovered many nonevangelicals—even Roman Catholics—who were true servants of Christ in every meaningful sense.
Pastors found that conversion, sanctification, and baptism of the Holy Spirit did not automatically produce harmonious marriages, wise parents, respectful children, and merciful neighbors; and they discovered that strict moral codes could sometimes deflect emphasis from the weightier matters of the gospel.
Evangelicals of a scholarly bent found that the secular intellectual world spoke a virtually different language from that of evangelicals. Evangelicals inclined to activism realized that in abandoning social concern they had left the field to the secular state, which has steadily spread its influence into more and more areas of American life. Missionaries found that their Christian faith was partly shaped by their cultural heritage, and that other cultures possessed liberating insights at times more congruent with the biblical message.
In addition, many of the changes in evangelicalism can be traced to the success of the movement. Fifty years ago the movement had a distinct sense of itself as a small, outsider minority group, bunkered down against the assaults of a hostile society. Today the phenomenal growth in numbers of evangelicals has permitted the growth of subcultural institutions that stretch across the spectrum of human activity. If the subculture is not as deep as it once was—if there is less obvious difference between evangelicals and nonevangelicals—the subculture is broader than it once was, making it easier for evangelicals to isolate themselves from the rest of society than ever before.
Evangelicalism and the Culture Wars
For most of this century, leaders of the mainline denominations have pilloried evangelicals for failing to recognize the social obligations of Christian faith. Large groups of evangelicals finally answered the call to social action in the 1970s—much to the dismay of their mainline critics. When they finally did take up social and political activism, evangelicals organized around a completely different agenda.
Evangelicals mostly worried about legal abortion, morality and family issues, religion and education, economic growth, and maintaining a defensive posture in the Cold War. Mainline activists were more concerned with civil rights, economic redistribution, nuclear peacemaking, the curtailing of U.S. military influence abroad, and environmental issues.
As a result, the two groups found themselves at odds on virtually every issue. The mainline commitment to equal civil rights for women translated into support for legal abortion. Evangelical support for economic-growth policies led them to oppose many environmental-protection laws. And so forth.
By the 1980s, American society was marked by a sharp polarization on these and similar issues. Catholics, Jews, and all major Protestant denominations have split down the middle. The conservative agenda is championed by an interfaith coalition that sociologist James Davison Hunter has called the orthodox party. The liberal agenda is pursued by an interfaith coalition, joined by a secularist component, that Hunter has called the progressivist party.
To a significant extent, the polarization follows a division in American society between the lower middle classes, who tend to support the orthodox party, and the upper middle classes, who tend to be progressivist. Educational patterns are important: Higher levels of education generally correlate with a progressivist orientation.
Equally important has been the expansion of direct government influence into ever-wider areas of daily life. This has naturally spawned a pitched battle over who will control the direction of that growing influence. It has also introduced the peculiar moral values of the government itself into debates that turn upon moral questions.
The culture wars have shaken evangelicalism, just as they have the rest of society. Most evangelicals find themselves more or less in the orthodox camp; some gravitate toward the progressivist camp, but many sympathize with parts of both. The din of the debate has drowned out temperate voices, and the sharply dualistic views of both parties have made it difficult to find middle ground. This raises the possibility that the resurrection of evangelical social concern, earnestly called for by Carl F. H. Henry 45 years ago, will further fragment the evangelical subculture.
Can the Evangelical Center Hold?
The genius of American evangelicalism since World War II has been in transcending its own fragmentation and sectarianism and realizing a vital strain of “mere Christianity.” Billy Graham, no doubt, has been the prime exemplar of this ideal of evangelical catholicity, of focusing on essentials and asking for reciprocal good will on less-important matters. As standard bearer of evangelical unity, Graham has served much the same role that John Wesley ascribed to John Newton in the eighteenth-century: “You appear to be designed by Divine Providence for a healer of breaches, a reconciler of honest but prejudiced men, and an uniter (happy work!) of the children of God that are needlessly divided from each other.”
A broad range of leaders, movements, and institutions have joined Graham in building a nonsectarian evangelical consensus. It has been the unswerving vision of the National Association of Evangelicals and of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, and leaders like Kenneth Kantzer, Charles Colson, and Robert Seiple. The same attention to essentials has also animated youth movements such as InterVarsity and Campus Crusade for Christ. It is a guiding principle of the 75-member Christian College Coalition, and prominent in the writings of Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, James M. Boice, Os Guinness, R. C. Sproul, and Tony Campolo.
This sense of common purpose has fostered numerous concerted efforts among theologically conservative Protestants. Since the Berlin Congress on Evangelism in 1966, this has been an era characterized by evangelical congresses, conferences, caucuses, councils, and consultations. The evangelical community has also been blessed with certain formidable leaders who commanded ready respect and deference, persons such as Graham, Bill Bright, Carl Henry, John Stott, and J. I. Packer.
The founding fathers of modern evangelicalism are in the twilight of their careers, and the age they inaugurated is swiftly coming to an end. The next generation simply does not have the same kind of recognized leaders ready to fill these shoes. Nor will it have the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which has provided financial and organizational glue to make much common activity possible.
In the coming years, centrifugal forces will accelerate. That is the orientation of our fragmented culture, and that is the core of American evangelical history: entrepreneurial, decentralized, and given to splitting, forming, and reforming. Evangelical ministries are dominated by self-appointed and independent-minded religious leaders. No one can predict the rise to authority of a James Dobson, a Beverly LaHaye, a Charles Colson, or a John Wimber.
The evangelical world is a competitive environment, dynamic and uncontrollable. Since 1989, for instance, an estimated 800 different Christian ministries have poured into Eastern Europe. Yet these predominantly American efforts elude any overall coordination or mutual consultation about long-range strategy. This illustrates the dilemmas of a religious free market. How can we maintain theological integrity without veering into sectarian bickering? Can unity of purpose be achieved among charismatics and dispensationalists, Wesleyans and Reformed, Baptists and Episcopalians? What group or conclave should deliberate on knotty theological questions?
What is most important, can evangelicals deflect the strong temptation to spend their energy on internal concerns rather than in engaging an intensely secular and materialistic culture? The task of relating to those who do not share evangelical assumptions may be more difficult than it was a generation ago. An elaborate evangelical subculture provides for many a safe haven from the storms of diversity. It is now possible to proceed from kindergarten to a Ph.D. within evangelical confines, to listen to evangelical media from morning until night, and to consume a steady diet of evangelical books and magazines. Studies show, for instance, that the burgeoning evangelical media empire—radio, television, and popular music—retains minimal audience beyond evangelical borders despite claims that the unchurched are being reached. By constructing a culture of their own, evangelicals run the risk of being less capable, and sometimes less interested, in communicating with neighbors different than themselves.
Can Evangelicals Recover the Wisdom of the Church?
Someone recently quipped that referring to evangelical spirituality is to repeat oneself, while referring to evangelical ecclesiology is to contradict terms. This comment, however exaggerated, does point to the characteristic evangelical reflex of prizing spiritual reality and disparaging church form and tradition.
The evangelical resurgence of the last half-century has unintentionally chipped away at the power and influence of the institutional church. So much of evangelical life is freshly minted—new ministries, new publications, new seminaries, new churches. And those congregations emulated for their success typically reject ecclesiastical tradition for new and powerful ways of being “seeker friendly.” The result is that fewer evangelicals than a generation ago stand in a religious tradition that can provide ballast and long-term orientation. In an increasingly rootless world, evangelicals need to draw sustenance from the church and its traditions.
Never has this problem been more acute. Evangelicals in the past pictured themselves as a leavening influence within the church. Jonathan Edwards was self-consciously a part of New England’s Calvinist churches, and he wrestled within that tradition to solidify orthodox teaching and to renew spiritual vitality. John Wesley, for all his insistence on reform, cherished the institutional church and worked within its structures. Too many evangelicals today divest themselves of being Presbyterian or Baptist, Disciple or Lutheran, Episcopalian or Methodist. We fall into reinventing the church every time a new vision seems workable or anytime strong disagreement disturbs a congregation.
Devaluing the church enfeebles Christians in two respects: it cuts us off from the past, and it relieves us of accountability. In an age when faith is often relevant, but shallow and self-centered, we must counter the bias that the newer it is, the better it is. Many traditions of faith in the marketplace today are not powerful enough intellectually or spiritually to provide an orienting vision for all of life. Many Americans are historical orphans who have never reached back to recover a Christian heritage more profound than that of the recent past. Evangelicals possess few solid vantage points from which to assess our own times and to exercise freedom from the whim of the moment.
Evangelicals also have difficulty seeing themselves as responsible and accountable to the church. The community of the redeemed, the very bride of Christ, is premised on bonds more durable than our fickle instinct to pick and choose. How else can the weak and the strong, the mature and the immature, interact to build up the body in good times and bad?
The strength of modern evangelicalism is that it has evolved like a supermarket, a consumer-oriented, highly fragmented religious marketplace. This buyer’s market caters to the free will of the individual and exalts choice over commitment and continuity. The very structures of evangelical life are attuned to the intense individualism of American culture. To fulfill the scriptural ideal of the church, that Christ’s fullest presence indwells the whole, not just the individual parts, evangelicals will have to cut against the grain of American culture—and against some of their own cherished assumptions.
Can Evangelicals Engage the Life of the Mind?
In recent years, the united states has become more secular and more religious at the same time. Religion is abounding in the realm of popular culture and in ways that concentrate on breadth of audience rather than depth of insight. In the realm of high culture, however—in the best universities, in the arts, in literary circles—the juggernaut of secularism rolls on, pressing religious belief into territory that is smaller and of less consequence. Dan Quayle’s “cultural elite” do manifest a decided secularism.
While evangelicals decry the dangers of “secular humanism,” they have rarely been in a position to do anything about it. For at least three reasons, evangelicals have not won the right to be heard by twentieth-century intellectuals.
First, as pragmatic activists, evangelicals have never revered the life of the mind. In fact, they often are suspicious of the methodical poking around of the scholar, and the intellectual’s characteristic nuance, qualification, and suspension of judgment. The most common evangelical depiction of the history of American higher education is that institutions like Yale and Princeton sold their spiritual birthright in the pursuit of academic excellence. To call for academic engagement in evangelical circles still raises the threat of the slippery slope.
Second, the decentralized structure of the evangelical world also inhibits the expensive and painstakingly slow task of Christian thinking. Amidst the scores of evangelical colleges and seminaries, none can provide faculty with the time for thought and writing provided at any good research university. Evangelicals simply have not made the investments necessary to compete on a level playing field.
Finally, the very success of evangelical institutions also works to make evangelicals more intellectually insular. Evangelicals have developed their own publishing houses, their own journals, their own media outlets, their own associations. The very success of these ventures makes it all too easy for scholars to write books for the large, friendly—and commercially profitable—evangelical audience. Instead of engaging those who deny theistic assumptions, evangelicals spend most of their intellectual energies in intramural discussion.
The vitality of evangelical life does little to reverse the pervasive secularization of American thought—a current that undermines the very possibility of theism in the next century. “The problem is not only to win souls but to save minds,” Charles Malik said prophetically to evangelicals at the dedication of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. “If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world. Indeed it may turn out that you have actually lost the world.”
Can Evangelicals Survive Their Own Success?
Evangelicals over the course of the last half-century have come to know the good life. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the First Assembly of God congregation just completed a 5,000-seat sanctuary—the largest auditorium in Grand Rapids and twice the size of any church in western Michigan. This $12 million facility stands in jarring contrast to the storefront chapels that characterized Pentecostalism before World War II. In Charlotte, North Carolina, a once-modest congregation, Calvary Presbyterian, the church home of Billy Graham’s late parents, Frank and Morrow Graham, left downtown for the growing suburbs in the early 1970s. Renamed Calvary Church, this bustling congregation of 3,500 recently moved again, this time to a 100-acre campus and $40 million showcase facility that includes a $2 million organ, an award-winning preschool for 600 children, and a Christian drama troupe.
Evangelical people and institutions have moved dramatically into the mainstream of American society. They enjoy more prosperity, education, and cultural sophistication; and they command greater attention from the media. Most important, evangelical endeavors now stand out as the success story in American religion. Even in the political realm, pollsters now identify them as the religious audience to be reckoned with.
Evangelicals have become accustomed to versions of the gospel that do not give offense. There are still fundamentalists who relish separatism, and Churches of Christ who claim to be a faithful remnant. There are still evangelicals like Ron Sider, Doug Frank, Robertson McQuilken, and the Sojourners community that call for an ethic of sacrifice. Yet, by and large, the evangelical community has become comfortable with suburban mores and consumer culture.
Evangelicals have abandoned (for good reason) earlier definitions of worldliness that involve avoiding externals. Still, they have been less successful in defining how the spirit of Christ might differ from that of success-oriented, upwardly mobile, American materialism.
We live in a culture that worships at the shrine of the four related idols: pleasure, wealth, professional status, and physical appearance. It is a culture of convenience rather than duty and of avoiding pain rather than seeking to relieve the burdens of others. In an affluent culture, these charms have deadly attraction.
Evangelicals are susceptible to the idols of materialism in part because evangelical success and commercial success are so easily intertwined. In an entrepreneurial, media-oriented environment, successful ministries become powerful financial engines. It becomes hard to distinguish between marketing the gospel and commercial success. At the 1989 Gospel Music Association Convention (representing an annual market of at least $300 million), the comanager of Amy Grant argued that the goals of the ministry and business are “exactly the same—market share.”
To what extent have the idols of this age worked themselves into evangelical affections?
To what extent has the goal of evangelical spirituality become self-fulfillment rather than self-denial, less a quest to know God and more a means to achieve the good life?
To what extent has the church been stained by materialism, smug professionalism, and the quest for self-actualization?
In short, have evangelicals so tamed the gospel to accord with American habits that it has been shorn of its radical power to convict and convert?
These are difficult and troubling questions. Fifty years ago, Jim Elliot, the Wheaton student who would become the missionary martyr, could write in his journal: “Our silken selves must know denial.” That stern ethic was somewhat out of step even in the 1940s, but today it sounds like advice from another planet.
Evangelical belief has flourished typically at the margins of society among those who do not enjoy power, wealth, and station. That was the case in the early Methodist revivals and in the contemporary explosion of Protestantism in Latin America. More troubling is the fate of the gospel in an era, like our own, when Christians enjoy plenty and hunger for respectability.
The advice of John Wesley to upwardly mobile Methodists two centuries ago is a pointed reminder of the dilemma of our own success:
“I fear, whatever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches. How then is it possible that Methodism, that is, a religion of the heart, though it flourishes now as a green bay tree, should continue in this state?”
Nathan O. Hatch is vice-president of graduate studies and research at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and a contributing editor of Christianity Today. He is the author of The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale) and coauthor with Mark Noll and George Marsden of The Search for Christian America (Helmers and Howard).
Michael S. Hamilton is a Ph.D. candidate in American history at the University of Notre Dame and program coordinator of the EVangelical Scholarship Initiative.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingWorship Music Is Emotionally Manipulative. Do You Trust the Leader Plucking the Strings?The Spirit is at work, but so are the mechanisms around high-production sets.
- From the MagazineEve’s Legacy Is Both Sin and RedemptionThe first woman tried to get free of God. But when she aligned herself with God’s purposes, she became the ‘Mother of All the Living.’
- RelatedWestern Classics Exclude Me. But Christ Can Redeem Them.As an Asian American, God's great story helps me value literature that often leaves me out.
- Editor's PickI Find Comfort in the Divine WarriorA surprising psalm changed my view on God’s presence during seasons of trial.