Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Coming Collapse of Evangelicalism

I read a very interesting post over on the Culture Campaign's blog regarding a book by Michael Spencer called The Coming Evangelical Collapse.

Here's the snippet from their post:


We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.

-- From "
The coming evangelical collapse" by Michael Spencer, posted on The Christian Science Monitor 3/10/09 edition

Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.) In the "Protestant" 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.

Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I'm convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.

Why is this going to happen?

* We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. . . .

* There are three kinds of evangelical churches today: consumer-driven megachurches, dying churches, and new churches whose future is fragile. Denominations will shrink, even vanish, while fewer and fewer evangelical churches will survive and thrive.

* Despite some very successful developments in the past 25 years, Christian education has not produced a product that can withstand the rising tide of secularism. Evangelicalism has used its educational system primarily to staff its own needs and talk to itself.

* Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.

* The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can't articulate the Gospel with any coherence.

We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.

To read the entire article, CLICK HERE.

Also available is the full (original) writing by Michael Spencer


Even as pointed (and accurate) as this assessment is, it is still missing a critical piece – namely that not only are the majority of Evangelicals no longer able to articulate the gospel, but also that for some time we (especially whites) have put comfort over power and security over radical faith, and so we are both powerless and irrelevant to lost people.

For those of you who might be wondering what I’m thinking (… is the theology the problem?) I would say definitely not – essential Evangelical theology is very biblical, in my humble opinion. Besides, Mainline Protestants (of the conservative variety) as well as Catholics are experiencing many of the same problems.

We lost our way long ago when we began to love our lives here too much. The best doctrinal statement in the world is useless if at the end of the day we’re living for ourselves. Prosperity breeds complacency far too often. Loving my life is the death stroke of healthy discipleship and powerful witness.

The lesson in this is that the gospel itself is what once defined Evangelicals, and we have muddied it and co-opted the mission of spreading it so much in the last three generations that we no longer have either an identity or a mission.

There was a time when Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Mennonites, Baptists, Evangelical Free members, Wesleyans, and many others would work together for the gospel despite their differences on other issues. Diffusing our energy to various causes and focusing on filling pews rather than preaching the gospel has done untold harm.

Fortunately, the gates of Hell will, in the end, not prevail against the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church will continue to advance, but the once-great Evangelical movement may no longer be a part of that advance. It is a shame that so many will miss out on all God intended because we were not faithful.

BTW - there are more than three kinds of Evangelical churches. There are the ones who are faithful to the gospel. The problem is that they are the exception, it seems.

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10 Comments:

Blogger Christopher B. Brooks said...

Steve,

I attend a young (6 years old) Evangelical Church that I do not believe is in a "risky" or "fragile" place. There are WAY more than 3 types of Evangelical Churches.

I would contend that one of the pillars of Western Evangelicalism is white privilege - and this will be one of the main threats to the movement in the next decade. For many Churches, it is too late to jump on the multicultural, empowerment bandwagon. I believe that the multicultural movement is the most viable piece of Evangelicalism.

Oh, and I agree that the GOSPEL must be the cornerstone. Everything else is secondary at best!

March 28, 2009 at 6:15 PM  
Blogger hammerdad said...

Steve,

good to hear from you. . . I've been over my head lately and off the blogs. . but hey, I'll chime in here.

If you haven't heard Soon Chan Rah's critique he calls the white capitivity of evangelicalism, you should consider it.

His premise is that when we consider evangelicalism through a lens other than the growth of ethnic churches we are totally missing out. The evangelical church is in fact growing in a very healthy and strong way among ethnic and immigrant churches in America.

All of the criticisms have been echoed in the halls of folks like the PCRT and gospel coalition assembly for the past couple of decades and have significant merit, but also are somewhat ethnically myopic.

As Chris said, churches like his are flourishing and strong. I sit in on a bible study in which my pastor (James Ford) is mentoring a room full of young pastors from other churches including Salem on all facets of spiritual leadership. Even though Ford is on MBI radio, this sort of vibrant growing ministry is totally off the radar of folks like Spencer.

Additionally the highly polemical tone of Moody Radio (read: prominent evangelical voices) regarding our president is furthering the racial divide and the the blindness that goes with this bifurcation.

So the criticism of the church here has validity but is also short sighted. . .

March 29, 2009 at 5:57 PM  
Blogger Ike said...

Laodicea today

"You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked." Revelation 3:17

Michael Spencer's provocative article prompts me to turn to Revelation 3:14-22. Here's the picture. You see some strange guy walking down the street of your town. You can't help but notice that he is:

1. wretched, or, "suffering, distressed, miserable" according to Liddell-Scott-Jones' Greek lexicon;

2. pitiable, or as we would say, pathetic;

3. poor, that is, beggarly, penniless;

4. blind, that is, he cannot see the obvious;

5. naked, that is, embarrassingly exposed.

So here he comes down the street, banged up from encounters with light posts and mailboxes, naked as a jaybird. You approach the poor guy and say, "Sir, may I help you?" And his answer is, "I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing." Delusional.

This was the church in Laodicea. This is too many churches today. We focus on our strengths and successes. And there is just enough good going on in our ministries that we can plausibly refuse a blunt reappraisal of our weaknesses. But the Lord is saying, "That whole mentality is wrong. It is lukewarm. It makes me want to vomit (verse 16). I am not asking you whether you hate my guts. You don't. I almost wish you did. But I am confronting you that you don't love me wholeheartedly, so that you go into repentance and reevaluation and change. Here's what you need to do: Stop telling yourself you're okay and go back into re-conversion (verse 18). Change your complacency into zealous repentance (verse 19). Hey, are you listening to me? I'm that faint voice you can barely hear any more. I'm outside your church, banging on your door. You didn't even notice when I walked out. But I'm back, one more time. If anyone in there is listening, just open the door and I will come in. I won't smack you down. I will befriend you (verse 20). The others in your church may or may not join us, but all I'm asking for is one open, honest heart."

Usually, our churches settle for half-way remedies, which is why they limp along in mediocrity. But every now and then, someone humbly opens that door, and Jesus walks in. He is ready to bless any church if anyone there is willing to start admitting, "I am not rich, I have not prospered, and I need everything."

This corny but honest old gospel song nailed it:

"Out of my bondage, sorrow and night, Jesus I come
Into thy freedom, gladness and light, Jesus I come to thee
Out of my sickness into thy health
Out of my want and into thy wealth
Out of my sin and into thyself, Jesus I come to thee."

Lord, receive even me.

"Ray Ortlund"

March 29, 2009 at 7:14 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Good words, brothers.

Joel and Chris - you're right on about the critique being oversimplified and myopic. If he would have said "the White suburban Evangelical church is on the verge of collapse" it would have been more accurate - and then perhaps he would have see that the problem is more than pathetic ministry philosophy, watered-down theology and failure to teach the next generation, as bad as those problems are.

But I would also say that the ethnic church in the West is not immune to the same problems - just more resistant. As affluence becomes more widespread in the nonwhite community, it will likely face the same situation.

It comes down, in my mind, to the complacency that almost inevitably results from "success". It becomes much more difficult to die to self once one has acquired goods.

Suffice to say that White Evangelicalism is on the verge of collapse, but God will get His thing done with or without White Evangelicals.

I see the Evangelical movement as a reformation of the Protestant Reformation, and for some time now the Evangelical movement is in dire need of reformation itself.

Will that reform come from the poor and the minority and the urban quarters of Evangelicalism? If those quarters manage to stay out of the same trap.

I hope so.

Time will tell...

March 30, 2009 at 2:12 PM  
Blogger hammerdad said...

I am reading Bruggeman's prophetic imagination which is a critique of what he calls the "royal consciousness". It has some parallels with what you are after here.

the king (powers that be, which could include spiritual leaders, political leaders and others) are comfortable in a management oriented, status quo, don't-disturb-me-with-the-facts-that-suffering-exists sort of numbness. he suggests that the voice of the prophet is called to speak against this, not whine, not scream, but speak the truth powerfully into this "I hope things never change" sort of contentment/blindness.

I am only part way through it but really intrigued. ever read it??

March 30, 2009 at 7:27 PM  
Anonymous Shane Vander Hart said...

I agree with his critique of evangelicalism, but I think his conclusions seem somewhat like "Chicken Little."

There there's that whole "I'll build my church, and not even the gates of Hades will prevail against it" thing Jesus said.

That said I agree with you Steve that what we see going on in suburbia will see a decline and will either reform or collapse. I pray the former.

March 30, 2009 at 8:32 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

As I mentioned way back in my "Emerging Urban Evangelical" post, one thing that Emergent guys like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren serve to do is agitate. They disallow a contented blindness.

As way out in left field as they are, they are in this sense performing a service for Evangelicalism - forcing some introspection and reexamination.

I hope along with you, Shane that reform will be the outcome... genuine reform.

If not, God will do something else and will accomplish all He purposes to do, but as I mentioned - many who name Christ and call themselves Evangelicals will be on the outside looking in if that is the case.

March 30, 2009 at 8:41 PM  
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