Subscribe now

Article

More in this category:

The rise and decline of evangelicalism in the United States (1967-2017)

February 2017 | by Terry Johnson

There can be no question that something extraordinary was happening spiritually at the end of the 1960s and into the early 1970s, just as Evangelical Times was beginning its ministry.

Thousands of young people came to Christ, campus ministries exploded with growth, and hundreds of young men flooded into the seminaries. The year 1976 was named ‘The year of the evangelical’ by Time Magazine,and Jimmy Carter, a professed evangelical, was elected president of the United States.

Though there was at the same time much hand-wringing over the nation’s moral decline, with the benefit of hindsight we can see that a ‘revival’ of sorts burst on the scene of an increasingly secular America, at the height of the sexual revolution and social unrest of the 1960s.

We can also see today that much of that evangelical energy, then evident, has dissipated, numbers have declined, and what is left of evangelicalism in America is doctrinally and morally vulnerable.

Jesus Movement

The Jesus Movement can be considered to have begun with the conversions of drug-devouring hippies Ted and Elizabeth Wise in early 1965, in the San Francisco Bay area of northern California. Dozens of their friends and acquaintances were soon converted through their witness and joined them at the very ‘square’ Baptist church of Rev. John MacDonald.

Momentum grew as enthusiastic converts took to the streets, witnessing to one and all, especially to counter-cultural types. Christian coffee houses and communal houses sprang up, including what proved to be authoritarian cults. Yet the movement as a whole honoured the authority of Scripture, the uniqueness of Christ and the importance of personal evangelism.

It was ‘evangelical religion and counter-cultural style’, as one author described it. Contra the avalanche of moral and religious relativism of the day, the motto for the movement became ‘one way,’ with index finger uplifted.

From northern California, the movement spread to southern California, and from there to the south, midwest and north of the US. The multiplying Calvary Chapels (now over 1,500 congregations worldwide), the Vineyard Churches, Maranatha Music (the beginnings of Christian contemporary music), mass baptisms in the Pacific, Hal Lindsey’s Late great planet Earth (published in 1970, the largest selling book of the 1970s — 28 million sold by 1990!), youth rallies that attracted participants in tens of thousands, the rock operas Jesus Christ Superstar (1970) and Godspell (1971) were all features of the era.

Jesus was in the headlines in those days. Substantial articles appeared in major publications and interviews were featured on the major networks. Billy Graham was named Grand Marshall for the Tournament of Roses Parade for New Year 1971, and on 21 June that year, the Jesus Movement was featured as the cover story for Time Magazine.

Campus Crusades’ Explo ’72 conference in Dallas attracted 85,000 young people for a week of seminars and evangelising, and 200,000 attended the Jesus Music Festival. The highways of America were soon littered with cars with fish decals or Jesus bumper stickers. Evangelical youth culture adopted many of the features of the Jesus Movement.

Consolidation

Floods of young men, many of whom were converted in college, were called into the ministry, driving an extraordinary expansion of evangelical seminaries.

New theological institutions opened to accommodate the crowds: Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, MS (1966); Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the Chicago area (1969); Gordon-Conwell in the Boston area (1969); Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in South Carolina (1988).

Existing seminaries boasted full enrolments and added satellite campuses: Westminster Theological Seminary opened extensions in Miami (1981), Escondido, CA (1980), and Dallas (1999). Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) expanded into Orlando (1988), Charlotte (1992), Atlanta (1996), and Washington, DC (1996).

InterVarsity Press’ books and booklets provided much of the initial fuel for the intellectual or theological development within this revival. College students huddled around IVP publications, such as Paul Little’s Know why you believe (1967) and Francis Schaeffer’s The God who is there (1968).

Literature

Paralleling the British invasion of rock bands in the 1960s, British authors published many of the most popular books being devoured by young American Christians. J. I. Packer’s Knowing God (1973), John Stott’s Basic Christianity and C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity led the way.

Stott further popularised the writings of British evangelicals through his preaching at the triennial Urbana World Missions Conference, of which he was the featured speaker in 1964, and again in 1967, 1970, 1973, 1976 and 1979. These conferences attracted more than 15,000 students in the 1970s and 80s and continue to this day.

All this to say, the result of the revival occurring around the Jesus Movement was thousands of young evangelical ministers entering the churches and thousands of missionaries serving overseas.

The effects were also felt in the explosive growth of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches, the revitalising of Presbyterianism through the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in 1973, and the rescuing of the Missouri Synod Lutheran and the Southern Baptist Churches from liberalism.

What became of the rest of Protestantism? The mainline denominations (Presbyterian, Episcopal, Congregational, Methodist, Northern Baptist, Lutheran) became the sideline. Plunging attendance and membership characterised these churches for decades, some denominations (including the Roman Catholics, though their losses were masked by immigration) losing as much as one-third to one-half of their membership.

Dangers

Yet, the net impact of the revival became clearer by the 1990s. The coarsening of America’s public life continued. The wheat and tares were growing up together, and the tares were winning.

Jerry Falwell organised the Moral Majority in 1979, attempting to consolidate evangelicalism’s formidable political strength. The televangelist Pat Robertson organised the Christian Coalition ten years later, attempting to do the same.

These efforts contributed to the political victories of conservative politicians, such as President Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, who enjoyed massive evangelical support and who tended to slow the progressive agenda.

Even the more liberal President Clinton had to abandon largely his social designs for America regarding homosexuality and abortion, claiming as a goal that the latter had become ‘rare’. Nevertheless, in 1973, abortion-on-demand was legalised in all 50 states by the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

Obscenity laws were relaxed to the point of non-existence. What would have been considered pornographic or semi-pornographic in the 1950s and early 60s, was difficult to dodge while watching relatively benign television programming. Lucy and Ricky slept in separate beds in 1960. Even commercials now show ‘everything but’ and cable TV shows everything, period.

The passing years saw sodomy legalised, homosexuality normalised and, most recently, ‘gay marriage’ mandated by the highest court, in 2015. A more complete collapse of the Christian moral consensus of the previous 400 years of American civilisation can scarcely be imagined, unless it be to normalise transgenderism and mandate transgender bathrooms — a trend already in progress.

Downgrade

Evangelicalism in the 21st century has seen an alarming decline in doctrinal knowledge. Fuzzy moral standards have replaced the once rock-solid ethical convictions of previous generations of evangelicals, if the surveys are to be believed. Most alarming, evangelicals as a percentage of the population have sharply declined since the 1990s.

What has happened? No doubt, causes for evangelical decline are complex and reasons multi-faceted. Nevertheless, the roots of decline are in evangelicalism itself, and specifically in whatever is left of its public ministry.

What happens when post-Jesus Movement evangelical churches gather for worship? Public ministry becomes Jesus Movement youth ministry writ large, as Baby Boomers seek to perpetuate the experiences and emotions of those extraordinary years.

A pervasive, seeker-driven philosophy all but eliminates from public services whatever might be deemed culturally unfamiliar, such as prayer, Scripture reading and the sacraments. Contemporary Christian music has been uncritically embraced at the expense of soul-strengthening psalmody and biblical hymnody; and topical sermons addressing felt, that is, temporal needs are sought over rigorous biblical exposition.

The next generation, the millennials, experiences these novelties as normal and preferred. Given the indispensable role that Scripture plays in regeneration (1 Peter 1:21-23), faith (Romans 10:17), sanctification (John 17:17) and growth (1 Peter 2:1, 2), and given the negative trajectory of the net biblical content in the public assemblies of evangelical churches, this debiblicising of public ministry is a catastrophic development, compounded by the drastically diminished role of ‘unseeker-friendly’ public prayer.

We need not wonder if our churches are full of spiritual infants, worldly in thinking and behaviour, ignorant of the Bible and its teaching, compromised and cowardly in the face of a culture increasingly hostile to Christian discipleship.

Hope

What of the future? American evangelicals must awaken to their carnality and the looming calamity. A fresh spiritual awakening is possible. However, it will be costly. Judgment begins with the household of God.

Repentance for sin, recommitment to biblical authority and the lordship of Christ, and a reform of their public church assemblies are the needs of American evangelicals on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Evangelical Times.

Yet, the awakenings of the past, along with the more recent renewal we call the Jesus Movement, gives us hope that the Holy Spirit might be pleased to revive us again. Post tenebras lux.

Terry L. Johnson is senior minister of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia, USA.