The Crisis Of Evangelical Preaching
by S. M. Hutchens
In the Protestant world the vigor of the churches is to a large degree a function of the vitality of preaching. The Reformers’ de-emphasis on the Mass as the principal means of grace in the divine service elevated the ministry of the Word in those churches which developed the most self-consciously Protestant frame of mind. When preaching languishes, the churches which are directly dependent upon it for their life and health will also decline. And indications that this is happening are legitimate cause for alarm.
There is little doubt that Fundamentalism and its Evangelical offspring are major repositories of the preaching tradition of Protestantism, not only because of the strongly Protestant character of these movements, but also because their roots are firmly fixed in a revivalist tradition to which the sacraments are essentially dispensable and the means of grace are to be found in the voice of the preacher rather than in the hands of the priest.
It had been my own impression for some time that rich and moving preaching among the Evangelicals was harder to find than it once was, but I tended to chalk that up to changes in myself rather than in the character and quality of the preaching. The question “Where have all our great preachers gone?” finally caught and held my attention when it was asked by a remarkable woman whose long career on the president’s staff of a major Evangelical college had placed her at the center of its world and its preaching. She knew American Evangelicalism from the inside, and knew it very well. Behind her question I saw a uniquely informed perception which made the matter worthy of very serious consideration. Since she brought it to my attention I have heard a number of other Evangelicals complaining about the quality of preaching in their churches (see, for example, J. N. Akers’ editorial “Bored to Fears” in Christianity Today, 22 April 1988). My friend’s question pointed to a problem which I am coming to think may be epidemic and a very serious matter indeed among those churches formed and constituted by preaching.
I am old enough to remember her great preachers. I heard some of them speak when I was a boy and they were near the ends of their careers, for my family attended a large conservative Baptist church where I had the frequent opportunity to sit under them. I especially remember their power. I was a fairly attentive boy and heard them with the defenseless impressionability of early youth. Their words swept over me with unchallenged authority. They were memorable men. Theirs was the great preaching my friend remembered from the center of her life and I from my nonage. She was right—this sort of preaching seems to have all but disappeared from the Evangelical churches. We have heard well-crafted, uplifting, clever, and occasionally inspiring and edifying sermons—but the old power, without which no preaching can be called great, seems to be nearly exhausted.
Whence came the power? In one sense it was a holdover from the certitude and authority typical of the evangelical preaching of the nineteenth century, which was itself inherited from revivals of earlier times. But what allowed it to survive in certain strains of conservative religion into this far more tentative age? For a large number of early and mid-twentieth century preachers it was simply not optional. It was an essential part of the rhetorical panoply that a Fundamentalist needed to maintain his credibility and stand his ground during the controversies of the twenties, thirties and forties, to build great churches and other ministries out of the rubble of rejection and discredit. It was his sword and shield against the Menckens, Darrows, Fosdicks and Sinclair Lewis’s of his world, the sound of well-cultivated conviction, confirming to the preachers that they were right, not only about the gospel of Jesus Christ, but about the religious culture which they created around it—a culture in which only the gospel was deemed to move with freedom and power. These were strong men, and their sermons were strong, too. One came away from them tired, chastened, and yet strangely exultant, desiring to do better than one had been doing at the things that were important to us. (Yes, there was the guilt as well, but that must not be mentioned as if it were merely pathological, or the sum of it all.)
Where have these great ones gone? Why weren’t the gaps which they left filled with vigorous young men made in their images? Why do so many Evangelical preachers now appear to rely primarily on the stimulative power of technique—which no longer really moves their people—rather than deep and infectious conviction? And why do so many of them, like the preacher J. N. Akers referred, seem so dreadfully bored? Has the Spirit departed? My friend’s question set me to thinking on all of this.
Those old warriors were Fundamentalists, ending their ministries in a day when a certain kind of conservative religion was in many quarters reassessing itself, and they were in a sense becoming vestigial parts of a new organism. In many places they were replaced by those who were not content to call themselves Fundamentalists. A new generation arose, the type of preachers that some of the older men were already becoming—that calmer, better educated, and far more accommodating breed: the Evangelical. My friend has moved principally in the Evangelical world since this changing of the guard, and what she has noticed is a difference in the tone of authority between Fundamentalist and Evangelical preaching. I think that if she were to return to hear those who are still willing to call themselves Fundamentalists she would find the same type of preaching that she remembered. Having been for years an Evangelical, however, she would find it disappointing. For the vigor she remembered would be there, to be sure—but I think she would face reawakened memories of the narrowness, that is, of the theological irresponsibility of Fundamentalist preaching which had originally propelled her into the Evangelical camp. She desires the best of both worlds—the better culture and more gracious manners of Evangelicalism and the power and authority of Fundamentalism.
So why does Evangelical preaching appear to lack the virility and conviction and authority of Fundamentalism? It would seem that one of Fundamentalism’s dire predictions concerning “neo-Evangelicalism’s” descent down “the perilous path of compromise and middle-of-the-roadism” has come true—much of the power of conviction has dissipated. On the other hand, it would seem that the Evangelicals were right in their criticism of the Fundamentalists—the power which they enjoy in their preaching, and from which flows much of their self-confidence, is not all legitimately come by. It arises not so much from the gospel itself as from the avidity of its style. It must be granted that some of the strength of Fundamentalist preaching rests in the power of the gospel, but there is also much by which the Evangelicals were understandably repelled. This was part of the justification for the birth of their own movement. This does not, however, excuse the weakness of the Evangelical preaching.
At root, Evangelicalism has this dilemma: it does not wish to be confused with Fundamentalism, but it lives in the theological shell of this movement of which it is so embarrassed. Evangelicalism still associates the power of Fundamentalism with its mistakes, and refuses to be identified with it. So it preaches a watered-down version of the Fundamentalist gospel.
For example, Evangelicalism is, like Fundamentalism, millenarian, but it no longer displays much confidence in its inherited eschatology. (Dispensationalism was decidedly unpopular among students of the traditionally dispensationalistic Evangelical seminaries that I attended.) It need hardly be noted that the old system of traditional personal and social abstinences (called “revised asceticism” by J. D. Hunter) is falling on hard times. Unwilling to adopt the authoritarian mannerisms and ascetic program from which much of the distinctive character and power of Fundamentalism flows, Evangelicalism has failed to develop a similarly cohesive, integrated, and convincing shape of its own. Carl F. H. Henry, an Evangelical scholar of stature, doubts whether adherence to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, as important as he considers this to be, should be regarded as the definitive mark of an Evangelical, and thus places himself on the left side of a deepening rift in the movement. Moreover, and perhaps most significantly, in light of its increasing recognition of the possibility of genuine and vital Christianity in the liturgical, sacramentally oriented churches, it must even question the absoluteness of its revivalist soteriology. In the Evangelical world Fundamentalist theology is being modified, but it has not undergone the sort of transformation which would come with the development of a distinctive character of its own. Its preaching has suffered much from this irresolution, weakening in a day when strength is required, and in a world which needs—and has a right to expect—something far better from the Evangelicals.
What is to be done? Let me suggest first of all that Evangelicalism must gird up its loins and prepare itself to bear the burden of being mocked. This is a requirement of “mere Christianity” that Evangelicalism has been unwilling to bear for the fear of being denominated Fundamentalist by the liberal and secular world, the respect of which it has been desperately anxious to gain from the beginning of its existence. However dedicated it has been to ridding itself of the more obnoxious aspects of hyper-conservatism, it should resign itself to accept the “Fundamentalist” stigma from its natural enemies with good grace. Many an Evangelical, although courageous enough in some things, is absolutely paralyzed by the fear of being mistaken for a Fundamentalist. But mistaken for a Fundamentalist he will be, no matter how sophisticated and free from the lingering echoes of Bible-thumping, proof-texting, and Fanny J. Crosby he considers himself. Part of the price he must pay for his orthodoxy is the acknowledgement of this lineage. He must accept the dreaded taunt and boldly make common cause with the Fundamentalist in areas where they can agree (as he is willing to do with others). If the Evangelical ever regains some of the courage to be ill-spoken of, he will recover the power to preach a message which the world by no means wants to hear.
But this alone would not solve the problem. I must return to say something about what I have called the theological irresponsibility of Fundamentalist preaching, an irresponsibility which Evangelicalism shares as long as it is marked by certain sectarian traits of its Fundamentalist heritage. Being more courageous is a good and necessary thing, but what, then, is to be preached? Evangelicalism has not really moved that far beyond Fundamentalism theologically. It picks and chooses what it can from the old Fundamentalist agenda. I am by no means suggesting that it sell its orthodox birthright for a mass of liberal pottage. I am suggesting that Evangelicalism needs to rediscover the Bible, and with this rediscovery find its place in the larger Church.
The tiresomeness of much Evangelical preaching belies the official conviction that the Bible is the Word of God, sharper than a two-edged sword and supremely powerful. In the Evangelical world the Bible has lost its power because it has been mastered—made too easy by Fundamentalism’s interpretive shell, a shell which may be modified, questioned, or even replaced in private study, but must be adhered to in preaching. This “mastery” of the Bible has left the Evangelical academic and pastoral magisterium bored. This boredom is a root cause of the decline of the vitality of Evangelical preaching on one hand and, on the other, the indulgence of many of its intellectuals (those who can afford to consider themselves liberated) in unconstructive Evangelical-bashing and conspicuous dalliance with causes and doctrines (like feminism) which offend the orthodox sensibilities of their fellows.
Is there a way out? Can Evangelicalism’s strengths, preeminent among which may be its potential for preaching of the highest art, conviction, and authority, be saved before the movement falls into dogmatic slumber or heterodoxy, largely from the sheer weight of ennui? Perhaps—if Evangelicalism is willing to examine itself in light of the beliefs it shares with other Christians it considers essentially orthodox—if it would take some pains to rediscover the Bible in the light of a well-informed concept of the Church instead of merely assuming that its own movement is at the center of orthodox tradition. It appears to me that its errors lie at the very places where it is most distinctively itself, at the places where it prides itself on its differences with other groups whose doctrine it regards as essentially correct. (One might examine the final chapter of Thomas Howard’s Evangelical Is Not Enough for some therapeutic suggestions along these lines.) It may well be that when Evangelicalism repents of closing out the rest of the confessing church (including the Fundamentalist) and purposes to join itself as much as possible, not just with other Evangelicals but with other Christians, a way might open for renewed doctrinal certitude. I am not speaking here of those of whom the Evangelical churches have traditionally entertained high suspicions. Indeed, Evangelicalism’s tendency to seek the approval of the heterodox under the pretext of evangelizing them has been one of its greatest weaknesses from the very beginning—a sin against its own conscience, which the Fundamentalists have perceptively accused it of for many years. A more “catholic” Evangelicalism might find a theological confidence which is not so completely dependent on a particular theory of revelation as a binding force—and hence find a renewed power in its preaching.
I am calling here for a rebirth of the vision of the first generation of Fundamentalists which has been abandoned by Fundamentalist and Evangelical alike. For originally Fundamentalism (taken in meliorem partem, of course) was built upon an ecumenical ideal which sought to both purify and unite the church under the confessional head of a canon of fundamental doctrines to which all Christians should be able to subscribe. This could have been not only the proper response to modernism, but the beginning of a reexamination of the sectarian theologies of the original Fundamentalists. Unfortunately, it did not turn out that way. The Fundamentalists were willing to assert the existence of “fundamentals,” but not at the cost of reconsidering their own private distinctives. They were willing to rid the house of liberals, but not to settle accounts with those others whom they recognized as orthodox. And they were willing to imagine, in order to build an effective anti-modernist coalition, that a solution for their own disunity could be put off indefinitely. In all of this, one of the most significant reasons for a purified fundamental-ism—the unified proclamation of a doctrinally unified church—was lost, and the essential question of what is really fundamental was given short shrift. This error needs to be corrected by the present generation of Evangelicals (with perhaps the exchange of some belated apologies with their Fundamentalist brethren.)
Of course, the prescription for Evangelicalism given here applies mutatis mutandis to every church that finds itself affirming the ancient faith against the spirit of the age and the religious modernism which serves it. They must all grant Evangelicalism its place in the sun and learn what it has to teach them. The point made here is that Evangelicalism has its own peculiar pilgrimage to make and that it had best get on with it. It is time for responsible Evangelical leadership (not just a few ornery voices in the wilderness) to reopen and pursue with full vigor the question about the essential nature of a truly biblical Christianity and thus to finish the job begun in the early part of this century. The decline in preaching—which is a symptom of a general malaise in Evangelicalism today—cannot be solved with anything less than critical self-examination along these lines. Nor can an increasingly moribund Evangelicalism be revived until a leadership emerges which is willing to challenge some of its characteristic pretensions in the name of “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.”
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“The Crisis Of Evangelical Preaching” first appeared in the Summer-Fall 1988 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Click here for a printer-friendly version.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.