August 30, 2014

Recommended: Wicker and Duin on The End of Evangelicalism

I have a few words about two books that should be of interest to the IM audience.

I heard Julia Duin, author of Quitting Church, on The White Horse Inn last week. Her interview was interesting, so I ordered her book and a book she recommended, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation by Christine Wicker.

I can’t offer full reviews of these books. They are both similar in that they reference a lot of research from the past decade that looks at what is happening in American religious life, particularly in reference to evangelicals.

Duin’s book is squarely focused on why so many formerly committed Christians have left and are leaving churches. If you have any doubt that we are becoming a de-churched culture with millions of Christians choosing to have no relationship with an organized congregation, this book will march the research and the evidence in front of you.

Duin is a long time religion reporter and this book reads like a collection of extended articles. Her writing style is influenced by the kind of reporting that surrounds the issue of why people leave church. Heavy on anecdotes and relying a bit too much of personal experience and anecdotes, Duin nonetheless makes her points plain: churches are increasingly unfriendly, unhelpful and dysfunctional. Singles are neglected, women are marginalized, spiritual power is passe’, teaching is shallow and leaders are overstressed. Duin finds that millions of people who once found church meaningful are now out the door and not planning to return.

As a non-Charismatic, Duin’s extensive references to Charismatic church issues went past me a bit, but her experiences among the fundamentalists, reformed, emerging and megachurches were all on target.

Despite being an interesting read and passing along many good pieces of information and research, Duin’s own point of view is jumbled. One moment she longs for communal simplicity, another for the seminary atmosphere of intense theology and the next for the erudition and authenticity of L’Abri. I was never sure just what she thought of the megachurches she wrote about, and I was never clear on how she was evaluating the message and doctrines she was hearing at various churches.

Christine Wicker’s book, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, is more focused on evangelicals as they were perceived in the Bush era. Wicker seems more removed from the fundamentalist evangelicalism of her Southern Baptist upbringing. Still a great journalistic stylist, and still bringing research and statistics into the discussion, Wicker is at heart a story-teller. Her chapters dwell longer on individual stories that reveal all sides of evangelical experience, perception and problems. She has a real gift from seeing the personal aspects of evangelicalism sympathetically and accurately.

In the first half of the book particularly, Wicker is on a mission to deflate the balloon of evangelical hype. She believes there are less than 15 million committed evangelicals (with fewer all the time.) Most studies assume there are 55 million and growing. She believes the political clout of evangelicals is largely based on bluster and attention from the media that is far from objective. She contends that most Christians in American would not affirm the conservative evangelical scorecard of beliefs and values, but that most Christians are moderate progressives. (You can argue with her, not me.)

Wicker pays lots of attention to Southern Baptists, especially in their rush to baptize a million in 2006 (an effort that produced the lowest number of baptisms of the previous three years.) She understands Baptists, conversions, evangelism and evangelical piety. When she writes about the collapse of evangelicalism in upon itself, and the coming abandonment of evangelicalism, she is convincing.

You may not buy Wicker’s theories, evidence or predictions. Her claims of evangelical demise and defeat are shocking, but I believe they are true. When Wicker says the Megachurches are the last hurrah of an evangelicalism whose only baptism increases are in the ages of 5 and below, I know she’s on the same journey.

I recommend her book without reservation. Must-reading for post-evangelicals.

Comments

  1. Tom Huguenot says:

    I will have seen two very big things collapse under their own weight during my life-time:

    -the USSR
    -American Evangelicalism

    Now, please excuse me, but I have to go back to this Ellul book…

  2. The old is crumbling, but the new immigrant churches in the cities are taking off. There have never been more churches or Christians per capita in cities like Boston and New York. I wonder how these researchers would account for that or factor that in. Even assuming they are ignorant of this, or not dealing with this positive phenomenon, the facts are sobering.

    The hollowness that characterizes much of church, evangelical labels or not, is something to grieve.

    The church I formerly pastored was vibrant and rich and alive. It is a shambles now, and has been for over five years. A great number of leaders, former elders, directors of ministries, etc. are unchurched now. It’s not for lack of trying, but they still love Jesus, but are starting to give up entirely on the church.

  3. I suppose that if the church is not demonstrating the hallmarks of the spirit (i.e. the fruits) then the Pruner will go about His work.

  4. In a sentence or two could someone define please define a “post evangelical”. I’ve read several commentaries and opinions and it seems everyone likes to use the term but no one knows for sure what it actually means. (1 or 2 sentences please.)

  5. Mr. Grumpy Guy says:

    Tony, I’m not sure post evangelical can be described with such constraints as 1 or 2 sentences. you may have to use google and spend a few hours trying to understand it (I’m in this process now and it’s not easy to define).

    I’d love for someone to prove me wrong though. ;)

  6. Post-evangelical. Someone who previously defined themselves as ‘evangelical’, and now doesn’t. The term is pretty self explanatory.

    Of course, this covers a huge range of experiences, so it’s really a starting point for discussion rather than a complete description.

    Dave Tomlinson’s book ‘The Post-Evangelical’ popularised the term, but it would be a mistake to think that all who use this moniker (myself included) to describe themselves can be grouped under one clearly defined belief system.

  7. White evangelicalism is definitely in free-fall, but I agree with Bob that there is much to hope for in the Xy of the immigrant communities.

    One thing our seminaries could do for us is to focus on training immigrant pastors to serve cross-culturally in our white congregations. We sorely need their leadership.

  8. I amazes me that people are amazed at the decline of church in America. When I got thrown out of a church where I had served as worship leader and Youth guy by a Pastor over issues of money not faith my family [who of course were forced to suffer with me through no fault of their own] and i went a wanderin!
    We stopped at our area’s version of a mega church, about 500 in attendance. I got thrown out of adult class over Leviathan and Behemoth,
    and my girls did not like the band on big screen TV.
    WE tried Lutheran, but if you are not from there you need a guide or something, diving in that pool needs a life gaurd, and don’t approach the Lord’s Table without the proper Paper work. they check.
    We tried Independent baptist, wow, are they independent.They were not sure we were saved, but they knew everybody else was lost.
    The Church of Christ adventure was ruined when we brought our guitars.
    There was a Universal Unitarian group I talked to, but i still can’t fathom what their purpose is.
    We went to the UM church near us and heard American Indian Poetry read, which was nice, but not quite what we were looking for on a Sunday morning.
    We liked the Presbyterian hymns, but we felt like we had intruded on a private club, and luckily left without making contact with any of the regulars.
    My wife grew up Catholic, but after the Priest, [whom I had known all my life], called my daughters bastards, that wasn’t much of an option.
    Finally we stopped at a little country church that the SBC had taken over from the Union Baptists. Nice people. bible preaching, invited us to lunch. They needed help, we needed to serve. We stayed there till the pastor sent me out to another work.
    I relate to the problems of church, I have had them myself. If the Lord lets a work wither, it is probably too far from the vine.

  9. Tony: Please use the search function here at IM and read the essays that define post evangelicalism.

    Or go down to the post on interviews and read my interview with modern reformation.

  10. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    …especially in their rush to baptize a million in 2006 (an effort that produced the lowest number of baptisms of the previous three years.)

    Think maybe they tried TOO hard?

    Coming on too strong (i.e. “Resistance is Futile! Prepare to be Assimilated!”) usually triggers a fight-or-flight reaction in the target.

  11. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    …the last hurrah of an evangelicalism whose only baptism increases are in the ages of 5 and below…

    Which is only important if those Evangelical Paedobaptisms show any decent retention rate when they grow up. And from my contacts, the retention rate is low.

    (“Ages of 5 and below?” Are these the same Evangelicals who denounce us Papists for practicing Paedobaptism? Has the Evangelical “age of accountability” been defined down over the years?)

  12. Re: Bob Myers

    Duin addresses immigrant church growth. She says, if I recall correctly, many or most immigrant churches grow because professing immigrants are coming in from other countries. That means they leave their churches in those countries. There also is a lot of conversion from Catholic churches to evangelical churches among immigrants.

    I was involved with a Filipino immigrant church and a Brazilian immigrant church for a while. The Filipino church did not have much about infancy teaching. Most Filipinos there acted just like the Americans. The pastor wanted me to travel to the Philippines to help open businesses, when I barely had any money or grasp of finances myself. He seemed to worship America.

    The Brazilian church: I think the pastor resigned because the church would not grow spiritually. He complained to another friend of mine that they were not ready (years ago) to go on mission back in Brazil. I went to a youth revival there, that seemed to produce fruit. When I went later, though, almost all the youth were gone. That church and the new church the pastor headed seemed just like typical Southern Baptist churches to me. Not much different, except Brazilians are fun.

    After talking extensively with Asian Christian friends, I am beginning to doubt the wild numbers coming out of Asia. I do believe God is moving there powerfully, but I am beginning to think the spiritual fruit there may be less than what is being reported.

  13. I have not read either book but I would like to put them on my very long cue of books that I want to read (I have to stop coming to this blog because my list gets longer and longer and longer).

    As one of the few that don’t believe in the eminent return of Christ, I look to the future with great hope. Where will the church be in 50 years, or 100 years? What about a thousand years? I am an eternal optimist. I believe Jesus when he said in Matt 16:18 that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church.

    Yet, during any time of cultural change things can be messy. This so-called emerging church will emerge out of the ashes of the previous Evangelicalism and the demise of Evangelicalism can be a good thing. However, not all of the emerging forms will be healthy . . . but some will be. I do believe that Christian isolationism will be one of the more negative fruits.

    The church has also never failed to absorb traits from the surrounding secular culture just like a bowl of jello in a refrigerator full of mackerel. I’m sure that will be true with some of the new emerging church forms. As the air that we breathe is now post-modern air, some of the new forms will loose all senses of absolute truth. While I do believe there is a place for uncertainty in the new church forms, there must also be places of certainty. Some too, will interpret the “spiritual” along Eastern-mystical lines rather than Biblical lines.

    But I do believe that many new and exciting church communities will arise that, while not being perfect, will be a step in the right direction as a Reformation Part II.

  14. Jake Fierberg says:

    We all see the collapse of evangelicalism. So what can be done? How can we try to stave it off in our local church? How can I influence our CEO\Pastor that we need more gospel and less culture?

  15. Jake, Tell him to Feed His Sheep. If he is the impulsive, not deep thinking kind, tell him three times. That worked in the past.
    Jesus did not tell us to entertain, indoctrinate, catechize, fleece, mind control, or manipulate His flock. He wanted them fed. Pulpits that feed seem to face a crowd no matter the denomination.

  16. Jake Fierberg, I’m not sure I’d even want to try to stave off the collapse of Evangelicalismâ„¢. As a post-evangelical who finds it increasingly hard to even stay in Protestant circles I find myself slipping into to comparisons between “Christianity” and “Evangelicalism.”

    I don’t mean to say that I don’t believe Evangelicals aren’t Christians (I pastor a good many who are so I couldn’t make that claim even if I wanted to). It just seems to be taking shape in my mind that Evangelicalism is almost becoming a religion in it’s own rite – akin to Christianity, but also no longer set squarely in it’s fold.

  17. Jake Fierberg says:

    Agreed, Wezlo. Church should start and stop with Jesus. We should not be defined by programs, how-to clinics, seminars, etc. We gather to worship Jesus in our weaknesses and sorrow. We gather to acknowledge him King and Lord. God save us from ourselves.

  18. willoh, I kinda have some issues with this:
    “Jesus did not tell us to entertain, indoctrinate, catechize, fleece, mind control, or manipulate His flock.”

    I have a problem because the last three things in the sequence don’t relate to the second two items – and they only relate to the first if you’re using “entertain” with the given meaning of “titillate.”

    I use “entertain” with the older meaning of, “Keeping attention.” Which Jesus certainly did.

    At any rate, the great commission includes “teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” Which certainly has indoctrination (with the given meaning, “to teach doctrine”) and catechism within it’s bounds.

  19. It takes some serious hand waving to support the christan viewpoint. It is an archaic system that cannot compete with rationality.

  20. I second Wezlo. Catechizing = feeding. Simple one-to-one correlation.

  21. My connotation is superseded by your denotation. I was filled with bad thoughts. I just wish what churches “fed” people with was food. Nourishing, real Word of God Food. To much of what is put on the plate of the believer today is ersatz, filler. Things made by man, opinions of mortals, not the Truth as set forth in His words.
    That does not fill or feed, it chases people out of church.
    You are right the words i used could be good things.

  22. willoh:
    OK, can you define what you mean by this for me?

    “I just wish what churches “fed” people with was food. Nourishing, real Word of God Food.”

    I see the liturgy as pulling that off – but a lot of folks would define that as “traditions of men.”

  23. Wezlo
    I find liturgy to be quite wholesome food myself, like the Doxology, the “Glory be” “Apostles Creed” etc. I do not have a full knowledge of all liturgy, but I once read more people learned about the Triune God from the Doxology than any other source.
    There could be plastic liturgy in some tradition, but I have not run across it.
    I am poorly trying to say that politics, suppositions about dinosaurs, dress codes, and other forms of legalism choke sheep.

  24. quiclime:
    We don’t wave our hands at our church too much, even though the worship leaders sometimes encourage us to when we sing. :)

    Seriously though, the question here is precisely the content of the ‘Christian viewpoint’. Systems of thought such as Evangelicalism can easily become archaic when they are removed from the authentic experience that initiated them. Archaic, not in the sense of being old (many old ways of thinking are quite relevant in modern times), but in the sense of being ‘geriatric’, losing power and purpose. That is the point of this post, as I see it. The evangelical churches have drifted from their roots. That is why iMonk is looking for a ‘Jesus-shaped’ spirituality, because Jesus revealed a new way of thinking and living that has had the power to constantly renew itself. To oppose that to ‘rationality’ as an abstract concept isn’t very helpful, because many forms of rationality, including much modern atheism, are also ‘archaic’ in the sense of having lost their original power and relevance, even if they are not historically very old.

  25. thanks willoh, now I’m tracking with you.

  26. well Obama won, if that’s not proof that the church is collapsing, then I don’t know what is (jn)

  27. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    well Obama won, if that’s not proof that the church is collapsing, then I don’t know what is (jn)

    Tell me about it. My writing partner (a burned-out country preacher-man) has had to do his “DON’T GO STUPID ON ME!” sermon three Sundays in a row. Apparently “Obama won” on top of everything else triggered a major End of the World scare in his area (“Obama IS The Antichrist!” variant), and he’s had to knock some sense into his congregation’s heads. Like last Sunday’s sermon summary, in his own words:

    “The Sunday before the election, I preached on voting your conscience, but make sure you vote.

    “Last Sunday, I preached on, Obama ain’t the enemy. Engage worldviews in a respectful, godly manner. It’s what Christ would do.

    “This Sunday, I’m preaching on it’s been 19 days since the election and Hell still has not vomited up the damned and the dead do not walk the Earth. We have a bigger problem. Our Sunday School program sucks.”

  28. I think the human race is starting to wake up to a more precise perception on what’s going on around us. whether that be in far-eastern, Asiatic practices or the stuff like Eckart Tolle pushes. Our love of faith based beliefs is a necessary step in the process and I don’t think they should be viewed as being heretical. I can still feel the hair raise on the back of my neck when I hear “Power In The Blood” while sitting in in some little 100 year old church way out in the woods. I was raised in The Church Of Christ from an early age and those experiences will be with me as long as I live. but sometimes you gotta just move on. Quiclime: great minds work in similar manners.

  29. Headless Unicorn Guy

    This Sunday, I’m preaching on it’s been 19 days since the election and Hell still has not vomited up the damned and the dead do not walk the Earth. We have a bigger problem. Our Sunday School program sucks.

    LOL!!!

    I am working on a post on how politics has gotten in the way of the gospel. Do you mind if I use your quote?

  30. “This Sunday, I’m preaching on it’s been 19 days since the election and Hell still has not vomited up the damned and the dead do not walk the Earth. We have a bigger problem. Our Sunday School program sucks.”

    OK, that’s freaking hysterical…

  31. Thank you for your nice words about my book. I’m the author of “The Fall of the Evangelical Nation.” I’m going to read the other posts, but it may take me a few days. It’s gardening season in Southern California and as always, I’ve bought more plants than I’m ready to plant. The rains are coming soon, and so I’m in a hurry.

    (Does that sound religious to you? Some days everything sounds religious to me. In the Big R way, I mean.)

    I’m so delighted to be engaged with your group and honored that you would read my book and understand it so well. Your kindness humbles me.

    An old friend from Dallas, Ben Beard, alerted me to this discussion. I laughed aloud at Headless Unicorn’s story of the preacher. Wise words.

    And I nodded when I read Quiclime’s comment about “There’s Power in the Blood.” A longtime friend died last night and all morning another old hymn has been running through my mind. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, sweetest name I know.”

    Sorry I’m rambling. Your comments have overwhelmed me with too many thoughts. They’ve reminded me once again how much I adore evangelicals and other full hearted Christians.

    I’ll read on this afternoon.

    Thank you. Thank you.

  32. After reading this post, I got Duin’s book. While I can certainly agree with many of her points and feel sick about much of what she says, I also wanted to ask her just what she thought a church should be. She levels a lot of criticism at pastors, much of it warranted, but no one pastor could possibly do all to which she alludes: visit, care and counsel people on demand, study 15 hours a week at least, preach messages with both depth and relevance, lead with compelling vision, help people with their spiritual growth, and more. Last time I checked there were only 168 hours in a week and we need to sleep at least 30% of those just to keep going.