Many conservative evangelical and even fundamentalist churches today have transformed the Christian faith into a kind of pop-culture version of The Way. This change began to become most prominent in the early 20th century, right after the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. Joel Carpenter captures well the shift to pop religion in his important work on the history of fundamentalism, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (Oxford, 1997):
As heirs of the American revival tradition, fundamentalists greatly valued being able to reach the masses and to communicate their message in a popularly attractive way. They were, in other words, intensely audience-conscious, market-driven, and concerned to see immediate returns from their efforts. A strong streak of antielitism, coupled with democratic appeals to popular opinion, also ran through the movement. Fundamentalists inherited these values most directly from the evangelistic drive spearheaded by Dwight L. Moody in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
Moody’s partners in this new wave of popular outreach were a group of gifted and respectable urban pastors such as Presbyterians A. T. Pierson of Philadelphia and A. B. Simpson of New York, and Baptists A. J. Gordon of Boston and A. C. Dixon of Baltimore. These ministers mortified their own genteel tastes and values and revamped their congregations to reflect the popular, revivalistic style of the urban evangelists. In order to prepare cadres of religious workers quickly for new evangelistic offensives, they formed Bible and missionary training schools and neglected the life of the mind. Therefore, even though most of these early leaders were well-educated and culturally refined their movement quickly lost touch with the nation’s intellectual currents. . . .
The experience of William Bell Riley, whose active career spanned the 1880s to the 1940s, illustrates how fundamentalism’s popular and populist proclivities contributed to its alienation. Born in 1861 and reared in poverty on a Kentucky tobacco farm, Riley scrambled his way upward. He made his way first through Hanover College in southern Indiana and then the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. He served in Baptist churches in Kentucky and downstate Indiana and Illinois; and then, after a short but productive term with a congregation in Chicago, Riley accepted a call to the First Baptist Church in Minneapolis in 1897. Like other revivalists of the Moody era, he sought to transform his congregation, which had been a haven for the city’s elites, into a “city temple,” a center for popular religious activity. The congregation grew by over 50 percent in the first year of Riley’s pastorate, largely on the strength of new members recruited from the lower and lower middle classes. On account of these changes, and also because he was an outspoken Bryan Democrat, Riley incurred the wrath of First Baptist’s prominent families. After five years of feuding with the old guard, Riley triumphed when his opponents left in 1902 to form a new congregation. That same year Riley founded the Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School, and throughout the next fifteen years, he was in demand for evangelistic campaigns in other cities. By any conventional measure of his vocation, Riley had become a great success (35-36).
It probably a truism for most of the readers of this website that there are many times where Christians can not and must not go along with the intellectual and cultural trends of higher culture. Even so, the influence of these evangelical forebears may be seen that we do not immediately repulse from acquiescing to popular culture. Just as Christians must at times disengage themselves from sordid sinful culture values and expressions of the elite, so they must disengage from sinful expressions in popular culture. Fundamentalists and evangelicals have been better at the former than the latter.
Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too.