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.