The Mainlining of Evangelicalism

I’m currently working on the theoretical chapter for my book, tracing how sociologists (and others) have examined evangelicalism over the last four decades. There have been shifts in their theoretical formulations which explain quite a bit of the changing nature of evangelical perspectives.

QuebedeauxIn this review, I went back to an early book by a non-sociologist. Richard Quebedeaux’s The Young Evangelicals was written in 1974. It is surprising in its analysis in that it describes much of what I see among those Permeable Evangelicals who are the focus on my book project. Quebedeaux describes their commitments as follows:

1) An interest in human beings not simply as souls to be saved but as whole persons;

2) More active involvement by evangelical Christians in sociopolitical affairs;

3) An honest look at many churches’ idolatry of nationalism;

4) Adoption of new forms of worship;

5) An end to judging spiritual commitment by such externals as dress, hair style, and other participation in cultural trends, including rock music;

6) A new spirit with regard to ecumenical or nonecumenical attitudes;

7) Bold and, if need be, costly involvement in the revolutionary struggles of our day; and finally,

8) A reappraisal of life values.


Quebedeaux’s analysis raises a key question — what happened to these people and how did we get such a different popular understanding of evangelicalism?

I want to suggest that there were some significant changes in evangelicalism that occurred shortly after Quebedeaux’s book came out. In December of 1977, Time magazine declared it to be “The Year of the Evangelical”. Jimmy Carter had been elected president as the first professed “born-again” candidate, even giving his infamous “lust in the heart” interview with Playboy. Time‘s cover story was titled “That Old-Time Religion: The Evangelical Empire”

The Assemblies of God showed tremendous growth just as the Presbyterians and Methodist were facing monumental membership declines. Dean Kelley had just written Why Conservative Churches are Growing and church leaders jumped on the bandwagon arguing that this was true religion (every conference I attended in the 1980s has session debunking Kelley but that didn’t seem to matter).

Two other changes are of import. First, conservative religion became increasingly a private affair. This is why we talk about bakers with “sincerely held religious beliefs”. The individualization of religious belief and behavior grew dramatically.

Second, there are the twin phenomenon of non-denominationalism and megachurches (clearly related). The increased visibility of large church plants, broadcast ministries, and evangelical celebrities brought visibility to evangelicals where mainline churches became invisible and subject to dismissive analysis of places where “people don’t believe anything”.

So evangelicalism went from being marginal (although it likes to think it is) to being mainline. Journalists don’t write stories about the formerly mainline churches (even though the majority of mainline church attenders voted for Trump, they aren’t seen as important).

I have a number of friends who are excellent religious historians. They have written wonderful books defining the pedigree of evangelicals and how they organized over time. These are important books that tell key dynamics of the evangelical story. It’s hard to hold out just some of these but recent books by Frances FitzGerald and Molly Worthen are excellent examples of this scholarship.

And yet I’m coming to think that evangelicalism as a social movement doesn’t necessarily share a heritage with those early evangelicals. It became an entity unto itself in the 1980s with its own definitions and parameters. This is why it’s so hard to use contemporary data to make sense of evangelical positions on policy and politics.

But Quebedeaux’s Young Evangelicals of the 1970s, like my Permeable Evangelicals today, have a hard time figuring out where they fit within these assumptions about mainline evangelicalism. Quebedeaux’s description of their religious dilemma seems absolutely apt over four decades later.

The Young Evangelical, then, dissatisfied with the position espoused by his Orthodox church, and unhappy about the artificial role he must assume therein, is faced with a dilemma not easily resolved. On the one hand, he can always turn to Liberalism. But what does mainstream Ecumenical Liberalism in its present state have to offer him? And, if he remains faithful to the authority of Scripture, the necessity of conversion, and the mandate for evangelism, he will probably be an unwelcome guest in most Liberal churches and a threat to their ideology. On the other hand, he can withdraw from the institutional church altogether. Yet, in so doing, he may lose the fellowship of like-minded believers he so desperately needs for his own spiritual development, and he will most certainly forfeit an important dimension of his commitment to the Church universal. It is not easy to be a Christian alone. The other option of course, is for the Young Evangelical to remain in his own church – and fight!

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