Last week I posted the first of a multi-part series discussing worship in the independent Evangelical church settings like our own. I discussed what I believe is the fatal flaw of worship in many Evangelical churches. That flaw is a propensity toward man-centered worship where we view worship not as a something we do in response to the revealed truth of God in the presence of other Christians, but as a worship experience we manufacture to help us express how we feel in a given moment. This month, I want to examine the historical roots of the trend of populist Christianity in America. By populist Christianity, I am referring to a way of shaping Christian practice so as to appeal to the masses with little or no regard to historic Christian practice, and a simplistic understanding of scripture. This trend toward populism is profoundly American. While there is much positive in it, there is also an inherent danger in it we need to address. In writing this essay, I’ll be drawing on multiple resources I’ve read over the years, but will primarily refer to The Democratization of American Christianity by Nathan Hatch.
In the years following the American Revolution there was a great debate raging in the newly formed country concerning how much power should be given to the federal government, and how much should be given to the people. The Revolution had awakened in the citizenry a desire to throw off all vestiges of the Old World with its traditions and established social order. The masses on the frontier of the United States tended to value the populist approach to politics and religion.
Christianity was effectively reshaped by common people who molded it in their own image and who threw themselves into expanding its influence. Increasingly assertive common people wanted their leaders unpretentious, their doctrines self-evident and down-to-earth, their music lively and singable, and their churches in local hands.
The booming population, largely living on the frontier, took hold of the spirit of the day and applied it to all aspects of their lives. To speak one’s own mind, and determine your own path was held up as a supreme right. There were many published papers asserting that every common man had the capacity to understand everything, including the law, science, medicine, and the Bible without the oversight of those who had traditionally been respected for their knowledge in these fields. In the area of religion, the priesthood of the believer was often cited as a reason for the common (often illiterate) person to ignore the traditional clergy and remake Christianity in his own image. However, while the priesthood of the believer and the principles of Sola Scriptura are important doctrines of the Reformation, it should not be understood that absolutely everyone can equally be considered an authority unto themselves in all areas of Christian doctrine and practice based on the fact that he or she owns a Bible and can read. Doing theology properly requires the entire community of Christians, clergy, educators, and laity, to communicate with one another down through the ages.
In this fertile soil of dissent, new religious leaders rose up and several new religious movements were formed. These new leaders sought to redefine leadership away from tradition and education, and “these movements reconstructed the foundations of religion in keeping with the values and priorities of ordinary people.” Further, “The passion for equality during these years equaled the passionate rejection of the past. Rather than looking backward and clinging to a older moral economy, insurgent religious leaders espoused convictions that were essentially modern and individualistic.” By disconnecting themselves from the Great Tradition of the Church, these new religious leaders created a new form of Christianity that was inherently self-focused and individualistic.
The problem with movements born in reaction to abuse is that they most often overreact in their attempts to correct those abuses. One of the consequences of American Christianity’s democratization has been ecclesial chaos. With the lid blown off any sort of legitimate church authority, any person with a Bible can now preach anything he wants and call it “biblical” even if it is completely contrary to historic Christian belief. In this new country, the individual can create Christianity in his own image. I believe this historical trend has led us almost directly to the current disappointingly pragmatic approach to worship.
What specifically was born out of this ecclesial chaos? It happens that our very own Harmony Society, following Johann Rapp, is one such cult that came into existence during the decades immediately following the Revolution. During this period we also see the founding of heretical Mormonism under Joseph Smith. Methodist circuit riders such as Lorenzo Dow spread the Methodist vision of Christianity. Alexander Campbell was one part of the Stone-Campbell movement that later became the Church of Christ/Christian Church/Disciples of Christ. There were also a wide range of Baptists that grew in America during this time, and all of these movements were competing with one another. “Populist preachers could differ from each other as easily as they could from the establishment. This was particularly true given the clarion message that rang out above all their diversity: the primacy of the individual conscience.”
This trend of individuals determining for themselves what is appropriate for Christian belief and practice is still very common in America. Just ask the followers of David Koresh or Harold Camping what it is like to find out that your guy is just a loony bird. Today’s heretical teachers are able to flourish largely because of the anti-authoritarian populist Christianity born at the founding of our nation. Sadly, the very impulses that made American Evangelicalism so vibrant might also be its undoing.
It is important to note that these early movements experienced phenomenal growth, and gained popularity by appealing to the demands of the masses.
The population of the United States was less than half of England’s in the early 1800s. By 1845 Americans outnumbered the English by five million. … Amidst this population boom, American Christianity became a mass enterprise. The eighteen hundred Christian ministers serving in 1775 swelled to nearly forty thousand by 1845. The number of preachers per capita more than tripled; the colonial legacy of one minister per fifteen hundred inhabitants became one per five hundred. This greater preaching density was remarkable given the spiraling population and the restless movement of peoples to occupy land beyond the reach of any church organization. The sheer number of new preachers in the young republic was not a predictable outgrowth of religious conditions in the British colonies. Rather, their sudden growth indicated a profound religious upsurge and resulted in a vastly altered religious landscape. Twice the number of denominations competed for adherents, and insurgent groups enjoyed the upper hand. For example, an upstart church such as the Freewill Baptists had almost as many preachers in the early republic as did the Episcopalians. Antimission Baptist preachers far outnumbered both Roman Catholic priests and Lutheran pastors. One new denominational cluster, the Christians and the Disciples of Christ, had an estimated four thousand preachers, equaling the number of clergy serving Presbyterian denominations. The Congregationalists, which had twice the clergy of any other American church in 1775, could not muster one-tenth the preaching force of the Methodists in 1845.
Though they could not see it then, the popular worship demands of the time were conditioned by the circumstances in which the people lived. I believe this is similar to what we are seeing today in the booming growth of churches who are answering the worship demands of our culture with a worship that resembles very little of what we know in scripture and in history. Modern Baalism is popular because the price is right and the streets are filled with vendors. History is repeating itself as more and more churches see the theological education as not important for ministry. Many churches are hiring pastors out of the business world to implement business and marketing strategies in order to grow churches numerically.
So what does it have to do with modern Evangelical worship? Fast-forward to 1974 and a young man named Bill Hybels is inspired to start a new church. Before starting the church, Bill did the most American thing he could do; he took a survey asking what the average person in the community thought of church, and what that person wanted out of a church service. Willow Creek Church held its first service on October 12, 1975 with 125 people most of whom were teenagers. Two years later the church went over 2,000 attendees, and a new religious movement focusing on church growth and being seeker-sensitive was born.
Since then, the seeker-sensitive movement has come to dominate the Evangelical landscape. The worship wars of the 1980’s are over, and the traditionalists lost. However, just as the early Methodists and Christian Churches learned from their errors and began training clergy and returning to some of that which they once decried as false Christianity, the Willow Creek Association has had the wisdom to examine itself and determine where it is weak. Willow’s REVEAL study showed that much of what they have been doing for the last 30 years was not growing deep disciples of Jesus Christ. Willow Creek has adjusted and will continue to alter how they do ministry. What will become of those churches that are drawing large crowds through an appeal to popular culture? Will they preach the gospel of Jesus, or continue down the pragmatic road? It remains to be seen what the outcome will be, but I’m not optimistic.
If you have any questions, or disagree with me, feel free to contact me and we can talk about it. If you’re interested in reading more on the topic of American Christian history, I strongly recommend these books:
- The Democratization of American Christianity, Nathan O. Hatch.
- The Rise of Evangelicalism, Mark Noll.
- Fundamentalism and American Culture, George Marsden.
- Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, George Marsden.
- The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll.
- The Civil War as Theological Crisis, Mark Noll.
- The Sword of the Lord, Andrew Himes
 Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1989. p. 7.
 Ibid. 9.
 Ibid, 10.
 Ibid. 14.
 Ibid. 35.