Already Gone?

Roger Olson is a moderate evangelical Baptist scholar who teaches at Baylor. He recently wrote a sweet retrospective on how church was when he was a kid. Here are some excerpts, with a few comments.

They were conservative, evangelical, moderately Pentecostal, and strict. They were, like many American evangelical churches then, “high demand.” Members were expected to believe and live a certain way and that way was separated from all worldliness. That way also included placing church at the center of one’s life only after family. Or, to put it another way, church was one’s extended family—even more than one’s extended biological family. And placing church at the center of one’s life was the main way of placing God at the center of one’s life—a distinction but not much difference.

What a sweet description. Your congregation as your extended family! This warms my heart.

He continues:

We eschewed all “worldliness” which included anything and everything that was conceivably sexually arousing.

What great advice. This can always descend into legalism, and there are movements that have ended up here. But, isn’t the principle so … right? Speaking for myself, I have no problem watching Bruce Willis slowly picking off terrorists at Nakatomi Plaza, but I would never watch any film with sex in it. You could argue this is a big inconsistency, and you’re probably right. But, for me, I’m not tempted to grab a pistol and stalk terrorists through a skyscraper if I watch Die Hard. But I, and any other man, cannot say the same about watching a film with sex.

Olson went on:

We had televisions in our homes but what was watched was carefully monitored and at church, anyway, talk about secular television shows was rarely heard. The same went for sports; our people could participate in some sports (especially the church softball league) but talking about sports at church was frowned on. So what did we talk about at church? What God was doing in the world, on the mission field, among us, in our lives. Conversation centered around Jesus who was talked about as a personal but invisible presence in our homes, with us at school and work, and in the church.

Yes, yes and yes. This could seem idealic and a bit utopian. But, it doesn’t have to be.

But, and here is a difference from similar churches today (if there are any), we did NOT celebrate America except for freedom of worship. We were not nationalists. In fact, when I was a child we were pacifists, but the Korean War was changing that. There was no talk of politics in the church. Sometimes my parents talked about politics at home, but mostly with regard to which parties and which candidates would protect our freedom of worship.

This is a distinction all evangelical churches in America should think about. Partisan politics is a poison, and it doesn’t belong in the pews. I have written reviews on two books recently that touch on this issue, and I’ll likely post them here in the near future.

So, what I want to know is this. What ever happened to that form of religious life? It seems to be gone forever—except in Latin America, Africa and Asia! My students from those continents and regions describe their churches as much like the ones I grew up in as a child and youth. Intense. Supernatural. Passionate about Jesus. The church as their extended family. Church discipline. Separation from worldliness. Where does that exist in America today outside of “Amish country?”

These are good questions. I’m not yet sure if the whole package Olson describes is (1) a model for a healthy church, or (2) a nostalgic yearning for a slice of mid-century Christian Americana that will never come back. Probably both.

But, you can’t deny that there are so many good things in Olson’s article. So many healthy things. So much that ought to warm our souls and make us look to our own congregations with a kind-hearted, reforming gaze. So much to inspire us, not with a hyper-critical eye, but with a vision of how to perhaps make a good thing better.

You should read Olson’s entire piece. It’s good stuff.

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