Is Evangelicalism’s revivalist heritage its greatest asset or Achilles heal?
Yes I know. Questions like that don’t have simple answers, but bear with me for the sake of probing the issue a little. Assessing the strengths and weaknesses that attend Evangelicalism’s revivalist heritage was prompted by Douglas Sweeney’s definition of N. American Evangelicalism in The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement (Baker Academic, 2005), but the issues have been on my mind ever since our vigorous discussion on Christian conversion a couple weeks ago (Asking Jesus into your Heart??).
Evangelicals comprise a movement that is rooted in classical Christian orthodoxy, shaped largely by a Protestant understanding of the Gospel, and distinguished from other such movements by an eighteenth-century twist…[M]odern evangelicals differ from other Christian groups in that the movement emerged from a definite, eighteenth century cultural context, one that yielded a twist on Protestant orthodoxy. Modern Evangelicals, as distinguished from others who use the label or share our view of the gospel message, are heirs of the Great Awakening – a renewal movement that changed forever the course of history (p. 24-25).
Sweeney goes on to chronicle the dramatic affects of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, among others, on the self-perception of conversion among American Christians. In the wake of the Great Awakening many thousands of Christians dated their “new life in Christ” to Whitefield’s and Edwards’ field preaching. For example, simply consider Jonathan Edwards’ narrative of his own life-changing conversion at Yale:
The first that I remember that ever I found anything of that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things, that I have lived much in since, was on reading those words, 1 Tim. 1:17, ‘Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever, Amen.’ As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the divine being; a new sense, quite different from anything I ever experienced before…From that time, I began to have a new kind of apprehensions and ideas of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by him. I had an inward, sweet sense of these things, that at times came into my heart; and my soul was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of them (Letters and Personal Writings, ed. George S. Clayhorn, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 16 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 792-93).
Prior to the Great Awakening, the predominant view of conversion in European Protestantism was “confessionalization”, that, with the help of civil authorities, the church sought to “inculcate their confessional views within their jurisdictions” through preaching, catechesis, visitation, and church discipline. The Great Awakening drastically changed all that. Preachers such as Whitefield, Edwards, and the Wesley brothers now called people to “a genuine conversion that transcends all prior confessional allegiances”.
Greatest Asset or Achilles Heal?
By referring to “Evangelicalism’s Revivalist Heritage”, then, I am drawing attention to the fact that most evangelical ministries today place great stress, with Whitefield and Edwards, on an instantaneous conversion experience as critical to the Christian life. They call people to a momentous transfer of allegiance to Christ as the pivotal moment of one’s existence. And for some, little else the church can do, either toward the natural world, culture, or society, matters much beyond this.
So, is Evangelicalism’s revivalist heritage its greatest asset or Achilles heal? Related to our theology of the Christian life and Eschatology? Related to Christian engagement with the natural world, culture, and society?