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How American Evangelicalism Has Changed Since 1950

Roger E. Olson
Roger E. Olson

As many readers of The Search for Piety and Obedience know, the Brethren in Christ have officially been a part of the Evangelical mainstream in North America since 1949, when they became a member denomination of the National Association of Evangelicals. (Of course, one could argue that we were “evangelical” long before that, given that both our Pietist and Wesleyan streams contributed to what would emerge as an Evangelical mainstream in the years after World War II.) The Evangelical mainstream that we joined has changed and evolved over the years, but was shaped at the time of our joining by organizations like the NAE, Youth for Christ, and World Vision; by schools like Fuller Theological Seminary and Tyndale Bible College; by films like The Restless Ones; by literature like Christianity Today and Eternity magazines; by radio shows like the Old Fashioned Revival Hour; and by personalities like Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry.

It’s that era of Evangelical Christianity in which Baylor University theologian and professor Roger E. Olson begins the ruminations that form his recent blog post, “How American Evangelical Christianity Has Changed.” It’s an interesting post — and one that I linked to in the other day’s Brethren in Christ on the World Wide Web entry. In it, Olson — whose work on Evangelical theology and history I really appreciate — reflects on shifts, both major and minor, that have occurred within Evangelicalism since the era of consensus and cooperation in the 1950s and 1960s.

The post is shaped to a large degree by a kind of “back in my day…” nostalgia (which can be unhelpful in historical discussions). It also doesn’t go in-depth in analyzing the shifts that Olsen has identified. But it does offer some assertions worthy of consideration.

Here’s an abridged list of the changes / shifts Olson outlines, all preceded by the phrase “When I was growing up…”:

1. “. . . evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on the return of Jesus Christ.”

2. “. . . evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on heaven and hell.”

3. “. . . evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on missions and evangelism.”

4. “. . . evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on ‘separating from the world.'”

5. “. . . evangelical Christianity in America frowned on ‘conspicuous consumption.'”

6. “. . . evangelical Christianity in America frowned on all forms of government welfare including subsidized home loans.”

7. “. . . evangelical Christianity in America loved ‘America’ but was suspicious of politics.”

8. “. . . evangelical Christianity in America prepared its people, especially young people, for persecution and expected it.”

9. “. . . evangelical Christians knew their Bibles forward and backward.”

10. “. . . evangelical Christians talked a lot about ‘the blood of Jesus.'”

Olsen unpacks each of these assertions in a short paragraph or two, so be sure to read the whole post.

A few thoughts on these transitions, relative to the Brethren in Christ, after the jump.

1. I find many of these points simplistic and overly nostalgic. I mentioned above that I think this post is shaped by a critical, finger-wagging “Back in my day . . .” form of nostalgia. This kind of thinking is not conducive to actual historical analysis, which seeks to understand the past in its full complexity.

For instance, Olson’s assertion that Evangelicals used to know the Bible better seems to me a groundless claim that’s more wishful thinking than historical reality. I don’t have the statistics to prove this, but neither does Olson! (Or at least he doesn’t share them.) My re-framing of Olson’s assertion would go something like this: as today, I’m sure in previous generations there were self-proclaimed Evangelicals who knew the Bible very well — as well as many who didn’t. The same could be said about Evangelicals and “worldliness” — another point that Olson makes in his post.

My point here is that it’s too simplistic to say “Things used to be better back then” and think that counts as historical analysis. In this regard, Olsen’s post fall short. (Of course, I’m assuming here that Olsen is attempting to do something more than mere nostalgic reflection. I may be misreading his intent.)

2. I find a lot of these assertions surprising, based on my own experiences with Evangelicals. When I say this, I’m thinking specifically about my students at Messiah College who identify as Evangelical and speak with an Evangelical lexicon (i.e., salvation, biblical authority, evangelism, etc.). My encounters with them push back against some of what Olson’s suggesting he no longer hears/sees in Evangelical churches. For instance, I hear a lot of my students say they want to serve on the mission field, both short-term and long-term. They frequently point to their summer trip experiences as faith-shaping, and describe their vocational aspirations as missions-related. The same would be true of Olson’s point about “persecution” (definitely something my students mention often, particularly in the “We live in a secular world . . .” vein) and his point about Jesus’ second coming.

Having said all that, much of what Olson points out here resonates with my own experiences of Evangelicals (again, Messiah College students who fit this mold). My students don’t like to talk about hell, although they sometimes talk about heaven. They don’t discuss “the blood of Jesus” nor do they avoid conspicuous consumption. They do have a libertarian bent — with much talk of avoiding government handouts — but I wonder how much of this is delivered via the church and how much via right-wing commentators and talking heads. And I’ve never heard my students use the term “worldly.”

Of course, in drawing these points I’m assuming that my students represent the Evangelical “mainstream” to which Olson is referring — and that I’m getting a good sense of what these students are all about. Maybe they don’t. Maybe I’m not. I don’t spend a lot of interacting with Evangelicals outside of the Brethren in Christ Church, so I don’t have a lot of other experiences on which to base my reactions.

Speaking of which . . .

3. I’m struck by the parallels between Olson’s “Evangelicals of yore” and the Brethren in Christ who joined the NAE in 1949. The Brethren in Christ of the 194os (and before) talked a lot about separation from “the world” in lifestyle. An earlier generation would have talked about it in physical terms, too (i.e., not rubbing elbows with other Christians, not living among “sinners” or other worldly people in big cities, etc.). These same Brethren in Christ were obsessed with missions and evangelism. From what I can tell, they talked (and sang) a lot about Jesus’ blood and about his second coming. And perhaps even more than their Evangelical kin, they felt a keen sense of persecution and steeled themselves for it. (I’m thinking here of people like E. J. Swalm, who spent several months in prison for refusing to join the Canadian military during World War I.)

To a large degree, the similarities I’m pointing out here help to explain why the Brethren in Christ in 1949 would have been drawn to an organization like the NAE: its message, like the message of much of neo-Evangelicalism, resonated with what the Brethren in Christ were already about!

At the same time, there would have been stark differences in the way the Brethren in Christ operationalized some of these similarities. For instance, for the Brethren in Christ separation from “the world” entailed a wholly different set of dos and don’ts than did Evangelicals’ sense of separation. The Brethren in Christ had a prescribed dress code, opposition to musical instruments, a ban on life insurance, and a prohibition against serving in the military — among other dictums — that distinguished their brand of anti-worldliness from that of Evangelicals. Despite the picture Olson paints here, Evangelicals were much more “worldly” — at least in their look, their worship style, their personal security, and their sense of national duty — than were the Brethren in Christ.

Still, post-1949 Brethren in Christ resonated with Evangelicals’ sense of separation. As I discovered in some of my master’s thesis research, the Brethren in Christ borrowed from Evangelicals to shore up their ongoing opposition to worldliness in the 1950s and 1960s, even as they began to discard certain prescribed methods of separation. I hope to blog more about this in my current series on writing “Born-Again Brethren in Christ.”

4. And I’m struck by how well the Brethren in Christ fit into the Evangelical mold Olsen sketches here. In my experience, much of what Olson says here could easily characterize the Brethren in Christ. I don’t hear us talk a lot about heaven or hell. We certainly don’t talk much about Jesus’ blood or about the End Times — at least as much (or as colorfully) as we used to. “Worldly” has virtually left our vocabulary. We’re pretty involved in politics. And though many of us look askance at government handouts, I think (again) that posture reveals more about our affinity toward right-wing politics and/or libertarianism than it does about our theological convictions.

Of course, there are exceptions. I feel like I hear a lot of Brethren in Christ talk about missions and evangelism. (We certainly do at my church: we sponsor missionaries all over the globe, bring them to speak in our worship services and Sunday school classes, and even have a congregational commission to the subject!) Denominationally, we have a missions agency and give a lot of money toward that cause. But perhaps this really is just the exception, rather than the rule.

Readers: What do you think of Olson’s list? And do the Brethren in Christ fit his mold? Have we changed since the 1950s — and has that been for good or for ill?

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