On the Lasting Evangelical Survival
The Internet is abuzz with the latest prognostications about "the coming evangelical collapse." This is the substance of three blog posts over at Internet Monk (a.k.a. Michael Spencer), who predicts said collapse in ten years. When his thoughts got picked up and condensed by the Christian Science Monitor and then the Drudge Report — well, you can just imagine the electronic excitement.
The title of Spencer's posts spoils the ending; still, many of the details are interesting. I've made many of the same observations in this column. For example, Spencer writes, "Expect evangelicalism as a whole to look more and more like the pragmatic, therapeutic, church-growth-oriented megachurches that have defined success. The determination to follow in the methodological steps of numerically successful churches will be greater than ever. The result will be, in the main, a departure from doctrine to more and more emphasis on relevance, motivation and personal success." My only caveat here is to wonder if this is a future or present reality.
Some predictions I warm up to because of my own biases, but in the end, they don't seem to be founded on anything substantive. For example, "Two of the beneficiaries of the coming evangelical collapse will be the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions. Evangelicals have been steadily entering these churches in recent decades and that trend will continue." Spencer might have added Anglicanism as a beneficiary. As an Anglican, I wish it were true. But in my experience, the number of evangelicals entering these communions is not as great as those leaving these communions for evangelical faith. I don't know of any studies that have, or even can, measure this phenomenon accurately. So we might have to simply debate our impressions.
There is a lot of fodder here for useful reflection, if we keep in mind the caveats that Spencer himself mentions: he is no prophet or a son of a prophet. I would add: nor does he argue his case; he merely states his conclusions over and over. He says that evangelicalism will collapse in ten years, but doesn't offer a shred of evidence to suggest why this timetable is reasonable.
Like members of any movement, we evangelicals like to do some navel gazing. Who are we? What's wrong with us? What's right with us? Where are we headed? This can easily degenerate into movement narcissism, which is why, in the midst of such discussions, we should be reminding ourselves of some other realities.
For all our cultural influence and religious impact, evangelicals are "like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales … [they] are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness." This quotation, from Isaiah 40:15-17, refers to "the nations," but it applies just as well to the "evangelical nation." Movements of God — think the desert fathers, monasticism, the Great Awakening, and so forth — come and go.
What we know as evangelicalism is a temporary cultural expression of the Christian faith. It comes with idiosyncrasies, good and bad. It has produced the populist Religious Right activist Jim Dobson and the careful, moderate scholar Mark Noll. Out of its publishing houses come books like Left Behind and books like Knowing God. It has proven itself to be small-minded, judgmental, and legalistic, as well as generous, sacrificial, and heroic (I think especially of evangelical work with HIV/AIDS and sexual trafficking today). It has at times been totally out of touch with contemporary culture, and at other times on the cutting edge (for example, we have consistently been early adopters of new technology — radio, TV, the Internet).
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
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