Evangelicals Today: What’s Not in a Name?

It has been almost a generation since Newsweek declared “The Year of the Evangelical,” its way of coming to terms with a newly elected president’s claim to being born-again. Of course, once a trend is identified by a newsweekly, it is almost certain to have run its course. While subsequent years have given evidence of growing political activism and sophistication among the evangelicals, behind the scenes the very notion of evangelicalism long ago became all too diffuse.

Today, there are prominent evangelical theologians who acknowledge that the very word evangelical has become virtually meaningless. It retains some sociological usefulness, but even that is fading fast. James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars distinguished between the orthodox and the progressive factions in American society, and many observers might assume that the evangelicals would easily fit into the orthodox category. Though, undoubtedly, most of them would, their elites are (not surprisingly) increasingly sympathetic with the progressive assumptions and agendas, while the mass of evangelicals continues to adapt faith and practice to eliminate friction with the forces of modernity.

Nowhere is this adaptation more evident than in what is called the “church growth movement.” This “movement” actually is an amalgam of experts and techniques single-mindedly determined to assist evangelicals in (to put it in appropriately crass language) gaining market share. All of the tools of modern marketing, including direct mail, telephone solicitation, focus groups, and slick advertising, are mobilized to bring in the latter-day sheaves. Sunday morning services are being re-tooled to be more “seeker-friendly,” eliminating such things as hymnals and the confession of sin in favor of entertaining music and happy talk. Pastors are given counsel in how to project a positive, appealing image. At one conservative evangelical seminary recently, a practical theology class of future pastors took a field trip to a haberdashery to receive instruction in the selection of neckties. Local churches are encouraged to identify a “target audience” and pursue it (in the words of one consultant) “as cost effectively and meaningfully as might be done by McDonald’s, Proctor and Gamble, or American Airlines.”

The marketing of the gospel goes hand in hand with the redefinition of spirituality in therapeutic terms. Evangelicals are second to none in their willingness to redefine their faith in concepts championed by Maslow or Fromm. Almost all the best-selling books in the evangelical market are in the self-help section, and many of them simply baptize the techniques of their secular counterparts.

There are exceptions, of course. There are individuals, churches, and parachurch groups that are self-conscious and deliberate in resisting the accommodating blandishments of modernity. Consequently, instead of lumping all evangelicals among Hunter’s orthodox, it may be helpful to define at least four emerging groups, each with its leaders and institutional allegiances.

First, there are what might be called premodern evangelicals, those who know that something is wrong in modern culture but who assume that present-day problems are simply a matter of personal spiritual decline. These believers don’t know that modernity has happened, and seem to believe that if only we preached louder and prayed longer, everything would be restored as it was in the early church, during the Reformation (these are Protestants, remember, and the Reformation is a golden age for them), or during one of the Great Awakenings. In some respects, this group is the most conservative, but its ahistorical sensibilities leave it vulnerable to assimilating pressures.

Then there are the modern evangelicals. These also are Christians who don’t know that modernity happened, but they tend to treat the contours of modern culture as a neutral context in which to market the gospel. Their consciousness and their strategies are increasingly secularized, but they insist that this transformation is tactically necessary for the sake of evangelism in the modern world.

Third, there are the progressives, a minority which has deliberately embraced many of the assumptions and convictions of their secular New Class counterparts, and who are increasingly uncomfortable with the evangelical label, though they would love to capture the evangelical institutions and their unwitting constituencies.

Finally, there are what might be called (with some hesitation) the post-modern evangelicals. These are Christians who are increasingly aware of the toxicity of modern culture, and of the fact that its demons won’t be exorcised without attention to the concrete structures of life as well as prayer and fasting. These circles of evangelicals are re-examining assumptions about the ways we live and worship, informed by cultural critiques from outside the evangelical world (including those provided by Crisis and like-minded publications). They also have been among the most deliberate in trying to recover broader and more substantial theological and spiritual resources from earlier moments in their own tradition.

In the coming generation, it seems likely that the word evangelical will continue to suffer further diffusion. More candid acknowledgment of this ambiguous labeling would be helpful, but such precision threatens the parachurch empire that has defined evangelicalism for decades, and there are few signs that its leaders are eager to acknowledge the need for a more accurate vocabulary.

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At the time this article was published, Kenneth A. Myers was producer of the Mars Hill Tapes, a bi-monthly cassette magazine on Christianity and culture, and formerly editor of Eternity and the New World.

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