by Mark A. Noll
50 years ago, evangelicals were a sideshow of American culture. Since then, it's been a long, strange trip. Here's a look at the influences that shaped the movement.
Historically, evangelicalism has had integrity when it maintains the substance of classical Christian faith; it has exerted influence and enjoyed a broad appeal when it responds effectively to impulses within its host cultures. When evangelicals think only about honoring their heritage, they easily lose sight of the gospel imperative to evangelize and to be salt and light in the world. Conversely, when they think only about effective witness and responding to urgent psychological needs, they easily lose sight of the gospel imperative to preserve the truth in righteousness.
In some earlier eras, the balance of theological integrity and cultural sensitivity moved mountains. At other times, loyalty to traditions led to separatistic stagnation, or lust for cultural relevance perverted the gospel into Christianity-lite.
During the first half of the 20th century, the stress had shifted toward preserving traditions. At the middle of the 20th century, evangelicals began to move back toward a balance.
But have evangelicals today moved too far? Has an overemphasis on preserving tradition been replaced by an overemphasis on connecting to the culture? For such supremely important questions, it is, of course, too early for a historical assessment. When the balance shifts too strongly to one without the other, it is merely sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. But an evangelical resurgence that balances traditional faith and cultural relevance sounds a trumpet of salvation to the world.