Now and again there comes an issue in this old E/MC blogosphere that begs for comment from those of us with egos ample enough to imagine that everyone else cares what we think about it. Sorry I’ve been a bit remiss on the point, but I’m finally getting around to comment on Michael (iMonk) Spencer’s prognosis for Evangelicalism. Of course I’m not alone in offering a response, but naturally I imagine you want to know what I think. First, I must offer some explanation for the sake of my readers who read no other blog but mine so that I can fill in the back story.
So Michael Spencer wrote a three-part series on [his] Prediction: The Coming Evangelical Collapse, with the second and third parts asking, “What Will Be Left?” and whether this collapse is Good or Bad? Well, a lot of us took notice, but when The Christian Science Monitor published a shortened (1500-word) version of the series, that’s when things really took off. Andrew Sullivan noticed, and even Drudge picked it up, while a number of other sources ran the shortened CSMonitor piece. Mark Galli responded for Christianity Today, and bloggers like Frank Viola offered an opinion. I can’t really link them all, but I can toss in the 80,501st version of a review and response.
Critically, Spencer doesn’t support his thesis with enough data, but that’s not to say it isn’t convincing for those who recognize many of the same observations he has made. This is somewhat rectified in Guest Blogger Michael Bell’s tackling of the recently-released ARIS findings with his statistical analysis in two parts. Not to spoil the ending, but he agrees with Spencer. And with some degree of margin for error (which we’d all claim, I’m sure), so do I.
I think evangelicalism is on something of a downhill slide. I can’t be certain of the timeframe, but the next two decades could very well be the next –or last– major shift for evangelicalism generally. Like Spencer and unlike Galli, I’ve noticed a return of evangelicals to more liturgical churches, including Anglican. This may just be anecdotal, but it does reflect an identified longing for older, deeper tradition than what is typically found in the evangelical church. The liturgy connects people in this way, and thus meets a felt need in this regard.
As for evangelicalism, I see one of its most significant issues as its being centered in the USA, where it equated the evangelical agenda with the Christian agenda and then politicized it. Of course, evangelicalism began almost 300 years ago in the UK, but its emphasis and loudest voices have in my view largely shifted across the Atlantic. In point of fact, it is the USA which is perhaps the last Western nation to become, and come to grips with a post-Christendom reality. On this basis, the more global our culture becomes, the less relevant evangelicals will appear, coming across instead as a North American and especially US-American expression of faith. Moreover, the subtle suggestion that evangelical=Christian (with a North American bias) is no longer inclusive enough even for most North Americans. Frank rightly points out that evangelicalism is too deeply rooted in modernity, another of its ailments which increasingly portrays it as outmoded. In the same way as the Bible was used to argue for slavery, so too are the evangelical ideals of (in many quarters) male headship and bans on homosexuality coming to be viewed by those on the outside of it.
Another point that Frank makes is the differing way in which Spencer and Galli seem to define “evangelical.” Galli focuses on a theological definition, where Spencer seems to have in mind more a cultural/ecclesiological concept for the term, which is therefore more narrow than the way in which Galli uses it. This is an important factor, as the theological expression of evangelicalism will last much longer than the the cultural/ecclesiological one… provided the two are not fused together too closely. It is the latter which required a sound rethink in order to preserve the former. Perhaps here it’s worth mentioning Bob Webber’s The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World and the lengths to which evangelicals are going to distance themselves from fundamentalists in such statements as the recent Evangelical Manifesto. To be sure, evangelicals being tarred with a fundamentalist brush is not helping their cause, and only serves to ensure that its cultural expression will come to a close even faster.
As implied, if evangelicals can separate their theology from their culture, there remains more hope for it as a movement. Only time will tell if this can take place. For the present, it would appear that only a limited number of evangelicals are making such a shift while the majority are holding fast to an eroding culture that roots them to modernity. If the current situation continues, I suspect that the name will be dropped by those who have dislodged from its bygone culture, even though the theological beliefs continue. Indeed, I have described myself as a post-evangelical, and this is essentially the point of contention for me. Theologically, I haven’t moved all that far, but culturally… that’s another story entirely.
What do you think of Michael Spencer’s prediction for evangelicalism, or of my own reasons for agreeing with him?