One advantage of age is that experience and recollection provide a measure of perspective. The latest fad or fashion is not as novel as many think. Old practices and ideas are frequently trotted out as being modern, when in fact they are nothing of the sort. This is particularly evident in religious matters.
Fresh deviations from the truth, such as Steve Chalke’s recent comments on the atonement, are but old heresies dressed up in new clothes. So in reviewing evangelicalism for the past forty years we shall meet up with old friends and enemies of the biblical faith.
The most significant event for Evangelicals in the 1960s was not Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ ‘appeal’ at the Evangelical Alliance meeting on 18 October 1966 in the Central Hall, Westminster, but the Evangelical Anglican Keele Conference of 1967.
Dr Lloyd-Jones had urged Evangelicals to unite in a more visible unity and break their links with those who denied the historic Christian faith. For this he has been blamed for ‘opening a rift between British Evangelicals’ (Churchman, Autumn 2006, p.231). But in reality it was the changed stance of Evangelical Anglicans at Keele that created the breach with nonconformist Evangelicals.
At Keele the historic Evangelical Anglican position, argued by Augustus Toplady and Bishop J. C. Ryle, that the Church of England is a reformed church, was abandoned. They adopted the position that the Anglican Church is essentially a comprehensive body in which liberals and Anglo-Catholics had as much right as themselves.
It was significant that the liberal Anglo-Catholic Archbishop Michael Ramsey had been asked to open the proceedings. Evangelical Anglicans were now urged to accept those whom they had previously argued had no right to be in the church.
This ‘about turn’ (which had been incubating long before the EA meetings of 1966) meant that most Evangelical Anglicans no longer saw their future in co-operating with Evangelicals outside the established church.
Instead, the future lay in working together with fellow Anglicans whatever their theological persuasion – and thus in wholehearted involvement in the ecumenical movement. This left a number of them reconsidering their position. Some ministers seceded as did members of their congregations.
The pattern of evangelical church life in the late sixties and the seventies was considerably affected by these developments. Evangelicals increasingly sought fellowship with those of biblical convictions.
Some of the traditional evangelical denominations began to thaw out and seek closer bonds with others who held the centralities of the gospel. The British Evangelical Council experienced a new lease of life and became the focus of evangelical co-operation.
Evangelicals began to see that the fundamental doctrines of the faith were of greater importance than their denominational distinctives.
In this period, from the late sixties into the eighties, many Evangelicals withdrew from the doctrinally mixed denominations and sought to come together in a true biblical unity. Encouraged and helped by Lloyd-Jones’ vision for closer evangelical unity, many new churches came into existence. Dr Lloyd-Jones was not responsible for this development, but he provided a clear-thinking doctrinal basis for it.
Leicestershire provides an example of an area where such developments took place. In the fifties and early sixties, the biblical ministry of Rev. Leslie Land at Melbourne Hall, Leicester, attracted believers from all over the area.
There were few other evangelical churches or ministers in the county at that time, but from the late sixties and into the early eighties many more came into being. And in these churches the Word of God was regularly preached.
An evangelical ministers’ fraternal was formed which grew in strength and influence through the years. This sort of development took place in many other areas of the country. Early zeal and vision ensured that the gospel was regularly preached and many conversions resulted.
The growth of evangelical churches was fostered in the sixties and seventies by the Bible Rally ‘movement’. Regular meetings were arranged in different parts of the country at which well-known preachers ministered.
These rallies provided good Bible teaching which many of those attending were not getting in their local denominational churches. Gradually, with the formation of evangelical churches with biblical ministries, the need for such rallies lessened.
In surveying the last forty years it is clear that a work of God had been taking place – more so than many of us realised at the time. There had been a preparation for this in the late forties and the fifties when a significant number of men, deeply exercised about the spiritual condition of our land, were called by God into the Christian ministry.
Most of them were still within the doctrinally-mixed denominations – from which they subsequently withdrew, often at great cost, to become ministers of the new evangelical churches. They engaged in difficult pioneer work in establishing these new causes.
During this early period the Banner of Truth publishing house and Evangelical Press came into existence, providing much needed evangelical literature. Then in 1967 Evangelical Times was launched, helping to link these churches together and giving much encouragement.
The national meetings of the British Evangelical Council served to consolidate these developments. Evangelicals, who for years had been fighting a losing battle against liberalism within doctrinally-mixed denominations, were given fresh heart.
The publication of several evangelical hymnbooks in the seventies helped to link the churches together in the praise of God and his great salvation. The IVF had started to produce a few excellent paperbacks in the late fifties, such as Fundamentalism and the Word of God by J. I. Packer, and these proved a great help to evangelical students in the universities.
A new generation
The nominal Christian church in Britain has continued in steep decline since the early 1900s. But although many of us may not have realised it, the period 1950-1985 was one of evangelical prosperity. With the calling of godly men into the ministry, most of whom were willing to make tremendous sacrifices, churches were established with members who zealously strove to promote their welfare.
But the situation began to change in the late eighties. Fewer conversions were reported and troubling trends started to develop. A new generation was beginning to emerge which knew little of the sacrifices and battles of the pioneering days.
There appears now to be less willingness to give time and energy to the work of God. The early emphasis on the need for expository preaching has hardened into a somewhat inflexible insistence on formal teaching – with far less preaching and a regrettable absence of exhortation and application of the Word.
Other disturbing developments are taking place. There is a decline of gospel preaching. Proclamation is regarded as ‘threatening’, and so a ‘user-friendly’ approach to unbelievers is being encouraged.
Courses ‘investigating Christianity’ are favoured, but the danger of these is that assent to the truths of the faith is mistaken for real saving faith. Coupled with this is a failure to call people to repentance – certainly not user-friendly! And there is a noticeable absence of preaching on the cross, the biblical heart of all true preaching.
In addition, the Ten Commandments are being downgraded and the Lord’s Day is no longer observed as formerly. Considerable worldliness of mind and behaviour is creeping into our churches.
Much could also be said about the effect of recent approaches now being made by Evangelical Anglicans to nonconformist churches in the name of ‘gospel partnership’. Why not ‘church partnerships’? Is it because that would create problems for Evangelicals within non-biblical, apostate or corrupt denominations, which they are reluctant to face?
The decline of spiritual power and blessing within the evangelical churches has led to a turning inwards and a greater preoccupation with secondary issues. Instead of calling people to repentance and reconciliation with God – and urging them to seek salvation in Jesus Christ as the only Saviour – we are in danger of being taken up with the horizontal issues of this life.
And while we debate our differences over church government, spiritual gifts and modes of baptism, and fall out over Bible versions and hymnbooks, we are failing in our responsibility – namely, to confront people with the majesty and holiness of our God and Creator, and to remind them that there is a day of judgement when we shall all be called to account.
We seem to have forgotten that the cross is an offence and that the church can never please the unbelieving world. A sense of awe is absent in our congregations and rarely do we see men and women weeping over their sins under the preaching of God’s Word.
Looking back over the past forty years there is much to encourage us; but watchfulness and discernment are urgently required. And the need of a spiritual outpouring of God’s power is as great as ever.
Let us therefore ‘give him no rest’ (Isaiah 62:7) who alone is able to prosper his church and turn the hearts of the ungodly to righteousness