Have you ever been part of, let’s say, a committee assigned with a specific task? You go to committee meetings, week after week, maybe month after month; you work with the committee to complete the task, but something else happens.
You learn. Specifically, you learn the obvious things that people on the committee never say. The questions they never ask; the obvious problems they never point out; the solutions that can’t be brought up without controversy.
Perhaps you learn to live with this situation. You accept the unmentionables and you play along. You don’t want to be the source of an explosion. You prefer to see the job get done, even if the same problems are overlooked and the same obvious solutions are avoided. We’re in the people business here, you tell yourself. Relationships are important.
Now imagine you are an evangelical Christian, like myself. You’ve been on “the committee” for a long time. You’ve been around the block, heard all the speeches and seen all the angles. The evangelical church experience has all the surprise of a professional wrestling match.
And along the way, you’ve learned. You’ve learned what not to say. You’ve painfully learned, and now you’re smart enough to keep your mouth shut and your observations to yourself. (A seminary trained Wal-Mart greeter isn’t how you want to end your career.)
But one of the things you’ve learned in this pragmatic vow of silence is how the code of silence works. You’ve learned what happens to people who ask the wrong questions or make the wrong observations.
If you say the evangelical emperor has no clothes, you’ll be “exhorted” until you figure out that your integrity is actually at stake in turning off your brain and zipping shut your mouth.
Then you happen to read a book by someone who’s already left the circus. Someone who’s left and is talking.
You know the drill. You know all the things you’re supposed to say. You know what you’d tell someone who came to you “troubled” or “disturbed” by what they’d read. You know how to get the train back on the tracks; how to get that wandering mind back thinking good thoughts.
But this book has intersected you on one of the days in your life when it doesn’t really seem worth it to slam the door shut and start repeating the mantras.
So, Internet Monk readers, I give you a small list of the insights, claims and observations of Christine Wicker in The Fall of the Evangelical Nation. I’ve done the summarizing, but it’s her unmentionables.
You can start chanting. You can put your fingers in your ears. You can refute with facts. You can say “that’s what I’ve always thought.” You can consider it and get back to us.
But I think we need to think about these things:
1) Evangelicals aren’t 55 million strong. They are, perhaps, 15 million. Like almost everything else about them, the numbers are inflated.
2) Evangelical clout is almost entirely the result of media spin. A mainstream media focus on the conservative evangelicals for the past 25 years has given everyone the impression that they are a vast force in America. They’re not. They are a minority compared to other kinds of Christians.
3) Evangelical megachurches are not going to be able to replace their founding pastors. If the Reveal study is correct,they are not going to be able to hold their own core members. Thousands of people leave megachurches every week, never to return. The growth of megachurches is almost entirely from the previously converted. Many megachurch attenders will never join and will leave at the first opportunity.
4) Evangelicals have almost stopped meaningful personal evangelism. Most evangelicals share as low a regard for classic evangelistic techniques as their unbelieving friends. Only 18 percent of Southern Baptists- perhaps the most evangelistic church in American- ever witness to anyone.
5) Part of the loss of evangelistic fervor is a loss in the belief that Christ is the only salvation from a literal hell. Many evangelicals do not believe in either in any form resembling classic, historic orthodoxy. They pay lip service to these ideas, but do not hold to them with any tenaciousness.
6) In fact, evangelicals in general are far more doctrinally “soft” than we are ever led to believe by the public face of evangelical worship, preaching and political involvement. Millions of evangelicals have left the movement because of crises of faith, often involving the inerrancy of the Bible, exclusive salvation, God’s involvement in their own experiences and the “success principles” of family/marriage.
7) Evangelicals are declining in baptisms across the board, in every age group except very young children. Many baptisms are rebaptisms or baptisms of the already converted. Among Southern Baptists, the only age group experiencing a growth in baptisms are children 5 and under.
8. Evangelicals that are refusing to embrace fundamentalism are usually making serious accommodations to the contemporary world in areas- especially in regards to science, gender roles and raising children- that previously drew great distinctions between Christians and unbelievers. Many evangelicals have tossed out any loyalty to beliefs and practices that previously defined them as serious Christians.
9) An examination of the morals and decisions of typical evangelicals and other people will reveal that evangelicals pretty much live like everyone else. This includes areas such as abortion, premarital sex, entertainment and lifestyle issues. Only about 20% of evangelicals are serious enough about their faith to make real sacrifices in these areas.
10) Evangelical parents are doing a good job with their children, but the difference in parenting styles among evangelicals in the last 50 years almost insures that the majority of these children will likely not continue in evangelicalism. The critical thinking skills and more liberal allowance of behavior and social activities will insure that these young people will be exposed to a more convincing answer to their important questions. Evangelicals will be fortunate if 5% of their young people continue in the faith after college. Those who do will likely not be in a church.
So there you are. The Unmentionables, courtesy of Christine Wicker. I’ve got more to say on this subject, but I’ll save that for another time.
So here’s the challenge. If you want to take down the whole list and say things are great at your church so I’m nuts to think this woman is on target….this isn’t the discussion for you.
But if you want to interact, critically or positively, with Whitmer’s claims as I’ve summarized them, let’s hear what you have to say. Please don’t devotionalize or preach. Keep the responses to the point and of a manageable size.
Talk amongst yourselves.