I have spent all my life in a very similar context to the kind of evangelical environment that Roger Olson describes as his experience. My parents were evangelical missionaries; I attended a missionary boarding school for all but one of my years of elementary and high school education; I attended an evangelical Bible College, graduate school and Seminary; I married a young woman who had also grown up in this same evangelical environment; we spent 16 years as missionaries with an evangelical mission, during which time I taught at an evangelical Seminary in the Philippines; I then spent 27 years teaching in evangelical schools and wrote for an evangelical audience; and throughout this time, we worshipped in evangelical churches. So I was more than a little interested to see what Olson had to say about the changes he has observed in American evangelical Christianity. He identifies the widespread disappearance of the following ten things within American evangelicalism:
First, when I was growing up and well into my early adult years evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on the return of Jesus Christ. I almost never hear or read anything about that anymore. . . .
Second, and related to “first,” when I was growing up and into my early adult years evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on heaven and hell. I almost never hear or read anything about that anymore. . . .
Third, when I was growing up and well into my early adult years evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on missions and evangelism—including “witnessing to the lost.” I almost never hear anything about those anymore. . . .
Fourth, when I was growing up….evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on “separating from the world.” That did not mean physical separation but lifestyle separation. We evangelicals knew there was a line of holiness between us and the “secular world” and “nominal Christianity.” . . . It’s been a long time since I heard the word “worldly” uttered in an evangelical church. The line between us and the secular world and its forms of entertainment (etc.) has just about disappeared.
Fifth, when I was growing up…evangelical Christianity in America frowned on “conspicuous consumption.” . . .
Sixth, when I was growing up…evangelical Christianity in America frowned on all forms of government welfare including subsidized home loans. . . . Today evangelicals are just as likely as anyone else to rely on government financial help.
Seventh, when I was growing up…evangelical Christianity in America loved “America” but was suspicious of politics. We were as patriotic as anyone (and extremely suspicious about communism and “creeping socialism”) but generally stayed out of politics. . . . Our task was to win souls for Jesus and get people ready for the inevitable and imminent world conflagration that would precede the return of Christ to earth. I have not heard anything like that from any evangelical pulpit or mouth or pen in many years.
Eighth, and related to “seventh,” when I was growing up…evangelical Christianity in America prepared its people, especially young people, for persecution and expected it. We fully expected that someday, probably in our own lifetimes, society and even government would arrest us and possibly even torture us for our fervent loyalty to Jesus Christ above “this world.” . . . I haven’t heard any talk of persecution among evangelicals for many years (except in other countries).
Ninth, when I was growing up…evangelical Christians knew their Bibles forward and backward. Any evangelical worth his or her salt had read the Bible “through in a year” at least once. . . . Evangelical churches emphasized Bible memorization. Every good evangelical had a “life verse” he or she could quote at the drop of a hat. All that has gone away. The vast majority of evangelicals, in my experience, know very little about the Bible and never memorize any portion of it.
Tenth, and finally, when I was growing up…evangelical Christians talked a lot about “the blood of Jesus.” . . . We were not ashamed or embarrassed about the blood of Jesus. In fact, whether a church used that language or not was one marker identifying evangelicals over against “mainline religion.” Those “mainliners” didn’t like to talk about the blood of Jesus. It offended their sensibilities. I haven’t heard “the blood of Jesus” mentioned in an evangelical setting in a long time.
Olson thinks that some of these changes
may be for the better. We 1950s evangelicals had obsessions that were probably unhealthy. However, on the other hand, taking it all together, I suspect we American evangelicals have become “comfortable in Zion”—a phrase that we used about mainline Christians (who weren’t really Christians at all) to describe how their religion was non-threatening to themselves or anyone else. And by “threatening” I don’t mean we thought Christianity ought to be physically threatening, but we did think authentic Christianity should shake people’s comfort in this world and focus their attention on sacrifice and separation.
There are a few points at which my being Canadian, and my extensive involvement in the world of evangelical missionary work, would lead me to nuance the description in a few of the items in Olson’s list, but by and large I understand exactly what he is talking about. One thing I would add to Olson’s list from my own impressions, is the widespread discontinuation of Sunday evening services and Wednesday night prayer meetings. The core group of an evangelical church attended all three of those in my youth. I have observed, particularly in the mega-church context which many evangelicals now prefer, that there are many more meeting options, so the faithful may well be involved in as many weekly meetings as they were some decades ago, but not with the sense of congregational unity that used to permeate the life of a congregation.
I find rather sobering, much of what Olson describes. I suspect that the changes have quite a bit to do with the large drop in Canadian church going, and in evangelical church going, within my lifetime. Some of the changes have probably contributed to that decline, but others have come about in response to that decline. Whether or not that response will move evangelical churches in a healthier direction remains to be seen, but some of them seem to me to be most likely to contribute to decline.
My hope is in the Lord, with whose church I continue to identify myself. Jesus promised that the gates of hades would not prevail against the church. Yet, in the history of the church its most faithful and effective sectors have frequently moved geographically, so I can not presume that all will be well in North America. Christ’s letters to the 7 churches in Asia, sent through the apostle John, give witness to the dangerousness of our situation. The previous Roman Catholic pope was aware of similar problems within the Roman Catholic Church in the west and called for a vigorous program of re-evangelization. I think that we should echo his call within western evangelicalism and pray for God to revive his church in our part of the world. In that regard, a brief discussion between D. A. Carson and Tim Keller, is very interesting, and it provides a perspective for hope in the Lord and the sovereign movement of his Spirit. It is a good note on which to end this post.