How Evangelicalism Has Changed (Olson)

I don’t normally get misty-eyed about the way the church in America has changed since my childhood.  Being a fifty-something white guy, I know that I am especially vulnerable to “Good Old Days Syndrome”, and I work really hard to avoid making those kinds of judgments.  Further, we are extremely prone to confuse our faith with the cultural trappings of our faith.

That being said: Roger Olson recently posted a great summary of how the American evangelical churches have changed in his lifetime.  (He’s older than I am, so …)

Several of his points have convinced me that some good things have been lost; have good things been gained to compensate?  His list is mostly if not completely negative.  Maybe an appropriate companion to his piece would be a list of how things in the American evangelical church are BETTER today than they were 50 – 75 years ago?

Anyway: below is an extended excerpt.  Read the whole thing here.

First, we sang. We all sang. We sang a lot. There were occasional concerts led by gospel singing groups, but those were not “us.” “We” sang in church and in revivals and in conventions and conferences. … Now, most of the evangelical churches I visit don’t sing. The worship band sings. The congregation barely sings.

Second, we testified. We learned to witness in special classes. We carried gospel tracts with us and handed them out. We spoke to our friends, neighbors, co-workers, fellow students and relatives about Jesus Christ and the joy and peace that comes with knowing him as savior and lord. …

Third, we read and memorized scripture. We, the youths of evangelical churches, had “Bible quizzes” in contest style. We had “sword drills” in Sunday School in which we were rewarded for being the first to find a passage in the Bible. We were rewarded publicly in church for reading the Bible all the way through and that was expected of every child by the time he or she was an adolescent. We could say all the books of the Bible in order quickly. We knew our Bibles. …

Fifth, we looked forward to heaven and eschewed “worldly things.” “Worldly” did not mean everything of this earth—God’s good creation. We enjoyed God’s good creation and we cared for the poor and the sick.  “Worldly” meant everything that was contrary to a life devoted to God’s will—sex-saturated entertainment, sex outside of marriage, alcohol, tobacco, dancing (except perhaps folk dancing), pornography (and anything that came close to it), etc. …

Sixth, we looked to God for guidance. We were encouraged and taught to pray for God’s daily guidance with regard to: vocation and job, education, marriage, and everything else that mattered. We believed that God would guide us if we relied on him. …

Seventh, we were expected to have “daily devotions” on our own and “family devotions” daily together with our nuclear families.

Eighth, the pastor and/or deacons and/or elders of the church watched over the congregation. If a member or frequent attender missed two Sundays in a row, someone in leadership of the congregation would “call on” them—at home or in the hospital or even at their place of work. If someone in the congregation “slipped into sin,” someone in spiritual leadership (this was usually an “elder”) would “visit” them to discuss the situation, pray with them, and talk with them about the Lord’s Supper and whether they should participate in it that month or the next. If a member or frequent attender lost their job or a loved one to death, someone in spiritual leadership would visit them and ask how the church could help them through “this difficult time.” Always, always they would pray with them and often offer them spiritual counseling and even material help (usually not money but groceries, hot meals, clothes, help with the rent—given directly to the landlord).

Ninth, all of life revolved around Christianity-meaning Jesus Christ, the gospel, the Bible, the church community, evangelism and missions, and spiritual growth. And there was no such thing as “Lone Ranger Christianity”—at least not so far as “we” were concerned. The church was the extended family of every true Christian.

Finally, tenth, we had our own heroes and celebrities. They were not the same as “the world’s.”

My point is that American evangelical Christianity (and I think I can safely include black here) used to be “thick” compared with today’s evangelical Christianity which is, in my humble opinion, … shallow and harmless and weak compared with that in which I grew up.

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