Historian David Bebbington famously defines evangelicalism as Biblicist, crucicentrist, conversionist, and activist. But to limit our understanding of evangelicalism to its fondness for the Bible, focus on the cross, call to conversion, and impulse to reform church and society is to miss an essential experiential commitment and a key demographic fact.
The experiential dimension we may call immediatism. This is the expectation that each of us can come to the throne of God and expect him to meet us, guide us, and sometimes move us to tears. It is a radically democratizing vision of the faith, with little patience for sacramental rituals, gestures, or artifacts, and even less for a priestly class who mediate God’s presence and intentions to pew-sitters.
The “heart” side of evangelical immediatism typically starts with a sudden, strongly felt conversion, whether reserved, in the style of the solemn march forward at a Billy Graham crusade, or expressive and communal, in the style of a charismatic altar call. It is then nourished week by week in worship services that (no matter how liturgically conservative and buttoned-down) work hard to draw the believer into a warm sense of God’s powerful presence. Here believers raise their hands, close their eyes, and sing “praise and worship” songs with simple Jesus-and-me lyrics and affecting melodies, harmonies, and rhythms.
This is the immediatist quality of Bebbington’s “conversionism” and “crucicentrism”—it is how evangelicals approach conversion and cross. And it is quintessentially American. While it has now spread the world over, this style owes everything to the rich history of revivalism, played out in the pine groves, back roads, and inner cities of the United States–see Robert Duvall’s The Apostle for a pitch-perfect rendition.
Evangelical immediatism is a matter of the mind as well as the heart. Intellectually, it manifests as a straight-line, common-sense approach to revelation: every believer of even ordinary intelligence can know what God thinks and intends for their life by simply opening the Bible and reading what’s there—no elaborate interpretive constructions or highly educated leaders needed—“God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
This is the immediatist quality of Bebbington’s “Biblicism”—it is how evangelicals approach the Bible. And it too is quintessentially American. It arose from the meeting of conservative Protestant faith and common-sense epistemology in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it hardened into fundamentalist forms in the pitched 20th century battle against evolutionary science and liberal modernist theological trends.
Evangelicals are immediatist in “hands” too—the realm of action, in both church and society. Here we take the shortest path to the hearts and minds of the people. In our church life, this means treating liturgy, discipline, and doctrine alike in a most pragmatic and flexible mode: whatever works to bring ordinary folks to the throne of God, that’s what we do. Let no traditional structure, form, or ritual stand between the believer and her God. In our social activism, the impatient evangelicals lean toward simplistic, straight-line solutions and away from the more difficult and long-term engagement with the complex mediating structures of modern social life. In both church and society, the shortest path to the hearts and minds of the people often turns out to be some closely mimicked version of what is already culturally familiar: mall-like churches, rock-concert-like services, Amway-like evangelistic campaigns, and party-politics-like reforming crusades. This is the immediatist quality of Bebbington’s reforming “activism.”
The growing edge of evangelical culture-imitation, in its crusade to bring hearts, minds, and hands directly into God’s presence, has been, at least since the 1930s, youth culture.Billy Graham’s Youth For Christ-inspired evangelistic crusades, Calvary/Maranatha’s hippie songs and concerts, and indeed the whole massive explosion of the charismatic movement in the second half of the last century – all of these were jet-propelled by the youth movements of their day.
What do this fundamental immediatism and this youth-driven quality mean for the future of evangelicalism? First, they very likely mean that whatever touches the hearts and minds of the generation rising right now – the adolescents of today – that will shape evangelical worship, ecclesiology, and doctrine for years to come.
An optimist could point to the dynamism and renewal that emerged from past youth movements, or to the laudable and faithful concern of many young evangelicals today for justice, creation care, and other historical blind spots of the movement.
A pessimist, however, would say that this is very bad news indeed. They could point to sociologist Christian Smith’s famous diagnosis of evangelical youth as mired in “moralistic therapeutic deism”: the theologically vapid belief in a kindly grandfather God who lavishes blessings and requires no accountability—this we might call immediatism gone, at last, to seed. Far from nourishing themselves in the rich mediated forms of our own Christian heritage—liturgical, organizational, doctrinal, spiritual—young evangelicals seem poised to remake God and faith to serve their own immediate needs.
However, future-telling is a notoriously risky business. And despite signs of decline, young people are beginning to find in traditional religious forms the authentic, immediate presence and power of God that they seek.* In his 2002 book The Younger Evangelicals, the late Robert Webber argued that a new “ancient-future church” is emerging, and it is emerging in the ranks of the young. I can only say, May it be so. In fact, I believe that only such a recovery can secure the future health and faithfulness of the movement we call evangelical.
*I described this movement in “The Future Lies in the Past,” Christianity Today, Feb. 8, 2008 and have sought to contribute to it in Patron Saints for Postmoderns (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: (Brazos, forthcoming in early 2016), as well as on my blog, gratefultothedead.wordpess.com.