Most of the Truly Influential Are Dead


I'm late to this debate and it has raged better elsewhere, but Time published their list of Most Influential Evangelicals this last week. Now I am not one to let secular magazines do my thinking for me, so because it's Time I have to take anything they say with a grain of salt. But upon perusing the list I noticed a curious mix of what denotes influence. There were cases were the folks listed clearly had the ears of kingmakers and there were others that actually had the ears of real, down-to-earth Christians. Time did not make this distinction, but it is certainly worth making.

I would contend that the folks who have the ears of the the kingmakers don't wield all that much influence. There were some high-falutin' politicos and financial honchos in the list, but since the average person in the pew is not directly impacted by them, do they really have "Evangelical" influence?

Who truly does influence Evangelicals? Let me proffer a few names of folks whose impact still rings throughout Evangelical churches in America. Most of them are dead, but their thinking profoundly affects how Evangelicals live and breathe:

Clive Staples Lewis—It is possible that Lewis is still the most widely read person in Evangelical ranks (all considerations given to LaHaye/Jenkins and Warren.) I know that almost every Christian I know has read one of his books. Most refer to his books when trying to make points, so obviously Lewis mined some academic standard for Christians today if we continue to use his arguments and illustrations.

Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, et al.—The Reformers created Protestantism. There is no Evangelicalism in America without their influence and Evangelicals still refer to their writings.

Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield—Overwhelmingly influenced American Christianity in all streams through the First Great Awakening.

Jacobus Arminius, John Wesley, and Charles Finney—Call them what you will, but they are the precursors of modern Evangelicalism.

John Darby, Hal Lindsey, and Tim LaHaye—Dispensationalism rules in Evangelical ranks, sweeping aside almost every other eschatological view. I believe that Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth is only eclipsed by the Bible in total sales since it was released in the early 1970s, popularizing the Rapture and focus on the Middle East. LaHaye (on Time's list) pushed the envelope even further with the astonishing success of the Left Behind series. He may have indoctrinated more Americans in Dispensationalism than even Lindsey.

Eugene Peterson—The effect of The Message cannot be underestimated in Evangelicalism. I may be the only person I know that doesn't have a copy of this (outlandish) paraphrase. It has supplanted the traditional translations for more people than I can count. Given some of the theological issues with this work, its ultimate legacy cannot be underestimated.

Charles Darwin—Not a Christian, but certainly his theories have torn Evangelicalism in a number of directions, all of them disheartening. That most Christians operate solely from a naturalistic worldview is damaging to the cause of Christ.

James Dobson—He's on the Time list. I will reserve comments at this time, but his influence cannot be underestimated. When he teamed with Bill Bennett, they almost singlehandedly created the homeschooling movement that has become enormous to Evangelicals.

Norman Vincent Peale—The Power of Positive Thinking author's offspring can be seen in almost every Evangelical megachurch today. Schuller, Warren, and Hybels all owe their ministries to Peale. He singlehandedly made psychology palatable to Evangelicals. We will be undoing his damage for years to come.

George Barna—A current figure and oddly not on Time's list. I've heard enough pastors quote him in the last fifteen years to know that our church leaders are reading Barna religiously. However, his actual influence through his demographic studies is debatable since he's been publishing disturbing facts for years without many taking them to heart. On the other hand, Barna is a big proponent of running churches like businesses, and we've all witnessed how much this has influenced church leaders—so he's got to stay, but for the wrong reason.

Henry Ward Beecher—The well-known abolitionist voiced radical thoughts far beyond just attacking slavery. His was a soft, almost effeminate Christianity and his ideas have been co-opted for much of the weepy-eyed Evangelicalism we see on display today. He was Bill Hybels and John Wimber rolled into one and his idea of what constitutes Evangelicalism predominates in Praise & Worship-oriented churches.

Dwight Moody—His influence is lessening even as Beecher's increases, but Moody is the rock upon which many of the more vocal opponents of Evangelical concessions to worldly living build.

Oral Roberts—For the portion of Evangelicalism that considers itself charismatic, Roberts singlehandedly made charismatic theology popular. His influence is so far reaching that almost all 21st century charismatic streams must pass through Tulsa, OK at some point. He spawned Hagin, Copeland, and enough well-known imitators to fill a stadium.

Martin Luther King, Jr.—The social justice branch of Evangelicalism (as represented by Jim Wallis and Sojourners) still worship at the church Dr. King founded. It is not possible to engage this group of Evangelicals without ultimately tracing their theology and methodologies back to King.

As you well notice, most of the people on this list (save for Barna, Peterson, LaHaye, Lindsey, and Dobson) are deceased, but their views live on, continuing to influence Evangelicalism for better or for worse. If we want to talk about real influence, they cannot be ignored, since most people in the seats in Evangelical churches are making decisions based on what these men said or did, whether those pew-dwellers know it or not.

Your take? Do you think I'm right or nuts? Let me know and tell me who you think I left out.

5 thoughts on “Most of the Truly Influential Are Dead

  1. Pretty good list, Dan. I’d probably include Reagan or Gingrich or somebody of those persuasions as well—the marriage of the Republican party and evangelical America is certainly not to be underestimated.

  2. I’m realizing even now that I left off a very important name, C. Peter Wagner. His ideas have shaped every Third Wave church and megachurch out there. We see Wagner’s influence on the church growth movement everywhere. Given that church growth seems to be spurring every teaching we hear, leaving Wagner off my list was a huge oversight.

    Hey, I’m just a man, okay?


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