It is easy enough to see that contemporary evangelicalism indulges a sort of fetish for reinventing itself. Christianity Today editor Mark Galli once described a flier he received in the mail:
A new flavor of church is in town! Whether you prefer church with a more traditional blend or a robust contemporary flavor, at [church name], we have a style just for you! Casual atmosphere, relevant messages, great music, dynamic kids’ programs, and yes, you can choose your own flavor!
The “flavors” the flier advertised were things like “‘Real-life messages,’ ‘Safe and fun children’s program,’ ‘Friendly people,’ and the marketing coup de grace, ‘Fresh coffee and doughnuts!’”
Evangelicalism is and has always been chameleonic. It exhibits a uniquely strong instance of what Lamin Sanneh has called the “translatability” of Christianity. Sparked by the transatlantic revival of Wesley and Edwards in the eighteenth century, the evangelical flame has since flashed through almost every neighborhood of Protestantism’s heavenly city. And as it has spread, it has melted down every time-honored ecclesial structure in its pursuit of the direct, unmediated experience of God.
This pietistic, revivalistic impulse reached white heat in the late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, that furnace of “populism, individualism, democratization, and market-making.” Nineteenth-century evangelical worship and spirituality promoted a direct and personal relationship with God. It featured fluid, pragmatic worship forms tailored to specific situations and purposes, democratic lay participation in worship, and importations from popular culture. As one nineteenth-century Methodist exclaimed: “Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?” Thus was evangelicalism in the beginning, is now, and (quite likely) ever shall be.
As each new generation of evangelicals has forged its own culturally attuned modes, the movement has held on to only two sacred realities. The first is “the church invisible”—the fellowship of saints across time, space, and denominational traditions. The second is the individual’s relationship with God. Between these two, everything else—all the doctrinal formulations, liturgies, polities, and other ecclesiological frameworks—have been rendered negotiable and plastic, continually modified and remodified to achieve pietistic ends.
Years of feeding, promoting, and protecting its hunger for direct experiential access to God have encased this theologically conservative movement in a culturally liberal skin. The resulting incongruous religiosity has descended, in some of its forms, into a sort of Jesus-y multiple personality disorder. For despite its socially angular commitments to sin, salvation, miracles, and the theology of the cross, evangelicalism expertly camouflages itself in every setting, hugging the contours of the world around it. Want to know which way the cultural wind is blowing at any time and place? Look to the innovative, pragmatic, malleable evangelicals.
The Heart against Tradition
As it seeks camouflage in its surrounding cultures, evangelicalism tends to separate itself from its own Christian roots. To see why, we need to spend a moment more with evangelical experientialism. David Bebbington famously defined the movement with a fourfold typology: biblicist, crucicentrist, conversionist, and activist. In raising evangelical “matters of the heart,” we are, I suppose, talking about conversionism. Yet that term by itself is inadequate to describe the movement’s habitus of affective devotion.
To modern critics (including some evangelicals), the movement’s emotional bent can seem mawkish, self-indulgent, even theologically dangerous. This may miss the fact that Christian groups in the pietistic tradition of evangelicalism have typically treated (if not always fully articulated) religious emotion not as raw feeling but, quite biblically, as a response of the “heart”—understood as our unified center of feeling, thinking, and willing—to a Gospel both understood and acted upon. Evangelicals tend to understand better than most that it is impossible for us to live righteously unless our whole being, including our emotions, has experienced transformation. And they can claim as support for this understanding not only Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley, but also C.S. Lewis and such thoughtful modern pastors as John Piper and Tim Keller.
But whatever the merit of this affectively toned conversionism, what has it meant to the evangelical willingness to reinvent all ecclesial forms? Is there any way heart religion can lead toward, rather than away from, a firmer and better-grounded Christian identity?
Since the Reformation, Protestants have consistently worried that traditional forms of worship and ecclesial life may lead people away from God and back into what Martin Luther once called the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” Since their first cries in the Puritan cradle, evangelicals have lashed out against all tricks of the religious trade that are proffered as necessary mediations between humans and God. Any time ecclesiasts have prescribed images, rituals, gestures, or their own holy offices and orders as crucial to the believer’s relationship with God, evangelical Protestants have demurred. The proto-evangelical “free church” Protestants—first the Anabaptists, then later the varieties of Reformed Christianity stemming from Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin, then the nonconformist varieties of Puritans (Baptists, Congregationalists, etc.), then all their heirs up to the modern Pentecostal denominations and Charismatic movements—have desired to be “free,” not only from state control and church hierarchy, but also from such priestcraft. How dare any human tell others they must do this or that to reach God! Each of us stands before God on our own two feet. And God, in turn, stands ready to meet us without the poor helps of human tradition.
The Heart for Tradition
Yet—and here is where I take hope—this very same attention to the heart’s experience of God’s presence is itself a piece of Christian tradition. The desire to experience intimacy with God in Christ and through his Spirit, and the understanding that this desire is itself God-given—a blessing to be enjoyed both in heaven and here on earth—runs like a golden thread through Christianity since its origins. It animated Paul, Origen, Augustine, the medieval monks, and the Orthodox mystical writers, as well as the evangelical family line of Pietists, Puritans, Baptists, and Methodists.
In fact, its emphasis on heart religion may yet prove to be evangelicalism’s way out of its long history of anti-traditionalism. For the movement’s tide of experientially driven heart religion pulls in not one, but two directions. Yes, it threatens to sweep some of its followers onto the rocks of a traditionless banality. But at the same time, its impassioned undertow is pulling others out into the wine-dark sea of older faith traditions.
In fact, it is the very evangelical desire to be “closer to God”—which has in the past separated the movement from its own Christian heritage—that drives this yearning for a more solid and satisfying Christian identity in an increasingly post-Christian world. From this yearning has emerged a now forty-year-old movement toward a more traditional Christian spirituality, reclaiming such time-honored practices as lectio divina (slow, meditative reading of Scripture), spiritual direction, and Ignatian retreats.
This modern evangelical retrieval movement started in America in the 1950s and 1960s, as walls between Protestant and Catholic camps began to come down (though, as Kenneth Stewart has taught us, it has analogues throughout evangelical history). It “broke out” in 1978, with the publication of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. By that year, conciliatory, culture-engaging “new evangelicals” (represented by the NAE, Christianity Today, and Fuller and Gordon-Conwell seminaries) had already begun to initiate themselves into the world of traditional Christian spirituality. They were using contemplative prayer techniques, attending retreats, sitting under spiritual directors, and reading Catholic and Orthodox books. But Foster, along with such teachers as Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, and James Houston, brought ancient spirituality into the evangelical mainstream for at least a season.
And although leaders confess that this movement has begun to stall out in recent years, committed evangelicals who regret their churches’ chameleonic adaptation to modern culture—and concomitant loss of historic Christian flavor, if not identity—are continuing to seek spiritual help along older pathways. For some at least, a reappropriation of older traditions seems the only way to re-anchor a church that seems more and more to be becoming “all things for all people.”
Though no church, of course, can be wholly immune to the influence of the culture that surrounds it, thoughtful evangelicals yearn for a Christianity that has its own strong culture, standing (where necessary) against the stream. This they glimpse in certain presumably golden times and places—the persecuted church before Constantine, early monasticism, Celtic Christianity, the anti-state ranks of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists—and such glimpses spur them to further exploration. They hope that, in patristic pastoral theology, monastic rules of life, and time-honored devotional forms, they can discover modes and practices of faith that look less like malls and rock concerts than the churches they’ve attended. Consider the popularity of Orthodox convert Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option: though many evangelicals critiqued it, many more read it with wistful hearts.
The quest is supported, too, by evangelical scholars, from whom has come a strong stream of books and articles. Translated and excerpted spiritual classics are now joined by monumental historical commentary series from evangelical presses, appreciative histories of confessional Protestantism, the popular explorations of Christian History Magazine and Touchstone Magazine, and even a nascent evangelical “medieval retrieval.”
This last is a ressourcement latecomer, and still much more on the edges of evangelical consciousness than early-church retrieval. My own recent book, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, seeks to contribute to this part of the conversation, as do works by Rebecca DeYoung, Greg Peters, Dennis Okholm, Douglas Wilson, Glenn Myers, and the occasional evangelical contributor to First Things, to name only a few.
In the face of continued attempts to make church “relevant,” many younger evangelicals have simply been leaving the mall-like megachurches, spurning the high-energy, entertainment-oriented worship services and marketing-driven strategies of modern de-denominationalized, de-traditioned “worship centers.” And why, indeed, should they stay, when it is not at all clear just how these culturally camouflaged churches can offer them anything more transforming than the flood of empty promises pouring from the consumerist world around them?
For a time, young evangelicals pushed these frontiers through “emerging” and “new monastic” experiments, sampling ancient- and medieval-inflected elements of worship and modes of community. Though highly selective in implementation, and far short of sparking any ecclesial revolution, these dalliances reveal the power of the modern evangelical spiritual hunger for tradition described by such authors of a previous generation as Richard Lovelace, Robert Webber, and Dallas Willard.
It is fair to say that young evangelicals continue to question received forms, to hunger for authenticity and community, to yearn for a spiritual therapy that will heal their sin-sick souls, and above all, to reach out for immediate, personal connection to the divine.
But with the ecclesial impulses of the “emergent” and “new monastic” crowd already fading, what can keep today’s young searchers in the fold? Only, I think, a dawning or renewed recognition that their own questing puts them squarely in the lineage of martyrs, mystics, monastics, and the whole “cloud of witnesses.” Only the solidarity that comes as we see that our own hearts’ impulses for God are the same impulses that drove every Christian generation’s quest, from the spiritual warfare of the desert fathers, to the spiritual and theological odysseys of Augustine and Aquinas, to the communal disciplines of the Benedictines, to the impassioned born-again activism of the early modern Pietists and Puritans.
I pray we all will find this ancient sustenance for this post-Christian age.
Chris R. Armstrong is a faculty member at Wheaton College (IL) and founding director of Opus: The Art of Work. His most recent book is Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis (Brazos, 2016).