Sunday, July 17, 2016

Rod Dreher on "the coming christian collapse, references Michael Spencer's The Coming Evangelical Collapse

Rod Dreher has been noting the writings lately about the coming Christian collapse.  He references Michael Spencer's The Coming Evangelical Collapse, which we'll quote at some length here:

My Prediction
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 believe this evangelical collapse will happen with astonishing statistical speed; that within two generations of where we are now evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its current occupants, leaving in its wake nothing that can revitalize evangelicals to their former “glory.”

The party is almost over for evangelicals; a party that’s been going strong since the beginning of the “Protestant” 20th century. 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
1) Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This was a mistake that will have brutal consequences. They are not only going to suffer in losing causes, they will be blamed as the primary movers of those causes. Evangelicals will become synonymous with those who oppose the direction of the culture in the next several decades. That opposition will be increasingly viewed as a threat, and there will be increasing pressure to consider evangelicals bad for America, bad for education, bad for children and bad for society.
The investment of evangelicals in the culture war will prove out to be one of the most costly mistakes in our history. The coming evangelical collapse will come about, largely, because our investment in moral, social and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. We’re going to find out that being against gay marriage and rhetorically pro-life (yes, that’s what I said) will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence and are believing in a cause more than a faith.

2) Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people the evangelical Christian faith in an orthodox form that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. In what must be the most ironic of all possible factors, an evangelical culture that has spent billions of youth ministers, Christian music, Christian publishing and Christian media has produced an entire burgeoning 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 that they will endure.

Do not be deceived by conferences or movements that are theological in nature. These are a tiny minority of evangelicalism. A strong core of evangelical beliefs is not present in most of our young people, and will be less present in the future. This loss of “the core” has been at work for some time, and the fruit of this vacancy is about to become obvious.

3) Evangelical churches have now passed into a three part chapter: 1) mega-churches that are consumer driven, 2) churches that are dying and 3) new churches that whose future is dependent on a large number of factors. I believe most of these new churches will fail, and the ones that do survive will not be able to continue evangelicalism at anything resembling its current influence. Denominations will shrink, even vanish, while fewer and fewer evangelical churches will survive and thrive.

Our numbers, our churches and our influence are going to dramatically decrease in the next 10-15 years. And they will be replaced by an evangelical landscape that will be chaotic and largely irrelevant.
2. What will be left after the evangelical collapse?

a. An evangelicalism far from its historical and doctrinal core. 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 [emphases added]….with the result being churches further compromised and weakened in their ability to pass on the faith.
d. I believe the emerging church will largely vanish from the evangelical landscape, becoming part of the small segment of progressive mainline Protestants that remain true to the liberal vision. I expect to continue hearing emerging leaders, seeing emerging conferences and receiving emerging books. I don’t believe this movement, however, is going to have much influence at all within future evangelicalism. What we’ve seen this year with Tony Jones seems to me to be indicative of the direction of the emerging church. [emphases added]

When I first read it I wasn't sure who Tony Jones or why on earth he should matter.  As writing on the decline of white Christian America lately points out, evangelicalism's decline can be likened to the decline of the mainline/liberal Protestant tradition.  Given the history of how white Americans have interpreted the Bible the decline of white Christian American influence might be just what the doctor ordered because whether it was the Social Gospel or Manifest Destiny in the 19th century or cultural warrior campaigns in the 20th it's not clear that American white Christianity is finally separable from cultural imperialism in its blue state as well as red state forms.

Will the coming evangelical collapse shake loose the prosperity Gospel from its parasitical place on the evangelical body of Christ? We can all pray and hope that this will be so, but evidence from other similar periods is not encouraging. Coming to terms with the economic implications of the Gospel has proven particularly difficult for evangelicals. That’s not to say that American Christians aren’t generous….they are. It is to say that American Christians seldom seem to be able to separate their theology from an overall idea of personal affluence and success American style. [emphases added] Perhaps the time is coming that this entanglement will be challenged, especially in the lives of younger Christians.

That Mark Driscoll decided to quit Mars Hill and then, in 2015, declare for the record he felt convicted to apologize to Joel Osteen might be proof that evangelicalism hasn't shaken loose the prosperity Gospel from its parasitical place on the evangelical body of Christ.  Driscoll's new friends, seem, if anything, to suggest Driscoll's willing to sell out. 

In the sense that both the mainline and the evangelical wings of American Christianity were apparently mainly focused on their respective Social Gospels and selling out to institutional powers it's not entirely surprising if those who are committed to the gospel of specific social agendas find that sometimes the easiest way to get from point A to point B would be to jettison coming up with a plausibly Christian excuse for getting from point A to point B. 


Kristin said...

Wow. This puts into great perspective some thoughts that have been rolling around in my heart and head for a while. Thanks for this.

Cal P said...

When I first read all of this, I heartily agreed. But re-reading it, I see a lack of historical contextualization that made Spencer's statement seem more attractive and true than it would suggest.

When was the Evangelical movement not firmly wrapped up within culture wars? He only barely scrapes the 20th century. You brought up the Social Gospel of the late 19th and early 20th. Before that you had the two Great Awakenings, that were culturally and socially charged, dealing with everything from cultural imperialization of the Indians, slave education, temperance, abolition, cult of domesticity, evolution etc etc. This ought to be accounted for when thinking through the breadth of the movement and in what ways today is similar or different than past evangelical surges.

And when was the Church, in whichever instantiation, not dealing with cultural captivity? I can hardly think of a time when Christians were not hard-pressed to consider whether flowing with the zeitgeist or subversively appropriating it and having principled resistance.

Spencer may have offered a little too much doom and gloom. Or maybe every generation needs a prophet to point out the dark clouds on the horizon, even we always seem to be times of dark clouds.


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

My hunch, having had a chance to correspond at least a little bit with Michael while he lived, and knowing a few people he was friends with, is that while your caveats are significant, Spencer was considering evangelicalism as the largely 20th century movement that historians tend to see it as being. In the 19th century the conservative and mainline branches of the Protestant mainstream might not have bifurcated enough for evangelicalism as we know it today to have taken shape. All the seeds were there but while a lot of the Social Gospel has tended to be thought of as liberal, the terms progressive and liberal don't always overlap. Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson could be counted progressive in some areas and gruesomely retrograde in others from the 21st century. While many of the Protestant movements that were linked with the Social Gospel tend to get bracketed into mainline/liberal I'd hesitate to lump the Salvation Army with contemporary Methodism in spite of shared roots in the Wesleyan tradition, for instance. For high church and sacramental types, of course, the Sallie doesn't even count as a church but as a parachurch organization at most, but ... that's another topic altogether.

So I admit that I cut Spencer a bit of slack here having read his blog long enough to have an idea what he was and wasn't trying to say. I didn't share his affection for the band Rush but he was always interesting to read.

Cal P said...

Thanks for your follow up. That helps me understand his approach better. I never got to talk to Spencer, but appreciated much of his work over at IM.