Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

22 Aug 2014

Cultural Fundamentalism or Cultural Evangelicalism?


Over the past decade it has been popular to distinguish between “cultural fundamentalism” and “historic fundamentalism.” Cultural fundamentalism is regarded by its critics as very, very bad. It consists of folksy/outdated traditionalism that has drifted from its quaint, innocuous origins and has entered a bitter, skeptical stage of life—complete with theological errors of a sort that typically attend aging, countercultural movements. Historic fundamentalism, which focuses more on basic theological issues, fares a little bit better, but only a very little bit. Critics puzzle over those who accept this label, marveling that anyone would risk associative guilt by lingering near those nasty cultural fundamentalists: “Why not get with the program,” they ask, “and become a conservative evangelical?”

Part of the reason, I would venture, is that conservative evangelicalism itself appears, to all but those blinded by its euphoria, to be yet another cultural phenomenon—a new iteration of a broader movement (evangelicalism) that, let’s face it, has a track record easily as jaded as that of fundamentalism. True, the conservative evangelicals of today are a bit more conscious of theology and mission (that’s how the life cycle of ecclesiological “movements” begins), and their culture is more up-to-date; but it’s just a matter of time until the present iteration of evangelicalism grows old, propped up only by the same nostalgia that today keeps Billy Graham crusades and Bill and Gloria Gaither homecomings on cable TV (except that these will be replaced, for a new generation of elderly evangelicals, with John Piper recordings and Keith and Kristyn Getty sing-alongs that allow folks to relive the glory days).

Last week Darryl Hart, a notable critic of conservative evangelicalism (a.k.a. the “New Calvinism” and “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movements), wrote a scathing exposé of today’s culture-heavy evangelicalism. Speaking specifically to his own confessional concerns, he made the obvious point that the major attraction of the “New Calvinism” and the “Young, Restless and Reformed” movements wasn’t primarily theological (the “Calvinism” and “Reformed” part) but cultural (the “New, Young, and Restless” part). Calvinism, he observed, has been faithfully preserved for centuries in confessional churches (like the OPC of which Hart is a part) that guarded it far more carefully than the confessionally unconstrained evangelicals ever could. No, the major attraction of the “New Calvinism,” Hart opined, was that it offered something that the Old Calvinism didn’t, viz., “the sorts of celebrity, technology, mass crowds, and enthusiasm upon which the young sovereigntists thrive.” The “Gospel Allies” (a derogatory label Hart uses for the conservative evangelical movement) deliberately denigrate the Old Calvinists for one prevailing reason: They’re not new. And since they’re not new, they have little appeal for the young and restless crowd. The “Gospel Allies,” on the other hand, stay new by brokering alliances with cool, edgy, avant-garde, and (mostly) Reformedish celebrities like Driscoll, McDonald, and Mahaney, who, granted, might fall over the edge with which they flirt—but it’s worth the risk.

So what comes next? Well, if history is our guide, the generational cycle of cultural ecclesiology will soon move to its next phase, what I call ecclesiastical “niche-making.” The fundamentalist version of this is well documented. The 1940s and 50s revivalist culture (the best snapshot of which is found in its music) was all new and fresh and culturally edgy in its day. But now it is the realm of churches populated by 80-year-olds who can’t figure out why there are no “young people.” It’s happening again with the Patch the Pirate generation. Patch and Company were all the rage in the 1980s and early 1990s, but now they’re old news. Still, by publishing their magnum opus, Majesty Hymns, a coalition of Patch-culture churches lives on, populated mostly by those who were parents of small children during the 1980s. Now they’re beginning to wonder why the “youth group” is so small.

But evangelicalism is no different. Visit the various evangelical churches in your neighborhood and you’ll find Gaither churches, romantic but theologically vacuous churches from the golden age of CCM, and now Getty/Townend/SG churches (hint: this is where that missing generation has gone). I have little doubt that this cycle will repeat, because there is little in place to break the cycle. The pattern for all of these groups has been to push the cultural envelope until they create their niche, then settle down to enjoy it.

The possible conclusions, then, appear to be twofold: some churches will (1) do nothing and become culturally backward, ingrown congregations that reminisce together until they eventually die of old age, while others will (2) transition to the next cultural cycle and thrive for another 25 years or so. But is this the way it’s supposed to be? I think not.

The answer, I would suggest, is faithful ministry in confessionally bounded churches committed more to the spirituality of the church than they are to the socio-political and cultural relevancy of the church. By striving, self-consciously, to be as culturally transcendent as possible, I would argue, we can cultivate timeless, transgenerational bodies that do not need to reinvent themselves every quarter century to remain solvent. It will not be easy—after all, culture has told us for a hundred years that this is not the way church is done. But it’s definitely worth the effort.

16 Responses

  1. Ken Casillas

    Thank you, Mark–very helpful and needed perspective. Would you consider writing a follow-up piece defining in some detail “as culturally transcendent as possible” and “cultivate timeless, transgenerational bodies?” It would seem that worship forms are to a significant degree shaped by one culture or another. What does cultural transcendence look like?

  2. PhilipT

    I tend to see this issue as more of a matrix rather than simply binary (cultural Christianity vs. confessional Christianity) as you’ve suggested. I also see the attempt to identify a motive behind the YRR as a little shortsighted and overreaching. “Celebrity, technology, mass crowds, and enthusiasm” are unlikely to be cited by anyone but a “notable critic” of the YRR. Once again, this sort of binary thinking (either celebrity culture or confessional theology) restricts the possible outcome of the question you’re asking. I’d like to suggest several reasons why the simple answer of “confessional” churches isn’t desirable to me and some alternative reasons why a YRR would steer towards the conservative evangelical approach.

    Two reasons why a simple “confessional” solution isn’t the fix-all panacea:

    1. Cultural conundrum: All confessional churches are also culturally bound. Every church or group of churches selects the culture that they will connect with. Positing that an option exists that conveniently exists supra-culture seems naive to me. Many confessional churches struggle to connect the Gospel to the culture around them and face the same generation-gap problems as other churches.

    2. Theological mania: Many confessional churches often get hung up in a lot of theological navel-gazing. For example, I live a couple miles from an OPC seminary and have interacted with many seminarians and pastors from their denomination through the years. The OPC churches seem to have an inordinate focus on a bunch of tertiary doctrinal issues such as theonomy, majority text preference, exclusive psalmody, and post-millennial polemics (or division over eschatological issues).

    Two reasons why conservative evangelicalism is more attractive to a YRR:

    1. Consistent cultural engagement: Conservative evangelicalism offers a method of cultural engagement that is timeless and unbound by culture. Culturally-bound churches tend to see conservative evangelicals’ concern for contextualization as yet another binding agent that will keep them tied to yet another culture; however, this sort of biblical contextualization as taught and practiced by many conservative evangelicals is attractive for those who seek to engage culture fluidly and in continuity with the stream of church history.

    2. Theological clarity: Conservative evangelicals have consistently sought to do more than simply adopt confessions; they’ve used cooperative movements to highlight doctrines and elements of confessions that deserve the ultimate focus. By offering a theological center to confessionalism, they’ve offered YRR’s doctrine as a rallying cry for believers over and above doctrine as a battlefield between believers. As you’ve noted, the conservative evangelicals don’t bring new doctrines to the table (in this sense they’re very similar to narrowly confessional denominations); however, they model Gospel-prioritization of doctrine, showing levels of importance in various confessional doctrines (in this sense, they’re very different from the narrowly confessional denominations).

    This contrast between thoroughgoing confessionalism and broader conservative evangelicalism is at least part of a possible alternate answer to the question: why is conservative evangelicalism attractive to YRR. Admittedly, my answer is formed by my own opinions and dialogue with YRR’s rather than the punditry of the esteemed and notable critics.

  3. Mark Snoeberger

    Ken, That’s a great question and the following are some notes toward the beginning of a discussion leading to an answer, and by no means a tidy one:

    Because many worship styles reflect the dominant preferences of one generation/culture/sub-culture, a question that a pastor or church planter might ask is “What culture/generation does our church want to attract/retain with our worship style?” Do we want a ‘high church’ feel? A down-home feel? A hip and trendy feel? A warm and affectionate feel? Or an eclectic feel that does a little bit of all the above?

    To the self-conscious a-culturalist, these questions make no more sense than the questions, “What culture/generation does our church want to attract/retain with our Lord’s Supper style?” Do we want a caviar and wine feel? A fried chicken and iced tea feel? A sandwich and pop feel? A pretzels and beer feel? Or should we mix it up and have a buffet?

    A few very edgy readers might actually ask the last series of questions, but most would not. Instead, they would maintain that this is not a matter where cultural preference has any sway. We eat what Christ told us to eat whether we like it or not. And eventually we get over any initial discomfort we might experience when we first bite into that tasteless wafer because we have learned, over time, that it is the best and most appropriate medium for the rite and all that it entails.

    Of course, the Bible does not define all worship elements with the same specificity with which it defines the communion elements. And that’s where the tension comes in. How do we decide in the absence of specific guidance? The answer that often emerges is that we are left strictly with a question of preference: “Go with the majority preference of your target group and tell the others to get over their minority preferences and learn to fit in.”

    To me that’s the wrong answer—no matter who happens to be in the majority. The answer should instead be (1) after exhausting the biblical material on what we should sing (a step that is often overlooked), then (2) what medium best transmits and accentuates the transcendent message we are trying to communicate? Irrespective of my personal listening habits and proclivities (which, incidentally, are extremely eclectic), what music best reflects the attribute of God of which I am singing (i.e., awe, gratitude, fear, confidence)? What music creates the mood that the (exegetically/theologically appropriate) words of this song should elicit (i.e., joy, sorrow, satisfaction, hope)? What music paints the most accurate picture of the biblical narrative under discussion (i.e., Isaiah’s visit to God’s throneroom, the laments of the Psalmist, Christ’s death and resurrection, the Second Coming of Christ in power and glory)?

    It will never do to simply superimpose the preferred genre of a given culture that regularly attends (and often quite appropriately) themes like romance, conquest, dissatisfaction, regret, nostalgia, etc. This is the proverbial attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole. The church has a unique, transcendent, and transcultural set of messages that often find no appropriate medium in our respective cultures. But that’s OK, because worship isn’t about the majority style reflected in our collected iPhone playlists, CD collections, cassettes, and LPs. It’s about properly adorning a message that is not of this world.

  4. Mark Snoeberger


    I agree that conservative evangelicalism, like every one of the other movements and sub-movements under consideration in my post, began with something of a theological and missional reorientation. That’s not a point of debate for me. I accept that. But as I look at conservative evangelicalism against the historical backdrop of other evangelical and fundamentalist sub-movements, I have trouble seeing any sort of unique future here. It might have a theological flavor up front, but the bandwagon and niche-making stages of the cycle (the stages that I think we are starting to enter) are extremely culture heavy and eventually quite exclusive. And it is for that reason I hesitate to jump aboard.


  5. PhilipT

    I suppose that I don’t see the cultural exclusivity that you see in the movement. I rather see a rolling contextualization taught and promoted (e.g., Keller’s approach in “Center Church”, or Larkin’s “Culture and Biblical Hermeneutics”). In what ways do you see the way that contextualization is taught by conservative evangelicals to be culturally static? Applications of contextualization are by nature culturally bound, but if the approach to contextualization is dynamic, the movement will remain fluid in how it relates to culture throughout time (a dynamic which I see as evidenced in Acts).

    I also don’t see identification as “conservative evangelical” or “evangelical” as “bandwagon.” Many of us have reasoned arguments for associating with these brothers (as you also have for avoiding them), and aren’t just involved in the movement because it’s the “cool” thing to do. Treating us like we’re merely giving in to propaganda fails to engage us in dialogue, merely resorting to a strawman.

    Further, (this is somewhat tangential to the conversation, but…) many of us see conservative evangelicalism as roughly synonymous with “historical fundamentalism,” carrying forward the confessional ecumenicalism and Gospel-defending tenacity of yesteryear without the self-defeating separation-centrism in the movement that currently goes by that title. While the fundamentalists have gone insular and have been fighting each other for the past decades, our evangelical brothers have been doing battle royal for the truth once delivered.

  6. David Crabb

    “Amen” to Philip’s last comment. I don’t think I could have said it better. Each of the three paragraphs hits the nail right on.

    Thanks for the discussion!

  7. Mark Snoeberger


    I think you’re right that there is a third option, and I almost added it after a conversation with a colleague here in the Detroit area. And your label for it–“rolling contextualization”–is a good one. What tends to happen here, I think, is that the contextualization wave moves along with the evolving cultural preferences of a given sub-culture (say, the well-connected 20- and 30-somethings in an urbanite/suburbanite setting) and sets aside all those who can’t keep up or fit in (either because they’re no longer young or are not suburbanites/urbanites). In fact, I would argue that, as people age, just about everyone stops trying to keep up and fit in–not because they’re contemptible old sticks-in-the-mud that “just don’t get it,” but because it is both difficult and unnatural for them to keep up with the wave.

    And unfortunately, while we roll our eyes as these old folks sit about asking “Where are all the young people?” no one on the other side of the generation gap is even considering the opposite question: “Where are all the old people?” In fact, they’ve been excluded. It’s easy to miss them because in the middle of the cresting wave, everyone seems to be included: everybody just LOVES what’s happening. But sooner or later the wave passes by and the exclusivity becomes stark. Granted, the best “rolling contextualizers” try to reach out with an occasional old hymn or token acknowledgement, but the acculturation wave simply must roll on, because that’s how church is done.

    What I’m trying to argue is that the whole idea of churches enslaved to culture (no matter what that culture might be–new, old, or rolling) needs to be abandoned. I resent the partition of the church into young churches, old churches, black churches, white churches, down-home churches, highfalutin’ churches, trendy churches, Gaither churches, Getty churches, and Garlock churches. I just don’t see any NT approval of this pattern.

    I freely admit that there are cultural fundamentalists that need to amend their ways. We have a problem and I get it. I’m just not convinced that conservative evangelicalism offers a new and better way. From my window, they are simply in the next iteration of a common cycle. And if I’m right, I see no compelling reason to jump on board.

  8. PhilipT

    Rolling contextualization doesn’t have to work with laser-like focus on a single demographic. Churches that do the best at contextualization can do so in both directions (the young and the old).

  9. Greg Linscott

    “…but it’s just a matter of time until the present iteration of evangelicalism grows old, propped up only by the same nostalgia that today keeps Billy Graham crusades and Bill and Gloria Gaither homecomings on cable TV (except that these will be replaced, for a new generation of elderly evangelicals, with John Piper recordings and Keith and Kristyn Getty sing-alongs that allow folks to relive the glory days).”

    That’s a pretty broad brush. To put the Gaithers and Gettys in the same category like that is kind of like lumping in John MacArthur and James MacDonald…

    I’m not ready to necessarily “jump on board” anything. At the same time, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to recognize that what you might be seeing in some CE developments is an improvement from some past or other current, recent expressions. Complementing is not complete affirmation.

  10. Thank you, Mark. You give me hope with this post. Apostasy does not and will not mainly occur from changing doctrinal statements, but through people’s lusts. The first argument of the apostate of 2 Peter 3 is his own lust—he accepts a doctrine to match his own desires. Churches change people’s desires, where they can’t love God and then they don’t know who He is. When there is nothing sacred then there is nothing sacred. It doesn’t surprise me that this is where you get the most push back. You’ve messed with your dog’s dog food.

    Greg, perhaps my reading comprehension isn’t very good, but he wasn’t equivocating Gaither and Getty. He was saying that today’s Gather is tomorrow’s Getty. However, when you move off of the transcendent, the slide will continue.

  11. Greg Linscott

    Maybe. At the same time, there are things that Getty has done (in music and content) far better than Gaither, and I think that whatever else, the appeal of the CEs has been much narrower than that of the Gaithers or Graham, especially when it comes to Catholicism. I am not saying the CEs are separatist Fundamentalists, but its still caused a stir among the CEs when Francis Beckwith “took his talents to Vatican City”- as well it should have. In the future, I suspect there will be less nostalgia for Getty than there is for Gaither, because I expect that songs like “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us” will simply age better and be retained longer than “I’m So Glad I’m A Part Of The Family of God.” Again, I’m not saying they get everything right, but as a child of the late 70s and 1980s, the prominent focus of the YRR Evangelicals better than the Moral Majority and Ecumenical Evangelism emphasis of days gone by. That isn’t to say that there aren’t some Evangelicals today who have similar emphases as those of days gone (and that things like continuationism aren’t a major concern). But again, there is room for commendation without wholehearted affirmation and identification.

  12. Mark, you conclude your article with these words,

    we can cultivate timeless, transgenerational bodies that do not need to reinvent themselves every quarter century to remain solvent. It will not be easy—after all, culture has told us for a hundred years that this is not the way church is done. But it’s definitely worth the effort.

    But I wonder, has ‘culture told us’ that? And biblically speaking, what will that effort look like? Others before us have looked for something transcendent so their churches might last more than one or two generations? Have they been successful? No.

    I would aver that our ecclesiology is fundamentally altered from that which is taught in both precept and example in the NT. As a result, these problems of church iterations (or ‘rolling contexts,’ what have you) are unsolvable until our ecclesiology is healed. I think your trying to solve symptoms, not the disease.

    Perhaps there is hope. Do I detect a throwing of your hands into the air when you write,

    The possible conclusions, then, appear to be twofold: some churches will (1) do nothing and become culturally backward, ingrown congregations that reminisce together until they eventually die of old age, while others will (2) transition to the next cultural cycle and thrive for another 25 years or so. But is this the way it’s supposed to be? I think not.

    I hope so, because you left out the one things churches actually do to reinvent themselves in the image of the next cultural iteration: they plant new churches where the body of Christ already exists, and justify it by calling those affected by the iteration a mission field. Today’s YRR churches are almost all recent plants, and what, maybe 1% are previously existing churches that subjected themselves to a cultural makeover? Those that took the makeover likely lost most of their older people anyway, so the effect is the same as a plant.

    Actually, “culture tells us” nothing. We church leaders react to our own perceptions of culture through our ecclesiological lens (for good or bad) and lead people to make choices. We, not culture, are responsible for the next generation of churches.

    How bad are we? Without a careful though we can go to the poisoned well of “multiple bodies” of Christ ecclesiology:

    we can cultivate timeless, transgenerational bodies

    Bodies of Christ? We create bodies of Christ? Our very sick ecclesiology enables ourselves and others to schism from the one, local, body of Christ taught in the New Testament in both precept and example.

    So here’s my question. Where in the ecclesiology of the NT is there a sympathy to culture? If it is there, kindly point it out. And if it is not, do you believe the NT’s ecclesiology to be sufficient?

  13. Chad W

    I would welcome a follow-up identifying what a “culturally transcendent” church might actually look like. My guess is that it would still have a handful of cultural hangups or at least preferences evidenced, even if not articulated. After all, churches are made up of people, and people live within culture. Which period in church history did the local church assembly fully represent a “culturally transcendent” model? 18th Century? Reformation? The church at Thesalonica?

    While cultural relevancy should never be our ultimate aim in worship gatherings, the gathering itself will demonstrate to one degree or another the fact that believers operate within a culture (even if the culture of “counter-culture”).

  14. PhilipT


    That particular article is extremely unfair to Keller’s argument and explanation of contextualization as it moves into the critique phase. Those who’ve read and agreed with Keller’s argument wouldn’t recognize it as recast in the article you’ve linked.

    For a more accessible and balanced explanation of the issue, I’d recommend the helpful and relatively thorough IX Marks article here: