Is the Evangelical Christianity of My Youth Gone?
I know I’m not the first person to ask such a question. I well remember hearing older folks ask almost the same question when I was a kid and wondering what they were talking about. Now that I’m one of those “older folks” I understand what they were talking about. Change is inevitable but uncomfortable—especially as we age. But my question is whether the amount of change is not only of degree but of kind, not only of outward form and expression but of essence. In other words, does the evangelical Christianity of my youth still exist anywhere?
I was raised in what we called “full gospel” Christianity; others called our Christian form of life “Pentecostalism” and we would reluctantly admit it. (Our preference was for “full gospel.”) But our Pentecostalism was fully embedded in the wider, larger world of American evangelicalism. Non-Pentecostal evangelical publications came to our home regularly. Evangelical radio was on most of the time during the day in our home. My family and our church frequently attended pan-evangelical events and multi-denominational evangelical organizations such as Youth for Christ were active in our town and my family and our church eagerly participated. (It was actually YFC that introduced me in my younger teen years to the larger evangelical world outside of my own church and denomination.)
When I think back to the “ethos” of that American evangelicalism of the 1950s and 1960s one thing stands out to me as mostly missing in contemporary American evangelicalism—a fervent, passionate experience of intimacy with Jesus. Maybe that wasn’t true of all evangelicals, but it seemed so to me. Everywhere I turned in that evangelical world the one thing that stood out above all else was Jesus as not only lord and savior but also as friend.
The essence of that possibly lost evangelical Christianity was having a personal relationship with Jesus.
Now I recognize where that came from—historically. The Pietist Movement of the 18th century reveled in it and promoted it. Count Zinzendorf (leader of the Moravians in the 18th century) specialized in it and probably over did it. But I resist the genetic fallacy; just because I know where and how it started doesn’t make it false. To me it was very, very real and still is. But I don’t hear it very much anymore.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
“Friendship with Jesus, fellowship divine. O what blessed sweet communion, Jesus is a friend of mine” and “He’s a faithful friend, such a faithful friend; I can count on him, to the very end….” I could go on and on and on with the songs we sang in church (especially on Sunday evenings) and at YFC “rallies” and at summer “Bible camp” and that I heard on Christian radio which was always the background noise in our home—with my stepmother singing along or humming the songs to herself.
Jesus was a living presence in our home and the center of attention in every church service. People talked about Jesus a lot when they sat around tables in the church fellowship hall. “How is it between you and Jesus?” was a frequent question—especially if someone had a “downcast countenance.” Testimonies of Jesus’s faithful friendship and help in times of trouble and need were frequent. “Jesus will walk with me down through life’s valley; Jesus will walk with me over life’s plane…if he goes with me I shall not complain” and “Where Jesus is, ‘tis heaven there….”
Although I could not see him with my physical eyes, I knew Jesus was among us and with me—all the time and everywhere. And his presence was one of love and compassion as well as disappointment when I sinned.
The ideal of that possibly lost evangelical Christianity was something beyond discipleship; it was real friendship with Jesus. Discipleship was part of that. But above discipleship was friendship, intimacy, close fellowship, presence of Jesus in the day-to-day rhythms of life. I will dare to say that without something like this friendship with Jesus, discipleship is just duty and drudgery.
Where has that experience gone? I’m not talking about in my own personal life; I still experience it—even if I find it mostly absent in contemporary church life. But I have trouble noticing it as an emphasis in contemporary American evangelical life. It seems that we have put Jesus up on a pedestal which is not bad, of course, but does he ever come down? Do we encourage children and youth especially to experience him as living, dynamic, compassionate, guiding, comforting presence in daily life?
That was the evangelical Christianity in which I was raised and I miss it. To be sure it has its down sides and I’m certain some responders here will point them out. But everything has its abuses and distortions. I don’t feel led to talk about those here right now. That’s for another time.
One aspect of that Jesus-centered evangelical Christianity was an emphasis on the name of Jesus. “Jesus is the sweetest name I know” and “Precious name, O how sweet, hope of earth and joy of heaven, precious name….” Yes, yes, again, I know all the objections—such as making magic out of a sound, etc. But I always knew, growing up, that the emphasis on the name of Jesus was not some kind of magic but a way of emphasizing his personal presence in both greatness and love. The name was a symbol for the person; we were not worshiping a name but the person represented by the name.
For some of you out there this all sounds foreign and strange, even weird. I understand that and yet I don’t—if you consider yourself evangelical in any sense of the word. The “evangel” is the good news that God is among us, with us, not only forgiving us and reconciling us with himself through Jesus Christ in history but also inviting us into real fellowship with himself through the living person of Jesus. (Jesus said to his disciples that he called them his friends and he promised to be with us—his followers—until the end of the age.)
Some will consider this sentimental clap-trap and that doesn’t bother me—anymore. There probably was a time when it did. I didn’t want to be considered a “Jesus freak” as I entered into the academic world of theology. But now that fear is diminishing almost to the vanishing point. I don’t care much anymore what people think about me—in terms of my spirituality or my theology.
One thing about the evangelical Christianity in which I grew up that I still embrace even if almost no one else does, even if some people consider it mystical or sentimental nonsense, is Jesus as personal friend as well as lord, master, savior and God.
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