The Coming Evangelical Collapse

This was the title of a recent article by popular blogger Michael Spencer (aka Internet Monk) published in the Christian Science Monitor. The article received widespread media coverage, resulting in a potential book deal and hundreds of speaking invitations for the author. Within hours of its online posting, I received dozens of e-mails generally asking, "Have you seen this?" I spoke with many of my peers, who experienced a similar reaction through their respective ministries. In the weeks following, there were countless references to this article on radio and in print. I have rarely seen such a swift and sweeping reaction, which begs the question, What was it about this fatalistic statement that generated so much reaction?

First, I don't think anyone could have imagined the dramatic social, political, and economic changes that have unfolded in the last six months, changes that have shaken many of our most basic assumptions. The defeat of same-sex marriage (SSM) in California, followed by the legalization of SSM in conservative midwestern Iowa, reminds us that the battle to redefine marriage is far from over. The rapid and massive extension of government power suddenly threatens our most basic individual liberties. Growing segments of the American populace are being seduced by Marxist-socialistic ideas and schemes. Emboldened hostility toward religion-as in the case of Connecticut, in which lawmakers put forth legislation to "reorganize" the Catholic church-and an unprecedented economic disaster have all combined, making proclamations of collapse credible, giving credence to Spencer's opening statement:

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.

Second, there is, I believe, a growing sense among more and more Christians that there is something seriously off the mark in contemporary American evangelicalism. Spencer offers a number of plausible factors that resonate with these concerns, the first of which is:

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.

Spencer continues, "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."

Notice that Spencer does not say we shouldn't be invested in these "moral, social, and political issues." We absolutely should. He simply points out that these activities pursued in the name of Christ apart from a biblical, incarnational faith are doomed to fail and will possibly obscure authentic Christian faith.

He's absolutely right. I think this is the direct result of what I describe as "culturalized" Christianity-this watered-down, domesticated faith that is more Americanized civil religion than biblical Christianity. This "civil religion" could be described as an overarching emphasis on conservative politics, patriotism, nationalism and the like. While these values in and of themselves are not bad (I share them myself) and might even be consistent with the Christian worldview, they are not the focus of Christianity. They are not the gospel of the kingdom. One effect of this culturalization is that there are many in the church today who are more committed to preserving the values of Christianity than they are to following the Christ of Christianity.

Theological Illiteracy

In 2001, researcher George Barna warned, "The Christian body in America is immersed in a crisis of biblical illiteracy." According to Barna's research, the most widely known "Bible verse" among adult and teen believers is "God helps those who help themselves." Seriously!

Less than one out of every ten believers possess a biblical worldview, meaning practically that 90 percent of professing Christians neither comprehend or know how to apply the most basic Christian theological understanding to their lives. (Among young adults ages 18-23, it's less than one percent.)

David Wells declares in his book No Place for Truth, "I have watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy." I would add, this theological illiteracy extends to our understanding of the gospel itself, which has adversely affected the Christian's understanding of his very purpose and mission in life. This, as much as anything else, is likely responsible for the church's continuing decline, both in numbers and affect.

According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, the percentage of people who call themselves in some way Christian has dropped more than 11 percent in a single generation. So many Americans now claim no religion at all that this category now outranks every other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists. Additional research indicates that "40 percent of 16- to 29-year-olds" are already "outside the church" and only a small fraction of those currently within the church will remain (David Kinnaman, unChristian [Baker Books: Grand Rapids, MI], 18).

While on the surface, none of this appears to be good news, if evangelicalism as we know it does indeed collapse then I agree with Spencer's consolation that "we can rejoice that in the ruins, new forms of Christian vitality and ministry will be born." Clearly something must change, and perhaps that is precisely what God is doing in these days. Are we prepared for this? Are we willing to suffer for Christ's sake? Might it be that the light shines brightest in the darkness?

No one knows if Michael Spencer's prediction will come to pass; nor does he claim to speak with prophetic certainty. Nonetheless, since judgment begins within the house of God, there is an imperative for self-examination in the light of Scripture-for the sake of our souls, the kingdom of God, and yes, our nation-because faith in Christ compels us to be concerned for the real world in which we live.

(Note: Over the next few weeks, I will continue to unpack this critique and illuminate what these "new forms" may look like.)

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