Chapter 9

 

What’s So Good About Evangelicalism?

 
 Is Christianity a felt thing? If I were converted would I feel and know it? -James McGready
  • One person’s classic evangelical story of sin and repentance:
    • He wasn’t struggling with questions about positivism or postmodernism; he just knew he was a sinner.
    • He didn’t need a complicated apologetic to persuade him that God exists; hi just wanted assurance of forgiveness.
    • He couldn’t unravel the theological subtleties that divide the denominations; he just longed to know he was going to heaven.
    • His conversion was spiritual and emotional-a profound experience that Christ’s atonement applied to him personally.
    • His conversion involved personally appropriating God’s forgiveness for his own sins.
  • Historically, evangelicalism began as a renewal movement within the churches, not as a separate denomination–and that explains why at first it did not develop an independent intellectual tradition. It didn’t need to. It could take for granted the inherited theological and ecclesiastical structures within the denominations where it arose. Like the pietists before them, evangelicals focused on the personal appropriation of theological teachings like sin and atonement. Their goal was to cultivate a subjective experience of objective biblical truths. As a result, when evangelicalism became dominant within various groups–or when evangelical groups broke away from existing denominations altogether and became independent–they suffered from a certain theological weakness. Evangelical groups tended to downplay the role of theology in favor of practical application such as personal devotion, moral living, and social reform.
  • Historically, the evangelical movement divided roughly into two wings: Populist and Rationalist/Scholarly
    • Populist
      • Strong revivalist style that downplayed doctrine and appealed to ordinary folk.
      • Strongest in the Southern states
      • Included Baptists, Methodists, and the Restoration movement (the Churches of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, and the “Christian” Churches)
    • Rationalist/Scholarly
      • Centered in the North
      • Included evangelicals within the Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian churches.
      • United evangelical fervor with their denominations’ traditional emphasis on theology and scholarship.
  • What does it mean to be evangelical?
    • Americans historians typically use it in a more technical sense to refer to a movement that grew out of the First and Second Great Awakenings, embracing a revivalist style of preaching and an emphasis on personal conversion. Because it was a renewal movement within the church, its goal was not so much to convert nonbelievers as to enliven the faith of nominal believers-to bring individuals to a subjective experience of the saving truths of the gospel.
    • The rhetoric of revival tended to have an anti-authoritarian and anti-traditionalist flavor, denouncing liturgy and ceremonies as empty, external ritualism. This was counter to classic Protestantism stemming from the Reformation, whose definition of the Christian life was largely in terms of participation in the church’s corporate worship and liturgy–a church expressed its identity through creeds and confessions, maintained by the authority of clerical office.
    • “Any Protestant who emphasizes the subjective and ethical aspects of Christianity, rather than its official and churchly characteristics, is an evangelical,” mentions one historian.
  • Groups that stood aloof from the revivalist movement:
    • Catholics, Lutherans, German Reformed, Dutch Reformed, Old Side Presbyterians
    • Sometimes referred to as the confessional churches
    • Even still, over a period of more than 200 years, populist evangelicalism has triumphed over these churches.
  • Good news from the impact of evangelicalism
    • Religious adherence in America has actually increased significantly since the colonial period. The common stereotype that in colonial times virtually everyone belonged to a church turns out to be false. And the correlative stereotype that in the modern world religion is withering away is likewise false. In terms of adherents, churches are doing very well today.
  • The not so good news?
    • At the time of the Revolution, more than half of all Americans who belonged to a religious group (55%) were Congregationalist, Episcopalian, or Presbyterian. 
    • By 1850, Congregationalism had virtually collapsed. The Episcopalians had suffered greatly. The Presbyterians enjoyed some growth, but didn’t keep up with population growth. The Catholics grew, but through immigration, not conversion.  The most striking growth took place among the Baptists and the Methodists, as well as the Churches of Christ.
    • The winners were the evangelical groups that participated in the First and Second Great Awakenings.
    • The losers were the established churches that largely failed to compete in the free marketplace of religion that arose in the new nation.
  • In Pre-Revolutionary America
    • The religious landscape was dominated by churches that rested on legal establishment: the Congregationalists in New England, the Episcopalians in New York, Virginia, Maryland, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. As america was becoming a nation, most European countries still had established churches as well.
    • Legal establishment meant that:
      • The state collected tithes (which all citizens were required to pay, whether they attended the established church or not)
      • The state laid out new parish boundaries
      • The state subsidized new church construction
      • The state maintained parish properties
      • The state paid clergymen’s salaries
      • The state hired and fired clergy
      • The state took measures to suppress dissenters (Baptist preachers, for example, were sometimes jailed and beaten. Yes, here in America!)
      • Government positions were limited to church members–there were religious tests for office.
  • Having the government on their side ultimately weakened the churches. Monopolies tend to be lazy, whether we’re talking about businesses or schools or churches. The established clergy often enjoyed ample time for leisure activities. By contrast, the evangelical ministers were enthusiastic activists, throwing themselves into ceaseless efforts to spread the gospel. They set up additional worship services, started Sunday schools, taught Bible classes, made personal visits, established charities, and founded missionary societies.
  • The established churches tended to be the first to drift into theological liberalism. The wealthier the church, the more likely its clergy were to enjoy social status and formal academic training–and thus also the more likely to welcome the liberalism emerging from European universities at the time. When the First and Second Great Awakenings broke out, the liberal clergy firmly opposed them, declaring themselves on the side of “Reason” against the revivalists’ “religion of the heart.”
  • It is a common assumption that, in order to survive, churches must accommodate to the age. But in fact, the opposite is true: In every historical period, the religious groups that grow most rapidly are those that set believers at odds with the surrounding culture. As a general principle, the higher a group’s tension with mainstream society, the higher its growth rate.
  • How do you bring religion to Dodge City–an uncivilized, rough-hewn people? You do exactly what the Methodists and Baptists did in the revival movements: You grab people by the throat with an intense emotional experience to persuade them of the power of the supernatural-then you tell them to stop drinking, stop shooting each other, and live straight.
  • This kind of intense emotional conversion experience is exactly what the camp meetings of the First and Second Great Awakenings aimed to produce:
    • No profound teaching
    • No high church ceremonies
    • No theological subtleties
    • No solemn hymns
    • Use of simple vernacular language
    • Use of catchy folk tunes
    • Delivered message with lively theatrics to catch people’s attention and move their emotions
    • Preachers didn’t use sermons to instruct (the older pattern) but to press hearers to a point of crisis in order to produce a conversion experience.
    • Gradual growth in faith through participation in a church was not regarded as highly as a one-time conversion event for the sufficient basis for claiming to be a Christian.
  • In the state-supported churches, the training for pastors was a long, expensive process that led to a chronic shortage of clergy, thus giving them considerable bargaining power over salary and location. Many simply refused to go to the unsettled frontier areas. By contrast, the Methodist circuit preachers became a legend on the frontier. They traveled constantly, virtually living in the saddle. Similarly, most Baptist preachers were simple farmers, ministering to their own neighbors.
  • When we consider the growth of religious affiliation in America, then , the most striking thing is that it did not take place among the respectable or established churches, but among the evangelical groups–the “upstart” groups, as they were called at the time.
  • Meanwhile, what happened to the established churches? They went into a slow but steady process of decline that has continued to our own day. For a long time they were able to mask their decline: The overall population in America was growing so fast that their numbers continued to increase in absolute terms, even though they were not actually keeping pace with the population increase.
  • Overall, the Great Awakenings are largely responsible for the fact that America remains the most religious of the industrialized nations. By popularizing Christianity, evangelicalism permeated all the social classes.
  • What happened along the way to the evangelical mind? Why did the evangelical movement become largely anti-intellectual, with little sense of how to relate to the mainstream culture?
    1. The focus on an intense conversion experience was highly effective in bringing people to faith, but it also tended to redefine religion in terms of emotion, while contributing to a neglect of theology and doctrine and the whole cognitive element of belief.
    2. The use of vernacular language and simple folk songs was highly effective in reaching ordinary people, but the revivalists often went much further, practically wearing their ignorance on their sleeves, as though being theologically educated equated with being spiritually dead. One of their favorite themes was poking fun at the educated clergy “back east.”
    3. Addressing individuals apart from their family or church was very effective in forcing a crisis of faith, but it could also lead to a radically individualistic view of the church that rejected the intellectual riches developed over the centuries by the great minds throughout church history-including the distillations of doctrine in corporate statements of faith, such as creeds and confessions.
    4. Revivalism led to a new model of leadership. The pastor was no longer a teacher who instructs a covenanted congregation, but a celebrity who is able to inspire mass audiences.
  • In the First Great Awakening, some churches, like the Presbyterians, actually split between revivalist and confessional groups, while other groups broke away entirely to become independent (often Baptist). What drove the two sides was a disagreement over the role of emotion or experience in conversion.
  • Opponents of the Awakening treated the Christian life as a gradual growth in faith and holiness by what they called “Christian nature,” through participation in the rituals and teaching of the church. 
  • Supporters of the Awakening insisted that a merely intellectual assent to theological propositions was not enough. What was needed was “A Change of Heart” or a “New Birth.” This theme came from European pietism, which had rejected the Enlightenment focus on reason to embrace the emerging Romantic focus on feelings.
  • The primary goal of the Awakenings was to counter spiritual coldness and indifference. The revivalists sought the idea that religious truth should not merely be believed but also experienced.
  • Protestantism was being split into two stories, with the revivalists pushing for emotional conversions (upper story) while their opponents defended reasonable religion (lower story).
  • Revivalists often preached to crowds of people drawn together from across several congregations and denominations. This was a significant change, for it meant the individual was addressed as an individual, apart from his membership in a church. In fact, the revivalists often went further, explicitly urging people to leave their local churches to find ministers who were truly converted–an idea that was shocking in light of Puritan covenant theology.
  • Revivalists exhorted the crowds to make independent decisions in regard to religion–and to act on those decisions regardless of their effort on the larger society.
  • What was emerging was a new theology of conversion: The older view that believers are nurtured within the corporate church as whole persons, including the mind (through study and catechesis), was giving way to a new view that individuals undergo a one-time emotional decision that takes place outside the church. The focus on individual choice and experience would eventually contribute to the idea that Christian belief is a non-cognitive, upper-story phenomenon.
 
This post contains quoted and paraphrased passages of Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey.

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