Completing an Awakening

by Richard F. Lovelace

Dr. Lovelace is professor of church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 18, 1981 pp. 296-300. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


What is needed is a quantum-jump in the sanctification of the minds of mainline Protestants, involving repentance after 200 years of drifting from the Reformation response to the Bible. We also need a repentance among evangelicals, dealing with their rejection of genuinely biblical values upheld by their theological opponents.

By authorities as varied as George Gallup, Andrew Greeley and Peter Berger, it has been asserted that America is experiencing at least the beginning stages of a major religious awakening. Admittedly, the statistical count of those who profess to be "born again" is open to more than one interpretation. Still, those of us who train ministerial candidates have undeniable evidence of something unusual: the large numbers of vital young evangelical and charismatic leaders we have been working with since the beginning of the 1970s, many of them new converts from the secular college campuses.

On the other hand, many voices have been raised to question the depth of the awakening, or at least its integrity and maturity. Since Tom Wolfe stated that "the Third Great Awakening" was the motive force behind the "Me Decade," critics on the left have accused the growing evangelical sector of the church of self-centered emotional navel-gazing and the vending of opiates for social concern. Unfortunately, there seems to be a good deal of evidence that whatever degree of awakening is occurring has not deeply affected the drift of American culture and society. As Charles Colson has said, "Religion is up, morality down." The social and moral impact of the Second Awakening, which freed the slaves and reversed the moral drift in England to produce the Victorian era, and the penetrating Conviction of sin and God’s holiness which dried up crime for decades in Wales after 1904, are not part of our experience now.

In The Christian Century for October 6, 1971, I hazarded some guesses about "The Shape of the Coming Renewal," suggesting that the growing awakening among young people was only the leading edge of a glacier that would continue to move in steadily until it dominated the American ecclesiastical landscape. Judging from the agenda then apparent in the minds of young evangelicals and charismatics, I viewed the completed shape of the awakening as including new levels of theological and spiritual depth, a reinvigoration of the ecumenical impulse, and a return to the balance of nurture, evangelism and social transformation present in the original evangelicalism of the 18th and 19th centuries. Parts of this vision have emerged in the developing growth of the church’s evangelical sector, but others appear to be still struggling to break through into history.

A decade later, we might well ask ourselves whether what we are experiencing today is a spiritual awakening, or something better described as a numerical multiplication of evangelicals due to the success of conservative churches and parachurch evangelism ministries. We will be in trouble if we confuse the former with the latter. Israel multiplied while in Egypt, but Moses did not find the emigrating generation very serviceable for the purposes of God. It was a different group of persons that was able to enter and conquer Canaan -- a group that had experienced a deep awakening and change of heart. Is there a need for new theological and spiritual awakening among the multiplied tribes of the evangelical movement?

Criteria of Completion

In The Social Ideas of the Northern Evangelists, C.C. Cole indicates that there was a discernible pattern in the evangelical movements of awakening that transformed English and American society between the 1790s and the 1830s. In both countries the Second Great Awakening began with widespread grass-roots evangelism. This was followed by five subsequent phases of development in a regular pattern of succession: (1) the organization of home and foreign mission societies to channel new leadership into church planting or into the field; (2) the production and distribution of Christian literature; (3) the renewal and extension of Christian educational institutions; (4) attempts at "the reformation of manners" -- i.e., the reassertion of Christian moral standards in a decadent society; and (5) the great humanitarian crusades against social evils like slavery, war and intemperance.

There is, of course, no reason why every spiritual awakening needs to duplicate exactly the features of preceding movements. Nevertheless, this succession of initiatives does seem to capture elements that are part of the essence of the gospel enterprise. It is a convenient standard for measuring the maturity of what we are experiencing today, and perhaps also for charting where we should be going from here. For in some measure we may be responsible to shape the direction of events in the church that might either lead to, or fall short of, the completion of an awakening.

It is clear that some of the developments of Cole’s list are already part of our experience today. In the U.S. at least, a remarkably varied group of evangelism task forces has been reaching the grass roots since the 1940s. Urbana, Operation Mobilization and many other instruments, including several working with teen-agers, have been raised up to channel converts toward the foreign mission field. The parachurch campus ministries and the evangelical seminaries have performed the same function for the home field. At least in quantity, evangelical literature for nurture and the propagation of the faith has made publishing history. In addition to new evangelical colleges and seminaries, the decade of the "70s has seen the creation of many new Christian primary and secondary schools.

It is mainly in the area of social and cultural transformation that the current awakening seems to be lagging. Is this because it lacks the spiritual force to challenge and change society, or because it has not reached that phase of its development, or simply because its leaders have not tried?

Some evangelicals really do not expect such achievements, since they do not harmonize with their eschatology and their sense of our location on the timeline of history. Others believe that the social and cultural fruits of religious awakening will appear gradually if we are patient, arguing that once individual Christians are spiritually reborn in great numbers, they will inevitably act as salt and leaven within the society. When liberal Christians or socially conscious evangelicals challenge the failure of this view’s adherents to articulate social and cultural concerns, the reply is that such concerns are not part of the church’s proclamation, but that individual evangelicals have always been motivated to reform and renew society, almost automatically.

Behind the Incomplete Awakening

But this argument overlooks the fact that for the past two generations evangelicals have been largely passive under the growing weight of social and cultural evil. We have learned to tolerate decay and injustice, to expect and even welcome them as signs of Christ’s return. We have been marinating in corruption until we can hardly detect its growth, like Malcolm Muggeridge’s frog killed in a pot of gradually heated water. It seldom occurs to us that there might be any use in fighting back, or that we might be responsible to do so.

Kathleen Heasman says of evangelicals in the latter half of the 19th century: "By the mid-century it had become an accepted fact . . . that those who had experienced some spiritual renewal should straightway take part in the various efforts which were being made to help the less fortunate in the community." But it has been a long time since this was a reasonable expectation for American evangelicals, who have disengaged themselves to a great degree from social injustice and cultural decay, and have divided their energies between church-centered religion and the task of succeeding or surviving in the American vocational rat race.

Judging from evangelical experience in tile 19th century, some degree of activity and some sense of responsibility for action are necessary if Christians are to be the leaven in society that promotes justice, and the salt that inhibits decay. It also seems clear that uninstructed Christians will not automatically develop these qualities, especially if they are embedded in socially and culturally passive churches. Born-again souls do not necessarily have born-again minds -- as we have discovered in the phenomenon of fundamentalist racism. Regeneration must be continued through growth in sanctification; new Christians must be transformed by the renewal of their minds. This requires proclamation and teaching focused on such issues as corporate sin, structural injustice, and the Bible’s prophetic critique of government, society and culture. To neglect this pastoral nurture is to leave the laity as uneducated children in the faith, and to ignore large areas of the whole counsel of God. It is also to contribute to the incompleteness of the present movement of religious renewal.

If we are to match the achievements of evangelicals in the awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries, we will have to pay some attention to the moral and social needs of the society to which we are ministering. We will have to labor in prayer against decay and injustice, and some of us may have to be led out of that prayer into action.

This would seem to be a truism or a platitude, but it is still contested among evangelicals. An important recent book on world evangelism warns that evangelicals will be diverted from their mission if they link the preaching of the gospel to an insistence on its social demonstration through the life of a renewed church. According to this source, too much side interest in dialogue with nonevangelicals, in Christian unity, social action and other provinces of liberal Protestantism will inevitably take us on the detour which has led from the Evangelical Alliance to the World Council of Churches.

This conclusion is a troubling mixture of bad logic and legitimate concerns. It overlooks the fact that the original or classical evangelicalism of the 18th and 19th centuries was united around a constellation of concerns which in the modern church have been divided up between the left and right: Reformation orthodoxy, the spiritual renewal of the church, Christian unity, evangelism and missions, the reformation of manners, and social reform. In the late 19th century, under the deforming impact of dispensational pessimism and liberal optimism, the broad river of classical evangelicalism divided into a delta, with shallower streams emphasizing -- ecumenism and social renewal on the left and confessional orthodoxy and evangelism on the right.

Because less orthodox persons have concentrated on social witness and Christian unity is no sign that these concerns are unbiblical and harmful to the faith. One of the Devil’s prime strategies is to build heresies in areas of neglected truth. Another is to polarize Christians against their opponents’ strengths along with their weaknesses. Both of these are designed to divide the church and deform its mission.

The bad reasoning behind this thesis, which combines guilt by association with the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (the ecumenical movement became "liberal" because it was concerned for church union and social demonstration of the gospel), is part of the theological DDT in evangelical soil which inhibits the growth and maturing of the present awakening.

Transforming the Visible Church

It may indeed be strategic to keep evangelism conferences focused on proclamation of the gospel and not diversify too much into social, cultural and ecumenical concerns, provided the validity of these is granted. But evangelism conferences may not be the only kind that evangelicals should be holding. Evangelicalism is not reducible solely to evangelism, although the media can be pardoned for concluding that such is the case. Classical evangelicalism was primarily concerned for the theological and spiritual renewal of the visible church, and this was a higher priority than the evangelism and missions that flowed out of renewal. The validity of the gospel may not depend on the strength of the church, but does not the Bible stress both evangelism and spiritual integrity? And does not the balance of Scripture indicate that success in evangelism springs from spiritual renewal?

Ecumenical dialogue and the formation of biblical programs of social and cultural reform may prove to be of critical importance in the coming decade for holding the evangelical movement together, and for the spiritual and theological renewal of professing Christendom (the original goal of the evangelical movement in its classical era, the period encompassing the First and Second Great Awakenings).

As Carl Henry has so trenchantly warned us, the disintegration of the renewed evangelical movement of the Graham era is one of the most serious threats to the completion of a potential awakening. The fireworks display of evangelical activities that the media have been tracking for the past several years sometimes looks like a model of the expanding universe of galaxies moving away from one another at increasing speed: charismatics and relational evangelicals intent on pandenominational spiritual renewal, young evangelicals concerned for social witness, catholic evangelicals concerned for balance and tradition, confessional orthodox evangelicals concerned for biblical and theological integrity, mainline and separated evangelicals pursuing separate yet related agendas. It almost seems as though we need an ecumenical council simply to keep these from flying permanently apart in separate orbits!

Here we are reminded of Paul’s delineation of the spiritual organism of the body of Christ, with each part’s critical need for the others’ gifts and the temptation to divide up into separate piles of unrelated hands and feet and mouths and minds. In a sense, the strong, diverse but biblically related concerns of these groups are central evidences of their gifts. If we build theologies and mission strategies, that fail to operate against a biblical backdrop large enough to encompass our brothers and sisters in these galaxies, and that fail to relate our concerns to theirs, we sever ourselves from mutual support and divide the body of Christ. The danger in this is clear: early 20th century fundamentalism may have lost half its children because its theological world view was too small to take in their concerns and ground them biblically, thus forcing them toward less biblical foundations.

All this lights up the significance of the new field of ecumenical diplomacy which is opening up among the mainline denominations, reviving the hope that professing Christendom can be evangelically renewed while evangelicals are simultaneously renewed in catholicity. For the divergence effect among evangelical subtypes, oddly enough, is being accompanied by a convergence effect which is drawing mainline leaders closer to the classical evangelical synthesis. The dangers of compromise and unity in the dark are apparent here (and quite visible to all sides), but we must keep clearly in mind the fact that the completed awakening aimed at by the architects of classical evangelicalism -- Luther, Calvin, Spener, Wesley, Edwards, and the "Evangelical United Front" which controlled Protestantism in the early 19th century -- was the spiritual and theological transformation of the visible church. In the eye of faith, many sectors of the church appear to be moving toward one another with increasing velocity, portending an explosion of renewal.

Strategies of Completion

I am aware that my description of things is about equally hard to believe among nonevangelicals and the various evangelical subtypes themselves. Are there strategic initiatives we can develop which could lead toward some degree of completion without getting us too far off the track, in case the Lord’s scenario for the future diverges significantly, from the classical evangelical vision? I suggest certain strategic moves.

First, we need to begin by waiting together before God in a new program of comprehensive intercession for the church -- one that includes all the dimensions of renewal in the classical evangelical vision. If we will begin again to pray with the intensity and scope of the original evangelicals, we may see the completion of their vision. Even if we cannot pray for some of these goals with much affirmation -- even if we find ourselves praying for the salvation of liberals before Christ returns, or the redirection of evangelical social concern to its proper sphere of evangelism and world mission, or the disappearance of the electronic church -- God will answer our prayers, with corrections if necessary, and will either change our minds or the minds of those for whom we are praying. In The Emerging Order, dealing with social challenges of the emerging "era of scarcity," Jeremy Rifkin and Ted Howard suggest that only if evangelicals and charismatics overcome their differences and pray with one another and with all responsive Christians can the church fulfill its role in the future.

Second, out of this prayer there may come new initiatives of coordinated action that will purify and complete the current measure of awakening. One such sphere of initiatives concerns the reformation of manners. It is clear that there is an immense buildup of political muscle in today’s evangelical movement. Our main task may be not to motivate this force for the reshaping of American culture but to control and restrain it so that it will not waste its energy in acts that are destructive, inappropriate or even unnecessary, but will instead limit itself to constructive reforms. It would be no difficult thing for an alliance of evangelicals, feminists, liberals and humanists to dry up the market for pornography in this country. It would be almost as easy for a boycott of permissive morality in the media to begin to attack the tide of teen-age pregnancies which result in so many abortions.

The hard thing would be to manage these efforts without maiming art, treading on human rights, and repeating all the imbalances of some past reformations of manners. But the nerve systems to motivate such coordinated initiatives -- journals like Christianity Today and The Christian Century -- already exist. They command the loyalty of great numbers of Christians who would be ready to act to restore the integrity of American culture in a manner consistent with pluralism and freedom. All that is lacking is a united mind to frame the initiatives needed, and the will to blow the trumpet at the places where the wall needs building.

Recently, conservatives like Jerry Falwell have recovered the impulse toward "reformation of manners" that motivated 19th century evangelicals. True, they have merged this impulse with civil religion and right-wing politics in a way that has alarmed both mainline Christians and evangelicals. But it is significant that they have moved back toward the activist stance of classical evangelicalism. An article in the Moral Majority Report by a young historian, Edward Hindson, cites Wilberforce and Finney as precursors of Falwell, and spells out their social achievements. Robert Webber of Wheaton College has proposed that leaders like Falwell confer with Evangelicals for Social Action and seek for correction and balance, and Carl Henry is seeking to arrange something similar.

Meanwhile, evangelicals are simultaneously experiencing a meeting of minds with many mainline leaders on agendas for social reform and evangelization. The potential for drawing together and correcting one another’s imbalances seems great at this moment. Increased unity of heart and mind could lead to an intensified impact of the church on society.

To Reshape Society

Evangelical alternate media in television and radio are building up the financial and technical strength to fight depravity not by repression but by superior example. Young musicians, dramatists, actors and other artists are being raised up by God to supply these media with material of excellence, along with other evangelistic voices skilled in crossing the cultural gap that insulates Americans from evangelical media styles. Many of these artists are committed to the reformation of society -- the concern of some has carried over from their pre-Christian days in the counterculture -- and a conference on the promotion of justice through Christian music is projected for summer 1981.

If and when these messengers are recognized and incorporated into the media in general, an explosion of combined witness and moral change is likely to occur. We can remember what the secular counterculture did to reshape our society, spreading through the medium of rock music. Can we believe what a Christian counterculture might accomplish through the music, literature and art being given by God to young evangelicals today?

The same kind of coordinated action could unite evangelicals with other Christians and concerned persons of goodwill to address the key social needs of the late 20th century -- if not to solve them, at least to hold them before God responsibly in prayer to seek whatever measure of progress may be consistent with the church’s task before the return of Christ. Councils to consider such initiatives already exist. Evangelicals for Social Action, a group that has struggled for traction and identity since it framed the Thanksgiving Declaration of 1973, has regathered its strength around a new board of directors representing many sectors of the evangelical movement. It is projecting an Urbana-style convention on evangelical social witness, annual conferences for pastors to explore avenues for the involvement of congregations in community justice issues, and the formation of vocational task forces among evangelicals in politics, business and other callings, through which the shape of American political and business life might be altered to promote Christian values.

Other networks of evangelical leadership exist which might, after prayerful consideration, coordinate their energies to promote many of the initiatives generated in ESA. Here again, evangelical media could have a crucial role in focusing the thinking and concern of their adherents on issues like world hunger and the plight of our urban minorities -- issues that correspond to the problems of slavery and child labor which 19th century evangelicals successfully attacked.

If American evangelicalism were to move substantially to recover the classical evangelical stance which included social and cultural transformation in its agenda along with evangelism and nurture, the evangelical movement would regather many of its diverging segments. The rest of American Christianity, continuing its movement of convergence, would then become increasingly open to learn from the evangelicals: first, to re-examine the spiritual dynamics of individual rebirth in Christ, and later to strive for a more complete submission of theology to the mind of Christ expressed in Scripture.

Of course, it is no small miracle being projected here, on either side. We are talking about a quantum-jump in the sanctification of the minds of mainline Protestants, involving repentance after 200 years of drifting from the Reformation response to the Bible. We are also talking about repentance among evangelicals, dealing with their rejection of genuinely biblical values upheld by their theological opponents. This measure of repentance cannot come without a remarkable unveiling in history of the face of God’s holiness, an uncovering of unsuspected depths of sin among his people, and a new breaking-through into human consciousness of the whole counsel of God. Since we probably will not move to complete the present awakening until this level of conviction appears among us, we should give ourselves to prayer for its coming.