Americanized Christianity: Richard Kyle

"The orthodox Christian has paid a very heavy price, both in the defense and communication of the gospel, for his failure to think and act as an educated person understanding and at war with the uniformity of our modern culture."

(Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, 1968, p. 12).
Richard Kyle’s Evangelicalism: An Americanized Christianity observes that in its history Evangelicalism has maintained an ironic relationship with the wider Christianity community and the culture within which it was born. From its domination in nineteenth-century culture to its marginalization in the first half of the twentieth-century to its recent return to power in America, Kyle traces the often-paradoxical way that Evangelicals have been “agents as well as victims of cultural accommodation” (p. 273). The price of the movement’s contemporary success involves its surrender to popular culture. The key to the movement’s numerical growth – its adaptability to the changing culture – may ironically be its greatest weakness.

Big changes and their implications

Kyle highlights the symptomatic changes that have occurred within conservative Evangelicalism that have accelerated in the second half of the last century with the rise of Pentecostalism:

"The late twentieth century has witnessed a major shift in religion towards the inward, subjective, and experiential. The baby boomers and generation Xers have been raised in a therapeutic self-help environment. Out of this has come a tremendous quest for self-fulfilment. The boomers and Xers became seekers for a spirituality that went beyond the mechanics of some self-improvement program. They have given a spiritual, inward and experiential twist to the notion of self-improvement. This new dimension of self-improvement might be better described as a desire for self-transformation… “We live in an experience saturated culture,” says George Gullop. Advertisements do more than try to sell you a quality product; they promise you an ecstatic moment. As a result, in religion experience has taken precedence over belief. People seek authenticity by means of an experience, not through ideas. This trend has accelerated as the vitality of conservative Protestantism has shifted from fundamentalism to evangelicalism to Pentecostalism." (p. 231-232).
The ‘seeker sensitive’ variety of charismatic churches signifies this significant departure from the emphasis of the past:

"While the Reformation emphasized faith over works and placed the Bible ahead of tradition, the new seeker churches have stressed experience over doctrine, emotion over serious Bible study, and spirituality over religious tradition." (p. 223).
Accommodating culture

Kyle observes that of the many movements that have emerged within Evangelicalism since the nineteenth-century, including Methodism and the Holiness Movement, Pentecostalism has by far been the most progressive. But their tendency towards popular appeal has contributed to their own loss of Christian distinctiveness:

"Pentecostalism must be seen as an aspect of the post-World War II revival… During these middle years, [1940-1960s] Pentecostalism maintained a paradoxical relationship with American religion and culture. On one hand, their particular distinctives—tongues-speaking, faith healing, and exuberant worship—set them outside the mainstream of American religion. These practices drew a line between them and non-charismatic Christians… One the other hand, Pentecostalism was at home with American religion and culture. According to Martin Marty, “American religion has been characteristically… experiential, affective, emotive, practical, personal, activist, and behavioural in intent and expression.” And so has Pentecostalism. In fact, during the 1960s Pentecostalism and American society took steps toward each other. The Pentecostals became more mainstream while American society became more experiential, subjective, and less cognitive in its outlook." (p. 148-149).
Speaking of popular American Evangelicalism in general (rather than its more serious varieties), Kyle observes that since the mid-1960s the movement has trended towards increased acculturation:

"Evangelical churches and organizations have grown tremendously in the post-war era largely because they have been populist and pragmatic to the core… Throughout its history, Evangelicalism has sensed the heartbeat of American culture and has adapted its approach to religion—if not its message and morals—to accommodate culture. These adjustments have come in the areas of preaching, promoting Christian activities, finances, worship, music, utilizing the latest technology, and more. But in the late twentieth century, the acculturation of evangelicalism reached even greater proportions. Evangelicals uncritically embraced American nationalism, the market economy, political conservatism, rampant consumerism, and an emotional approach to religion. While they have retained the core of the gospel, many evangelicals have adjusted their values and secondary beliefs to American culture. For example, while having roots in the past, the health and wealth gospel and the positive thinking movement reflect more secular trends than biblical principles… This combination of strictness and accommodation may be a key to the numerical success of evangelicalism… By maintaining some measure of their values, they have not made the mistake of liberal Protestantism—namely, abandoning the historical Christian faith. Conversely, in catering to popular tastes and blurring the line between entertainment and religion, evangelicalism has attracted large numbers of people, especially the youth. In this combination of strictness and accommodation, evangelicalism may have the best of both worlds. But it has paid a stiff price. In many ways, without even knowing it, evangelicalism has simply Americanized the Christian faith and Christianized secular society. In doing so, many evangelicals are in danger of trivializing Christianity.” (p. 156-157).
Compromising the core

“This book is a highly informative warning. Americanized evangelical Christianity may be losing its soul and compromising the core of the gospel.” (James C. Juhnke). Certainly, there is a poignant lesson here for all Evangelicals, and none need heed this warning more than those of the Pentecostal movement (not only in America), and of those none need heed this more than adherents to present-day Prosperity doctrine.

The words of Christ stand as our warning:

"Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." (Luke 14:34-35)
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Kyle, Richard G, Evangelicalism: An Americanized Christianity, New Brunswick, N.J.; London: Transaction Publishers, 2006. | joe towns: christian discussion on pentecost, charisma, pentecostal and charismatic beliefs, the Bible and Jesus; including the origin and history of pentecostalism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, gifts and miracles, divine healing and word of faith, prosperity and wealth, praise and worship, guidance and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit.