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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

the coming evangelical collapse: the core

In my last post, I offered some thoughts on Michael Spencer's blog series The Coming Evangelical Collapse. On the whole, I think Spencer has identified some real problems, which all stem, IMO, from one core issue. And it's not limited to Evangelicals.

American Protestant Christianity is, to borrow a phrase, a mile wide and an inch deep. Now I want to make two things clear: 1) I say this as an American Protestant; I think Protestant Christianity has some life in it, and I think it does have something unique to offer. 2) I've met many dedicated people, both staff and laity, in American Protestant churches, people who are sincere in following the call God has placed on their lives.

But the American Protestant churches have been seduced by power. Not just political power, but the economic power that comes with being the majority in a wealthy and influential nation. Not only have we ignored the growing inequity in American society, we've largely been responsible for it. Ken Lay, founder of Enron, was a well-respected member of his church in Houston. Former CEO Richard Scrushy of HealthSouth, now in prison for bribery and mail fraud, donated a million dollars to his church during his trial.

When we're too cozy with the oppressors, we can't speak out against injustice. We are — to borrow another phrase — rich and prosperous, thinking that we need nothing, failing to see that we are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

If it takes a monumental collapse to rejuvenate the church, then I'm ready for it.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

the coming evangelical collapse: some thoughts

A couple weeks ago, I pointed to a series by Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk, on The Coming Evangelical Collapse. After considering some of the things Spencer says, I think he's mostly right about the direction Christianity is going in the U.S. Mainline Protestantism has been in a steady decline for decades now, and I don't see any indication it's going to change. Evangelicalism, after more than 20 years of growth, both in numbers and in power, has reached its peak and may already be starting to decline. Spencer suggests that the main beneficiaries will be the megachurches, Pentecostal churches, and Catholic and Orthodox churches. I think he's probably right.

I have perhaps an unusual perspective, as I'm a member of a Mainline denomination and my wife belongs to an Evangelical church. We split our time worshipping at one or the other. Since moving to a new city about two years ago, we've had some adventures looking at several different churches.

I'm going to be making some sweeping generalizations here; these will not be true of all churches, and almost certainly don't apply outside the U.S. But here's my two-sentence summaries of Evangelical and Mainline churches:

  • Evangelical churches seem to be moving away from being worship centers, and toward being community centers. From singles' programs to seniors' programs, from aerobics to art classes, from basketball to ski trips, from coffee shops to bookstores in the lobby, there's something for everyone. But in all that activity, is worship getting lost?
  • Mainline churches have lost their identity. While some congregations are rediscovering practices that Catholics and Orthodox have never lost, others are trying to imitate the Evangelicals. Is there any reason for the Mainline denominations themselves not to be absorbed into one or the other?

So when Spencer says:

I believe that we are on the verge- within 10 years- of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity; a collapse that will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and that will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.

I think his only error is in thinking that the U.S. church scene is typical of the Western nations. U.S. Protestant Christianity bears little resemblance to the religion practiced by 2 billion people worldwide.

Again, when Spencer says:

We are soon going to be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century in a culture that will be between 25-30% non-religious.

I think he's largely correct, at least on the numbers. Recent numbers I've seen put the number of non-religious in the U.S. at 15%; it's not hard to imagine that number will double within the next generation, or perhaps even sooner.

Spencer's next statement, however:

This collapse, will, I believe, herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian west and will change the way tens of millions of people see the entire realm of religion. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become particularly hostile towards evangelical Christianity, increasingly seeing it as the opponent of the good of individuals and society.

is just paranoid drivel.

Let's look at the numbers again. Current U.S. demographics show:
75% Christian
15% non-religious
10% all other religions

Now suppose Spencer is right that the non-religious group will double in size, from 15 to 30 percent. Let's suppose, too, that the other religions will grow, as a group. This seems highly unlikely, but let's say they increase by half, from 10 to 15 percent.

That would give us 45% of the U.S. population belonging either to a religion other than Christianity, or to no religion at all. The remaining 55% would, by default, have to be Christian.

Does Spencer seriously think that a still-majority Christian nation could produce an "anti-Christian chapter" in U.S. history? Does he think that a 30% minority of non-believers would (even if they could) create a public policy that is "hostile towards evangelical Christianity"?

The only way this might be possible is if Evangelical Christianity sets itself up against all comers, fortressing itself against non-believers, other religions, and fellow Christians alike. I don't see that happening except in hardline fundamentalism, which even Spencer agrees is headed for extinction.

No, I think what we are more likely to see is U.S. Evangelicals simply ceasing to engage a society where their voice is no longer dominant. And that may be a worse fate than facing outright hostility.

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