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Interview: Upgrading the Sawdust Trail

Larry Eskridge, the associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, talks about the intersections between evangelicalism, missionaries, media and popular culture.

POV: In the United States, the word 'evangelical' is used loosely to describe a widespread, complex movement. For many, evangelicalism is often linked with Pentecostalism and a strong connection with the religious right, as well as having other connotations. How do you define Christian evangelicalism?

Larry Eskridge Larry Eskridge: Attempting to define and understand evangelicalism in America is one of the great academic parlor games in the study of American religion these days. The movement is vast, diverse, largely decentralized and has been described variously as a vast mosaic or as a kaleidoscope of denominations, styles and organizations. Probably the best thumbnail description at the moment is that offered by British religious historian David W. Bebbington, who sees evangelicals bound together by four broad characteristics:

  1. Evangelicals are conversionist — they have a belief that lives need to be changed.
  2. Evangelicals are "cross-centered" — they emphasize the sacrificial role of Christ on the cross for one's personal sins.
  3. Evangelicals are Bible-centered — they particularly emphasize the Bible as their guide.
  4. Evangelicals are activists — they believe that their conversion and discipleship means that they must do something to effect change, this can manifest itself in evangelistic or relief work, or in an attempt to change the surrounding society and culture.
The Tailenders - An archival photo from Global Recordings Network. (Archival photo courtesy Global Recordings Network.)

An archival photo from Global Recordings Network. (Archival photo courtesy Global Recordings Network.)

The beginnings of the evangelical movement trace back to the series of revivals that rocked the Protestant North Atlantic community beginning in the early decades of the 18th century. In America these revivals opened the way for groups like the Methodists, Baptists, and the "Restorationists" (the Disciples of Christ, the Christian Church, and the Churches of Christ) to become the dominant Protestant churches in the United States. Basically, the whole gamut of American Protestantism — with a few exceptions, such as the Lutherans — was characterized by a strong evangelical presence going into the 20th century. The "modern" evangelical movement is a combination of this older Protestant heritage with an outgrowth of the fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century, which rejected fundamentalism's cultural insularity and in-fighting for a vision of a conservative Protestantism that was engaged with the larger culture.

POV: "The Tailenders" focuses on the Global Recordings Network missionaries' strategic use of low-tech media to convert people in the farthest corners of the world to their religion; you have written about how evangelicals have traditionally embraced technology. What are some of the specific ways that Christian evangelists are using technology and media now? Do you believe that evangelical Christians are using technology more effectively or making greater or more innovative use of technology than other religious groups?

The Tailenders - A woman in India listens to a portable record player. (Archival photo courtesy Global Recordings Network.)

A woman in India listens to a portable record player. (Archival photo courtesy Global Recordings Network.)

Eskridge: Because they feel compelled to get out the word, evangelicals have usually been pretty keen to utilize any form of technology that they believe will help them in their task. Actually, there is a lot of similarity between what Gospel Recordings is doing in selling and giving away their cassettes and records, with what evangelical literature distributors ("colporteurs") did with Bibles, books and Gospel tracts and pamphlets in North America beginning in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Evangelicals' emphasis on technology continued right on through to the modern era with radio, television, film, satellites, and now, via the Internet. Not only have they utilized various technologies but they've done so with a lot more savvy than many of their religious "competitors" here in the United States. Compare, for example, the contemporary status of evangelical broadcasting versus that of "mainline" Protestant groups. At one time these more liberal Protestant groups had a virtual monopoly on major broadcast outlets, but through a combination of factors — a knack for innovative programming, support from their followers, and an aggressive, market-oriented approach to media — evangelicals have swept their competition from the airwaves/satellite bands.

POV: If the Tailenders represent a group at the low-end of technological sophistication, what about the leading edge? What are some examples of missionaries working with high-end technology as part of their ministry to reach out to technologically sophisticated groups?

Eskridge: One of the most obvious examples would be evangelical organizations such as Trans-World Radio, the Far East Broadcasting Company, and World Radio Missionary Fellowship (HCJB in Quito, Ecuador) which have been utilizing powerful transmitters, the shortwave band, satellites and now computer technology to beam evangelical programming and Bible teaching around the globe in dozens of languages. HCJB, the first of these operations, got started in the early 1930s and was the first radio station in Ecuador — in fact, there were literally only a handful of radios in the entire country (or in adjoining countries, for that matter) when they began operation. Thus, part of their strategy was in copying the early radio industry in America by making simple, relatively inexpensive radio receivers available to "sow the seeds" for a potential audience for their programming. Today, a good example of how evangelical missions are on the cutting technological edge would be their huge presence on the Internet and the resources they are making available through that medium for both believers and inquirers.

POV: As we see in "The Tailenders," the GRN strategy is interesting in that its missionaries work one on one with individual members of the communities they wish to convert, to translate the Bible message into the language of the community. How do evangelists adapt their message to the specific needs and understanding of particular communities in the United States?

Eskridge: Evangelicals have traditionally placed an emphasis — à la the apostle Paul who urged believers to "be all things to all men" — on tailoring their gospel message to the kinds of people they are trying to reach. Thus, down through the years there have been organizations that sought to work with people from various religious or ethnic backgrounds (missions to the Navajos, "Jews for Jesus," missions to Italian-American Catholics), or groups that sought to reach people in particular professions (nurses, lawyers), lines of work (railroad workers, migrant farm workers) or people with certain hobbies or interests (mothers of toddlers, bikers, ham radio operators). This type of effort continues today with evangelistic groups that seek to work with such varied constituencies as gays, teenage "Goths," professional athletes and so on.

POV: How have the methods of some of the more prominent (albeit ideologically different) U.S. evangelists changed over the years, from, say, Jerry Falwell, or Billy Graham to Rick Warren? How do you envision they might change in the future?

Eskridge: One of the more interesting changes within evangelicalism over the last 30 years or so has been the rise of the so-called "seeker-sensitive" congregations, which attempt to make church as comfortable an experience as possible for those who are coming from the outside. Often this entails a more corporate or theater-like setting, upbeat music and the use of multi-media presentations and drama. Many times, the "sermon" resembles the cross between a comedy monologue, Bible class and earnest heart-to-heart conversation. The old, Billy Sunday-style "sawdust trail" revival service of times past is fast disappearing; many churches — and not just the slick, much-publicized "megachurches" — have cut back on or even done away with the old-fashioned "invitation" at the end of each service which used to be an almost universal, weekly feature of evangelical congregations across the country.

POV: In recent years, particularly since the 2004 presidential election, the American media has devoted a great deal of coverage to what some see as a rise in the "evangelical movement" in the United States. Estimates vary of how many U.S. followers identify themselves as evangelical. Does your research indicate that a "movement" is taking place? Have you noticed a significant increase of conversions in your research?

Eskridge: The size of the evangelical population has been fairly stable in recent years — what growth there is seems to be as a result of birthrate (evangelicals have more children than the American average) and immigration. It's fairly under-publicized, but a large number of those who are coming to this country from places like Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean are actually evangelicals before they arrive — some for several generations. Although defining the movement makes estimating the overall evangelical population a very difficult task, probably about 20 percentof the American population could be defined as "hard-core" in terms of its evangelical practice and values. However, when you begin to factor in the fact the overwhelming majority of Southern whites and African-Americans have loyalties to various evangelical churches and denominations I think it's not much of a stretch to argue that 40 percent of the American population is "culturally evangelical."

POV: The linguist Rosemary Beam de Azcona, who works with Zapotec peoples, has said that in her experience, those who do convert "tend to be people who are more upwardly mobile, people who identify more with outsiders, who want to make a big name for themselves, who want to acquire wealth, who maybe even want to travel outside of their own town and are trying to make connections with people who have the power to get them into the 'in-crowd' in the world, so to speak." Can you characterize those who convert to Christian evangelicalism in America? Are there similarities, differences?

Eskridge: I think de Azcona may be partially correct. I think that another part of the equation is that in many cases evangelicals are often the only "outsiders" that potential converts come into contact with who actually seem to take an interest in them and who offer some sort of a positive way for them to "make the jump" into modernity. By contrast, the corporate and business interests with whom they come into contact seem less appealing, as do, perhaps, the vested interests of those in the local community who have traditionally wielded power and authority under the "old regime." Ultimately, individuals convert for any number of reasons — both overseas and in American suburbia — certainly the appeal of the Christian message is millennia old at this point and an oft-repeated story in times, places and cultures around the globe. Whatever the case, it would probably be a mistake to underestimate the inherent power of the message itself and indeed, of the autonomy of the people themselves — either here or abroad — and to paint converts as mere dupes of global capitalism.

Larry Eskridge is the associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College. He is currently working on a history of the Jesus People movement of the 1960s.





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