Andy Crouch calls the emerging church “post-evangelicalism.” He says:
“The emerging movement is a protest against much of evangelicalism as currently practiced. It is post-evangelical in the way that neo-evangelicalism (in the 1950s) was post-fundamentalist. It would not be unfair to call it postmodern evangelicalism” (“The Emergent Mystique,” Christianity Today, Nov. 2004).
The late Robert Webber also observed the association between the emerging church and the neo-evangelicalism of the 1940s and 1950s. He taught that the emerging church is the latest of four movements that have occurred within evangelicalism since 1946, the first being neo-evangelicalism.
“The new or neo-evangelicalism, as it was first called, broke away from its roots in the fundamentalism of the first half of the century. The new evangelicalism regarded fundamentalism as ‘anti-intellectual, anti-social action, and anti-ecumenical.’ Influential leaders called for engagement with philosophy and the intellectual ideas of the day, to the recovery of a robust involvement with social issues, and to a new form of ecumenical cooperation, especially in evangelism. ... The new evangelical theology distanced itself from fundamentalist biblicism ... They wanted to spar with the best, engage secularists and liberals on their own turf, and create institutions of higher learning that would command respect” (Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches, p. 11).
The intimate association between New Evangelicalism and the emerging church is witnessed by Christianity Today. This magazine was founded by Billy Graham and his friends in 1956 as a mouthpiece for the New Evangelical movement. Today it is a mouthpiece for the emerging church. A section of their web site, called “The Emergence of Emergent,” is dedicated to it, and they have published many positive articles dealing with it, including several by Brian McLaren. Marshall Shelley, vice president of Christianity Today, said of Spencer Burke’s An Heretic’s Guide to Eternity, which is foreworded by McLaren: “Spencer is a winsome walking companion for those who find traditional dogma too narrow. It’s a thoughtful conversation” (
The emerging church is the natural progression of New Evangelicalism. Let’s go back a half century and consider some of its history.
The founders of New Evangelicalism grew up in fundamentalist homes as the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the first half of the twentieth century was winding down. They were the proverbial new generation. “And also all that generation were gathered unto their fathers: and there arose another generation after them, which knew not the LORD, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10).
In the first half of the 20th century, evangelicalism in America was largely synonymous with fundamentalism. George Marsden (Reforming Fundamentalism) says, “There was not a practical distinction between fundamentalist and evangelical: the words were interchangeable” (p. 48). When the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) was formed in 1942, for example, participants included such fundamentalist leaders as Bob Jones, Sr., John R. Rice, Charles Woodbridge, Harry Ironside, and David Otis Fuller.
By the mid-1950s, though, a clear break between separatist fundamentalists and non-separatist evangelicals occurred. This was occasioned largely by the ecumenical evangelism of Billy Graham. The separatists dropped out of the NAE. The terms evangelicalism and fundamentalism began “to refer to two different movements” (William Martin, A Prophet with Honor, p. 224).
The sons and grandsons of the old-time evangelical-fundamentalist preachers determined to create a “New Evangelicalism.” They would not be fighters; they would be diplomats, positive in their emphasis rather than militant. They would not be restricted by a separationist mentality.
The very influential Harold Ockenga claimed to have coined the term “new evangelical” in 1948. He was pastor of Park Street Church in Boston, founder of the National Association of Evangelicals, co-founder and first president of Fuller Seminary, first president of the World Evangelical Fellowship, president of Gordon College, on the board of directors for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, chairman of the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and one-time editor of Christianity Today.
Following is how Ockenga defined New Evangelicalism:
“Neo-evangelicalism was born in 1948 in connection with a convocation address which I gave in the Civic Auditorium in Pasadena. While reaffirming the theological view of fundamentalism, this address REPUDIATED ITS ECCLESIOLOGY AND ITS SOCIAL THEORY. The ringing call for A REPUDIATION OF SEPARATISM AND THE SUMMONS TO SOCIAL INVOLVEMENT received a hearty response from many evangelicals. The name caught on and spokesmen such as Drs. Harold Lindsell, Carl F.H. Henry, Edward Carnell, and Gleason Archer supported this viewpoint. We had no intention of launching a movement, but found that the emphasis attracted widespread support and exercised great influence. Neo-evangelicalism... DIFFERENT FROM FUNDAMENTALISM IN ITS REPUDIATION OF SEPARATISM AND ITS DETERMINATION TO ENGAGE ITSELF IN THE THEOLOGICAL DIALOGUE OF THE DAY. IT HAD A NEW EMPHASIS UPON THE APPLICATION OF THE GOSPEL TO THE SOCIOLOGICAL, POLITICAL, AND ECONOMIC AREAS OF LIFE. Neo-evangelicals emphasized the restatement of Christian theology in accordance with the need of the times, the REENGAGEMENT IN THE THEOLOGICAL DEBATE, THE RECAPTURE OF DENOMINATIONAL LEADERSHIP, AND THE REEXAMINATION OF THEOLOGICAL PROBLEMS SUCH AS THE ANTIQUITY OF MAN, THE UNIVERSALITY OF THE FLOOD, GOD'S METHOD OF CREATION, AND OTHERS.” (Harold J. Ockenga, foreword to The Battle for the Bible by Harold Lindsell).
Regardless of who coined the term “New Evangelical,” it is certain that it described the mood of positivism and non-militancy that characterized that generation.
Ockenga and the new generation of evangelicals determined to abandon a militant Bible stance. Instead, they would pursue dialogue, intellectualism, non-judgmentalism, and appeasement. They refused to leave the denominations, even though they were permeated with theological modernism, determining to change things from within. The New Evangelical would dialogue with those who teach error. The New Evangelical would meet the proud humanist and the haughty liberal on their own turf with human scholarship rather than follow the humble path of being counted a fool for Christ’s sake by standing simply upon the Bible. New Evangelical leaders also determined to start a “rethinking process” whereby the old paths were to be continually reassessed in light of new goals, methods, and ideology.
New Evangelicalism further called for a social aspect to the gospel -- “a new emphasis upon the application of the gospel to the sociological, political, and economic areas of life” (Ockenga, foreword to the Battle for the Bible).
New Evangelicalism rejected the old traditional standards of separation from the world, and the result has been the strange rock & roll Christian culture.
In 1978, Richard Quebedeux wrote The Worldly Evangelicals, documenting the dramatic changes that were already occurring within evangelicalism a mere thirty years after the onslaught of the spirit of “Newism.” He said:
“Evolutionary theory, in a theistic context, is now taken for granted by many evangelical scientists. ... Biblical criticism has now made inroads in almost all evangelical colleges and seminaries. In fact, a few evangelical biblical scholars actually stand to the left of their liberal counterparts on some points. ... it is becoming more and more difficult to recruit young pastors who have not been deeply influenced both by biblical criticism and by the behavioral sciences. ... Prior to the 60s, virtually all the seminaries and colleges associated with the neo-evangelicals and their descendants adhered to the total inerrancy understanding of biblical authority (at least they did not vocally express opposition to it). But it is a well-known fact that a large number, if not most, of the colleges and seminaries in question now have faculty who no longer believe in total inerrancy. ... The position affirming that Scripture is inerrant or infallible in its teaching on matters of faith and conduct, but not necessarily in all its assertions concerning history and the cosmos, is gradually becoming ascendant among the most highly respected evangelical theologians. ... Indeed, the new theological heroes of the evangelical left are Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer... Clearly and undisputedly, the evangelical left is far closer to Bonhoeffer, Brunner, and Barth than to Hodges and Warfield on the inspiration and authority of Scripture” (The Worldly Evangelicals, pp. 15, 30, 88, 100).
Quebedeaux observed that “the wider culture has had a profound impact on the evangelical movement as a whole” (p. 115). Though Quebedeaux didn’t make the connection, this is a direct result of the repudiation of separation. He said:
“In the course of establishing their respectability in the eyes of the wider society, the evangelicals have become harder and harder to distinguish from other people. Upward social mobility has made the old revivalistic taboos dysfunctional. ... the COCKTAILS became increasingly difficult to refuse. Evangelical young people LEARNED HOW TO DANCE AND OPENLY ‘GROOVED’ ON ROCK MUSIC. ... And evangelical magazines and newspapers began REVIEWING PLAYS AND MOVIES. ... The Gallup Poll is correct in asserting that born-again Christians ‘believe in a strict moral code.’ BUT THAT STRICTNESS HAS BEEN CONSIDERABLY MODIFIED DURING THE LAST FEW YEARS … DIVORCE AND REMARRIAGE are becoming more frequent and acceptable among evangelicals of all ages, even in some of their more conservative churches. … Some evangelical women are taking advantage of ABORTION on demand. Many younger evangelicals occasionally use PROFANITY in their speech and writing . . . Some of the recent evangelical sex-technique books assume that their readers peruse and view PORNOGRAPHY on occasion, and they do. Finally, in 1976 there emerged a fellowship and information organization for practicing evangelical LESBIANS AND GAY MEN and their sympathizers. There is probably just as high a percentage of gays in the evangelical movement as in the wider society. Some of them are now coming out of the closet, distributing well-articulated literature, and demanding to be recognized and affirmed by the evangelical community at large. ... It is profoundly significant that evangelicals, even the more conservative among them, have ACCEPTED THE ROCK MODE. This acceptance, obviously, indicates a further chapter in the death of self-denial and world rejection among them. ... When young people were converted in the Jesus movement, many of them simply did not give up their former habits, practices, and cultural attitudes--DRINKING, SMOKING, AND CHARACTERISTIC DRESS AND LANGUAGE. ... Young evangelicals drink, but so do conservative evangelicals like Hal Lindsey and John Warwick Montgomery (who is a member of the International Wine and Food Society). ... But EVEN MARIJUANA, now virtually legal in some areas of the United States, is not as forbidden among young evangelicals as it once was. A few of them, particularly the intellectuals, do smoke it on occasion...” (The Worldly Evangelicals, pp. 14, 16, 17, 118, 119).
When light associates with darkness, when truth associates with error, the result is always the corruption of light and truth. “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Cor. 15:33), and, “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6; Gal. 5:9).
Quebedeaux observed that evangelicals were fluid in their doctrinal convictions, moving toward “the left”:
“In the present ‘identity confusion’ among evangelicals, MANY ARE IN TRANSITION, moving from one stance to another (GENERALLY FROM RIGHT TO CENTER OR LEFT)” (The Worldly Evangelicals, p. 27).
Over the past 30 years since Quebedeaux published The Worldly Evangelicals, the apostasy within evangelicalism has continued to spread and exercise its corrupt leaven in countless ways.
It is obvious that the emerging church is not something new. It is just another wrinkle in New Evangelicalism’s deeply compromised history and the latest wrinkle of end-time apostasy.
Those who reject “separatism” feel that they are only rejecting “extremism,” but in reality they are rejecting the God-ordained means of protection from spiritual pollution.
(For more about this see our free ebook New Evangelicalism: Its History, Characteristics, and Fruit, available from Way of Life Literature.
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