>Evangelicalism in Today’s America

>The Chronicle of Higher Education has published an excellent article titled “Among the Evangelicals,” an article that anyone who is interested in the evangelical movement in America should read. The article was written by Timothy Beal, a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University. The article deals with the modern evangelical movement in America.

The subtitle of the article, “Inside a Fractured Movement,” reveals the aim of the author. Beal says that instead of being a monolithic movement, evangelicalism in the United States is a diverse, heterogeneous movement, filled with tensions, contradictions, and diverse ideologies.

Beal’s view of televangelists and megachurches reflects what is going on in many evangelical churches today. A study of the five best well-known evangelical celebrities today, T. D. Jakes, Brian McLaren, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, and Paula White concludes that “these five figures [are] supply-side free agents who succeed not because of their status within a particular ecclesiastical hierarchy but because they are able to market their content, indeed themselves, in ways that embody changing American sensibilities.”

Beal describes the reason these evangelical celebrities succeed in their ministry. He wrote:

These five profiles suggest that the key to success is not theological or political strictness but effective marketing. Indeed, part of what allows these evangelical innovators to be so successful is that they find ways to “overtly avoid (yet subtly address)” potentially controversial issues among their constituents.

In the article, Beal describes the way American evangelicalism adapts its message to new media technologies and popular trends in the entertainment industry. He wrote:

It’s impossible to imagine the likes of Osteen or Warren or Jakes without the teams of creators, editors, and marketers who publish them beyond their home churches, in books and on the radio, television, and Internet. It is not too much to say that their media producers actually create and sustain them as pop-culture icons. Their relationships with their publishers in the production of both medium and message are not unlike those of pop-music stars with their labels. Lady Gaga has Universal Music and Max Lucado has Thomas Nelson.

According to Beal, the megachurch service can be compared to a mass-media production show, designed to create an idealized recreation of an entertainment show. Beal wrote:

The worship experience resides as much in the editing and production of the show—in the “slow-motion images of a pastor laying hands on the heads of parishioners and zoom-in shots of a parishioner feverishly taking notes during the sermon”—as it does in the service or the evangelist. Indeed, the megachurch event is rendered an “incarnation” of the television show.

Beal’s article is a good study of American evangelicalism. He concludes his article by inviting researchers to become more familiar with the cultural practices and beliefs of the evangelical movement in America.

My reaction to the article is mixed. I recognize the vibrancy of the evangelical movement in America and how it has touched the lives of thousands of people. No one can dispute the good Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Drive Life, has accomplished in the lives of thousands of people.

On the other had, it saddens me to read about the lack of theological coherence among those people involved in the movement. Beal tells the story of a person who was participating in a study of Proverbs 11-12. When that person questioned the view expressed in class that the righteous always prospers and the wicked suffers, the leader of the group provided an answer that did not address his concern. Without finding a satisfactory answer, that person ceased coming to the Bible study.

People have real problems that deserve real answers. The lack of theological depth in many of these groups is a detriment to the spiritual growth of the participants and this eventually will lead people to leave the church and seek answers elsewhere. Some people stop going to church altogether while others join cults and strange sects. In the end, the church suffers and the name of Christ is not glorified in the lives of those who leave the community of faith and become critics of the church.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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