Evangelical Entrepreneurs

Born just two years apart, John D. Rockefeller and Dwight L. Moody were both impatient men. Rockefeller couldn't bear the chaos of the oil industry and its volatile price swings. Moody couldn't bear the thought of millions of men and women living and dying without Jesus Christ. Each channeled his impatience into intense entrepreneurial activity designed to find solutions. But there the similarity ended. Rockefeller's method was to gain control of everything he could, while Moody's approach was to inspire others to serve everyone they could.

Business tycoons in the late 1800s used for-profit corporations to build industrial empires, while Moody and his followers used non-profit corporations to build a network of non-denominational organizations. We now call these parachurch organizations. They bypassed denominations and denominational differences, performed a specialized ministry purpose for a specialized target audience, and employed lay workers who could, as Moody put it, “stand in the gap” between clergy and laity.

By 1920, a growing network of Bible institutes, foreign missionary agencies, and other organizations had emerged. Then in the 1920s the fundamentalist-modernist controversy left the large northern “mainline” Protestant denominations in control of those who favored theological pluralism. As a result, evangelicals put even more energy into the parachurch network. Parachurch organizations united both evangelicals who left the “mainline” denominations and those who remained. They also drew in many from immigrant churches like the Mennonites and Dutch Reformed.

By the 1930s, many talented young evangelical leaders like Cameron Townsend, Dawson Trotman, Clarence Jones, and Charles Fuller were pouring their energies into parachurch organizations. Despite the Depression, the network continued to grow. With the return of prosperity after World War II, growth was explosive. Youth for Christ launched the career of Billy Graham. He then founded his own organization in 1950 and encouraged the founding of others like Campus Crusade for Christ and Christianity Today.

Other visionaries founded new types of organizations: humanitarian agencies like World Vision, short-term missionary groups like YWAM, and television networks like Pat Robertson's CBN. Evangelical colleges soon enrolled more students than Bible institutes, and Christian schools started to appear everywhere. Eventually there were so many parachurch organizations that they grouped themselves into associations—for missionary agencies, Christian education, broadcasters, and others.

Parachurch organizations gave the New Evangelicals institutional homes and legitimacy. Charles Fuller's broadcasting ministry funded Fuller Seminary, and his reputation with ordinary evangelicals protected the scholars who worked there. The New Evangelicals, in turn, articulated theological reasons for many of the changes that parachurch entrepreneurs were introducing—de-emphasis on dispensationalism, involvement in social service, and the importance of scholarship, women's leadership, and political action.

To spread their theological vision, the New Evangelicals started Christianity Today. They would have been happy with that one magazine. But Christianity Today is also a parachurch organization, and parachurch organizations are run by entrepreneurial spirits who are never satisfied with the status quo. So naturally they saw other needs, envisioned new fields of service, and got busy. Today Christianity Today International is a family of 13 different magazines (including Christian History & Biography). It just goes to show—the evangelical entrepreneurs of today are as restless and impatient as Moody.

By Michael S. Hamilton

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #92 in 2006]

Michael S. Hamilton is associate professor of American religion at Seattle Pacific University.
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