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).
Like any movement, religious or not, evangelicalism has become embedded in certain aspects of its culture. Because it exists in the contingencies of history, it can't help but tie itself to some cultural themes while fighting others. While there is a socially liberal wing of the movement, evangelicalism has mostly tied itself to the pro-life, traditional family, personal responsibility, suspicious-of-big-government-yet-patriotic part of our culture. Spencer, among others, says that such identification will lead to its collapse. Eventually, perhaps, but not until a large part of our culture rejects such themes. It's hard to imagine that happening in ten years.
While one can describe evangelicalism in this sociological way, in another sense, the movement is an intellectual construct, an attempt to tie a number of individuals and organizations together under one socio-theological banner. This helps sociologists predict voting patterns and marketers determine how to sell products to this group. This doesn't mean there aren't significant commonalities among these people, or that these people don't identify themselves as such. It just means that we might not want to equate the intellectual construct with the complex dynamics at play on the ground.
One of those dynamics is that evangelicals on the ground, in our better moments at least, care less about our "movement" and more about "the evangel," the Good News of Jesus Christ. If the constellations of individuals and groups that have constituted the cultural shape of evangelicalism were to disappear, most of us would quickly move on. Because we know that would hardly signal the end of evangelicalism.
As senior managing editor of Christianity Today — whose masthead reads "a magazine of evangelical conviction" — it would seem that I have a vested interest in the survival of evangelicalism. Yes and no. On the one hand, as a student of church history, I can also predict that cultural evangelicalism will collapse, not likely in ten years, but collapse it will. On the other hand, evangelicalism will never collapse, at least not until the final altar call.
That's because evangelicalism is a word that describes a phenomenon that transcends time and place. British historian David Bebbington talks about it in terms of certain theological emphases and behaviors (crucicentrism, conversionism, biblicism, and activism). I think of it more as a religious mood. It is a spiritual sensibility that includes pessimism about human nature, a longing to be converted from the worst of our selves, mystical moments when Jesus Christ is experienced, a conviction that nothing can be redeemed without suffering and that resurrection is ultimate reality, and a passion to make a difference in the world.
In this sense, the history of the Christian faith is littered with evangelicals, from the apostle Paul to Antony of the Desert, from Francis of Assisi to Teresa of Avila, from the monastic movement to camp meetings, from Beth Moore to Mimi Haddad, from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to Evangelicals for Social Action.
Evangelicalism as such will no more collapse than will the ubiquity of sin and the longing for salvation.
To be sure, those of use who identify deeply with American evangelicalism will no doubt be grieved by its death, as least as a subculture — just as we grieve the extinction of other unique subcultures. But we're not in the evangelical preservation society, and I certainly won't join a group that says we need to reform the evangelical movement or else we'll die.
What I will do, to my dying day, is work with anyone who knows he was lost but now is found, whose Bible is worn because she repeatedly looks there for God to speak, who finds the Cross the most meaningful of symbols, for whom the Resurrection is not just a doctrine but a power, and who wants nothing more than to find new and creative ways to share the evangel of Jesus in word and deed. I'll work with these people no matter what scholars decide to call them.
For now they are called evangelicals, and I suspect that in one form or another, they'll be around for some time.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. This column is cross-posted on his blog. His most recent book is A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Baker).
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