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Decline & Fall of the Evangelical Empire

coliseum-megachurch 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?

11 Responses to “Decline & Fall of the Evangelical Empire”

  1. Bryan Riley Says:

    I suppose it is hard for me to comment on all of this. I think we often get caught up in talking about stereotypes and categories (evangelical, charismatic, post-[fill in the blank], liturgical, conservative, liberal, moderate [many claim to be]) because we, in our laziness, think that way most often, particularly in our Western way of thought.

    What we can all pray is what Jesus told us to pray long ago. May all of this bring us to our knees before our loving Heavenly Father to cry out for His Kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth just as it is in heaven. May we move, as Willard and so many others discuss, beyond a gospel of salvation or of the church to a gospel of the Kingdom of God.

    If that is what is happening, praise the Lord.

  2. robbymac Says:

    Why should evangelicals be required to “separate their theology from their culture”, when the emerging/missional movements are adapting their theology to fit their (postmodern) culture?

  3. Brother Maynard Says:

    Because evangelical expressions of theology are intrinsically tied to the culture of modernity that produced them, while the expressions and the formation of the theology itself influence one another.

    In order to understand Biblical theology we seek to understand the culture in which it was expressed in order to extract what is timeless and then translate it into our own culture. The mistake is to imagine that the translation (or cultural adaptation) is part of the timeless theology.

    In the case at hand, evangelicalism and modernism are too closely fused at points, and that’s the issue here. Of significant concern is the way in which the gospel disconnects from the Kingdom of God and shifts to be a personal rather than a corporate thing. Somewhere in the mix, a form of heirarchy gets woven into the gospel that isn’t supposed to be there… it was actually a reflection of the political culture of the time.

    Sorry I didn’t develop any of this in the post, as I could have clarified better. I kinda dashed off a quick blurb and hit “publish.” This is actually a *huge* topic.

  4. Brother Maynard Says:

    Oh — hold on a minute. Rob, I replied to your comment from my dashboard thinking it was made on the post after this one, which is similarly-themed but together with my comment above should flesh out a bit of what I’m thinking here.

    Could be a point of terminology here too — the e/mc is to concern itself with contextualizing theology, not adapting theology. That is to say that the theology doesn’t change for the culture, just the means or form of presentation. When culture and gospel (theology) are too intertwined, the gospel becomes rooted to a particular culture and it can’t properly be presented in another one.

  5. robbymac Says:

    Hey Bro. Maynard,

    Not meaning to split hairs with you here — and our Skype chats and face-to-face pub times are probably the better medium for a discussion like this — but I could counter that e/mc is equally capitulating to the dominant views of the culture around them. If I wanted to be really cynical, I could suggest that while evangelicalism did the “slippery slope” approach over quite a number of years, the e/mc has some elements within it that just up and sold the farm right away.

    I’m in complete agreement about it’s the means or form of presentation that changes, not the theology. And it’s a no-brainer to point out that certain elements within e/mc have already adapted their theology to be more acceptable to the culture around them.

    It just strikes me as odd that the evangelical church — for all its flaws — gets the shaft for allowing culture to shape its theology and praxis, and we act sometimes as if we’re not equally likely to do exactly the same thing. Unless we stay reflective enough to notice (which is why theological types like you have an important role in the conversation).

    This is going to be a series of posts, am I right? If not, it should be! Keep writing, bro!

  6. Brother Maynard Says:

    I hadn’t planned a series, but perhaps I shouldn’t leave the subject too quickly… there really is a lot to explore.

    And of course you’re correct — the first step to a cultural sellout is thinking you’re immune.

    It’s not my intent to shaft the evangelicals completely… but that corner has been critical of the e/mc over this issue when what we really have is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. And vice-versa. Nobody’s immune, nor should we content ourselves with the notion that we’ve never done this… it’s important to keep asking ourselves how we have done or are doing it. Then we naturally ask how to undo it, and that’s the purpose of this exercise — at least, in my mind it is.

    If we root the consumer church attitude as beginning in the 4th century (see the other post referred above), then finger-pointing in discussions like this is pointless. It’s far enough back that it’s a part of all of our heritage, so we’ve all got it in common. This is much the same… question isn’t who’s worse at it, but who’s willing to get better at it — whatever the cost to our doctrinal pets which a full and honest examination may reveal are not so pure-bred as we once thought.

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  9. Theresa Seeber Says:

    I am proudly an emergent/missional hybrid sort of gal, but I don’t see the systematic/mega church model going away anytime soon. I wish that were not true in some ways, but isn’t is sooooooooo convenient to just sit in the chair with a cup of Joe and a donut and listen to the big man (hierarchical dude at the podium) who we pay (OT tithe theory) to do the stuff of the Kingdom for us? He makes us feel we have done our part and we leave feeling satiated. We have the minimal amount of community we have come seeking, and we get to be called Christians.

    Okay, I am assuming by now that anyone reading this can see my tongue protruding through my cheek, but I am getting at something. I think we have come a long way from Jesus had in mind for his Body, but I have no idea how to shake the lethargy from our society enough to actually see a breakdown in the system that “works” for so many.

    That said, I am only putting this out there because I am trying to play Jesus’ advocate (what – you thought the Devil’s maybe?) and see what we might come up with as to how this might actually occur, without people who haven’t been enlightened to the flaws in the system leaving not only the collapsed system but God as well.

  10. Theresa Seeber Says:

    Hmm. I didn’t click the little “notify me of comments” box before submitting, so I have to submit another comment in order to make that request. So here it is. Enjoy.

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