Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Coming Evangelical Collapse

A friend passed along a fascinating article by Michael Spencer from The Christian Science Monitor entitled "The Coming Evangelical Collapse." Beneath the title it says: "An anti-Christian chapter in Western history is about to begin. But out of the ruins, a new vitality and integrity will rise."

Here's the opening:

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.

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.

Read it all.

There's so much worth reflecting upon in this piece that it's difficult to even begin responding. But I'll take a brief stab at it.

For starters, I note that, from what I have read and heard from a priest friend in the Church of England, "the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West" in which "intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes" is already well underway. That includes clergy getting verbally and sometimes physically assaulted because they are wearing clericals, to churchgoers getting cursed at as they're leaving services by hostile passersby on the sidewalk.

England and Western Europe are much further along in the evolution towards a post-Christian society than the USA. But it's already happening here, even in the deep South. I can only imagine how much different things will be by the time my children have their own children.

Another thought: if this decline is starting to happen within evangelicalism (and I'm sure that there are many who might argue with the author of this piece on the how and the why of it all), I think it's fair to say that it's been happening for far longer to mainstream denominations like The Episcopal Church. It's no secret that the mainline churches have been experiencing serious decline for the past several decades. To my mind, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to substitute a few words and phrases in the following paragraph from The Christian Science Monitor article so that it applies only too well to The Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations:

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. Ironically, the billions of dollars we've spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.

In addition to the other challenges facing The Episcopal Church when it comes to Christian formation, if "Anomic Anglicanism" gains the upper hand, we may become more and more acceptable to an increasingly secular, post-Christian culture while having very little to offer that promotes the authentically Christian gospel.


Sally D said...

Nothing like that going on here in South Africa although that doesn't some some Christians from regarding themselves as innocent victims of the culture wars, or as martyrs whose unpopularity is of the same order as that of the Prophets.

It would be useful to read this article in conjunction with a previous (recently re-posted) essay on Michael Spencer's blog:

I'd take this research, whatever its true validity may be, as a wake-up call. If we don't start getting real as Christians, and getting more things right, if public rants against same-sex marriage, women's ordination, "liberalism" or abortion, not to mention campaigns to erect giant illuminated crosses in our towns and mega-buck TV shows continue to be our idea of public witness to Christ, then we're history - and deservedly so.

Actually, most people don't hate us, not even in America. They just find us irrelevant, a passing irritation. The ones who really hate us, are usually the ones who've been hurt by us.

Jesus made plenty of people angry (mainly the powerful and the self-righteous), and he affected people in ways they didn't always appreciate, but as far as we can tell, he never really wounded anyone deep in their soul with a poisoned dart. But we, his followers, certainly have: and we need to stop doing it, and to repent, and to find better ways of being church.

Bryan Owen said...

Excellent comments, Sally D!

I have seen (and scanned through) Spencer's "Why Do They Hate Us?" It's a worthy piece to take to heart (even for non-evangelical Christians), perhaps especially during Lent.

I especially appreciate your point that most non-Christians don't hate Christians so much as they find us irrelevant and perhaps also a passing irritation. Whether we take the "public rant" approach of the Christian Right on moral and political issues, or we flee from ecclesial and biblical authority by embracing the neo-gnostic Jesus of the Jesus Seminar and its devotees on the Christian Left, we sacrifice the relevance of the Gospel on the altars of our own political, social, and theological agendas.

Time, indeed, to find better ways of being the Church!

bls said...

Amen to what Sally D. says; I came over here to say essentially the same thing.

The "religious" right likes to play the "blame game" against people who don't toe their particular line - and those people have had enough at this point, and good on 'em, I say. When religious "conservatives" stop trying to insinuate themselves into everybody's lives, and stop trying to take over the government, the disdain will end.

A good example is the tedious complaint about the Episcopal Church's "capitulation to culture" - from people who apparently can't see the great big honking log in their own eye for the speck someplace else. When they stop using Christianity as a tool in the culture wars, the hostility might actually lessen.

Bryan Owen said...

I agree with what your saying, bls, at least when it comes to some of the folks on the religious right (I don't want to paint with too broad of a brush).

I've also been a witness to similar intolerance and hubris from some on the religious left.

And without question, those of us who find ourselves somewhere in the "diverse center" are also guilty of this kind of behavior.

Perhaps, given our capacity for sin, it doesn't really matter where we fall on the theological or political spectrum when it comes to this matter. All of us can and, from time to time, do use the Christian faith to further ends that are contrary to the Kingdom of God.