If you were to visit virtually any Baptist or Presbyterian or Methodist church in the late 1940s, right around the time Carl F. H. Henry wrote The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism and just as the neo-evangelical movement led by Henry, Harold Ockenga, and Billy Graham was picking up steam, you’d notice some similarities alongside striking differences.

All the churches would be in some sense liturgical, but the Presbyterians and most of the Methodists would lean more “high church,” while many of the Methodists and Baptists (especially in the South) would exhibit a revivalist culture, with “low church” campfire sensibilities. Churchgoers would likely be aware of their denomination’s theological distinctives and how they affect their worship and practice.

What stands out today when visiting various churches broadly aligned with the neo-evangelical movement is their similarity, regardless of denominational label. The fastest-growing group of churches is “nondenominational”—often full of former Baptists and Methodists, usually with a more pronounced charismatic sensibility. The conservative Methodist megachurch holds worship services that look and feel a lot like the Southern Baptist church down the street, which in turn resembles something akin to the nondenominational church across town.

Theological differences remain, but they’re less pronounced because virtually all evangelical churches have been marked by three waves that have crashed onto the shore and changed the landscape. The influence of these movements is so profound that many churchgoers don’t even notice their effects.

In what follows, I want to describe these three waves and then point to the possibility of a fourth that’s picking up speed today.

Wave #1: Spirit-Filled Worship

The Spirit-filled movement of the 1960s to 1980s was born within Pentecostalism, often emphasizing modern-day healings and sign gifts as well as contemporary worship forms. As this wave grew, it burst out of its Pentecostal box and became a broader charismatic renewal that influenced virtually all denominations, even mainline Episcopalians and the Church of England.

The Spirit-filled movement minimized some of its idiosyncrasies (early adherents insisted speaking in tongues was a required sign of regeneration) to embrace all kinds of evangelicals who sought a deeper, personal experience of the Spirit’s presence and power, more expressive forms of worship, and greater reliance on the Spirit’s guidance in everyday life.

Many church leaders pushed back on the perceived excesses of this movement, stressing a strong form of cessationism (the view that the miraculous sign gifts ceased after the apostolic age). Likewise, the “worship wars” roiled churches in the 1980s and 1990s as leaders sought to stop or slow the move toward contemporary musical forms.

But today, even in churches and denominations that reject charismatic worship and theology, the effects left by the Spirit-filled wave are all around us. If other church members worship with eyes closed and hands raised, if the style and songs are contemporary and expressive, if it doesn’t surprise you to hear a fellow church member admit to praying in tongues privately, if you’ve ever gone through Experiencing God, or if you’ve uttered a powerful prayer for healing in Jesus’s name, you’ve experienced a church world reshaped by the Spirit-filled wave.

Wave #2: Seeker-Sensitive Church Growth

The second wave originated in the church growth movement of the 1960s and 1970s, coming into full force by the 1980s and 1990s when certain strategies and methods for church multiplication were employed as part of a “seeker-sensitive” model for attracting people to church to provide the gospel as the answer to their “felt needs.”

Peter Wagner, Elmer Towns, and other key leaders provided the scaffolding of a church growth philosophy, and leaders like Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and Andy Stanley constructed a new way of doing church—an attempt at making church comprehensible and convenient for the lost. This wave minimized aspects of the Spirit-filled movement (certain charismatic practices were deemed strange and off-putting to visitors) while adapting and magnifying other features (such as contemporary music and emotional worship).

Like the Spirit-filled movement, the seeker-sensitive model drew significant criticism. New outreach methods and worship styles required change that some churches weren’t ready for. Critics chided the stronger forms of seeker sensitivity for watering down the gospel, or for adopting an overly programmatic view of discipleship, or for incorporating worldly elements into congregational worship, or for focusing too much on attendance numbers as a success measure.

But today, even in churches that never adopted this philosophy wholesale, the wave’s effects are everywhere. Most churches operate with the unspoken assumption that the church’s goal is to grow (and that something’s wrong if the church isn’t growing). What’s more, the measures of growth or stagnation are almost all numeric and program-driven: worship attendance, small group involvement, livestream viewers, service and mission groups.

Nearly all churches have incorporated the most common practices and improvements associated with the seeker-sensitive wave, like clear signage, parking lot or door greeters, coffee in the lobby or fellowship areas, contemporary worship, attractive children’s facilities, preaching that connects to life issues, and acknowledgment of newcomers or unchurched people in the worship service. The seeker-sensitive wave influenced how churches see their purpose and judge their effectiveness.

Wave #3: Gospel Centrality

The next big wave to hit evangelicalism was gospel centrality in the mid-2000s and 2010s—or, as it was dubbed by Collin Hansen, the “Young, Restless, and Reformed.” This wave began, in part, as a reaction to the overly pragmatic solutions and perceived a-theological deficiencies of the church growth and Spirit-filled movements.

The goal was to pull the church back to the center of the Christian faith so the main message—grace and mercy through the cross and resurrection of Jesus—wouldn’t be eclipsed by moralistic behavioral improvements or political causes. The gospel-centered wave marked a return to doctrine, a desire for theological depth over pragmatic superficiality, and a renewed focus on showing how Jesus is at the center of the Bible.

Gospel centrality caught fire for many reasons, including a cultural landscape reoriented toward questions of suffering and God’s sovereignty after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and a church landscape filled with anxieties among Christians who needed the fresh news of grace to break through a pervasive moralism that seemed incapable of saying anything more than “Do better!” The big-God theology of John Piper and the careful exposing of the heart’s idolatries in Tim Keller’s preaching led a younger generation to focus again on the gospel as the ultimate solution to sin and sorrow.

The gospel-centered wave generated a fair share of criticism. Anabaptists chided the movement’s triumphalism in cultural engagement. Non-Reformed traditions expressed frustration at the implication that anything short of Calvinist soteriology was subpar or not really the gospel. An emphasis on the indicatives (what God has done for us) sometimes came at the expense of the biblical imperatives (what God demands of us).

But in all kinds of churches across the denominational spectrum, well beyond the Reformed corner where it began, you see the influence of the gospel-centered wave. If you belong to a church that sings modern-day hymns, or enjoy new worship songs that center primarily on Jesus’s cross and resurrection, or use The Gospel Project for Kids, or hear preaching that distinguishes between “religion” and “the gospel,” or attend a small group that digs into Christian classics or repackaged Puritan theology, you’re seeing the traces of gospel centeredness.

Wave #4: Spiritual Formation?

Is it possible another wave is gathering force that will soon influence evangelical churches?

People who spend a lot of time online might point to a renewed political focus, whether the Christian Nationalists on the right or the social justice advocates on the left. But the best place to look for the next wave is churchgoing college students. As I travel around to various churches and interact with leaders in different denominations, what stands out is a renewed emphasis on spiritual formation—an allegiance to Jesus as Lord of all of life that requires a total reworking of personal habits and spiritual disciplines.

Like the other waves, this one has a reactionary element—the Spirit-filled wave is too shallow, the seeker-sensitive wave too programmatic, and the gospel-centered movement too shy when it comes to stressing a rule of life (perhaps out of fear of returning to moralism). But the spiritual formation wave’s primary focus is positive, not negative—a way of shaping one’s life according to practices and habits that will aid one’s growth in virtue and the development of one’s character.

“If you’re not holding out a challenging and strenuous moral vision, they’re just not going to take you seriously,” an African American pastor in Baltimore told me last year about his college students. Not surprisingly, several best-selling books now focus on spiritual habits, whether from Justin Whitmel Earley or John Mark Comer. When surveying the reading habits of his college students, professor Brad East says, “It’s John Mark Comer’s world, and we’re all just living in it.” That may be an overstatement, but all the trends point to a returning emphasis on serious spiritual formation.

Nothing in this wave is especially new. It’s a popularized and renewed vision of Dallas Willard’s work on discipleship, combined with an A. W. Tozer–tinged evangelical mysticism, sometimes pointing to practices stretching back beyond the Reformation, bringing all the promise and peril of the church in the first 15 centuries. When applied corporately, it’s aligned with the ancient-future vision that Robert Webber talked about for decades.

There’s a trend toward incorporating ancient Christian rituals into one’s devotional life (written prayers, sanctified space, kneeling, making the sign of the cross, serious fasting, seeking solitude) and rhythms of worship that combine ancient creeds and liturgies with newer worship styles bequeathed from the Spirit-filled wave.

The question is, why this wave, and why now? Is the focus on personal growth via methods a sign of a resurgent Wesleyanism alongside a more Reformed gospel-centered theology? (Plenty of young people I know are reading Comer alongside Keller.) Is it the chaos of our current cultural moment leading young people to new forms of structure in both personal and corporate spirituality? Is it a desire for a faith that feels rooted in something beyond the present moment?

Several younger friends of mine feel a fruitful tension in both the third and fourth waves, with a desire for more structure and liturgy and a distaste for hype and performance. They want to hold on to the radical message of grace and acceptance and not slide back into the chains of moralism or behavior management, but at the same time, they’re looking to incorporate more rules and rituals—more spiritual structure—in their walk of faith.

I feel a bit of that tension also, cheering on the trend toward spiritual formation (and seeking to resource it as best I can—see my guides to praying three times a day through substantial sections of Scripture) while wanting to avoid pitfalls the church has encountered in centuries past. In the spiritual formation wave, it’s far too easy for the gospel to be assumed instead of explicit, for Scripture to take a backseat to experience, and for the church to become a sideshow to one’s individual journey.

On Waves and Ripples

Look closely enough and you’ll find troubling elements in all these waves that have influenced evangelicalism over the past 50 years. But you’ll also see the Lord at work in all of them. No movement comes without strengths and weaknesses. History is hard. Ministry is messy.

Maybe I’m wrong about this fourth wave. Readers in 10 or 20 years can look back at this column and tell me if I was right, or half-right, or totally wrong. Regardless, every wave leaves its mark on the evangelical landscape. I’m curious if we’re seeing a fourth wave and what it might mean for the next generation.

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