What Transformed Churches Used to Look Like

Over at Front Porch Republic I posted some reflections on the urge for contemporary Christians to hope for and try to implement “radical” Christianity. It strikes me that such radicalism is at the heart of #woke Christians’ deep and abiding resentment of the fall’s effects on human institutions, not to mention its influence on humans.

Roger Olson is also surprised by the turn that some evangelicals are taking in their awakened state. And he also remembers what used to characterize a transformed Christian culture. Hint, it was not radical:

“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….

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.

This was what I experienced as a yute. And it also explains why I found Reformed Protestantism more appealing and reassuring. I would certainly in my confessional and two-kingdom Protestant self construe church life and personal piety differently that Olson does.

At the same time, that older kind of evangelicalism (or fundamentalism) was earnestly otherworldly and congregational.

As much as the anti-liberal Christians out there, from Rod Dreher to Adrian Vermuele and N. T. Wright want to reject secularism and modern social forms, they don’t seem to have a place for the fairly thick glue of older congregational life and worship. Instead, they seem to prefer that the nation-state take on the attributes of a congregation (without of course all of the earnest striving to avoid worldliness). Meanwhile, the voices for social justice also seem not to notice how the protests and outrage distract from higher responsibilities (because more eternal) of fellowship, evangelism, discipleship, and worship. Again, part of the explanation seems to be an expectation that the world conform to the church or that the eschaton be immanentized.

I am not sure how to conclude other than to say, what the heck happened?


11 thoughts on “What Transformed Churches Used to Look Like

  1. “… I am not sure how to conclude other than to say, what the heck happened?…”

    I assume this is a rhetorical question. I grew up under similar circumstances, but as a member of a “confessional” protestant denomination without the revivals and other forms of pietistic behavior recalled by Olson. What happened was the secular culture and the surrounding technology (TV, computers, the Internet, etc.) changed or “advanced” and the churches, instead of being adamant about not going along with the flow, changed along with it.

    During a rather heated congregational meeting about ten years ago, I can still recall a particular (and rather liberal) member insisting that, “… we gotta to sum thin’ for da yute!…”, meaning in his mind, bending toward the CCM style of worship and loose form of liturgy instead of sticking with what they’d used in the past. I found it ironic because as a youth I recall being trained to adopt the forms and norms of worship in our congregation as I grew, not the other way around. We didn’t get shuttled off to “children’s church,” we were made to sit still and be quiet during the sermon, got used to the words and melodies of the hymns, learned when to stand and when to sit during the liturgy, etc. Now, it seems to be “whatever is popular, we’ll all go in that direction and conform to the cultural shifts.”


  2. what the heck happened?

    If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward (or being more corrupted) . A formal pastor used to illustrate the picture of rowing a boat upstream. That’s why it seems ridiculous for any Christian to suggest removing the word surrender, mock reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit, or dis effort in Him, for example
    1 Thessalonians 4:1 Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more….
    .9 Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; 10 for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more


  3. What happened, as in why is this generation not like past ones? But isn’t that what every older generation says about previous ones? But I also personally recognize Olson’s depiction. Was it otherworldly and congregational, or was it escapist and busy-body?


  4. D. G. Hart says: Ali, Move? If I’m a tree set by river’s side producing fruit in its season, I’m not moving. Biblical imagery much?

    Oh. I thought you were asking for thoughts on ‘what the heck happened’

    Drift happens.(this side of eternity) (He tells us)

    though there is less drift (according to the Lord) for the firmly planted who ‘delights in and meditates day and night on His word’, and ’trusts in and whose trust is the Lord’, by the power of the Spirit.

    Psalm 1 2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night.3 He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers.
    Jeremiah 17:7 “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD And whose trust is the LORD.8 “For he will be like a tree planted by the water, That extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes; But its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought nor cease to yield fruit.

    And btw, even if those things you mention above were still “being performed” it could be drift, for Jesus, who walks among the churches, says to have an ear to hear what the Spirit says to the churches, and His says one drift (the main one?) is leaving your first love.

    Elsewhere Jesus tells us Matthew 24 12 Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold.

    And come to think of it, I may be wrong, but your love for me has always seemed cold!


  5. Some of Olson’s description of “how it once was” is cringe inducing. The whole notion that you’re a backslidden Christian if you didn’t spend 12 hours in church every Sunday and 3 hours every Wednesday needed (needs?) to die. The “you can’t listen to rock music” mentality is pathetic. There’s a middle ground between this extreme fundamentalism and my typical “be the first one out of the church building after the service.” (I’m getting better at not doing that – a year and a half after starting to go the church I attend). Dreher has some good points about creating a parallel community within society. Being at church all day Sunday doesn’t equal community, and that’s something I’m really learning firsthand. I blame my flu for how ramble-y this comment is.


  6. The “you can’t listen to rock music” mentality is pathetic.
    Please. I love rock, and I consider myself backslidden. Lyrically it is worse than ever, even the thoughtful crowd. But go ahead, feel superior and go watch your ‘Game of Thrones.’


  7. Joe, you must listen to really poor quality music then. There are a lot of bands in progressive rock and progressive metal making excellent music with thoughtful lyrics. I’ve never even seen Game of Thrones, and I plan on keeping it that way.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.