The coming evangelical collapse OR why they still don't get it

Michael Spencer over at the Christian Science Monitor has this article today about the imminent collapse of the evangelical church in America. He claims that “Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants” which sounds about right. Christianity has likely peaked in this country, due in no small part to the evangelical, or worse, the fundamentalist elements within.

Depending on how you define “evangelical”, I was raised in such a church (Dutch Reformed, as a matter of record). So, the assertion that this flavor of church is turning stale raised an eyebrow. I have to say, after reading his article, I think Spencer is onto something.

Why is this disaster about to befall the church? Spencer’s reasons, with my comments following:

1. Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake.

Bingo. I can’t even begin to highlight this enough. This movement has even gone so far as to have priest and pastors alike saying that a vote for one candidate is a sin. What tripe. But buried within this first point is something that deserved it’s own bullet point.

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. [emphasis mine]

I can’t even begin to count the number of times before and after leaving the church where I’ve had conversations where the person debating and/or arguing with me got the Bible wrong. If you’re going to argue a religious viewpoint, you sure as hell better have your own sacred text straight. The knowledge the average Christian has about their own faith is astoundingly small and only serves to belittle their faith and religion in the eyes of those to whom they attempt to proselytize.

2. 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…. 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.

Here we disagree. My experience was actually different, and I saw it mirrored in the experiences of my friends growing up. Yes, we have deep beliefs about the “culture war” (ed. ug, really?), but we reject the previous generations’ stances. We know full well what the Church’s stance is on gays, evolution, abortion, etc., but our experiences tell us that those stances are wrong. We reject the hypocrisy of a church that discriminates against gay people but continues to employ or welcome adulterers, or spiritual leaders who rail against such sins while committing those very sins or stealing from the coffers. We reject a church who views science as an evil force aligned against Faith, then tells their pew neighbor they’re doing very well thanks, the treatments are working quite well.

My entire childhood was spent in the shadow of fear of what would happen if God caught me not praying before dinner,  prayers, incidentally, I realized very early on I could rattle off without thought and still fulfill my obligation somehow. Orthodoxy was boring, and asking questions was frowned upon or outright challenged, only confirming that it’s engaging qualities were either for the adults or non-existence. Either way, as a child, I’m not interested.

3. There are three kinds of evangelical churches today: consumer-driven megachurches, dying churches, and new churches whose future is fragile.

Maybe, but I don’t think this is a cause, merely a symptom.

4. …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.

I’ll have to take his word, but I can’t imagine accomplishing much talking to an echo chamber.

5. The confrontation between cultural secularism and the faith at the core of evangelical efforts to “do good” is rapidly approaching. We will soon see that the good Evangelicals want to do will be viewed as bad by so many, and much of that work will not be done. Look for ministries to take on a less and less distinctively Christian face in order to survive.

Frankly, there’s only one answer to this: bullshit. This is a total copout argument: “We have to do un-Christian-like things because that’s what people expect. If we did what we should do, it would be viewed as bad.” Hmm, maybe that’s because undermining and oppressing everyone who doesn’t fall into line with your strict definition of “good” is, in fact, bad.

And, let me dispense with one other pet peeve. “Cultural secularism” is not “cultural”. It’s just secularism. Full stop.

6. Even in areas where Evangelicals imagine themselves strong (like the Bible Belt), we will find a great inability to pass on to our children a vital evangelical confidence in the Bible and the importance of the faith.

Now we’re just expanding on the previous points. Why can’t the average Joe and Jane pass on confidence in the Bible and the importance of faith? See point 1: they don’t know the Bible, and therefore even they can’t live by. When I was active in the church, I could count the number of people in my church who were All Week Christians on one hand. Most of the others were Sunday Morning Christians. The rest came out of compulsion or familial necessity (Mom said you had to).

How do you expect to instill confidence in a book and dogma even you don’t really believe in? You pay it lip service, sure, but only when the meal’s on the table or someone’s watching. Religion, in public just as much as in the sanctuary, is spectacle. The prayer always sounds better and lasts a little longer when someone’s watching or listening.

7. The money will dry up.

Well, no duh. And, not only that, but I’d wager that before the actual balance is $0, many churches will have gone under simply because of the way they spend money. The money spent on actual ministry, sending people in amongst the unwashed heathens, is dwarfed by building funds, sound systems, projectors, printing costs, salaries and benefits. Oh, didn’t they tell you? Being an evangelical preacher is pretty lucrative, even without a TV show.

The big question is, now that someone finally said all this in a fairly well-read publication, what’s the response from those still on the inside? My guess? Stunning denials that will shatter any irony meters deployed nearby. Then character attacks on Spencer (“He’s not the right kind of Christian to make these points.”) Then we’ll get the pseudo-intellectual rebuttals of how this needs to happen for some reason, but it will all work out because God wants it to or something.

The only saving thing here for evangelicals? It doesn’t mean your faith is dying, just the mechanism. Hm, maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.

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