American Evangelical Christianity: A Failed Movement?
I grew up in the “thick” of American evangelical Christianity and have served as a theologian in it for about forty years. My uncle was on the national board of the National Association of Evangelical (NAE). My parents were evangelical pastors; many of my close relatives were evangelical evangelists, ministers, missionaries, denominational leaders. I well remember standing on a downtown sidewalk of our Midwestern city feeling proud to see my father marching together with numerous other evangelical pastors and leaders. I don’t remember what the demonstration was about. It was peaceful and had city government permission. I wish I could remember what it was about but I was only abut eight years old.
I attended evangelical college and seminary and taught theology in three American evangelical universities. I have visited numerous evangelical churches and have spoken at numerous evangelical colleges and seminaries all over America. I served as a consulting and then contributing editor of Christianity Today and as the chief editor of Christian Scholar’s Review—both evangelical publications. I have written many books and chapters in book published by evangelical publishing companies. I am not sure that very many people are alive today who have broader and deeper experience with American evangelical Christianity. I have specialized in the study of American evangelicalism for many years and some of my books and chapters (in edited books) are about that phenomenon.
When I now “stand” and look around at American evangelical Christianity and then look back to what it was in the past, I am tempted to say it is now a failed movement. In the 1950s and 1960s and even well into the 1970s and 1980s it was relatively strong, fairly cohesive, influential in what I would call a good way. Yes, to be sure, it had its flaws, but I have no regrets about growing up in the movement and spending my whole life in the thick of it.
Except, I deeply regret that I am seeing it crumble and fail. I am not sure there even is such a thing as an American evangelical movement 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.*
What are the symptoms of this “failure?” Well, there is no longer a center of the movement. For years Billy Graham and his many ministries served as that. With his passing, the fissures and cracks in the movement became gulfs. Many leading evangelicals cannot or will not even talk to each other anymore. Also, the movement has been hijacked by far right-wing American nationalists and they have turned it into something it never was. Finally, American folk religion has risen up within the movement and pushed aside anything serious and profound about it—theologically, liturgically, doctrinally, homiletically, lifestyle-wise, etc. There is almost nothing distinctive about being “evangelical” in America today except being pro-American in a religious way and being against things like abortion and homosexuality.
“My evangelicalism” of the 1940s through the 1970s and even into the 1980s was so different from today’s American evangelicalism (and I speak here only of white American evangelicalism) that I hardly recognize it.
When I was young, evangelicals expected sermons at least sometimes to be convicting. I have not heard more than one or two convicting sermons—challenging common beliefs, customs, practices, lifestyles—in years. When I was young, evangelicals expected to be taught how to evangelize, witness, live boldly for Christ, even be persecuted. When I was young, evangelicals expected each other to be different from secular society in terms of lifestyle. When I was young, evangelicals expected to be challenged when they abandoned their spouse or family for no good reason and bonded with someone else. When I was young, evangelicals expected Christ to return soon and so did not seek their security in savings and material possessions. When I was young, evangelicals expected missionaries to come to church, stay in members’ homes, call out the call to be a missionary. When I was young, evangelicals were routinely challenged to live self-sacrificing lives of service to God’s kingdom in the world. When I was young, evangelicals were routinely warned against falling into worldliness, following the fashions of secular culture. When I was young, to be very specific, evangelical families had almost daily “family devotions” together at home. I could go on identifying the common, core characteristics of what it was like to be evangelical in America in the 1940s through the 1970s and into the 1980s.
I can’t identify when the change happened, but I would estimate it to be sometime in the 1980s. Slowly but steadily American (white) evangelicals dropped their distinctives and became hardly different from the non-evangelical, non-Christian world. Yes, of course, there have always been and are “hold outs,” mostly fundamentalist churches that still preach and live much the same as always. Mostly they are the fanatical “King James Bible only” crowd.
Yes, I know. I can hear the chorus of objections. “Things weren’t all that great back then; your evangelicalism of the 1940s and beyond was riddled with problems.” No doubt about it. But it seems to me we have reacted to those problems (racism, sexism, legalism, harshness toward those who didn’t live up to expectations) by throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Today, American evangelical Christianity is a hollow and shallow shell of its former existence as a distinctive form of religious life. The core commitments and practices are being replaced in many white evangelical churches with almost fanatical American nationalism, anti-socialism, populism, Trumpism, and reactionary beliefs about social progressivism. Among those people one rarely hears about the second coming of Jesus, the joy of serving Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives, etc.
Frankly, I am so tired of hollowed out, shallow evangelicalism that I am drawn to the old-time churches still believe and practice in the old-time way. But, of course, I could never go along with the King James Bible only theology and all that goes along with that.
Is there hope for a renewal of profound, life-transforming, world-changing, hopeful, joyful, conviction-preaching, truth-telling, counter-cultural evangelicalism of my youth? I doubt it. But I think that is a shame.
*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).