The Evangelicals: An Extraordinary Generation

On January 20, 2009, Rev. Rick Warren in a coat and tie rather than his preferred Hawaiian shirt and wrapped in a heavy overcoat against the biting winds of a blustery Washington day delivered a generous prayer at the presidential inauguration of Democrat Barack Obama. He prayed before the vast crowd and millions watching around the world in “the name of the One who changed my life: Jesus,” and closed the invocation of God’s blessing using the words of Christ’s model prayer.

It was a remarkable moment for followers of the One who has changed their lives but who have also come to fear the cleansing of the public square of all mention of Jesus Christ. Additionally, it was a striking symbol of the resilience of evangelical faith and influence in an increasingly pluralistic and secular society.

The inaugural ceremony is the climax of a political season, but its least political moment. The ceremony is primarily a civic and cultural event and a purely American celebration. Nonetheless, Warren’s presence was controversial to those who find fault with any Christian expression in the public square. But it spoke most to the continuing role of the evangelical church, and it was a convenient bookend to Billy Graham’s prayer at Richard Nixon’s first inauguration.

The intervening years were challenging for the nation and for the church. Although public prayers are not substantive proof of religious trends, there can be little doubt that during the last four decades the evangelicals have burst onto the public stage. Today, the Christian foundation in America is still strong largely because of the dominance of evangelical stalwarts during these years–a generation whose start may be marked with visible declarations of faith in 1976, which Newsweek dubbed “The Year of the Evangelical.” In the midst of enormous threats to religious involvement, evangelical leaders gained a public and political voice, led with compassion, infiltrated the culture, and above all, found ways to communicate the Gospel effectively.

But despite the growth and influence of evangelicals during this generation, they have not gained such a critical mass in business, entertainment, education, or government that they have been able to dramatically change the course of these institutions. Also, there are grave concerns about the deleterious impact on the witness of the church that has resulted from the sometimes strident and overly partisan public presence of some of the movement’s leaders.

It is easy to honor the service of these accomplished men and women who have provided encouraging models of Christian living, while we must also recognize excesses and errors that have slowed some of the movement’s progress. There are enormous misconceptions about the evangelical movement, some of which can be corrected with a thorough assessment of its leaders.

We hear a lot about the rising generation of evangelicals and all that they’d like to change and how their priorities differ. That’s worth exploring, but as we look forward to the new challenges and the leaders who will attack them, we should not lose sight of the contributions of the generation now reaching toward and beyond retirement. The disappearance and even denigration of this generation in public discourse is a frustration to those who have come of age during recent decades. Many of the leaders are familiar to Americans who see them as heroic, life-changing influences.

There has been an evangelical renaissance, when a generation of interesting characters revived Christian faith in America, gave it a voice, developed new platforms—doing battle, prevailing, stumbling, and blundering along the way. During the last four decades, dramatic preaching, bold faith and previously unseen engagement propelled the evangelical movement to great heights, and caused it to deal with the high winds and grave dangers of those heights.”

Although there were excesses in areas such as partisan politics, a widely promoted notion that evangelical influence is damaged and declining is negated when we examine the breadth of Christian impact in a nation transformed by a generation of extraordinary Christians.

[There are three ways to look at Christian Evangelicals: as people of faith that follow a set of specific doctrines; as an organic network of traditions; or as a self-identified coalition that emerged during World War Two. These doctrines, according to historian David Bebbington, are the belief in the need to change lives through conversion; expressing the message of the gospels through activism; a strong regard for the Bible as a guide for life; and stressing the importance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.According to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE), when viewed as an organic network of traditions, evangelicalism “denotes a style as much as a set of beliefs. As a result, groups as disparate as black Baptists and Dutch Reformed Churches, Mennonites and Pentecostals, Catholic charismatics and Southern Baptists all come under the evangelical umbrella—demonstrating just how diverse the movement really is. The terms Fundamentalist, Born-Again, Pentecostal, and Charismatic denote specific and sometimes overlapping subsets of Christianity, and primarily are found within Protestant evangelicalism. To be Born-Again implies a specific personal religious conversion experience that involves a powerful sense of being imbued with the spirit of God. Fundamentalists tend to read the Bible literally, reject liberal church doctrine, and often shun secular society. Pentecostals and Charismatics believe they routinely manifest gifts from the Holy Spirit such as speaking in tongues.]

An Extraordinary Generation

It is tricky to accurately analyze a nation’s religious faith, practice, and influence at a given time or over many years. Such is the challenge of describing the progress of Christian faith in America and the role of the evangelical movement over the decades. Indeed, there are strongly divergent views of the contribution and success of evangelicals over the last generation.

On the one hand, we can observe a movement that has grown by some 65 million people, led the succeeding effort to dramatically reduce the number of abortions, created strong support for a massive effort to address childhood AIDS in Africa, saw their favored candidates achieve enormous political power, and gained stunning market share in the music and entertainment industries. Today, there isn’t a more potent force in American life and society than active, believing evangelical Christians, marked by their vibrant faith, clear expression of their beliefs, biblically informed habits, and selfless and life-altering ministries. As their numbers increase, their involvement in all aspects of national life and policy is growing and morphing and infiltrating like a viral storm.

On the other hand, we see a movement that has failed to bring about changes in moral milestones such as marital fidelity, honesty, or neighborliness; soured public opinion—particularly among young people—about the movement through its political involvement; and saw a decline in its adherents’ depth of understanding of its apologetics. One analyst wrote that evangelicalism is in “deep trouble” because in “identifying itself with the wedge tactics of the political right, which is now falling (at least for a time) out of power, the movement cannot easily shake the image of being primarily negative and destructive.” Rodney Clapp in the Christian Century

One way to sort out the accomplishments and failures of the movement over the last generation is to observe the differences at the end of a generation that began in 1976. What is in place today that was not a generation ago; where has the church advanced, and where has it declined?

As America entered the second half of the 20th century, the Christian church was deeply divided, with almost no dialogue or cooperation between Protestants and Catholics, and a fissure between the dominant liberal, mainline Protestant denominations and members of the embattled theologically conservative denominations, who struggled to be heard. There was also strife between the fundamentalist Protestants and the evangelicals, or neo-evangelicals–as some called them at the time–symbolized publicly by the ministry of Billy Graham.

Change was coming, however, with the emergence of the group that was increasingly called just The Evangelicals; change that would accelerate during a generation that began in 1976. That change is the result of the leadership of an extraordinary group of individuals who became the most public, the most engaged, and the most successful generation of Christians in modern American history, if not the entire American story. It could be called the greatest evangelical generation.

The 50 individuals selected for this list represent many, many more leaders of great and at times similar accomplishment; together they have changed America, and with America, the world. That such credit should be given to this group may be alarming to some and at least surprising to many. For if we are to believe the judgment of secular analysts and media, these leaders failed. Even the more progressive evangelicals, who find it easier to get the ear of media and academics, decry the work of the last generation of evangelicals. And young Christians find fault with the generation past and believe they can and will do better than the next (and I hope they do!) This youthful analysis is to be expected and they will be judged similarly by their children and their children’s children.

Certainly the leaders of this great generation of evangelicals have failed often, and from time to time colorfully and grievously. Such is the human condition and perhaps the mark of leaders who often surge beyond their own accountability structures. As we look at their lives and work, I don’t wish to hide these flaws, but neither will I allow their shortcomings to mask unfathomable progress by so many measures.

Among the most obvious successes are great victories on the battle lines drawn up by forbearers such as Carl Henry, Harold Ockenga, Francis Schaeffer, and Billy Graham. Most analysis of Christian impact during the current generation has missed the significant fact that modern evangelicals have won the battles begun by these older leaders. We have seen (1) the growth and influence of the evangelicals and the utter collapse of mainline Protestants; (2) forceful engagement in the public square; and (3) the accommodation of real differences between evangelicals and Catholics in the interest of working on causes of common concern.

The growth of the evangelical movement and collapse of the mainline church

The percentage of Americans who say they have had a born-again experience, leading to a commitment to Jesus Christ, has increased significantly since Gallup measured this in the late 1970s and early 1980s. From 1976 to 1984, an average of 37% of Americans claimed to have had such an experience. In 2005, 48% of adults–nearly half the population–say they have been born again.  Although not all of this increase has translated into church attendance or behavioral change, evangelical congregations are the only U.S. Christian churches that have grown during the last 35 years.

The mainline churches, Protestants largely represented by the denominations in the National Council of Churches that in the last century moved away from Christian orthodoxy, have been in a free fall for decades. As a group they have maintained theologies that stress social justice, but at the same time mainline denominations have been somewhat marginalized. Mainline denominations peaked in membership in the 1950s and have declined steadily in the last half century. From 1960 to 1988, mainline church membership declined from 31 million to 25 million, then fell to 21 million by 2005. Today, they are a minority among American Protestants, claiming approximately 15 percent of American adults among their adherents.

Evangelical Engagement in the public square


Although there hasn’t been success in the continual effort to overturn Roe v. Wade’s federal legalization of abortion, the number of abortions has been declining since 1990, and abortion is less prevalent today than in the mid-1970s–in real numbers and in the number of abortions performed as a percentage of women of childbearing age. The number of abortions in the U.S. was 988,000 in 1976, and the number rose as high as 1,429,000 in 1990. It has declined steadily since then and there were 820,000 in 2005. This represents 24.2 per 1000 women aged 15–44 in 1976, and 19.4 per 1000 women in that group in 2005, the lowest since 1974.

The Political Element

The faithful and vibrant American Christian church that is evangelical in its beliefs is very different from evangelicalism as a political movement. While the two configurations align theologically and indeed in some key areas of public concern, they are very different and the thriving church at worship, at life, and in service transcends and routinely ignores Washington, D.C.

I have learned during decades of consulting with Christian ministries and causes that while many activists wish that local evangelical churches and their members would be politically active, the vast majority of them are not. Although they vote in high numbers, evangelical Christians are not unusually political, and their churches rarely use facilities and services to advance any political positions. This is difficult for many people to believe when evangelicals are often portrayed as a political movement.

The levers of institutional power and notably the microphones and gateways of communication of the evangelicalism often have been controlled by politically oriented conservative evangelicals (sometimes to good effect, in my opinion, but certainly not always). Today, if there is national evangelical leadership, it has shifted to parachurch organizations and the megachurches; but it is largely programmatic and pastoral, not political.

Although Christians have long been organized in congregations and denominations, in the last half century parachurch organizations operating outside of these traditional structures have been claiming an increasingly important place in the religious power structure. This has been an important development that is. The size, resources, and activities of the evangelical charitable organizations have made them the public face of American Christianity to many, transforming the composition and dynamics of the faith community. Beyond the Congregation (book)

There has also been a growing influence on the institutions of culture. Evangelicals have invested tens of millions of dollars to expand their influence in the arts, media, and entertainment. Michael Lindsay found some 100 such programs, organizations and initiatives that were founded between 1976 and 2006. The strategy, he says, has shifted from a singular focus on evangelism and “providing concrete answers,” to instead “posing compelling questions” in previously uncharted territory. Lindsay, Michael. Faith in the Halls of Power (143)

Evangelicals and Catholics working together

There is far more cooperation between evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics in America than a generation ago, primarily as what Francis Schaeffer called “co-belligerents’ on social concerns such as the sanctity of life. But in the last decade, the dialogue and action have gone beyond these issues of common cause to the substance of common faith.Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus organized a remarkable group called Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), which helped identify doctrinal agreement on central questions such as salvation by faith. “Today’s ECT understanding,” Colson writes in The Faith, “reflects a return to the unanimity that once existed among the early Church Fathers.”

“The [ECT] effort, once hugely controversial,” Colson continues, “has become much less so as progress has been achieved.” This progress could only be imagined during the contentious days of Carl Henry and the early neo-evangelicals. [Colson, Charles W. The Faith: Given Once for All. (Zondervan: 2008)]

Warning Signs

Certainly, all is not well. There is work to do on the image of evangelical Christians, as explored by Gabe Lyons and Dave Kinnaman in UnChristian. They write: “Christians are supposed to represent Christ to the world. But according to the latest report card, something has gone terribly wrong. Using descriptions like “hypocritical,” “insensitive,” and “judgmental,” young Americans share an impression of Christians that’s nothing short of . . . unChristian. Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group, writes that his firm’s research showed a shocking decline in the the perceptions of the church during the decade leading up to 2006. Kinnaman, David; Lyons, Gabe. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity. (Baker: 2007)

“Our most recent data,” Kinnaman says, “show that young outsiders have lost much of their respect for the Christian faith. These days nearly two out of every five young outsiders claim to have a ‘bad impression of present-day Christianity.’ Beyond this, one-=third of young outsiders said that Christianity represents a negative image with which they would not want to be associated.”

Michael Spencer, one of the most popular Christian bloggers (The Internet Monk) until his death in 2010, decried what he saw as the worst of evangelical decline in recent decades:

  • The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence.
  • We evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it.
  • Despite some very successful developments in the past 25 years, Christian education has not produced a product that can withstand the rising tide of secularism.

However, it is wrong to suggest that evangelicalism is fading away. The chief error made by observers and commentators in considering the evangelical movement of the Christian churches is also the most understandable. For so many years evangelicals have been featured in media reports as political and cultural warriors, something these warriors usually welcomed. The prominence of this image, however, resulted in an enormous misrepresentation of the heart, soul, and even the influence, of evangelicals in America. As early as the 1980’s prescient evangelical leaders such as Chuck Colson were warning fellow believers about what Jacques Ellul called “the political illusion” that true power and lasting change came through political processes and institutions. Evangelicals often fall prey to this seduction, but never as thoroughly as portrayed by those outside the movement who sought to understand and explain the evangelical phenomenon.This was evident when Time Magazine’s 2006 list of the 25 most influential evangelicals presented a myopic, political, Washington-centric view of the church that diminished the role of the church and its leaders outside of Washington and the political environment.

Although television cameras rarely capture the essence of mainstream evangelicals, it they wished to, they would look to vibrant spiritual community in small group meetings in the homes of millions of Americans who are opening their Bibles and searching together for the way God wants them to live their lives. The heart of evangelicalism beats in worship in churches blanketing the country—most small, 75-200 members, and some very large. These are the people of faith forfeiting an extra hour’s sleep on Sunday morning to worship their Creator and to listen to a pastor or teacher trying to help them in their walk with God.

* * *

I have examined this Evangelical Generation by studying some of its leading characters.  Their stories are told in posts listed here.  They’re divided into six segments.

  • The involvement of evangelical Christians during the current generation makes little sense, however, without first understanding the battles and developments that were the focus of leaders who began their work as early as the 1940’s but continued close to or into the new century—including Carl Henry, Billy Graham, Francis Schaeffer, and Ted Engstrom. They are examined in the section The Uneasy Move to the Forefront .
  • Any discussion of prominent evangelical leaders must acknowledge that, in addition to Billy Graham, seven leaders gained national and international prominence that far surpassed all other evangelicals, and made significant contributions to their own areas of ministry, as well as to the whole of evangelical witness and impact. We look at the influence of these leaders—Jimmy Carter, Charles Colson, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Bill Bright, and Rick Warren—in the section Public Ascendancy.  The breadth of evangelical engagement is perhaps most evident when we consider the range of projects, ministries, and passions that have dominated the lives of evangelicalism’s prominent and effective leaders. Although they could be divided in a number of ways, I’ve grouped them into five additional categories:
  • The preachers and teachers and architects of church life are included in the section Preaching the Gospel, Changing the Church.
  • Representatives of the many leaders who work to bring solace and new life to the least, the last and the lost–those who Jesus called “the least of these my brothers”—are introduced in the section For the Least of These.
  • Although many evangelical leaders added political action to their agenda, we take a look at some leaders who did political work as their day job in the section Political Evangels.
  • In the section Evangelical Connectors we look at the type of leaders that Malcolm Gladwell called connectors and Michael Lindsay identified as having “convening power”–those with the ability to bring people together for common cause.
  • In a section called Creating Culture, we look at leaders who brought their evangelical worldview to their work in media, entertainment and the arts.
  • All history is prelude to the present, which in turn is a foundation for the future.  In a separate post I’ve looked at the current condition of evangelicalism and outline some of the most pressing challenges; and then introduce young evangelicals who appear well positioned and able to provide leadership to the movement for the next 40 years.




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