Conferences featuring Sproul and other less-well-known teachers attracted thousands of people and prompted a movement within evangelical Christian faith, chronicled by author Collin Hansen in his book “Young, Restless and Reformed.” As an admirer of French theologian John Calvin, or a Calvinist, Sproul believed that we are more sinful than we usually think we are. As Sproul and others made Calvinism more popular and understandable, some churches, including the large Southern Baptist Convention, have been divided over his strain of theology.
Sproul’s influence emerged in the 1970s. In the 1950s and 1960s people had been coming to Christianity through all kinds of ministries mostly launched after World War II. Evangelist Billy Graham’s “crusades” were the most influential, but other young people were embracing Christ through Young Life ministries for high schoolers. Youth for Christ clubs were growing in other schools. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes offered their huddle groups for high school athletes. Campus Crusade for Christ, now known as Cru, was evangelizing on college campuses.
The young R.C. Sproul thought the Christian movement was too shallow theologically. People were not thinking deeply enough about the Bible, he felt, so somehow they needed to go to seminary.
Affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America, Sproul could have taught at plenty of seminaries. Aspiring pastoral candidates were inspired by his capacity to teach systematic theology and apologetics, the defense of the Christian faith.
Sproul worried about the man or the woman in the pew, the layperson as opposed to the clergy who had the seminary training. Those people needed what the seminaries were teaching. He could make big words and complicated concepts understandable to them.
After a short time as a teaching pastor in a Cincinnati church, he launched the Ligonier Valley Study Center in 1971 near a small Pennsylvania town called Stahlstown. Men and women started flocking to weekend seminars or week-long classes on “the Enlightenment” or “the doctrine of Christ” or “the sin nature of humanity.”
The ministry eventually moved to Orlando, closer to a big airport, and Sproul started traveling more, teaching in churches as a kind of one-man visiting seminary. Sometimes he teamed up with other pastors and seminary teachers, but he was usually the star, the name drawing several thousand to learn more about God, the Bible and Jesus.
He offered his lectures and classes on cassette tapes for audio listening. He pioneered Bible teaching on VHS tapes for TV viewing. He was figuring out distance learning many years before people would take online classes or listen to podcasts.
He launched a popular radio program called “Renewing Your Mind.” Keeping up with new waves of technology, he took seminary education into homes, cars, churches and later on podcasts for walking and jogging.
The content of his teaching was controversial in the larger American culture. He believed the Bible was true, and he was an influential figure in a movement to defend the Bible as having no errors. Yet he believed the Bible should also be read as a literary text. As a Calvinist, he could be controversial in asserting that God calls people to salvation in Christ, under the assumption that we are morally responsible but God is still the boss of it all. In other words, he was outside the mainstream of popular American life and even for many Christians.
He avoided the fiery televangelist style. He thought the Bible has answers for the world’s problems and wanted to offer them in a winsome manner. In contrast to more-well-known Christian leaders, he stayed away from politics, sticking with theology and apologetics.
He had written plenty of top-selling serious books, but with grandchildren he started young children’s books. He would still teach big concepts such as “the imputation of Christ’s righteousness” or “justification by faith” through simple stories.
Whether he was writing for children or speaking to adults, Sproul brought theology — which to many seemed abstract and hard to comprehend — to the common person. Sproul taught Christians to follow God not only with their hearts and souls, but also with their minds.
Indianapolis Star columnist Russ Pulliam directs the Pulliam Fellowship summer intern program for the Indianapolis Star and the Arizona Republic.