What Has Happened to the Evangelical Christianity of Not Long Ago?
The other day I was having a conversation with a man about my age who entered the Christian ministry as a very young man—while still in college. My father did the same. He began pastoring a church at age 19! I grew up in a church world where young men (and women) were expected to hear a “call from God” to some kind of vocation of service while they were teenagers.
My conversation partner pastored some very large as well as some very small churches in his pastoral career. Now he teaches students studying for Christian ministry—as I do.
This man said something to me that I thought only I thought: “The Christianity of my youth is gone; I don’t find it anywhere.” I have thought that to myself but been afraid to say it to anyone. I had to agree with him. We both grew up in and began our ministries within the “heart” of American conservative Protestant, evangelical Christianity. We both have taught at several Christian institutions of higher education and we both have traveled much—speaking to Christian audiences both inside and outside of churches. We have both written books published by evangelical Christian publishers. We both have our finger on the “pulse” of contemporary American evangelical Protestant Christianity and we both grew up in and began our ministries in what that used to be. We are both dismayed at how it has changed.
We were not talking about “drums on the platform used during worship.” We were not talking about styles of dress or hair or anything like that. We were talking about substance.
We both know what evangelical Protestant Christianity was like in terms of substance in the middle of the twentieth century—in America. We both know what it is like now. And to us, at least, the change of substance is so radical that we have trouble recognizing contemporary evangelical Protestant Christianity in America as in continuity with the religious form of life we both grew up in and began our ministries in.
Let me explain (after the usual disclaimer paragraph!)….
*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.*
It’s actually difficult to know where to begin! Almost everything has changed substantially. But what I mean by “substantially” will only be revealed by my examples.
First, church was extended family; people knew each other and were involved in each other’s lives. There was no notion of “personal privacy” if you were a member of the church—except in the bathroom and (normally) bedroom. When the church was large, the Sunday School class was your extended family. If you were a member or regular attended and missed two Sundays in a row without explanation you could expect a visit from a pastor or Sunday School teacher. I could go on, but that should give you a taste of what I’m talking about.
Second, and following from “first,” home visitation was a big part of a pastor’s job. If the church was large this might be delegated to Sunday School teachers or others (e.g., elders or deacons). Also, hospital visitation was expected of pastors—even if they could not get to everyone every week (due to the size of the church and the city).
Third, evangelism and missions were central to church life. People had missionaries’ pictures at home and prayed for them as well as supported them financially. Many churches had “missionary barrels” where people put non-perishable items to send “overseas” for the missionaries. When the missionaries came “home on furlough” they traveled around speaking in churches and were expected to talk about conversions and church planting and building. “Transformative initiatives” were not enough; “winning lost souls to Jesus” was the common language and it was expected.
Following as part of “third” is that all evangelical churches had programs for training members to witness and evangelize. Everyone was expected to witness to their neighbors, co-workers, fellow students, etc.
Fourth, the worship space was treated as a place for reverence and respect. It was not “the auditorium” but “the sanctuary” and drinking beverages and eating food was absolutely forbidden. Every church had “ushers” part of whose job it was to speak to people who were not showing proper reverence and respect for the worship space—not so much because it was considered especially “holy” or “sacred” but because munching food and gulping beverages was distracting to others and just not proper during worship.
Fifth, most of the work of the church was performed by volunteer lay people instead of paid staff people. It was expected that every member would volunteer part of his or her time to do something for the church. Anyone who didn’t was considered a backslidden person in need of correction or even excommunication. There were excommunicated people who attended regularly, but they were not allowed to hold any positions of leadership and were the subjects of much prayer and visitation.
Sixth, Sunday was set aside as a time to be in church—morning and evening—and afternoons were devoted to rest, reading, visiting “folks” in their homes, etc. Normally, television was turned off on Sunday (unless possibly for religious programming in the morning while the family got ready for church or in the afternoon after the usually abundant Sunday noon dinner). People who did not spend most of Sunday at church were considered unspiritual and not given any kind of leadership in the church. (Of course exceptions were made for people who were for whatever reason not able to spend most of the day in church.)
Seventh, if a person attended church often (e.g.,with a “loved one”) but did not show any sign of interest in growing spiritually, he or she would be talked to and eventually asked to stop attending—if he or she was living a “sinful life.” That’s because children and youth would possibly assume that the person’s sinful lifestyle was acceptable.
Eighth, every evangelical church had occasional revivals—“protracted meetings” where people came every night of the week to hear music and preaching that was not “ordinary.” The focus was on both evangelism (“Bring your friends!”) and re-dedication or new consecration to the Lord. “Deeper life” or “higher life” was a major focus of evangelical churches with retreats, seminars, workshops, etc., that people were expected to attend.
Ninth, churches that “shut down” programs for the summer or for holidays were considered unspiritual. Summer, for example, was one of the most active times for evangelical churches with Vacation Bible Schools, “Backyard childrens’ clubs,” “Camps” and “Mission Trips”—usually to visit missionaries “on the field” in the countries where they were working for the Lord. Of course, only some people could go on these, but when the people who did go returned everyone was expected to come and listen to their stories about the missionaries and the people they were evangelizing and view their slides.Tenth, every evangelical church had at least “Wednesday Bible Study” that usually met in the evening for at least an hour and any church member who did not attend was considered less than fully committed.
Eleventh, when evangelical Christians gathered for social fellowship with each other, whether in homes or at restaurants, wherever, they talked about “What Jesus is doing,” what they were learning from the Bible, reading Christian literature, their favorite radio preacher, or something spiritual and not only sports or politics or the weather. If they gathered in a home on Sunday afternoon, for example, they watched Billy Graham or Oral Roberts or Rex Humbard or some other evangelical Christian program (not football). Of course there were exceptions, but these fellowship gatherings of evangelical believers in homes were common and much of the “talk” was about religion, faith, God’s work in people’s lives, etc.
Twelfth, evangelical Christians had fairly high standards about entertainment. Many did not attend movies in movie theaters. If they did, they were highly selective about what ones they would attend (and let their children attend). Along with that, modesty in dress was expected—of both males and females. Most evangelical churches did not permit “mixed bathing” (boys and girls swimming together at camps or “lock ins” at the YMCA or YWCA). Young people were encouraged to listen only to Christian music on the local Christian radio station. Often they were given notes to take to school saying that they were not permitted to dance. Alternatives to “prom” were routinely planned by churches and local evangelical ministers’ associations. Such alternatives included (mostly) banquets to celebrate the coming commencement.
Thirteenth, Sunday sermons were expected to convict congregants and visitors of sin and “backsliding” and call them to new repentance and greater involvement in spiritual practices such as daily devotions, Bible reading, prayer and witnessing to the unsaved.
All that is to say that evangelical Protestant Christianity in America was intense. What is it today? Unrecognizable to those of us who grew up in that evangelicalism that was the norm in the 1950s and afterwards but has almost disappeared except perhaps among fundamentalists. But many of my international students from Latin America, Asia and Africa testify that the basic ethos of this older version of evangelical life in America lives on in their home countries.
Why has it changed so dramatically in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in America? I suspect the “old evangelical” ways are now considered legalistic. Perhaps so. Some would even say it was more than just “old fashioned;” it was too out of step with culture to have much impact on the culture. Possibly so. I could go on with the reasons why this mid-twentieth century evangelical subculture has largely gone away (except among separatistic fundamentalists).
But my question and that of my friend and conversation partner (referred to at the beginning) is what has been lost? Have we American evangelicals blended in too much? And what I mean by that is secular and pagan culture blending into our church life? For example, do we even care about modesty of dress at all? I don’t think so. I have spoken at evangelical youth camps and retreats and walked around evangelical Christian high school and college campuses. I see that modesty of dress is pretty much gone. What professor at an evangelical Christian college, for example, would dare to challenge the extremely revealing attire of a student walking across campus, sun-bathing on campus, or working out in the campus “gym?” What evangelical college professor (or staff person) would dare to challenge a student who slurps coffee and munches on a protein bar during chapel? What pastor of an evangelical church would dare to home-visit a parishioner who was living in luxury but not contributing to missions? Which one would dare to call out a parishioner for buying and driving an extremely expensive, luxury vehicle? (Yes, long ago, most evangelicals considered such “conspicuous consumption” a sin!)
Am I sounding like an old fogey? An old curmudgeon? An old legalist? A cranky old coot? Frankly, I don’t care. I don’t expect or even want everything of American evangelical Christianity to go back to every way it was fifty and sixty years ago (and more). But my concern (and that of my conversation partner mentioned at the beginning) is that all standards of lifestyle and behavior distinguishing evangelical Christians from non-Christians seem to have disappeared.
I know for a fact, from my discussions about these matters with evangelical pastors, that here are some things they struggle with. First, many regular attenders see nothing wrong with persons of different sexes living together before marriage. Second, many regular attenders attend only Sunday morning worship and never show up for anything else. Third, many regular attenders permit their sons and daughters to skip Sunday morning church (among other church events) because they are “too involved” in extra-curricular activities many of which meet to practice or even play on Sunday mornings. Many of their regular attenders live their lives exactly like their secular or pagan neighbors and have no qualms about it. These pastors know that if they challenged these lifestyles from the pulpit they would lose a sizeable portion of their congregations and possibly their positions.
You wonder how I know these things. Well, you have no idea…. Among other things I have taught numerous Doctor of Ministry seminars over the years—where men and women who have been in pastoral (or other) ministry for years come back to seminary to continue their seminary studies and training and earn a “D.Min.” degree. The discussions they have among themselves about church life (and most of them are evangelicals) often reveal to me how much has changed since I was a kid and youth in evangelical Christianity. That’s just one way I know.
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