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The desire for relevance, the pillar of Evangelicalism

October 20, 2008

When one reads evangelical literature, one is struck by the concern for relevance and a need for prestige. For example, I was reading an important monograph on problems the Old Testament presented for a traditionally high view of inspiration. One of his important underlying arguments for the adoption of his proposals was the way conservative evangelicals appeared to the larger academy when they defended the Scriptures the manner in which they do. This kind of apologetic is like a ‘genre-marker’ signaling to you that you are reading a book written by an evangelical.

But we should not be surprised when evangelicals attempt to be relevant. After all, it is one of the pillars of the movement. This pillar is now canonized in the widely marketed and anticipated ESV Study Bible, which defines “Fundamentalism (19th-20th Centuries)” [!] thus: ‘Fundamentalism came to be characterized more by retreat and separation from the culture than by an effort to engage and transform that broader culture.’ (2620) Compare that to the definition of “Evangelicalism (20th Century)”: ‘Ockenga and Henry were typical of a group of young evangelicals in the 1940s who were fully in agreement with fundamentalist commitments to the inerrancy and authority of Scripture and its attending orthodox beliefs, yet were deeply disturbed by the fundamentalist retreat from culture.’ (2621)*

This ‘retreat from culture’ is exactly what I am after; this is a ‘desire for relevance.’ And the desire for relevance is well documented far beyond the back pages of the ESVSB. Consider these histories of the evangelical movement:

From George Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism (Eerdmans, 1987)

“Despite Fuller’s proclivities toward classical theology, another side of the [Fuller Theological] seminary’s impulse was to be thoroughly up-to-date, ‘a Cal Tech of the evangelical world,’ as Charles Fuller often put it. Both [E. J.] Carnell and [Carl F. H.] Henry were constantly concerned with keeping up with the latest intellectual fashion, a trait that was expressed in Henry’s continuing interests in publicity techniques and in Carnell’s publication of Television: Servant or Master? intended for a secular audience.” (144-45)

From Gary Dorrein, The Remaking of Evangelical Theology (WJK, 1998),

“The evangelical movement was growing and gaining respectability on many fronts: Fully Seminary was flourishing, Billy Graham’s evangelistic campaigns drew huge crowds, Christianity Today was a major success, and new evangelical institutions were being created. But no one was providing the kind of high-powered, attention-getting intellectual work that [E. J.] Carnell believed was crucial to evangelical success. The knowledge that he could not provide it cut him deeply. Over the years, he had often expressed to Henry and others his sense of calling to make a major contribution to modern evangelical theology. Evangelicalism needed prestige desperately, he had said.” (100).

Not that fundamentalists are guiltless on this point. Arguably, we taught it to them, but for some reason were not as “gifted” at “relevantizing” the faith as our cousins. Joel Carpenter, for instance, nicely chronicles the fundamentalist heritage in Revive Us Again (Oxford, 1997):

“What an irony, then, that fundamentalism, which advertised itself as ‘old-time religion,’ should lead the way in engaging this new social context. And yet it did. By the 1940’s a rising generation of fundamentalist leaders had gravitated toward radio broadcasting and the new, electronically inspired entertainment style and promotional techniques, which they adapted to their own uses.” (236).


*This small ‘article’ does concede that Evangelicalism experienced a gradual movement away from a high view of Scripture.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 21, 2008 8:04 am

    Right on.

  2. Jason Parker permalink
    October 21, 2008 9:22 am

    Excellent observations. Thanks for pointing this out.

  3. October 21, 2008 12:08 pm


    Quite the contrary. Fundamentalists were very gifted in relevantizing the faith–to themselves. Adapting Niebuhr’s typology, I would say that while evangelicalism pursued relevance by becoming the church of culture or the church transforming culture, fundamentalism discovered relevance in being the church against culture.

    At the risk of oversimplification, the evangelical (very consciously) defined relevance in terms of a listening or engaged culture while the fundamentalist (less consciously) defined relevance in terms of an indifferent or hostile culture. The real differences lay less in the ability or inability to construct relevance and more in the sources of validation. While evangelicals wanted outsiders to validate their role as cultural participants, fundamentalists were content to self-validate their role as cultural opponents. The results were predictable (at least in hindsight): Many evangelicals became slaves of culture, unable to criticize it in any meaningful way, while many fundamentalists became strangers to culture, unable to confront it in any meaningful way.

  4. October 21, 2008 4:57 pm

    Hello, Charles G.

    Thank you for piping in. Your point is taken.

    I still do not believe that fundamentalism has entirely given up the dream of being relevant themselves; this hope is still very much alive. It seems like some fundamentalists often hope that culture will wake up and return to them (read: revival, become a ‘Christian nation’ again). But many fundamentalists have grown to love (we know this much is true) the ‘relevant faith’ captioned somewhere between 1890 and 1970 (even 1990 anymore). They refuse to go as far as their cousins (the evangelicals), but the relevantizing impulse still runs strong in our blood. So, when I said we ‘were not as “gifted” at “relevantizing” the faith as our cousins,’ that is partly ‘tongue in cheek.’ What I am after is that we still like to think that our churches are ‘relevant’, and practice many of the same kind of pragmatic methods in order to get there, but at the same time we refuse to go as far as evangelicals, with the result (to your point) of having a faith that is ‘relevant’ only to ourselves.

  5. October 22, 2008 9:35 am

    I noticed that in the ESVSB, too, Ryan. Do you believe that their representation of the historical situation is ill-informed, or perhaps biased? Is there any truth in the notion that fundamentalists not only separated where necessary but also “holed up” and adopted a “siege mentality” (as it is often described)? I ask because I’ve come across so many descriptions of mid-20th-century fundamentalism that make the “retreat” assertion.

    Frankly, looking at the movements 60 years later, I see the tragic results of evangelicals’ thirst for relevance, but I think I also see the opposite problem with many fundamentalists. I don’t think it’s always inaccurate for people to speak of a “fundamentalist ghetto.” We’re not relevant—and not just in the sense that the world doesn’t think we’re “cool” or “respectable” (which is fine). We’re irrelevant for many wrong reasons. One example: the fact that fundamentalists are shooting at the Macs and Pipers of the world even as they’re shooting at the Open Theists and Blood Atonement Deniers of the world is the worst kind of irrelevance.

    What I’m asking (rather ineffectively, I think) is, when we trace the mess of modern evangelicalism to its root cause 60 years ago, can we likewise trace modern errors in fundamentalism to subtle flaws from that same era?

    Also, can you expand on the Carpenter quote? The only specifics he mentions are the use of “radio broadcasting and the new, electronically inspired entertainment style and promotional techniques.” I’m not sure I understand exactly what he means by the latter (style and techniques), but I’m not sure that the former (radio broadcasting) really addresses the relevance question.


  6. October 22, 2008 10:25 am

    Clarification: When I said “Do you believe that their representation of the historical situation is ill-informed, or perhaps biased?” I’m not necessarily looking for an affirmative answer. What I mean is, are we sure we can just write such a critique off as ill-informed or biased? Might there be something to it?

  7. October 23, 2008 5:46 pm

    Hi, Chris.

    I’m not looking to write off the ESVSB’s comments one way or another. My point is that relevance matters a great deal to evangelicals, so much so that it is arguably one of the hallmarks of the movement, as illustrated in those comments.

    I don’t think fundamentalists’ problem has been a lack of interest in relevance. We are plenty concerned with relevance; too much, I think.

    Your point is well taken in the inordinate weight we give to these different problems.

    I think the problems go back further than the ‘big break-up’. That is not to say the ‘big break-up’ was not a factor in our respective problems. Can we trace these problems to a single origin? Probably not. I like to play the Finney card as much as possible, so why not play that here as well?

    With respect to the Carpenter quote, I did leave out some important context elements in order to focus on my main point. Carpenter argues that evangelical movements since the Reformation have “at every turn . . . benefited from or even advanced the forces of social and technological change.” (235) Then he gives examples how different evangelical revival movements, such as those found among the Puritans, Wesleys, and Moody, fed off sweeping cultural and technological forces. For fundamentalism to come in saying it was the ‘old time religion’ and yet themselves do the very thing that evangelicals have done for centuries is, to Carpenter, ironic. Part of the point here is that we assume that the use of cultural and technological innovations are legitimate in gospel ministry. Perhaps they are; or not. Perhaps only some are. But we often go around thinking we are above the fray, yet we do not understand just culturally bound we are, even in trying to go ‘against the flow’ and preach ‘the old time religion.’ That’s Carpenter’s point, as I understand it.


  1. Evangelicals and Relevance | Religious Affections Ministries
  2. Desire-to-be-relevant as ‘genre marker’ in evangelical literature « Immoderate

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