The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

The Evangel and the Isms

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While many have been wondering how we “do” church lately—so much so that it is becoming a cliché—the question is still a valid one. The evangelicalism which we inherited from our spiritual forefathers operated a certain way because of where and when it was active. The evangelicalism of 100 years ago assumed a familiarity with the Scriptures, even by non-believers, which provided a common understanding between those in the church and those outside of it. That common understanding is gone. The Bible has become a bookshelf ornament for most people—both the churched and the unchurched—if it is even that. The Bible is no longer even taught as literature, so any sort of knowledge of its contents cannot be taken for granted.

This disconnect is one of the primary reasons that evangelicalism is currently struggling to find a place in the culture. Jacques Barzun addresses this in his essay, “Toward the Twenty-First Century.” Even though he is discussing this at the level of entire civilizations, his observations are still applicable at the lower levels:

One must recall…that entire civilizations do perish. The tremendous endings of Greece and Rome are not a myth. True, life somehow continues after the fall, but it is that very “somehow” which tells us that something above mere existence has disappeared. That something is what we call civilization. It is an expression of collective life cast in determinate ways, an expression that includes power, “growth,” a joyous or grim self-confidence, and other obvious signs of a going concern. But it consists also of tacit individual faith in certain ideals and ways of life, seconded by a general faith in the rightness of the scheme. It follows that widespread disbelief in those intangibles, and the habits they produce in day-to-day existence, brings on the dissolution of the whole.

The only question then is: How deep goes the disbelief? For history shows both big and little decadences. Decadence means “falling off,” and it is possible for a civilization to experience a lesser fall from trust in its own ways without wrecking the entire fabric. The passage from what we call the High Middle Ages to the Renaissance and Reformation was one such falling away and new beginning. The time just before the French Revolution was another. At these moments—roughly the end of the fourteenth century and the end of the eighteenth century—Europe saw old institutions crumble, long-accepted thoughts dissolve, feelings fade away, and new ones take their place. [1] (p. 162-163)

Barzun’s words should remind us that the church has always played a part in every civilization where it was present. This is a remarkable thought. The Church has survived, even flourished, in its 2000-year history of cultural change. Many times it was the church itself that helped to effect change, which is as it should be, but there were also many times where the church was changed by the culture. The current question of asking whether evangelicalism will survive is wrong-headed. The Gospel, the “evangel,” will always survive; it is the “ism” part where we must focus our efforts. If the “ism” isn’t communicating the “evangel,” the problem lies with the method, not the message. Nathan O. Hatch has observed that “evangelicals tend to measure ‘the importance of an issue by its popular reception. By this logic, any position worth its salt will command a significant following. A best-seller by definition becomes a “classic”; to be read is to deserve to be read.’” [2]

Barzun continues:

The old system comes to what looks like a halt, during which all the familiar things seem empty or wrong. Despair, indifference, the obsession with cruelty and death, the Samson complex of wanting to bring down the whole edifice on one’s head and the heads of it retarded upholders—those passions seize the souls of the young generations and turn them into violent agents of change, or disabused skeptics and cynics. From both the activists and the negators come the new ideas and ideals which permit the march of civilization to continue. But it can also happen that not enough new ideas, no vitalizing hopes, emerge, and civilization falls apart in growing disorder, mounting frustration, and brainless destruction. [3] (p.163)

It is nothing short of ironic that the very institution that holds the answers to society’s ills is finding itself ill-equipped to handle the situation. In a culture where the idea of absolute truth has been abandoned as a relic from the modernistic past, the church stands by wondering how to communicate with the culture on its own terms. Absolute truth cannot be watered down into relative terms. Living water can only quench those who know that they are thirsty. The methods and ideas which have come to characterize evangelicalism in the last 20-30 years have not succeeded in making disciples. While they may have been successful in filling up big buildings with many people on Sunday mornings, these pew-fillers have not begun to register a change within their cultures. The church must stay focused on its message of absolute and sovereign truth, and not allow numbers to dictate what its methods should be. “A society that cultivates commonness, that is suspicious of genius, that has more esteem for the entrepreneur who caters to the tastes of the many than the visionary who challenges the spirits of the few—such a society is always in danger of defining worth in terms of immediate demand rather than eternal significance.” [4] Remember it was only Paul and Silas who were accused of “turning the whole world upside down” with their preaching and teaching of the Gospel (Acts 17:1-9). Numbers and methods are not important, obedience to the message is what counts. The “evangel” will effect the change, not the “isms.” The sooner we come to terms with this reality, the sooner we can actually do something about it.

  1. Jacques Barzun, “Toward the Twenty-First Century,” The Culture We Deserve (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989).[]
  2. Kenneth A. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1989), 22-23.[]
  3. Jacques Barzun, “Toward the Twenty-First Century,” The Culture We Deserve (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989).[]
  4. Kenneth A. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1989), 22-23.[]

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