How American Evangelical Christianity Has Changed During My Lifetime
The “American Christianity” I will talk about here is specifically evangelical Christianity. But I use that category broadly to include numerous denominations and organizations. They all used to look to Billy Graham for unofficial leadership—leadership by example. I grew up in the “thick” of American evangelicalism. My uncle, with whom I have always been close, was on the national board of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). My father was pastor of two evangelical churches throughout his fifty-plus years of ministry. Many of my aunts and uncles were evangelical ministers and missionaries. Our home, and the homes of most people we knew, including most of my relatives, were filled with evangelical literature, radio and television programs. Our Sunday evening church services and youth group meetings often included evangelical films. As a child and teenager I was deeply involved in Youth for Christ—an evangelical youth-oriented organization. I grew up attending “Back Yard Clubs,” reading evangelical “comic books” and books about The Sugar Creek Gang—an evangelical childrens’ series. My family took my brother and me to special evangelical events in many different denominational settings (and many trans-denominational ones). My extended family including evangelical Reformed, Pentecostal and Holiness people. Our family reunions always included prayer and Bible reading and discussions about God and salvation and how “worldly” the world around us was becoming.
All that is to say I grew up in an evangelical “hothouse.” My social environment was evangelical—way before Newsweek magazine named 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical.” And I’ve been in the “thick” of evangelicalism my whole life. I attended an evangelical college and an evangelical seminary. I have taught at three evangelical institutions. I have served as editor of an evangelical journal and on the editorial board of Christianity Today. I have published articles in evangelical magazines and journals and had books published by evangelical publishers. I have served as chair of the Evangelical Theology Group of the American Academy of Religion. I wrote The Handbook to Evangelical Theology published by Westminster John Knox Press. I have been a member and sometime deacon of about ten evangelical churches in my life. I have served on the steering committee of city-wide evangelical evangelistic crusades. I could go on. I doubt there are very many people in America with stronger evangelical credentials than I have.
People sometimes ask me why I hang onto the moniker “evangelical” when it has become so sullied by the media and in the public mind—as synonymous with angry, right-wing religious politics and the “culture wars.” My answer is twofold. First, “evangelical” is so much a part of my personal identity that I can’t imagine giving it up. Second, I’m too stubborn to let people own it and take it away from me.
However, in my seventh decade of life and being an evangelical I look back and wonder what has happened to evangelical Christianity during my lifetime. It has changed so dramatically it’s hardly recognizable.
What are the most dramatic changes?
First, when I was growing up and well into my early adult years evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on the return of Jesus Christ. I almost never hear or read anything about that anymore. We evangelicals seem to have dropped that—not as a doctrine but as something we look forward to and talk, sing and preach about. Now, it seems, only crazy fundamentalist “date-setters” even talk about the return of Christ.
Second, and related to “first,” when I was growing up and into my early adult years evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on heaven and hell. I almost never hear or read anything about that anymore. We evangelicals seem to have dropped that—not as doctrine but as something we look forward to (heaven) and talk, sing or preach about.
Third, when I was growing up and well into my early adult years evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on missions and evangelism—including “witnessing to the lost.” I almost never hear anything about those anymore. We evangelicals seem to have dropped those—not as things that would be good to do but as things we talk about and actually do. When I was a kid every evangelical church virtually every evangelical church had something like a “missionary barrel” somewhere inside it—to be filled with goods missionaries could not find in their “fields of service.” And they had large posters in some hallway with pictures of the missionaries they supported and maps of where they were serving. Missionaries frequently spoke in evangelical churches and a “missionary offering” was taken monthly. And many sermons included a call to become missionaries. Those evangelical customs hardly exist anymore.
Fourth, when I was growing up….evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on “separating from the world.” That did not mean physical separation but lifestyle separation. We evangelicals knew there was a line of holiness between us and the “secular world” and “nominal Christianity.” We did not drink alcohol, go to movies that included immorality, nudity, vulgar language or even allusions to such. We had our own “Christian culture” that included, for example, “graduation banquets” in place of high school proms. Dancing was frowned on. But more importantly, perhaps, we evangelicals considered marriage sacred and divorce a sin (unless it was due to spousal abuse, chronic alcoholism, abandonment or sexual immorality in which case evangelicals encouraged separation and divorce only as a last resort). It’s been a long time since I heard the word “worldly” uttered in an evangelical church. The line between us and the secular world and its forms of entertainment (etc.) has just about disappeared.
Sixth, when I was growing up…evangelical Christianity in America frowned on all forms of government welfare including subsidized home loans. I remember when this was a debate among evangelicals: Should evangelicals accept government help for anything? I remember when an evangelical minister my family knew accepted a government subsidized home loan to buy a new house. He was harshly criticized for that. Evangelicals believed Christians should be as self-reliant as possible and, when that was impossible, they should rely on the church for help (and churches should share to meet the needs of the truly needy among them). Today evangelicals are just as likely as anyone else to rely on government financial help.
Seventh, when I was growing up…evangelical Christianity in America loved “America” but was suspicious of politics. We were as patriotic as anyone (and extremely suspicious about communism and “creeping socialism”) but generally stayed out of politics. We believed the world was going to hell in a hand basket and government was not any solution to the world’s problems. Our task was to win souls for Jesus and get people ready for the inevitable and imminent world conflagration that would precede the return of Christ to earth. I have not heard anything like that from any evangelical pulpit or mouth or pen in many years.
Eighth, and related to “seventh,” when I was growing up…evangelical Christianity in America prepared its people, especially young people, for persecution and expected it. We fully expected that someday, probably in our own lifetimes, society and even government would arrest us and possibly even torture us for our fervent loyalty to Jesus Christ above “this world.” When I watched on TV the ATF assault on the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco and the ensuing FBI siege of the compound and eventual attack on it with a tank and gas I thought to myself: “That’s what we evangelicals used to expect would happen to us—someday.” I don’t know how many evangelical youth events I participated in where we pretended to be a group of Christians worshiping in secret only to have other members of the youth group “break in” (pretending to be government agents) and “arrest” us. That was a common practice in evangelical youth groups in the 1950s and 1960s. It was evangelical churches’ way of preparing their youth for persecution which they should experience on some level even now (then) if they were being “good Christians” in public (at school). I haven’t heard any talk of persecution among evangelicals for many years (except in other countries).
Ninth, when I was growing up…evangelical Christians knew their Bibles forward and backward. Any evangelical worth his or her salt had read the Bible “through in a year” at least once. “Family devotions” were normal and expected among evangelicals and it included the father or mother reading a chapter or more from the Bible before or after dinner. Most evangelical churches engaged in “Bible quizzing” with the youth. (The churches I grew up in even had elaborate contests between teams of youth sitting on electric pads on chairs that buzzed when you lifted your butt off them. A contestant whose pad buzzed and caused a light to go on on a light board had to answer the Bible question which often involved quoting a verse if not a chapter from memory.) Evangelical churches emphasized Bible memorization. Every good evangelical had a “life verse” he or she could quote at the drop of a hat. All that has gone away. The vast majority of evangelicals, in my experience, know very little about the Bible and never memorize any portion of it. Evangelical sermons are as likely to quote Dr. Seuss as Paul the Apostle.
Tenth, and finally, when I was growing up…evangelical Christians talked a lot about “the blood of Jesus.” Liberal minister-theologian Harry Emerson Fosdick called it “slaughterhouse religion.” We had “passion plays” in our churches on the Sunday night before Good Friday. We sang songs that included lyrics about Jesus’ blood. We “pleaded the blood” over our cars before lengthy road trips. (Now that’s called praying for “traveling mercies.”) We were not ashamed or embarrassed about the blood of Jesus. In fact, whether a church used that language or not was one marker identifying evangelicals over against “mainline religion.” Those “mainliners” didn’t like to talk about the blood of Jesus. It offended their sensibilities. I haven’t heard “the blood of Jesus” mentioned in an evangelical setting in a long time.
So what conclusions do I draw from all this change? Some of it may be for the better. We 1950s evangelicals had obsessions that were probably unhealthy. However, on the other hand, taking it all together, I suspect we American evangelicals have become “comfortable in Zion”—a phrase that we used about mainline Christians (who weren’t really Christians at all) to describe how their religion was non-threatening to themselves or anyone else. And by “threatening” I don’t mean we thought Christianity ought to be physically threatening, but we did think authentic Christianity should shake people’s comfort in this world and focus their attention on sacrifice and separation.