Has Fundamentalism Become Secularized? Part 4


See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Although few fundamentalists would like to admit that the driving force in their philosophy of ministry is pragmatism, for all too many this statement is true. While being pragmatic is necessary at times, being a pragmatist comes into sharp conflictmeasuring_tape.jpg with a biblical philosophy of ministry. This fourth essay on the topic of secularization examines the final effect of secularization on Fundamentalism—pragmatism. By examining the forces that affect our practice of the faith, we can more intelligently identify where we have gone astray and correct our paths.

Pragmatism in the twentieth century was a direct result of the process of secularization. Secularization, you will remember, is the phenomenon by which religion is changed in a society as that society becomes transformed by the forces of modernization. While America has not become less religious as the result of modernization (like Western Europe), religion in America has certainly changed considerably since the middle of the twentieth century. Previous essays in this serious considered the history of secularization and the effects of privatization and theological disconnect in Fundamentalism. Now let’s look at pragmatism

What evidence shows that Fundamentalism has been struck by the palsy of pragmatism? In this essay I provide examples of the kind of corruption that pragmatism has brought upon us. I should note that though not every ministry has adopted a pragmatic philosophy and though not every ministry that has adopted it exhibits it in the same way, enough of Fundamentalism has been affected that the charge is fair, I contend.

Pragmatism manifests itself in at least six ways, all intricately connected to the others.

1. Numbers Mania

Has there been a more certain effect of secularization than this? How many of us have grown up with the concern for numbers ingrained in our very ecclesiastical psyche. This concern manifests itself in many ways. First, numbers are often used as an indication of one’s effectiveness. How many criticisms of Jack Hyles, for example, have been answered by an appeal to numbers: “When you have led as many people to Christ as Hyles did, then you can criticize him!” This rebuttal is offered as if numbers of people saved is a measure of truth or ethics. Speaking of Hyles, Russell Anderson, the co-founder of Hyles-Anderson College, pays “successful” soul-winners a full-time salary so they can dedicate all their time to winning souls (a worthy project, no doubt). In 2003 he reported that his top soul-winner led more than 780,000 souls to Christ in one year! (Church Bus News 32:2 Sum 2003, p. 7). When I read this statistic, I thought it just had to be a joke; but sadly, it was not. Grab a calculator and do the math—that’s almost 2,000 people a day. While this is an extreme example (perhaps the extreme example), can any of us doubt that we are easily enamored of numbers? The work of God does produce numbers, but nowhere does the Word of God exalt numbers of converts, “decisions,” or anything else to the level of arbiter of orthodoxy and faithfulness to Scripture. When numbers become the guiding principle of a ministry, individuals can become an obstacle, invitations can become coercive and manipulative, and an indictment of failure can be leveled against anyone who does not measure up.

2. Reliance on Methods

Because of a desire to produce numbers and “prove ourselves,” fundamentalists can become focused on methods to achieve impressive numbers. Church growth is seen in terms of promotions, where every Sunday utilizes another gimmick to bring people into church where they can be counted and success declared once again (see Church Bus News again for a long list of shameless gimmicks to lure people to church, including “Candy from Heaven Sunday” when 700 pounds of candy is dropped from helicopters!).

The “numbers through methods” mindset is also apparent in the choice of many Christian colleges to start the school year with evangelistic or revival meetings utilizing evangelists, many of whom do not preach expositorily through Scripture. The reasoning seems to be that evangelists get more results. I ask, whatever happened to our belief in the sufficiency of Scripture? If we really believe that the faithfully-preached Word changes lives, why do we resort to “one verse and a dozen stories” preaching? (By the way, this is not an indictment of all evangelists, just some that I have heard.) Why don’t colleges invite pastors (and I don’t mean just the ones with big churches) to preach the meat of the Word and let the Holy Spirit—not high-pressure invitations—bring results that may be predominantly internal?

3. Immunity for Fallen Leaders

One of the most disheartening trends for young fundamentalists has been the failure of some ministries to uphold high ethical standards for leaders. Obviously, this problem is not endemic only to Fundamentalism. But for a tradition supposedly committed to obeying the whole council of God, as a whole our track record is abysmal. For high producers of numbers, almost no sin is egregious enough to warrant removal and public rebuke. Not long ago the pastor of the church where my wife and I met confessed to almost two decades of homosexual activity with male prostitutes, yet some of the ministry leadership made a concerted effort to retain his services. Although he was “disqualified from pastoral ministry,” they believed he was still eligible to teach in the church’s seminary after a brief layoff. Among other reasons (including failure of conviction, courage, and commitment to the Word), this scenario happens because of an underlying pragmatism that says that men who can produce results are too valuable to be held to such a high standard. Refusal to practice 1 Timothy 5:20 (“As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear”) can often be traced to a perverted loyalty to someone who has “produced” some “benefit” for the ministry, rather than to a love and jealousy for the honor of God.

4. The Minimalization of Ministry Preparation

Because of Fundamentalism’s predominantly soteriological worldview (salvation of souls is the highest good) and the resulting pragmatism of getting young people into ministry as quickly as possible, preparation for ministry has been reduced to a bare minimum. This trend has been most apparent to me as a seminary professor on recruiting trips to Christian colleges—the inability to convince the majority of twenty-two-year-olds that they need adequate training for ministry in the twenty-first century. Most want to rush into ministry because “God needs them at ministry XYZ.”

J.I. Packer notes the extensive training a well-prepared minister needs. Knowledge was limited in the eighteenth century, and those preparing for ministry studied every area of science, history, math, and philosophy; every area was united by theology. But now the academic disciplines have been separated. Because of advances in knowledge, it becomes difficult for a person to become an expert in even one field. Yet pastors must learn so much—exegesis, hermeneutics (which includes interpretation, semantics, semiotics, communication, and rhetoric), biblical theology, church history framed by historical theology, systematic theology, ethics, apologetics, liturgics (pastoral theology), missiology, preaching, counseling, and so forth (J.I. Packer, Evangelical Futures, Grand Rapids: Baker, 185).

Packer’s point is that we often grossly underestimate the training necessary for a long and fruitful ministry in the twenty-first century. If there is one recurring theme I hear among older pastors, it is that they worry about the younger generation because of the complexities of ministry today. To a man they proclaim that ministry was a whole lot simpler a generation ago.

Take Packer’s list above. How can teenagers learn all that in a few years of college? The problem is that we set the bar of preparation too low. “Can he open his Bible and say something true? Can he lead a soul to Christ? Then send him out. We need him right away!”

This is the misguided and ill-fated spirit of rushing troops into battle more quickly by shortening their military training, with the hopes that the soldiers will somehow acquire the necessary skills on the battlefield. But we would never accept a colonel in the military who skimped on his preparation; he is a strategist and needs the training. He spends years in schools, various deployments, and multiplied training scenarios in order to become the strategist he needs to be.

We have adopted the mentality that a pastor needs only to be a buck private to be a pastor. In reality he needs to be a colonel, well trained in the ways of the general who is running the battle. The people in the pew are the privates, sergeants, and majors. The colonel’s job is to train, prepare, and equip them for battle. If the pastor is only a private, his soldiers will never rise above conscripts, and the battle will be lost because of a lack of knowledge, experience, and proven military strategy. Enthusiasm in the military will not win the battle when the enemy is entrenched. It takes a carefully prepared mind, one that understands the enemy and the enemy’s strategies and weapons; his own men and their abilities; the terrain, weather, morale; and so on in order to plan and execute an assault that will defeat the enemy at the smallest cost of men and materials within the overall battle plans of his commander. Neither zeal nor clever methodology will equip a pastor to sustain a lifelong and fruitful campaign on behalf of his commanding officer. This equipping is what Paul has in mind when he said, “Not a novice lest he fall into the trap of the devil.” In these desperate times, we dare not skimp on our preparation.

5. The Absence of Fundamentalist Scholarship

Kevin Bauder (click here) has so thoroughly dealt with this issue recently; I will make only a few comments here. Beginning in the aftermath of the Scopes Trial in 1925, Fundamentalism reacted to its loss of cultural capital in the country and influence in the academy by turning its back on cultural engagement and scholarship. Instead of marshaling forces to ensure that the next generation of fundamentalists would have scholars to provide the intellectual and theological muscle behind the evangelistic efforts to which it now turned, Fundamentalism chose to pursue only a one-pronged approach—get busy serving the Lord. While this approach resulted in mass growth in fundamentalist churches, colleges, missions organizations, and so forth, it effectively killed the proverbial goose and lived off the existing golden eggs of zeal and astute organizational skills. The strength of Fundamentalism has been slowly sapped over the last century as the deep and abiding knowledge of God needed to sustain faith has been replaced by shallow theology.

I find it strange that we want scientists who defend creationism to be fully credentialed with Ph.D.’s, but we don’t have the same sense of urgency about those who teach Bible or theology. Still, within Fundamentalism exists a deep-seated fear and suspicion of higher education and advanced degrees in biblical studies (Old and New Testament) and historical studies (systematic theology, apologetics, and church history). This suspicion extends to many in the pew who equate scholarship with liberalism and seminaries with cemeteries. God forbid that we continue to perpetuate the reactionary myth that scholarship is dangerous and that ignorance is, therefore, preferable. Although Christian scholars are not the leaders of the church that Jesus is building (pastors are), neither are they expendable.

Yet this is also one area that is beginning to see massive change. Dozens of young fundamentalists have earned or are in the process of pursuing terminal degrees in these fields. Within ten years, no Christian college looking for Bible and theology scholars will need to look far. This is one of the most promising developments in Fundamentalism in decades.

6. Inability to Confront New Challenges

Pragmatism has robbed fundamentalists of the ability to address the issues of our day. Many simply do not have the ability to think theologically beyond issues of separation. Many are also still fighting the battles of the 1920s with a kind of liberalism that seems tame compared to today’s liberalism. Or they are fighting the battles of the 1950s with new evangelicals, whom we can no longer distinguish since the lines have been blurred. Just as our nation no longer fights wars with nations that have uniformed armies, so the spiritual and theological battles of today are more like counter-terrorism. The enemy is often more difficult to identify, so our weapons must be more sophisticated and conducive for the kind of fighting we actually encounter in the twenty-first century.

By failing to be prepared for new challenges, many fundamentalists have a hard time even understanding the pressing issues of foundationalism, post-foundationalism, post-liberalism, post-conservativism, post-evangelicalism, postmodern theology, emergent conversation, and so on. As a result, our young people and even our leaders have a difficult time discerning between truth and error. That problem is partly why even Christian college professors suddenly make pendulum swings past Evangelicalism and go all the way to the emerging church.


After reading these essays, one could come to believe that I am pessimistic about Fundamentalism or not even a fundamentalist at all. While I do believe that the old movement of Fundamentalism, consisting of national fellowships, “acceptable” institutions, and a unified direction, is dead, the idea or ideals of Fundamentalism are not dead. This concept is precisely true because the idea of earnestly contending for the faith is biblical, not optional.

In the last essay of this series, “Rescuing Fundamentalism from Secularization,” I will propose a corrective and directive for those committed to the idea of Fundamentalism in the twenty-first century. It is not only an option for faithfully discharging our duties; a growing number of voices are declaring it the only option. It is the option of a fully formed faith that avoids the pitfalls of secularization and finds its basis and life in a thorough commitment to knowing and living Scripture as the revealed Word of God. Through this option is the attaining of a deep and abiding knowledge of God Himself.

farnham.jpgMark Farnham is Assistant Professor of Theology and New Testament at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He and his wife, Adrienne, grew up in Connecticut and were married after graduating from Maranatha Baptist Bible College (Watertown, WI). They have two teen daughters and a 10-year-old son. Mark served as director of youth ministries at Positive Action for Christ (Rocky Mount, NC) right out of seminary and pastored for seven years in New London, Connecticut. He holds an M.Div. from Calvary and a Th.M. in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA). He is presently a doctoral student at Westminster Theological Seminary (Glenside, PA) in the field of Apologetics.

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