To Revitalize Evangelical Culture

If populism has left evangelicals resentful and suspicious of "elites," and complacent in a sentimentalized Christianity, how can evangelical leaders restore their movement's cultural vitality? Begin with a basic shift. Evangelical leaders need to rediscover the foundation of their authority.

I've noticed that a person with authority has a right to be heeded, to receive deference. For example, let's say we have a bull session about how evangelism really ought to be done, and we each proclaim our opinions, together with all the reasons why we're right. But when Billy Graham ambles over to the sofa and puts up his boots on the coffee table, we sincerely defer. We don't repent of our opinions when he starts to talk. We don't surrender unconditionally to whatever he says. But we do adjust our points of view to incorporate his.

I'm saying that a person with authority has a right to this deference. If someone in our bull session blows off Billy Graham, we disapprove because we feel that respect is something Graham is owed. The right to be heeded is powerful. If deference is not his right, then what he's got isn't authority.

I figure there are lots of possible foundations for authority. There's authority founded on skill: Billy Graham has a right to our deference on matters of evangelism because he's unusually competent. There's also authority founded on charisma: Graham has a unique relational wisdom that has won over vast audiences for decades.

Some foundations for authority crumble, and cannot be rebuilt for an age. In the days when Graham first preached, he had authority simply because he was a pastor. Almost everybody deferred to a pastor for the sake of respectability. It didn't matter whether the pastor's congregation was fifty or five hundred: they adjusted their points of view to incorporate his. But this social authority deteriorated, and by the 1970s any pastor who depended on it was feeling vulnerable.

Other foundations for authority are perverse, like popularity. A celebrity will get deference for a while just because masses of people hang on his words. But adoring crowds can turn into mobs. Graham has had the authority of popularity, and has also felt the sting of disapprobation, as when he visited the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. Since he did not build his ministry on his popularity, his stature eventually outgrew the setbacks.

Evangelical leaders, for the most part, have been running scared because of the loss of their social authority. They have watched American culture scoff at the stock character of the pastor, mocking his impotence in the face of cultural changes. And they have been retreating from any hint of that old authority in their leadership, trying instead to teach, evangelize, and organize on the basis of popularity or skill or charisma.

Populism, with its easy emotionalism, has become the most common way evangelical leaders gain a right to be heeded. They hoist an apparently strong banner that rallies the troops -- and it works for a while. But this cynicism has nauseated so many believers that the search is on for community without authority -- an egalitarian delusion now tempting emergents.

I believe evangelicalism will not regain vitality until its leaders rediscover their authority's foundation. There has to be a reason for believers to listen to them, to defer to them. And subcultures outside of evangelicalism must see that reason, or they will not pay the gospel any heed.

In this connection, it's worth noting that Billy Graham (no populist by my definition) had many kinds of authority, but only depended on one kind: the coherence of his character with the Bible. That is, the force of biblical authority exerted itself through Graham's personal submission. More than anything else, this biblical integrity is what gained him the right to be heeded.

Next week, the technical specifications for gaining that authority.