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.