Nancy Pearcey in her book Total Truth (Crossway, 2004, 2005) spends a couple of chapters on the history of evangelicalism and how this affects the current identity of evangelicalism. Pearcey notes that there are two main lines of evangelicalism: the populist line and the scholarly (or rationalist) line (p. 256 in the Study Guide edition). The populist line, from its beginnings (and especially after the Second Great Awakening in North America) had the characteristic of rugged individualism, a trait that has been highly prized throughout the history of the United States. This individualism includes an anti-institutional sentiment. This should not be surprising, since the evangelical movement was born out of a need to call pew-sitters (nominal church-going Christians) into a genuine faith in Jesus, something that was not typically preached in North American churches. In short, local churches were not doing their job, and so revivalist preachers such as George Whitefield (in the first Great Awakening) and Charles Finney (in the second Great Awakening) took to preaching the gospel across the United States and into the frontier.
Along with rugged individualism and anti-institutionalism came anti-intellectualism. Pearcey notes that there was indeed a strain of evangelicalism (scholarly evangelicalism) that dove into scholarship just as passionately. It is not fair to suppose that there the early evangelicals were all either “populist” evangelicals or “scholarly” evangelicals. However, the brand of evangelicalism that seemed to draw more people was the populist brand, since it resonated with the individualism of North Americans at the time. While the populist brand of evangelicalism did well to encourage a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, anti-intellectualism is certainly one of its downfalls. The result is a lack of knowledge among evangelicals regarding what should be included in a well-thought out Christian worldview. Studies suggest that most who identify themselves as evangelicals do not even hold to (or know about) most traditional evangelical beliefs, such as the fallenness of humankind, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the existence of hell and Satan. One Barna survey reveals that almost three-quarters of people who identify themselves as evangelicals do not even consider themselves as “born again,” a traditional hallmark of evangelical Christianity!
Relating this to youth ministry, I wonder often if I–as a youth minister–am doing my part in teaching students how to actually think about Christianity. I am often guilty of presenting Christianity as only a relationship with Jesus with no mention of ethics, suffering, and what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus. This mostly is a sin of sloth; it takes a lot of time and work to encourage youth to develop a Christian world view and struggle with what it means to live out such a worldview. While I certainly am delighted when a student accepts Jesus as his or her personal savior, I should not just leave the student there. Youth should also have a basic knowledge of Christian apologetics, hermeneutics, ethics, and the like. I am not suggesting that these disciplines should somehow take precedence over a personal, genuine relationship with Jesus. Rather, these should be a part of a student’s learning what it means to be a faithful Christian in a fallen world.
Many Episcopal parishes at one time adopted the slogan “Don’t check your brain at the door.” This, as far as I can tell, means not always accepting at face value the claims of Christianity or Christian leaders, but rather testing and thinking through any claims that are made. I fear that we are in danger of not thinking at all. Have we in a way “dumbed down” Christianity, thinking that we were somehow making it more accessible to youth? If any have been experimenting with actually teaching students to think about their faith, I would love to hear about it, so please share your thoughts.