Even as church leaders embracing evangelical ideas like “unity in diversity,” individual church members embraced evangelicalism in practice.
In some instances, encounters with evangelical friends and family members made Brethren in Christ people re-think their plain ways. For Lois Jean (Kreider) Peterman, childhood connections to two Baptist cousins would help her realize that “faith in God does not need to be dressed in ‘plain’ clothing.” Paul Sides remembers that as he made Christian friends outside the Brethren in Christ Church, he began to question the traditional teachings of his community. “Now as I listened to sermons in my church I became confused,” he recollected in 2008. “But I never lost my moorings.”
At other times, attendance at evangelical schools and colleges inspired Brethren in Christ people to reconsider their community’s peculiar emphases. Walter Winger recalls that his studies at Toronto Bible College (among other inter-denominational experiences) “brought some questions [about the Brethren in Christ Church’s] rather unusual doctrines into sharp focus.”
Some Brethren in Christ first encountered evangelicals in the sanctuaries of their home churches. As a teenager in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Donald Shafer heard a number of prominent new evangelical leaders preach from the pulpit of his Brethren in Christ church in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. Shafer remembers that although these preachers “sounded a lot like Brethren in Christ, they didn’t dress like us.” For Shafer, such encounters with tie-wearing Christian men from outside his denominational community led him to the conclusion that the larger evangelical movement was “no longer a threat” to the Brethren in Christ’s distinctive way of life. By 1953, Shafer himself would don a necktie—one of the first young people in his congregation to so subvert the church’s nonconformist culture.
As Shafer’s experience illustrates, some Brethren in Christ drew upon evangelicalism to open doors to “worldly” activities otherwise censured by their religious community. Gladys (Books) Lehman remembers holding her wedding in a Evangelical United Brethren church building so that she and husband Wilmer could include organ music in their ceremony. Morris Sider recollects attending a screening of the 1953 Hollywood epic The Robe because the film “was praised by the evangelical community.” Similarly, Beth (Kanode) Sider recalls that her first foray into a “worldly” movie theater was occasioned by a showing of Billy Graham’s The Restless Ones in 1965.
By embracing evangelicalism to modify or to abandon aspects of their community’s plain culture, Brethren in Christ radically transformed their religious faith.