Have American Evangelicals Become Secularized? Some New Year’s Reflections on Changes during a Lifetime
Each year as New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day arrive I feel more ambivalent about them. I admit it; I even feel weary of them. They seem so anti-climactic after Thanksgiving and Christmas. And, unlike other holidays, they are, to me at least, devoid of any special significance. Memorial Day is at least a time to think about my deceased mother even if I cannot visit and decorate her grave (which I do as often as possible). July 4 is at least a day to contemplate and celebrate the freedoms guaranteed in our constitution. Labor Day is another holiday I care little about. It always falls on a Monday and I don’t officially “go to work” on Mondays, anyway, so I usually spend Labor Day much as any other Monday. Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas are the three holidays (“holy days”) that carry the most meaning for me. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day bring me only a kind of sadness as a result, I think, of a feeling of Sehnsucht—something missing.
When I was growing up, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day were very special on our family calendar. The former always brought one of the most interesting and inspiring church events of the year—“Watchnight Service.” For those of you who don’t know what that is… Watchnight Services were begun by Pietist leader Nicholas Ludwig Count von Zinzendorf when he was “bishop” of the Herrnhutters, the Moravians, who lived on his estate in Germany in the early 17th century. “Watchnight Service” was a time of spiritual renewal for the whole community with worship, common meal, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer leading up to midnight and the beginning of a new year.
Our Watchnight Services during the 1950s and 1960s followed a typical pattern. First came a “song service” with hymns and spiritual songs. Following that was a “covered dish supper,” a “potluck” meal in the fellowship hall. (When I was very young that was “over in the Settlement House” a few blocks from our church which didn’t have a fellowship hall.) Often eating was followed by “testimony time” with special emphasis on prayers answered in the past year and aspirations for blessings in the coming year. (We didn’t talk about “New Year’s resolutions” because that was secular stuff. Our language was about what God would hopefully do in us and among us in the coming year.) After the testimony time we would re-gather in the sanctuary to watch a Christian film. (We didn’t call them “movies” because those were what people watched in “movie theaters” which we all knew were dens of iniquity.) Some of them I remember were “The Tony Fontane Story” and “The Restless Ones.” After the film came a sermon followed by the Lord’s Supper. Finally, around 11:30 or 11:45 people “gathered around the altar” for intense prayer. At exactly 12:00 Midnight the organist (or pianist before our church had an organ) would begin to play especially loudly—usually some hymn or song about the “second coming,” the return of Jesus Christ, the rapture. At that signal, people would pray louder for the return of the Lord.
After the Watchnight service ended, usually around 12:30, church people opened their homes for fellowship. I doubt that everyone went to others’ homes to eat and chat until the wee hours of the morning, but my family did. I remember falling asleep on people’s couches and even sometimes floors as my parents drank coffee and talked and prayed. (In the Christian form of life I grew up in, mention of a life need often was taken as an invitation to stop right then and pray.) I was usually carried to the car asleep, sometime around 3:00 AM, and then tucked into bed without waking up until late morning.
Around 10:30 or 11:00 our little family would pile into the car all bleary-eyed and drive the ninety minutes to my stepmother’s New Year’s Day family reunion. She had eight siblings and every New Year’s Day all who could gathered for an extravagant “lunch” (really more like dinner in mid-day) at one of their homes somewhere in small town upper Iowa. (The most common place to gather was my stepmother’s oldest sister’s large house in Kanawha where the largest church in town, a virtual cathedral to me, was the Christian Reformed Church and where more kids attended the CRC school than the public schools! My cousins in that family were all members of a youth group known as “Young Calvinists.”) While my cousins and I played outside (weather permitting), the men sat in the living room and watched football while the women stood in the kitchen and cooked and “cleaned up” and chatted. Eventually, when the football game ended, the men fell into conversation about religion. I loved to sit somewhere unseen and listen. That was probably the beginning of my desire to study theology—just to understand my extended family that was so theologically diverse. They (my stepmother’s family) were divided between Pentecostals and Reformed (CRC). The conversations could get lively, but they were also always civil and respectful. On the way home, sometime in the evening, I often heard my parents talk about the Reformed relatives along these lines: “Well, we know they are Christians, too, but how can they believe those things?” “Those things” meant T.U.L.I.P.!
The New Year’s “celebration” of my childhood and youth died away sometime in the 1970s and 1980s. Churches stopped having Watchnight Services. Our family stopped attending New Year’s Day reunions except once in a while. Those reunions, of course, sputtered and died out as the older siblings went off to retirement homes and passed away.
Now, without the spiritual and family dimensions of New Year’s Eve and Day they seem empty to me. In fact, it’s worse than that. Now they seem to be nothing more than an opportunity to extend the consumerism that has taken over the previous month. Unlike during my childhood, almost all stores are now open on New Year’s Eve and Day. My wife and I don’t “party” so New Year’s Eve is just a time to watch a television movie and, if we’re feeling especially awake, watch the ball drop in Time Square. But I always feel that Sehnsucht I mentioned earlier—a sad longing for Watchnight Service and fellowship and family reunions.
But my point isn’t just to express my nostalgic feelings. It seems to me our evangelical Christian communities in America have lost something precious—not just by abandoning Watchnight Services. That’s just a symptom of a larger abandonment. When I was growing up, at least in evangelicalism, your church was one of your extended families. You looked forward to being with your church family, eating together, having fellowship together, sharing triumphs and tragedies and prayer requests together, praying together. Now, for the most part, anyway, even in evangelicalism, “church” is Sunday morning worship only. For some it also includes Sunday School, although that’s gradually dying out, too. Many churches have attempted to fill the “fellowship gap” with a small group ministry, but in most such churches only a minority of the members are involved and these groups tend to fall into an affinity pattern (“birds of a feather…”). Children are usually not part of the small groups. I have doubts about whether the contemporary manifestation of small group ministry in churches really fills the gap left by the demise of events such as Watchnight Service.
I realize that I sound like an “old timer” longing for a “golden age” of the past. I’m convinced, however, that my complaint is more than that. I think church life in America has changed so dramatically that it is hardly recognizable. If time machines existed and someone from a typical evangelical church in the 1950s were transported to a typical evangelical church of the second decade of the 21st century, he or she would be shocked by the change. Other than the building (perhaps), almost nothing would be recognizable. In 1950s evangelicalism we memorized Scripture. Who does that anymore? Then we sang theologically rich hymns and gospel songs. Who does that anymore? Then we studied our Sunday School lessons on Saturday (if not before). Who does that anymore? Then we attended church on Sunday evening and invited “unsaved friends” to hear the gospel. Who does that anymore? Then we gathered in each others’ homes for fellowship and prayer and Bible study. Who does that anymore? Then we went door-to-door with gospel tracts and invitations to attend church. Who does that anymore? Then we knew the people we went to church with well. Who does anymore? Then we were required to give an account of our conversion before baptism. Who does that anymore? Then we had occasional “protracted meetings” (revivals that included special services nightly for a week). Who does that anymore? Then we had warm, even passionate, “altar calls” and invitations to accept God’s call to be missionaries. Who does that anymore? Then we watched missionaries’ “slide shows” and heard their stories of successes and failures “on the mission field.” Who does that anymore? Then we had “missionary barrels” in the church foyer to collect “goods” not available to missionaries “on the field.” Who does anything like that anymore? Then we had church picnics and people stayed after church on Sunday evening to talk and pray and the young people fraternized and flirted as the children played games on the lawn outside the church. Who does that anymore? Then the pastor (and often the pastor’s spouse) visited members and visitors in their homes. Who does that anymore? Then evangelical families had “family altar” at least weekly (if not daily) at home. Then evangelicals called each other “brother” and “sister.” Who does that anymore?
Are these all cosmetic changes only? Or has something substantial been lost in them? All of those changes would be cosmetic, culturally contextual, IF something had replaced the older practices. Unfortunately, in most cases, those aspects of evangelical life in American churches and homes have simply fallen away not to be replaced by anything. We have become by-and-large a Sunday morning religion of people who don’t really know each other.
All that, of course, raises the question of why? Why has American evangelical life changed so dramatically in the course of a lifetime? I think the answer lies in cultural accommodation. We American evangelicals absorbed the ethos of the consumer-driven and entertainment-centered, upwardly mobile, affluent lifestyle of the society around us. And we contributed to it.
My sociologist friend is now convinced that the “secularization thesis” he once promoted has been largely disproven. He now believes the sheer number of churches and people involved in religious activities gives the lie to the idea that modernity inevitably leads to secularity. I’m not so sure. While evangelical church attendance may have increased and evangelical mega-churches dot the landscape and evangelical God-talk is on the lips of many politicians, I question whether this is real evidence against secularization. It depends on what “secularization” means, I guess. But it seems to me we American evangelicals, numerous and influential as we are, are just as secular as our unchurched neighbors. The only differences are in what we say we believe and that we go to church on Sunday mornings. We go to and rent the same movies they do. We get divorced as often as they do. Our church lives function much like their club activities.
Someone traveling from 1950s American evangelicalism to today’s American evangelicalism would probably think we have changed so much that we are unrecognizable as evangelical. That person would almost certainly think that we are no different than the “mainline, nominal ‘Christians’” they knew and regarded as a mission field in the 1950s.
Of course…as someone will inevitably point out, there are exceptions. I’m sure there are churches like the ones of my childhood and youth—spiritually intense and demanding. But I argue they are the exception and are probably in the process of changing in the ways I described here. If not, they are probably considered “cultic” even by other evangelicals. (Consider this an explanatory footnote: I distinctly remember that in 1950s evangelicalism it was common for pastors and elders of churches to intrude very forcefully into the “private lives” of church members who “went astray” morally. My stepmother, pastor’s wife, for example, went to the home of a church member who was unfaithful to her husband on a daily basis to pray and read Scripture with her while her husband was at work. This went on for weeks, hours every day, until she repented, left the adulterous relationship and returned to her previous “walk with the Lord.” This was normal practice then. My father, our church’s pastor, did it when the “backslider” was a man. Today, I fear, it would be considered evidence of “cultic activity.”)
So what am I suggesting? A return to the 1950s? Well, not exactly. Yes—in the sense of recovering in new ways the sense of community American evangelical churches had then. Real spiritual community necessarily includes availability, transparency, and accountability. No–we don’t have to return to Watchnight Services to recover those. But we do need to create new ways of filling the “fellowship gap” left behind by the demise of such intense events.