Saturday, January 05, 2013

Roger Olson and Evangelical Secularism

Roger Olson has recently written a passionate post entitled, "Have American Evangelicals Become Secularized? Some New Year’s Reflections on Changes during a Lifetime." I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Olson, and his piece deserves thoughtful reflection. In discussing the differences between the church world he grew up in and the church world that exists today, Olson writes,
In 1950s evangelicalism we memorized Scripture. Who does that anymore? Then we sang theologically rich hymns and gospel songs. Who does that anymore? Then we studied our Sunday School lessons on Saturday (if not before). Who does that anymore? Then we attended church on Sunday evening and invited “unsaved friends” to hear the gospel. Who does that anymore? Then we gathered in each others’ homes for fellowship and prayer and Bible study. Who does that anymore?

The significance of these and similar changes are worth pondering. Olson follows up by observing,
All of those changes would be cosmetic, culturally contextual, IF something had replaced the older practices. Unfortunately, in most cases, those aspects of evangelical life in American churches and homes have simply fallen away not to be replaced by anything. We have become by-and-large a Sunday morning religion of people who don’t really know each other.
It's hard not to acknowledge the reality of these developments. Even though I can only relate to the changes between the early 1970s and now, I can clearly see his point. And yet, I find some of this train of thought disturbing as well.

Dr. Olson begins his essay by discussing the New Year's Eve "Watchnight Services" that he remembers from when he was growing up. I recall watchnight services as well - the Christian band I played in during my teens, Shiloh, played at a few of them, and I also preached one of my first sermons at one. But my general feeling toward them was, frankly, annoyance. I strongly believed in emphasizing the birth of Christ at Christmas and the Resurrection at Easter. At any observance for which there was a genuine spiritual connection, I was all for playing up that spiritual connection.

But New Year's Eve has no intrinsic spiritual dimension. It's an arbitrary date set to mark the beginning of a new calendar year. It's natural to think of this time as a time of new beginnings, but there's still no specific spiritual significance. And so I was left wondering why it was necessary to have a special church service. Why not just have a little party at home and watch the ball drop on TV? Why not get together with friends and just have fun? Just to be clear, I wasn't looking for a drunken bash. I just didn't understand why the church had to religify everything. Why did everything have to become a pretext for another special service?

Olson writes that "Watchnight Services were begun by Pietist leader Nicholas Ludwig Count von Zinzendorf when he was 'bishop' of the Herrnhutters, the Moravians, who lived on his estate in Germany in the early 17th century." So this is not a tradition that stretches back to biblical times. There was a point at which it was an innovation. For 80 percent of the church's history, it hadn't been thought of. It was certainly not something that was considered obligatory upon all believers. And once one thinks of it, many of the other items on Olson's list are things that were once innovations as well - Sunday School, Sunday evening services, altar calls. As for the "theologically rich hymns" he recalls, I'm not sure how much theological understanding people gain from such hymns - how many people singing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" are conscious of the fact that the final line in the first verse, "on earth is not his equal," is in reference not to God or to Jesus, but to Satan? At any rate, most of the "old hymns" that people hearken back to were written in the 19th century. Once again, they're not a part of the ancient or timeless history of the church.

Olson wonders what a time traveler from the 1950s would think of the contemporary church scene. But is a 1950s evangelical standpoint the one by which all other time periods should be measured? It's dangerous to take any particular period of church history - the turn-of-the-century Azusa Street revival, 1950s evangelicalism, the 1970s Jesus Movement, the Reformation, any of the Great Awakenings - as the definitive period during which the church really "got it right" and from which we have fallen. That seems to be a perennial trap. Certainly we can learn things from the history of any of these time periods, but setting them up as an ideal is another thing entirely. Olson includes aspects of evangelism and outreach in his summary of 1950s evangelical life, but it is legitimate to wonder how much impact this church world had on the surrounding society. Could it be that what Olson describes as the church being "one of your extended families" is actually church domination of social life? And doesn't that (as I argue in What's Wrong with Outreach) have the effect of isolating and ghettoizing the people of God, making them irrelevant to the larger culture?

All that being said, I think that Olson has it right that "We American evangelicals absorbed the ethos of the consumer-driven and entertainment-centered, upwardly mobile, affluent lifestyle of the society around us. And we contributed to it." Simply put, we have bought into consumerism and individualism, and so since every home is a two-income (or single-parent) household, nobody has the time or energy for the kind of interactive social experience Olson longs for, whether in the church or outside it. Hence, Facebook.

So Olson's argument that something has been lost and not replaced with anything else is, I think, correct and worthy of note. But I don't think that what was lost is quite as ideal as he may think that it was.


  1. I read Olson's article and grew up in a culture between his and yours, so I recall even more of those practices (though from a more Baptist tradition). And I couldn't quite find the words to say what I thought about that - but you did it for me. So thank you - you did a good job of unjumbling the conflict in my own head about his article.

    1. Thanks, Bob. I'm not sure it's completely unjumbled in my own mind still. But it was worth taking a stab.

  2. Once again, the idealization of childhood/youth experiences. I'm not sure a return to the religious busyness of the 1950s (or the 1970s that I grew up in) is a good thing either. I may be wrong, but it seems to me the a "Sunday morning and high holy days only" form of organized religious observance was more the norm for most of church history until at least the Reformation. As you've noted, I think individualism and lack of vital "Body of Christ" relationships outside of organized religious observance is the main issue. A return to Sunday School, Sunday night services, revival meetings, and hymn singing won't address that problem. Then again, I'm not sure what will.

    1. I think the larger problem is that American society doesn't allow much face-to-face community at all anymore, whether among Christians or anyone else. There's no time and space for it, largely because everyone's too busy working to repay debt to support our 21st century gadgets and economy. It will take a serious countercultural effort to get beyond that.

      Thanks for the comment and for the links.

  3. I believe in all good things in moderation. I can remember the "good ol' days" back at Brightmoor Tabernacle (Assembly Of God) in the late 70's - early 80's. The doors of the church were always opened and had something going on. Looking back, that was a great source of comfort for me. Even though I didn't always go to everything...I could have. In today's church scene, the doors aren't even opened on Sunday nights. To me, that's seems crazy. Life groups (home groups) are pushed to promote community, but seem to run the risk of wannabe leaders with no credentials going off on wild tangents. I've seen this happen. I like structure, especially when it come to church doctrine. I think we could use a little "going back" far as I see it.

    1. Hey Steve, welcome!

      The problem with all the activity involved in a BT-type situation is that in order to make it function, a lot of people end up foregoing any life they have outside the church. A lot of kids grew up angry that their parents had more commitment to the church than to their families. And people have been voting with their feet as far as Sunday evening services.

      I agree with you about unbridled teaching from wannabe leaders in home groups. I've seen either a lack of control or authoritarian control exercised by churches in such situations.

      Thanks for visiting and commenting! I miss you, dude!

  4. I remember that "watchnight service" sermon of yours. It was about arbitrary calendar divisions, was it not? And I can say that I know the line "on earth is not his equal" (from the Martin Luther hymn A Mighty Fortress is our God) is referring to Satan rather than Jesus. One of the things I like about that hymn is that the last line of verses 1 and 3 make sense best only by going on to verses 2 and 4. Funny though, I didn't learn that from singing it as a kid in the United Methodist Church, nor did I notice it as a young adult on those somewhat rare occassions we sang it in an Assembly of God Church. I looked it up and memorized the entire hymn when it was covered by "various artists" on the Rock Power Praise, Volume 1, The Hymns collection.
    That said, I'm not sure there is some magic formula we have to follow to get Christianity "right" other than God's people doing whatever it is that God calls them to do. Where we run into problems with that is when other people decide that God has told them what is is that we must or must not do, and yet God hasn't seen fit to share those revelations with us quite yet. I side with Steve Taylor in this regard: If the bible doesn't back it then it seems quite clear, perhaps it was the devil who whispered in your ear.
    And since that last paragraph sounds suspiciously like individualism, I'll add that community is also critically important for Christianity to thrive. Acceptance of others whose views of extra biblical matters differ from one's own is a sign of maturity and a reason for hope.

    1. Hi Dave! You must have been writing while I was replying to Steve.

      Well, of course I knew that you knew about the reference in "A Mighty Fortress." :-) But the fact that you only knew it by looking it up proves my point--we don't consciously assimilate theology by singing it, unless it's made extremely clear, like the Trinity in "Holy Holy Holy."

      Ditto to the rest of what you said. The trick is how to get community when nobody has any time to spend with anybody else.

  5. Oh, and by the way, I think its great that you're blogging again. I always enjoy reading your thoughts. They remain ever worthy of our attention.
    It also occurrs to me that what Olson calls "secular evangelicalism" is nothing new. God's people have a long history of wanting what the world has. From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, to wanting to go back to Egypt, to wanting a King like the other nations, to wanting the Messiah to be a political figure, to wanting "Christian" entertainers, politicians, etc. One might begin to think that a great many of our woes have come from getting what we want...