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The American Church of the last 100 Years


A Brief History of the Last 100 Years – Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going*

by Timothy A. Keller

We all understand that Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) had a significant paradigm-shifting impact on the Western World. Its influence soon trickled down into the church including those in America. The result was that many clergy no longer believed the miracles recorded in the Bible were literal accounts of historical events. Leaving the seminaries and entering their parishes they were reduced to emphasizing social justice. Wanting to distance themselves from the social Darwinists that were permeating the mainline denominations, especially following the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, many churches took on the moniker of “fundamentalist.” Their emphasis was on doctrine so that they would not be falsely accused of being “liberal” which was virtually equated with the unpardonable sin.

Time passed and soon the fundamentalists forgot about the historic church’s involvement with helping the poor. In fact, they began building arguments as to why helping the poor on anything but an individual level was compromise. Anyone advocating help for the poor on any systemic or corporate level was automatically branded a liberal. Arguments against this myopic orthopraxy were labeled “social gospel” so that they could immediately be dismissed eliminating any further need for engagement with them. Thus the fundamentalists lost any public voice they might have enjoyed and sank into a grassroots movement that prospered accidentally for a time merely because its subculture happened to match the zeitgeist of post World War II America. American culture changed and the fundamentalists became the movement that both time and God forgot.

The fundamentalist’s forebears had brought their theology to bear on every facet of life. Ostensibly the fundamentalists maintained this view of themselves but actually they fell into a false “sacred” versus “secular” dichotomy. The sacred side of this dualistic view included mandatory attendance anytime the church building doors were open and personal holiness, a holiness that demanded they stay ten years behind anything current due to the threat of becoming worldly. Any actual involvement in the world was brought down on the secular side and their only obligation there was to live as a model citizen. The model citizen was allowed or even encouraged to help the poor. Yet, because the fundamentalist church vehemently denied any responsibility to provide leadership to-this-end, everyone ended up thinking someone would help but no one actually did.

As American culture sped into the twenty-first century fundamentalist empires became edifices and church buildings that held thousands either closed their doors or found their constituents dwindling to handfuls. The smaller fundamentalist churches merged to become medium sized churches and when those dwindled they merged again with the larger fundamentalist churches which by that time were only medium sized churches. These medium sized fundamentalist churches were offered as proof that the fundamentalist worldview was successful and thriving still. This proof however never made it to the public square for the fundamentalist had abandoned the agora (marketplace) long before. The only impact this proof had was on the unfortunate young men entering the fundamentalist Bible colleges who had yet to learn history’s lessons. Those that did immediately proceeded to leave the movement including their best and brightest. All that remained to fill the leadership vacuum were the sycophants and parrots willing to loyally carry the torch handed to them by the heavy-handed older guard who had successfully cut all ties to the outside world. The Christian marching orders of “Go ye therefore into all the world” became in effect “Separate, isolate, and retreat, ye therefore because all is worldliness.” This transmigration of former fundamentalists into broader evangelicalism had the healthy result of once again balancing an adherence to the supernatural with the necessary engagement of culture. Sadly much time was spent as this debacle unfolded and much ground was lost.

The church is now experiencing yet another awakening from docile slumber. A new generation is cutting their teeth as they seek to reclaim their rightful place as heralds of grace through both words and deeds in the public square. The church must not only remain students of holy writ but it must learn to exegete culture with demanding fluency. The church must once again go out into the highways and hedges to care for the oppressed thus demonstrating its transcendental ethic. The church must practice faithful presence at every level of society. It must again especially regain a voice in those arenas that create culture and shape society if it is to ever shine as a city on a hill incapable of being hidden. Gospel Life Church is just such a people. We seek to light the candles in our own city with the torch that shines with the light of Jesus Christ.

*It is willingly conceded that the brevity of this article requires the use of a broad brush and that there are happy exceptions that prove the rule.

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