The Family Tree of New Evangelicalism

feature-article.gifOne of today’s popular hobbies is genealogies. I am thankful for some godly and stalwart relatives in the generations I have known, but I am not tempted to go beyond that. If I did, I am certain I would find ancestors who were famous and more who were infamous. The only two ancestors of whom I am dead certain are Adam and Noah.

Despite my view of genealogy I recently came across a family tree I was interested in. The October 2006 issue of Christianity Today, its fiftieth anniversary issue, arrested my attention with an article titled, “Where We Are and How We Got Here.” A subtitle, emphasized in red, proclaims, “Here’s a look at the influences that shaped the movement.” The article is by Mark A. Noll, a prominent and prolific new evangelical writer. I thought, “He is going to talk about the family tree of new evangelicalism and I’m interested.”

Most trace new evangelicalism back to Dr. Harold John Ockenga’s 1948 statement. He declared it would repudiate separatism, be socially involved, dialogue with liberals, and have a scholarly voice. Noll says nothing about that beginning. Rather, he deals with the development between then and now. What caused the movement to grow and develop into what it is today? Noll develops his subject by stating that he will deal with “two specific developments,” “three diffuse movements,” and “one overarching characteristic.” That is a clear outline. He follows it and so will I.

Noll’s first specific development is the ethnic transformation of the United States by recent immigration. Many of us have watched as the last forty years of immigration have de-Europeanized America. Noll says, “because so many of the Hispanic, Korean, Nigerian, Chinese, Eastern European, Filipino, Ghanaian, and Brazilian newcomers are evangelicals, often of a Pentecostal cast, the result has also contributed to the re-evangelization of America.” It is obvious that there has been an influx of foreign Pentecostals. The only change I would make in his statement is that I believe you could change his word “often” to “usually.”

Civil Rights
Noll’s second specific development is the civil rights movement. The thread of his argument here seems to be a little vague, but listen to his conclusion: “Once legally enforced racism was gone, the great impediment that had restricted the influence of Southern religion was also gone. Stripped of racist overtones, Southern evangelical religion—the preaching, the piety, the sensibilities, and above all the music—became much easier to export throughout the country.” As evidence of this increased Southern influence he cites Pat Robertson, D. James Kennedy, Jerry Falwell, Anita Bryant, and Jimmy Carter.

So much for Noll’s “specific developments.” More revealing are his “three diffuse movements” and his “overarching characteristic.”

Para-Church Organizations
Noll’s first diffuse movement is “a new wave of voluntary organizations.” As illustrations he cites InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Wycliffe Bible Translators, Young Life, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Navigators, Youth for Christ, Fuller Theological Seminary, Campus Crusade for Christ, World Vision, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Noll comments that these organizations were “without denominational identification.” The more serious observation would be that they were without local church identification. They were all para-church organizations.

Fundamentalists have always believed that the local church is God’s organization for this age and that it is to be overseen by its chosen pastors, elders, and deacons. The edifice of new evangelicalism was not built by churches but by organizations. It has had its share of influential churches, but it has been led by Noll’s “voluntary organizations” with their appointed presidents and boards. Noll himself remarks that these voluntary organizations “have reconstructed the infrastructure of contemporary American evangelicalism.”

The Charismatic Movement
Noll’s second diffuse movement is the charismatic movement. I do not have specific figures at hand, but anyone who studies the matter will find that the National Association of Evangelicals would not exist without the charismatic movement. That movement brings its emphases on tongues, healing, physical demonstrations, and other eccentricities. One of the problems in the church today is music. Noll comments, “In the week-to-week life of congregations, the influence of the charismatic movement was most visible in the great changes in church music that began to take place in the 1960s.”

Fundamentalists have never accepted the charismatic movement for one simple reason: While it appeals to the emotionalism of the natural man, it does not match the requirements of Bible truth.

The Jesus People
Noll’s third diffuse movement is the Jesus People movement, and he describes their contribution to evangelicalism in this way: “American evangelicals had tended to view popular culture as an enemy—to keep the gospel it was necessary to flee the world. In the late 1960s the Jesus People treated popular culture as a potential friend—to spread the gospel it was necessary to use what the world offered.”

On the opening page of the Christianity Today article there is a large picture of a group of Jesus People. In the left-hand corner it has this caption: “The Bible, the Spirit, and Rock-n-Roll: The Jesus People movement treated pop culture as a potential friend. In this, its followers displayed trademark evangelical passion.”

God’s policy in this matter is simply put in 1 John 2:15, “Love not the world.” The Jesus People simply defied God’s Word by saying, “Love the world and use it.” The new evangelicalism of today has learned that lesson well and turned it into official policy.

The Overarching Characteristic
This brings us to Noll’s overarching characteristic. Really, this point is simply a restatement of what was learned from the Jesus People. Listen to Noll: “These movements illustrated an overarching and multifaceted characteristic of American evangelicalism from the early 1950s to the present. That characteristic was a willingness—whether expressed consciously or simply taken for granted—to embrace broader currents of American culture.”

Noll illustrates this shift by stating Billy Graham’s policy in these words: “He would cooperate with whoever would cooperate with him, including mainline Protestants, whom many evangelicals considered dangerously liberal.” He contrasts fundamentalists and evangelicals by saying: “Fundamentalists would seek to protect the gospel by separating from the world. Evangelicals, by contrast, would promote it by engaging the world—and using whatever means modern America made available.” After mentioning Christianity Today’s desire to maintain a classical Christian position he says: “But also central was a deliberate adaptation to the norms of contemporary American culture.”

Contemporary Services
What is the result of this in a practical scenario? Noll says: “Few could have predicted that in many evangelical churches worship in 2006 would look and sound more like Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show than the Sunday services attended by evangelicals who were so alarmed by Elvis in 1956.” I am amazed that this description of contemporary services comes, not from a fundamentalist, but from a notable new evangelical. I was also struck by another of Noll’s descriptions when he said that, “lust for cultural relevance perverted the gospel into Christianity-lite.”

Since 1950 new evangelicalism has spread like wildfire through American churches. It has made headlines in the newspapers. Politicians worry about the evangelical vote. Many pronounce evangelicalism a great success, but Noll worries that it isn’t: “It is exceedingly difficult to know whether cultural, political and demographic revival also means spiritual revival.” To me, the answer seems rather obvious.

Genetically, all of us are the product of our family trees. Marriages from different groups of people have contributed to our makeup. Think of the family tree of new evangelicalism in that way. It began with a group of men in the days of Harold John Ockenga who were ashamed of their fundamentalism. They began by repudiating Biblical separation. That was disobedience to the teaching of 2 Corinthians 6:14–18 and other passages. They continued by espousing social action as a policy. That was a delusion born of modernism’s social gospel. They determined to dialogue with unbelief. That was another disobedience to passages like 2 John 7–11. The new position boasted of being very scholarly while it scoffed at the scholars of fundamentalism.

Sad Results
What new streams flowed into the movement? That is where Noll’s article comes into view. Immigrants poured into the picture. That might be either good or bad. Then came the altercations of the civil rights movement. This is too short an article to examine the impact of that portion of history. Suffice it to say, a large company of men was added to the roll of new evangelicalism because of social action rather than conversion. The next branch to sprout from the family tree was the new wave of voluntary organizations. The church surrendered its responsibilities and control to para-church agencies. The charismatic branch contributed its own definition of spirituality and won respect for its non-biblical view of tongues, healing, physical displays, and new music. The Jesus People infusion brought self will, contempt for civility, rebellion against Biblical worship, and rock and roll music. The overarching characteristic on the marquee was the desire to make peace with the culture of the world. Adapting to culture sounds better than worldliness; but, modern culture equals the world which the Lord commanded us not to love. Notice that the new evangelicalism, which made such a boast of scholarship, has been shaped by a cadre of non-scholarly movements. What would you expect to get out of a movement with a family tree like that?

I would expect that such a family tree would produce confusion about the essence of the gospel, contradiction about the conduct the Lord expects of His people, and conformity to that world we are not to love. That is exactly what the heritage of new evangelicalism has produced.

(All significant quotations in this article are from Mark A. Noll, “Where We Are and How We Got Here,” Christianity Today [October 2006], pp. 42–49.)

January 2007


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