David F. Wells ©


If there is an evangelical crisis, one apparently has to look for it; and if one finds it, there are those who say that one is imagining things. The appearance certainly is that the evangelical world is humming like a finely tuned machine. It seems not to be at a crucial turning point, and its future seems not to be clouded with uncertainty at all.

Everywhere in Christianity Today, for example, one is met with the reassuring sense that all is well. Even the internal debates that ruffle its pages from time to time are not the sort that would ever threaten to rend the body. Besides, the magazine is at pains to stay above the fray. It is no surprise, therefore, that from its perch it sees nothing alarming in any direction. Leadership likewise hoists aloft its sails on a sea that is placid and calm. Occasionally the murkier sides to ministry heave into sight, but for the most part it devotes itself to being a perky, upbeat effort to latch onto the latest trends and not allow its feet to get entangled in biblical matters. Fortunately, Leadership has Peter Drucker to make sense for us out of the practice of ministry. Who knows, one wonders, where the evangelical world would be if it had only the apostle Paul? Such a fate is almost too dreadful to contemplate.

The truth is that in garden-variety evangelicalism there is no sense of crisis at all. And why should there be? When one looks at the evangelical presses, they are all in high gear. They are not only churning out books, but some are also showering us with a rich profusion of religious paraphernalia. The devout of the Middle Ages would have turned green with envy had they been able to see what we now have. When one turns to television, new evangelists have taken the place of the old. However, the shadowy business of bringing blessing and cash into unseemly proximity with one another has gone on without skipping a beat. When one takes to the road, “new paradigm” churches are springing up like mushrooms everywhere. They do not always look like the old thing. Gone, very often, are the familiar church buildings, and in their place are those that look more like low-slung corporate headquarters or country clubs. Inside, a cyclone of change has ripped out the crosses, the pews, the eighteenth-century hymns, the organs, and the biblical discourses. In their place are contemporary songs, drums, cinema-grade seats, light discourses, professional singers, drama, and humor. But there is no sense of crisis about any of this. Quite the reverse. The appearance is that these churches have reality by the tail.

To speak of a crisis, then, is to take on some uphill work. It is akin, perhaps, to the difficulty of injecting a note of caution about the stock market at the very moment when corporate profits are spectacular and the Dow Jones Average has just climbed to new and unprecedented heights. Those in the throes of a rip-snorting party, be it economic or religious, usually find notes of caution a bit irritating and even offensive. I therefore wish to explore this difficulty a little, both with respect to the wider culture and to post-War evangelicalism, before taking up the main theme of this essay. I do so because it is important to establish the context within which any talk about a crisis must be understood.


In America, in the twentieth century in particular, we have had to calculate anew the costs and benefits of being modern. There is something to be said on both sides of the equation. On the one side of the ledger have to be weighed the innumerable benefits. Since 1930, for example, our life span has increased by two decades, thanks to astonishing advances in medicine and technology ranging from vaccines for polio and measles, to the discovery of DNA, to the widespread use of antibiotics, to gene splicing and implanted cardiac defibrillators. We also have every effort and time-saving gadget imaginable, from dishwashers, to washing machines, to vacuum cleaners, to freezers. It now seems inconceivable that only half a century ago, in 1940, most houses lacked what we now consider elementary amenities—for example, refrigeration and central heat; 30 percent did not even have running water. In the 1950s, when Levitown was built, one of its most popular features was the unheard of benefit that each house came with its own washing machine. Since then assembly lines have poured a tidal wave of products into showrooms, malls, and catalogs. The result is that today, in some ways, we live a pampered life that has no precedent. We have more than any other generation—more money, more goods, more comforts, more choices, more protections, and more freedoms.

On the other hand, we also have to weigh the invisible costs that have to be paid for this abundance. We are consumer beings now, and our own internal rhythms are tied into the marketplace as never before. Market insecurity rattles our very being even as the constant trends, fashions, and tastes that this market generates become the unforgiving standards by which we feel compelled to live. If ours is a world constantly in change, so we as people are constantly in change too, moving from job to job, place to place, desire to desire, viewpoint to viewpoint, and perhaps from spouse to spouse. The quotient of what changes to what does not has been dramatically and painfully transformed in our time. And one of the consequences of this is that by every measure anxiety today is at unprecedented levels, as is depression.

The most telling metaphor for all of this may be the storage locker, which since the 1970s has become a major business. Easy to build and easy to maintain, storage bins provide rentable space that is more lucrative than that in apartment buildings. The storage locker, in fact, tells the story of America in a number of ways. America is about the gathering of “stuff” that, in time, overwhelms the owner. It is also about phases of life broken by dislocations between which we find the storage locker. It is there between broken marriages, moves, career changes, and children coming and going. The books, tables, clothes, and bicycles that are piled into these lockers are the residue that remains from many of life’s changes, changes of all kinds—temporary and permanent, planned and unplanned, happy and sad.

The turbulence in our modern life, the bewildering sense of uprootedness that it leaves behind, is simply the most obvious of the costs of being modern, but there are others that are less tangible but no less debilitating. For while modern life fills us up with its goods and trinkets, it also empties us out. Ours is a generation adrift on the high seas of technological innovation but bereft of rudder or compass. The religious norms, the moral beliefs, the cultural expectations that once provided some sense of order and propriety in society have all but disappeared. We now have much, but we also have little. The problem is partly that we have wanted too much, for our appetites of consumption are unrestrained; but the larger problem is that we have also wanted too little—too little of what is true and right.

There are, then, two sides to being modern. There are enormous benefits that are matched by corresponding costs. Those who write of this cultural crisis are often misjudged. For them to say there is a cultural crisis is apparently belied by the remarkable transformation of our world wrought by our virile economy, our technological finesse, our inventiveness. Indeed, to speak of a crisis is to appear ungrateful for all of this, to be overly cynical and even downright pessimistic. It cuts against the grain of the American spirit, against its upbeat optimism, its perennially cheerful assessment of its own prospects, its can-do confidence, and its desire to be liked.

The same dynamic is present in the evangelical world too, and the same danger attends those who speak to it. There is no question that when we compare our situation today with what pertained in the early post-War years, we are in a vastly improved position. Then, evangelicalism was on the fringes, religiously and societally, but now it is in the center. Then, churches were small, for the most part, and comparatively few in number, but now they have benefited from the enormously successful evangelism that has occurred. This growth may have slowed more recently, but there can be no doubt that there has been an explosion of believing in recent decades. Christian schools and colleges have grown in number and quality, as have seminaries; and since the early 1970s there has been an explosion of voluntary associations, Christian organizations, and new ministries. For these and many other reasons, the appearance is of boom times religiously speaking. But if we have much, I believe that we now also have little-too little of what is true and right. Our appetite for truth, as well as for what is morally right, is being lost. Evangelical abundance on the surface, and boundless evangelical energy, conceals a spiritual emptiness beneath it. It is because of this emptiness that a major crisis is now in the making.

In one respect, there is nothing particularly novel about the decline of the evangelical church in our time. Spiritual life is always flowing and then ebbing. The tide comes in, and then it goes out. In the book of Judges we see this unmistakable pattern. There are six cycles, and the rhythms are identical: each one is initiated by Israel’s sin (3:7; 3:12; 4:1; 6:1; 8:33-35; 10:6); each declension is attended by suffering under the hand of God (3:8; 3:12; 4:2; 6:1; 8:33-36; 10:7-8); this suffering softened the hearts of God’s people so that they began to seek Him in prayer (3:9; 3:15; 4:3; 6:6; 10:15); God then raised up a deliverer to restore them (3:9; 3:15; 4:4-23; 6:11-16; 10:1-2). The tide went out each time because of sin, and God brought it back in again each time because of grace.

It is a basic and elementary lesson that the book of Judges teaches, and yet one has to ask why the spiritual condition of God’s people at that time, which was so clear to the author of the book, was lost on them. The answer, I believe, is that the sin that alienates God often disguises its nature and buys legitimacy off the surrounding culture. The worship of Baal began to seem natural and normal. What became odd was the refusal to embrace the pagan gods and goddesses. Indeed, in every age where a mass departure from God and His truth has happened, the reasons for it seem entirely normal and self-evident. That is why the ebbing of spiritual life appears to be so innocent. Indeed, it is hardly even noticed. And the telltale sign that it is happening is that the enemies of faith disappear from sight. People settle into doing what is culturally conventional at a spiritual level. This is why, in the Old Testament, the prophetic calling was such a painful and lonely thing. To those far from God, the prophet always seemed so wrong-headed, so lacking in grace, so pessimistic. Since then, nothing really has changed. In an age such as ours, when evangelicalism is mistaking its outward prosperity for inward riches and confusing truth with cultural habit and desire, even the most ordinary of people who know that something is amiss have to wonder how well their perceptions will be received.

Although the current moment is always extremely difficult to understand, I believe that the spiritual tide in the evangelical world has begun to go out. The causes for this are, no doubt, numerous. Some are internal, and some are external, and it is not easy to see their exact relationship. Does faith first decline internally, losing its doctrinal substance, its God-centered worship, its discipline, its serious preaching, and its faithful service? Thus weakened and beginning to drift, does it then fall prey to the external allurements in the culture? Is that how it happens? Or do the external allurements first intrude upon the faith? Does one small compromise follow another, so that doctrine first loses its importance and then its shape? Or do these processes happen simultaneously? However we choose to think about this matter, both poles—culture and doctrine—have to be considered in any explanation of the decline of the church’s life. It is the external entanglements, however, that are the focus of this essay, and in those that follow it is the internal dynamic that is more in view.

This essay’s thesis is very simple. It is that the character of contemporary evangelicalism is changing because of its unwitting entanglement with a culture that, in its postmodern configuration, has the power to eviscerate the doctrinal substance of that faith. What explains this entanglement? It is best explained by the fact that the cognitive location of evangelical faith in the culture has changed, resulting in a disposition to adapt to that culture rather than to sustain a moral and spiritual antagonism to it. The consequence of this is that evangelicalism is being transformed into something that it should not be. In this change, we are, I believe, beginning to see the spiritual tide going out.1


The dynamic that explains this internal change is not hard to explain. It concerns the way in which any group preserves, or fails to preserve, its identity. In sociological language, it concerns the fate of the sect. A sect is any group of people whose view of the world is discernibly different from what pertains in the wider society. Sects in this sense can be of all kinds, ranging from the current militias to religious groups like the Branch Davidians. Regardless of the kind of group that it is, the internal dynamic is remarkably similar.

First, a distinctive language emerges within the group. This not only reflects the group’s worldview, but it also serves as a badge of identification. Its use instantly marks those who are “in” and its absence those who are “out.”

Second, rules about life emerge, often enforced by authoritarian leaders. These rules are important in preserving the group’s cohesiveness and identity. They are there as markers for the unwary or unwise, warning them not to enter questionable territory in terms of belief, associations, or behavior. Peter Berger notes that with respect to the ideology of groups like these, it is important that they set “the conditions within which the ideas in question have a chance of remaining plausible.”2 It is the necessity of preserving what is distinctive to the group that also constitutes the members of such a sect as cognitive dissidents. They are at odds, cognitively speaking, with the society around them.

Third, all sects in this sociological sense quickly develop ways of providing mutual therapy, for doubt is often a besetting, if concealed, problem. Those whose way of looking at life is markedly different from what is taken to be “natural” and “normal” in society may have their moments when they wonder whether they are wrong. Why is it that the world can apparently get along quite well without the distinctive knowledge that they have and the meaningful associations within the group? Sects, because they are cognitive minorities, are prone to feeling threatened. They may experience loneliness. They also have to bear the opprobrium of knowing that they are considered odd. It is this inward unease, this doubt, this anxiety that constitutes the shadows that follow cognitive dissonance and for which the therapy of sympathy and association is needed (cf. Ps. 73).

It is not difficult to see that Protestant fundamentalism in the twentieth century has been, in these ways, a sect.3 Although its stridency in the first decades of this century came to be moderated later on, its view of the world has nevertheless always been distinctive and discernibly different from what has been considered normal in society. Its sense of antithesis, both to the culture and to the liberalism within Christian faith, was sharp and painful. It developed its own religious jargon and formulated rules that rapidly became legalisms that covered everything from wearing lipstick, to dancing, to movies. It withdrew educationally, denominationally, and culturally and organized itself into enclaves from which the outside world was excluded. Within these enclaves, therapy and comfort were offered to those who, from time to time, might wonder about the world outside. And it is not hard to see how fundamentalist doctrine had both a religious and a cultural dimension, for as George Marsden notes, at the heart of the debate with the modernists was the question: “Should Christianity and the Bible be viewed through the lens of cultural development, or should culture be viewed through the lens of Scripture?”4

For example, that the Bible was to be viewed as inerrant and “literally” true was, at a doctrinal level, a way of asserting its inspiration; but at a cultural level it was also a way of rejecting literary criticism in the universities. And this criticism was simply symptomatic of the whole drift of modern education. The belief in miracles, which was at the heart of fundamentalism, was there because it is at the heart of the Bible; but the assertion of such a belief was also an unmistakable way of rejecting the naturalistic and secular temper of the day. The belief in divine creation was, at one level, the assertion of biblical teaching; but at another, it was a deliberate rejection of Darwinianism and was a way of defying the reigning cognitive paradigm in society. Dispensational premillenialism was seen to replicate biblical teaching, but it was also a way of rejecting ideas about the progress of humanity that were at the heart of the civil credo that dominated public thinking until quite recently.5 In fact, prior to Christ’s return things are going to get much worse, not much better. Fundamentalist doctrine thus served both to protect biblical truth and to fend off the modern world.

In retrospect, it is clear that many dangers attend the path of cognitive dissonance. It is not easy to reject the reigning cognitive paradigm without stumbling into anti-intellectualism. That was a turn that fundamentalism took.6 Nor is it easy to sustain a moral antithesis to culture without drifting into legalism. Legalism may sometimes be as debilitating to the church as the moral dangers against which the legalism has become the protection. Much of fundamentalism did become hidebound and legalistic. Fundamentalism also produced a profusion of authoritarian leaders who could resolve life’s dilemmas with a degree of certainty that is usually beyond the reach of mere mortals. The fundamentalist landscape was filled with such figures.

In the early post-War years, evangelicals were determined that they would not repeat the fundamentalists’ mistakes. They distanced themselves from their rather rough and belligerent cousins by speaking of themselves as “neo-evangelicals.” The language was Carl Henry’s, though it has usually been credited to Harold Ockenga. What was “neo” about them was that they would not be anti-intellectual, separatistic, legalistic, or culturally withdrawn. They shed fundamentalist uncouthness, earned Ph.D’s from the finest universities, sat at the ecumenical table, dispensed for the most part with dispensational premillenialism, and loosed themselves from most cultural taboos.

The final chapter has not yet been written on this experiment, but when the time comes there will be an interesting question to answer For all the warts and flaws of fundamentalism, it did succeed in preserving the Word of God and the Gospel. Will this also be true of the evangelicals? They are undoubtedly much nicer than the fundamentalists, but in the end will they fail where the fundamentalists had succeeded? That will be a delicious piece of irony if it turns out to be true.


On the surface, the issue seems simple enough. Fundamentalists exhibited too much of the “Christ-against-Culture” animus, and evangelicals have too much of the old liberal “Christ-of-Culture” outlook.7 The earlier liberals, Niebuhr said, believed they “could live in culture as those who sought a destiny beyond but were not in strife with it.”8 That is what too many evangelicals are like today. From our church marketers to our respectable journals to some of our theologians,9 there is a rush to embrace cultural norms, habits, and tastes in hope of success and in the naive belief that it is all quite harmless and can be harnessed to this or that Christian cause with impunity. So at first glance the transition from fundamentalism to evangelicalism seems like one from too much strife with culture, in the one case, to too little with it in the other.

At root, however, it is a question of how to engage the culture without losing one’s soul. Fundamentalism feared losing its soul and so did not engage the culture; evangelicalism fears being different from the culture and is in danger of losing its soul.


The word culture has undergone a shift in meaning in recent decades, one that largely coincides with the emergence of a massive literature generated by assorted sociologists and cultural critics. The older meaning of culture grew out of the Latin word from which the English is derived, and it had an agricultural sense. A cultured person was one who had worked the soil of his or her inner life. What this meant was that a cultured person was one who valued being civilized, who read great literature, listened to classical music, engaged in elevated conversation, did works of compassion, and through these means sought to cultivate the virtues as well as good taste. Culture in this sense was thought to refine and improve life.

By contrast, the word culture today stands for the beliefs and values that have become part and parcel of the modernized world we are building. Included as part of our culture are the assumptions, which may be hidden and unrecognized, that shape the way people see themselves and their world. It is, therefore, a morally neutered word because it embraces not simply the fine and elevated aspects of high culture, as it once did, but the good, bad, and indifferent aspects of popular culture as well. Culture is not only Bach but the Sex Pistols, not only the morally elevated but the trashy and degraded as well, not only quiet discussion of refined topics but the way the world looks from the underside of society’s belly, not only art objects but the tawdry produce of a capitalist system that caters to the lowest common denominators.

This more complex understanding of culture also makes more complex how Christian faith is to relate to it. The world of consumption that we inhabit, for example, has given us a bounty that in itself cannot be judged as bad. However, this bounty may well enlarge our appetites for consuming, and these become part of our culture and its rhythms. Can we enjoy the bounty without beginning to need it at a psychological level? Can we feast at the table of plenty without coming to define life in terms of the abundance of the things possessed? Our world gives us powerful and ubiquitous technology that, in itself, is an extraordinary benefit. At the same time, living in this technological world tends to enclose us in a realm of tow secular cognitive horizons where what is efficient, what works quickest at least cost, becomes the Good.

This attitude is now deeply entrenched, not only in the corporate society, but also in the church. Can we have technology without its hard-edged pragmatism? Television opens the entire world to us, bequeathing to us a virtual omniscience. It also uproots us from place by making us psychologically present to the whole world. Can we live in its world without experiencing profound psychological disease in regard to our own? Can we be present to the whole world, witness its catastrophes, evil, and deprivations, and remain unscathed by it all? Today we have a multitude of choices that is simply without precedent, from spouses to careers to products. This is a matter for gratitude. But this variety that, from one angle, is such a benefit is, from another, part of our contemporary difficulty, for it is in such diversity that relativism simmers. Can we live amidst such pluralism and not lose our moral absolutes? In short, can we learn to be in the modern world, enjoying its bounty, its choices, its technology and television, without belonging to the worldview that it creates? That is the central question with which the church now has to wrestle, though evangelicals have been extremely slow in seeing this despite the fact that the moral and spiritual dimensions of modernity have been explored quite poignantly by many contemporary writers. Unfortunately, it is still the case that “the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light” (Luke 16:8).

It is impossible, then, to think of culture in this newer sense without thinking at the same time of modernity, of those ways of looking at life, those habits and appetites that are part and parcel of the modernization of the world and that create the spiritual and moral climate of this time. The Internet, for example, is both a tool and a cultural artifact. The complexity of considering its import to Christian faith, though, arises from the fact that its functions can be good, bad, and indifferent. As a communications device, it is good; as a bazaar of goods for shoppers it is probably indifferent; as a source of pornography and in its capacity to create virtual and alternative reality, it is dangerous. This kind of example can be endlessly repeated, and what this means is that relating Christ to culture is no simple matter because culture encompasses the whole range of both moral meaning and taste. It is high and low, elevated and debauched, good and bad. In order for the church to learn how to establish what the relation is between Christ and this understanding of culture, it is going to have to discern, in ways that are far more acute than it has to date, where matters of spiritual and moral import lie because these may come packaged in what is attractive, desirable, and alluring.


It is not difficult to see, then, that the values and perceptions that modernity creates often coincide with what the Bible has in mind when it speaks of worldliness. In biblical terms, worldliness is that system of values, that way of looking at life, that is rooted in fallen human nature but is given collective expression. It is everything external to the individual and in a society—what are taken as normative beliefs, behavior, what is or is not considered desirable—that gives plausibility to our fallenness. Indeed, it is everything in a society that gives its tacit permission to sinning (see John 8:23; 9:5; 12:31; 14:30; 15:19; 16:11; 17:16; 18:36; 1 Cor. 1:20-28; 7:31; Eph. 2:2; Jas. 1:27; 4:4; 2 Pet. 2:20; 1 John 2:15-17; 4:3-5; 5:19).

What the church has to do, therefore, is to look for correlations between worldliness as I have described it and the cultural consequences of modernization that I am sketching. At the point where they coincide, the church has to become both anti-modern and carefully self-conscious about its virtue and its cognitive processes. What might some of these points be?

The church needs to begin by recognizing how modernity works to rearrange the religious landscape. The old secularization thesis, that religion would retreat before the processes of secularization until it disappeared, may seem more plausible in Europe today than it is in America. The fact is that modernity does not necessarily eliminate religion, but it does work to rearrange it. Modernity is hostile to biblical faith, not necessarily to faith in general. It is quite telling, I think, that in Germany where there are 30,000 clergy of all kinds, there are 90,000 witches and fortune tellers. In France, there are 26,000 Roman Catholic priests but 40,000 astrologers. And in America today, it is clear that side by side with its growing modernity there is a gathering tide of spirituality of every kind that is seeping into society. Modernity is coexisting with these spiritualites because they are compatible with it—and in many ways biblical faith is not.

For example, modernity tends to contract all of reality into the self, and it replaces a moral way of thinking about life with one that is therapeutic. Life’s great preoccupation therefore becomes, not the biblical God or even the Good that is outside the self, but the pains, ambiguities, and sense of loss that are internal to it. Getting in touch with the self, in our culture, becomes the same thing as getting in touch with truth. All of this may then spill out into a quest for spirituality, interiorized though it is, but it is a quest that is so privatized that it will not intrude itself on others, nor will it think much about moral responsibility before others because its purview is not moral at all.

Modernity is hostile to the moral world in which the biblical discussion about sin takes place. It is hostile to the idea that God is other than our sense of ourselves in our innermost feelings, that He is objective to us, that He addresses us by the Word, that He summons us to accountability before Himself. Modernity therefore has the effect of transforming guilt into shame, and shame, our inner embarrassment about ourselves, can then be resolved simply through counseling. Thus has our moral life become secularized. This is the argument I have developed in Losing Our Virtue.

This rearrangement of meaning around the self, around its moods, needs, intuitions, aches, and ambiguities, has entered the church. Its presence is signaled wherever there are those who think, or act, as if the purpose of life is to find ways of actualizing the self, realizing it, and crafting it through technique or purchase, instead of restraining it out of moral considerations and in this sense putting it to death. Where Christian faith is offered as a means of finding personal wholeness rather than holiness, the church has become worldly.

There are many other forms of worldliness that are comfortably at home in the evangelical church today. Where it substitutes intuition and feelings for biblical truth, it is being worldly. Where its appetite for the Word has been lost in favor of light discourses and entertainment, it is being worldly. Where it has restructured what it is and what it offers around the rhythms of consumption, it is being worldly, for customers are actually sinners whose place in the church is not to be explained by a quest for self-satisfaction but by a need for repentance. Where it cares more about success than about faithfulness, more about size than spiritual health, it is being worldly. Where the centrality of God to worship is lost amidst the need to be distracted and to have fun, the church is being worldly because it is simply accommodating itself to the preeminent entertainment culture in the world. Is it not odd that in so many church services each Sunday, services that are ostensibly about worshiping God, those in attendance may not be obliged to think even once about His greatness, grace, and commands? Worship in such contexts often has little or nothing to do with God. In these and many other ways, the church today is being worldly precisely because it is also modern. And it is its modernity that conceals from its view its worldliness.


What I have been describing is, of course, the loss of the church’s needed otherworldliness and its consuming preoccupation with its this-worldly life. That is a posture that becomes increasingly at home in its culture, and therefore the enemies of Christian faith slowly fade from view. Soon there is very little that cannot be incorporated into the faith or even become the center around which that faith gets reorganized. As it becomes worldly in these ways, it also becomes anthropocentric, its God more and more immanent and less and less transcendent, its worship more horizontal than vertical, its piety more psychological than moral, its gospel more self-focused than cross-centered. It loses its capacity for reform and its ability to take its bearings upon the Word of God because this Word has lost its weight and interest. It loses its moral vision, and so the search for self-satisfaction, in organized or casual ways, replaces the life of virtue.

In such an environment, the doctrines about God fade and then fall apart, the importance of real worship becomes difficult if not impossible to sustain, the truth of God’s Word becomes uninteresting and unappetizing, and Christian life becomes indistinguishable from cultural life. In differing degrees, all of this is now evident in the evangelical world. Since many of its leaders, its organizations, and its magazines are looking the other way, some have noticed nothing untoward; or worse yet, some are actively promoting what will bring the evangelical house tumbling down.

There is, however, a final irony to note. It is this: In the Old and New Testaments, the moments of great impact in the world were never those in which the people of God became indistinguishable from those in their world. When this happened it was a moment of spiritual debauchery. In order to influence the world, the people of God have to be quite different from it cognitively and morally. The irony is that to be relevant, the church has to be otherworldly; and when this spiritual otherness is extinguished by the ache for this-worldly acceptance, it loses the thing that it wants above all else—relevance. The church eventually discovers, to its great dismay, that it has lost its voice and no longer has anything left to say. That is the discovery that now seems to be looming ahead of the evangelical world. It is the iceberg that awaits the Titanic as those on board persuade themselves of their invincibility and pass the days in partying.


  1. I have written on culture, modernity, and worldliness on several occasions. To do so again has taxed my ingenuity, for I am limited as to the number of new things I can say on these subjects. There are, therefore, some parallels in this essay with what I have written elsewhere. See No Place for Truth: Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993); God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994); Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).
  2. Peter L. Berger, Facing Up to Modernity: Excursions in Society, Politics, and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1977), p. 173.
  3. Martin Marty’s project of describing fundamentalism worldwide, and in many religions, keys on the idea of fighting. Fundamentalists are militants who fight back at their religious and political adversaries, fight for their own worldview, fight with the resources that come from their worldview, fight against outsiders, and fight under God. See Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, eds. Fundamentalisms Observed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. ix-x. Nancy T. Ammerman’s essay on Protestant fundamentalism in that volume (pp. 1-65) is, however, rather more nuanced than this generic definition suggests.
  4. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 229.
  5. See George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 39-41.
  6. Richard Hofstadter developed this theme in his Anti-intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962), although the swath he cut was wider than simply fundamentalism both in its historical life and in its doctrinal parameters. More Recently, Mark Noll has spoken of the “intellectual disaster of fundamentalism.” See his The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 109-145.
  7. H. Richard Niebuhr describes the essence of the Christ-against-Culture position as keying in on the idea of opposition between Christ and culture: “Whatever may be the customs of the society in which the Christian lives, and whatever the human achievements which it conserves, Christ is seen as opposed to them, so that he confronts them with the challenge of an ‘either-or’ decision.” (See his Christ and Culture [New York: Harper and Row, 19511, p. 40). The essence of the Christ-of Culture position is, of course, agreement. In these views, “Jesus often, appears as a great hero of human culture history; his life and teachings are regarded as the greatest human achievement; in him, it is believed, the aspirations of men toward their values are brought to a point of culmination; he confirms what is best in the past, and guides the process of civilization to its proper goal. Moreover, he is part of culture in the sense that he himself is part of the social heritage that must be transmitted and conserved” (ibid., p. 41).
  8. Ibid., p. 87.
  9. Stanley Grenz has conceptualized at a formal, theological level what is simply acted upon without thought more popularly in evangelicalism. He has argued that theology has three “sources.” Scripture is primary, but to this should be added tradition and culture. This is a remarkable departure from the Reformation’s way of thinking. With respect to the third, he says that theologians “have repeatedly looked to the categories of society for the concepts in which to express their understanding of the Christian faith commitment” (see his Theology for the Community of God [Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 19941, p. 25). This is, he acknowledges, Tillich’s method of “correlation.” The issue, of course, is how far and in what ways cultural forms change biblical substance. On this, Grenz is far from clear. In speaking about the Gospel in a postmodern age, for example, he says that it must now become “post-individualistic,” “post-rationalistic,” “post-dualistic,” and “post-noeticentric” (A Primer on Postmodernism [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996], pp. 167-174). Why? What is troubling about Grenz’s proposal is that it is not advanced because it is biblically true but because it is culturally plausible. This is what will appeal to postmoderns. Although Grenz is aware of how this has led into liberalism in the past, he appears to be quite unaware, as Millard Erickson notes, of the subjective notion of truth with which he is operating as well as the raw, cultural pragmatism. (See his The Evangelical Left: Encountering Postconservative Evangelical Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997], p. 59.)

This article is used by permission! It originally appeared in, The Compromised Church: The Present Evangelical Crisis©, John H. Armstrong: General Editor, published by Crossway Books (Wheaton, Illinois, 1998).

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