Note from CM: Michael’s most well known articles were called “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.” I thought it would be good to re-post a few excerpts from these three pieces in light of the other discussions we’ve had this week.
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Party Almost Over
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.
This collapse, will, I believe, herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian west and will change the way tens of millions of people see the entire realm of religion. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become particularly hostile towards evangelical Christianity, increasingly seeing it as the opponent of the good of individuals and society.
The response of evangelicals to this new environment will be a revisiting of the same rhetoric and reactions we’ve seen since the beginnings of the current culture war in the 1980s. The difference will be that millions of evangelicals will quit: quit their churches, quit their adherence to evangelical distinctives and quit resisting the rising tide of the culture.
Many who will leave evangelicalism will leave for no religious affiliation at all. Others will leave for an atheistic or agnostic secularism, with a strong personal rejection of Christian belief and Christian influence. Many of our children and grandchildren are going to abandon ship, and many will do so saying “good riddance.”
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.
…Despite some very successful developments in the last 25 years, Christian education has not produced a product that can hold the line in the rising tide of secularism. The ingrown, self-evaluated ghetto of evangelicalism has used its educational system primarily to staff its own needs and talk to itself. I believe Christian schools always have a mission in our culture, but I am skeptical that they can produce any sort of effect that will make any difference. Millions of Christian school graduates are going to walk away from the faith and the church.
A Rescue Mission?
A hope for all of evangelicalism is a “rescue mission” from the world Christian community. If all of evangelicalism could see the kind of renewal that has happened in conservative Anglicanism through the Anglican Mission in America and other mission efforts, much good would be done. It is time for missionaries to come to America from Asia and Africa. Will they come? Will they be able to bring to our culture a more vital form of Christianity? I do not know, but I hope and pray that such an effort happens and succeeds.
At present, most of evangelicalism is not prepared to accept pastors and leadership from outside our culture. Yet there can be little doubt that within our western culture there is very little evidence of an evangelicalism that can diagnose and repair itself.
Will This Prompt Change?
Will the coming evangelical collapse get evangelicals past the pragmatism and shallowness that has brought about its loss of substance and power? I tend to believe that even with large declines in numbers and an evidence “earthquake” of evangelical loyalty, the purveyors of the evangelical circus will be in full form, selling their wares as the promised solution to every church’s problems. I expect the landscape of megachurch vacuity to be around for a very long time. (I rejoice in those megachurches that fulfill their role as places of influence and resource for other ministries without insisting on imitation.)
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. Perhaps the time is coming that this entanglement will be challenged, especially in the lives of younger Christians.
I’ll end this adventure in prognostication with the same confession I began with: I’m not a prophet. My view of evangelicalism is not authoritative or infallible. I am certainly wrong in some of these predictions and possibly right, even too conservative on others. But is there anyone who is observing evangelicalism in these times who does not sense that the future of our movement holds many dangers and much potential? Does anyone think all will proceed without interruption or surprise?
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