August 31, 2016

The Coming Evangelical Collapse (3): Good or Bad?

UPDATE: Great Minds Think Alike: Jared Wilson heard Tim Keller recently. Here’s the quote from Jared’s summary:

Related to that, he predicted, in response to someone’s question in the Q&A time, that in one generation’s time, there won’t even be the nominal Christianity in the South that there is now. The megachurches will flounder and people will just stop going. Now they are only going b/c it is somewhat expected, part of the culture, or as some moral exercise to “stay right” or raise “good families” or do what their parents did or to “connect” with other Christian consumers.

Keep reading IM, Dr. Keller. (That’s a joke.)

3. Is all of this a bad thing?

I’ve received many notes and emails over this series of posts, and I’m glad that it has been provocative and discussion-producing.

Is the coming evangelical collapse entirely a bad thing? Or is there good that will come from this season of the evangelical story?

One of the most encouraging developments in recent evangelicalism is the conviction that something is very wrong. One voice that has been warning American evangelicals of serious problems is theologian Michael Horton. For more than 20 years, Horton has been warning that evangelicals have become something almost unrecognizable in the flow of Christian history. From the prophetic Made in America to the incredible In The Face of God to the most recent Christless Christianity, Horton has been saying that evangelicals are on the verge of theological/ecclesiastical disaster.

Horton’s diagnosis is not, however, the same diagnosis as we saw in the heyday of the culture war, i.e. that evangelicals must rise up and take political and cultural influence if America is to survive and guarantee freedom and blessing. Horton’s warning has been the abandonment of the most basic calling of the church: the preservation and communication of the essentials of the Gospel in the church itself.

The coming evangelical collapse will be, in my view, exactly what Horton has been warning us about for two decades. In that sense, there is something fundamentally healthy about accepting that, if the disease cannot be cured, then the symptoms need to run their course and we need to get to the next chapter. Evangelicalism doesn’t need a bailout. Much of it needs a funeral.

But not all; not by any means. In other words, the question is not so much what will be lost, but what is the condition of what remains?

As I’ve said in the previous post in this series, what will be left will be 1) an evangelicalism greatly chastened in numbers, influence and resources, 2) a remaining majority of Charismatic-Pentecostal Christians faced with the opportunity to reform or become unrecognizable, 3) an invigorated minority of evangelicals committed to theology and church renewal, 4) a marginalized emerging and mainline community and 5) an evangelicalized segment of the other Christian communions.

Is it a good thing that denominations are going to become large irrelevant? Only if the networks that replace them are able to marshall resources, training and vision to the mission field and into the planting and equipping of churches?

Is it a good thing that many marginal believers will depart, leaving evangelicalism with a more committed, serious core of followers? Possibly, if churches begin and continue the work of renewing serious church membership?

Is it a good thing that the emerging church will fade into the irrelevance of the mainlines? If this leaves innovative, missionally minded, historically and confessionally orthodox churches to “emerge” in the place of the traditional church, yes. Yes, if it fundamentally changes the conversation from the maintenance of traditional churches to developing new and culturally appropriate churches.

Is it a good thing that Charismatic-Pentecostal Christianity will become the majority of evangelicals? Yes, if reformation can reach those churches and produce the kind of unity we see in Wesley and Lloyd-Jones; a unity where the cleavage between doctrine and spiritual gifts isn’t assumed.

The ascendency of Charismatic-Pentecostal influenced worship around the world can be a major positive for the evangelical movement if that development is joined with the calling, training and mentoring of leaders. If American churches come under more of the influence of the movement of the Spirit in Africa and Asia, this will be a good thing. (I recognize, btw, that all is not well overseas, but I do not believe that makes the help of Christians in other cultures a moot point.)

Will the evangelicalizing of Catholic and Orthodox communions be a good development? One can hope for greater unity and appreciation, but the history of these developments seems to be much more about a renewed vigor to “evangelize” Protestantism in the name of unity. For those communions, it’s a good development, but probably not for evangelicals themselves.

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.

But it is impossible to not be hopeful. As one commenter has already said, “Christianity loves a crumbling empire.” Christianity has flourished when it should have been exterminated. It has conquered when it was counted as defeated. Evangelicalism’s heyday is not the entirety of God’s plan.

I think we can rejoice that in the ruins of the evangelical collapse new forms of Christian vitality and ministry will be born. New kinds of church structure, new uses of gifts, new ways to develop leaders and do the mission- all these will appear as the evangelical collapse occurs.

I expect to see a vital and growing house church movement. This cannot help but be good for an evangelicalism that has made buildings, paid staff and numbers its drugs for half a century.

I expect to see a substantial abandonment of the seminary system. How can a denomination ask its clergy to go into huge debt to be equipped for ordination or ministry? We all know that there are many options for education from much smaller schools to church based seminaries to internet schools to mentoring and apprenticing arrangements. We must do better in this area, and I think we will.

In fact, I hope that many IM readers will be part of the movement to create a new evangelicalism that learns from the past and listens more carefully to what God says about being his people in the midst of a powerful, idolatrous culture. There are encouraging signs, but evangelical culture has the ability to disproportionately judge the significance of movements within it.

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?

Comments

  1. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Headless Unicorn Guy, I trust the salvation of my kids to God (I’m sure you do too.) — NedBrek

    I have no kids. I never married. Too geeky for any woman to ever find me attractive. Unbroken string of rejections.

    And whenever I hear the phrase “WWJD” I think FLUFFY! FLUFFY!

  2. Our mental abilities, gifts from God, available for analysis and parsing of intellectual points of view. The ideas here expressed, most interesting. The thoughtfulness, appreciated, because we’re all hoping to express more of God in our lives — at least, I can hope that we share the goal for the greatest good as we write our ideas in this forum.

    And yet, didn’t Jesus identify the low-caste “doer of the word” Samaritan of undefined religiosity as the true friend who helped the injured stranger (in a pre-Christian world of the educated religious devout who passed on the other side)? And didn’t Jesus specify being friends through the reign of infinite God (defined by scripture as Spirit and Love)as the goal to which we aspire? He becomes our friend when we follow the steps of ministry modeled — not when we argue among ourselves over who is more devout and whose doctrinal spin is better.

    Wisdom, Mary, the sacred feminine: all exist(equal in Christ) in the canonical biblical texts alongside the sacred masculine’s attributes, yet the finite man-made ego has infiltrated organized Christianity (as well other organized religion) to the point that women leave in droves (mentally if not physically) while evangelicals argue to their demise.

    The true Christ, the Holy Spirit, the One who holds the cosmos in timeless compassion will see us through this. If we really know Jesus, we will not wrangle over dogma. He never did.

  3. Brilliant observations. Brilliant series. All students of church history should be able to see the cracks in the foundation.

  4. Steve Dutch says:

    In all the posts here, not one has mentioned the elephant in the room. Evangelical Christianity will never be taken seriously by non-Christians as long as it is identified with anti-intellectualism, and that means ADMITTING ERROR ON EVOLUTION. Conservative Christians are wrong about evolution and wrong about the exegesis that they use to excuse their willful denial of reality. In fact most anti-evolution literature isn’t merely wrong but outright deceitful. How you resolve this is up to you – you painted yourselves into the corner and you can jolly well get yourselves out. When it comes to interpreting how the natural world works, science, not religion, is the lawful authority.

    Someone mentined teaching the archeological evidence for the Bible. Nobody will take that seriously, either, unless you are equally willing to teach archeological evidence that either contradicts or fails to support the Bible. A good working definition of a cult is any religion that refuses to accept correction or admit error. If the shoe fits….

  5. I got here from the abbreviated version of this series on the CSMonitor web site… couple of comments. I think that in the unchurched NorthWest, we are still in the pre-church stage and the number of church goers is very low. While many would take your article and sound the alarm, I see this as actually calling the lukewarm to either fight or flight and, for eternity sake, is needed to get repentent beleivers on mission.

    There are many strong evangelical churches in the NorthWest, however many call themselves evangelical but would not pass the evangelical test. There are people that play Christianity… health and wealth, pro-homosexual, pro-abortion, pro-tradition, etc. that miss the fact that the Bible is not a story of rules but a story of salvation and repentence.

    I think that the best you can do with major headlines like this is scare off the lukewarms… until we are under further persecution, they are unlikely to repent – in that regard, persecution becomes beneficial, albeit unpleasant. I would say that in the NorthWest, persecution is already live and well and those that truly seek repentence already face persecution. For those that have not yet been presented with the Gospel of repentence, it is either welcomed for it’s direct calling to repent and turn from all sin or it is ridiculed as old fashioned and no longer relevant. Lukewarm is not a typical adjective of a Seattle-ite’s faith.

    We in the West often wonder what “Bible belt” actually means since in many ways it seems that the church in the Bible belt is more susceptible to complacency due to a lack of persecution. My family in the Midwest is much more complacent than the majority of those that would call themselves evangelical in the NorthWest – likely because to be associated with a gospel of repentence in the NorthWest does open you up to persecution.

    Bill

  6. Rev.Rowland says:

    wow! Great series, IM, we have lived out a little of what you’ve described. Grew up fundy Baptist and realized with maturity and personal study that some traditions are man-made and not of God, went into non-denominational evangelicalism, you know, Bible-only and found that every group has a penchant for establishing their own traditions over Christ.

    Now, we have a home fellowship of a handful of believers. I have seen the gifts of the Spirit more active in the home group than I ever did at the weekly ‘show’ down at the church-house. We have abandoned the show-church to seek a group of people who want to follow Jesus, establish His Kingdom (not organizations), and please the Father.

    God has been sending us opportunities to share the Gospel in unexpected ways, through old relationships or people we never met that we suddenly were thrown together with. hmmm. OUTSIDE the structure of what we call ‘church’ in America, the Kingdom lives on.

    Very timely series, thanks for writing it.

  7. Theophilus says:

    Evangelicals are going to be just fine. We are on the brink of rebirth not collapse. Or, perhapse, reformation instead of collapse. I am non-denominational. Our church has, in four years, grown from a house to roughly 700 members every Sunday. Hardly a 50% collapse. I live in a college town.

    We have thriving small group system.
    I am part of the intercessory team, and we pray each Sunday that God’s will would be done in our service.

    I and another member have just started reading AW Tozer’s Knowledge of the Holy. AWESOME. Hopefully it will become a Sunday school class.

    Finally, evangelicasl (at least non-denom) derive their strength and vitality from a personal relationship with God. When we truly impact society it is not through a centralized church system, but through many individual doing their best to lead a life pleasing to God. Thus, certain trends and “lack of leadership” are useless monikers as they try to measure what does not exist.

  8. Appreciated your piece on the collapse of evangelicalism. We started a new independent Methodist movement known as the Bethel Methodist Church for that very reason in 1988. We have only four small churches in Texas but we know we are called of God to “get it right.” We are always looking for other souls and chuches who feel the same way. Thank you.

  9. The problem is that the Bible itself is flawed. It was created by men, the books included and excluded were decided by men, it contains the doctrine of men, and has been altered many times by men. Any church attempting to have a full fledged repentance based on a seriously flawed set of documents will itself result in a seriously flawed church. Repent of following the doctrine of the church and the doctrine of men and you will be saved.

  10. Love the site and the discussion. As an SBC who has been teaching church history for nearly 10 years I find much to agree with Michael. What is happening is nothing new. The Church ebbs and flows. One must remember that both Rome and Constantinople fell into serious error accepting the Arian heresy. God raised up a man, Athanasius, who stood against all who tried to take control of the Church and deny the tri-une nature of God. I say tried because men cannot take control of the Church. The Church is Spirit filled men and women who are followers of Jesus Christ and not any denomination.
    Believers who do enter into Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic will find this barrier. Both say “they” are the Church. Both EO and the RC will not admit to the errors in their own history.

  11. Your comments about seminaries piqued my imagination and passions a bit. I think this would be fantastic. I don’t find this idea (seminary training) anywhere in scripture. Too, most people I’ve witnessed go through seminary (with some exceptions), seem equipped to keep the machine humming along, but don’t really seem more equipped to be disciples. Doing the latter is a work of the Holy Spirit and doesn’t require a ThD.

    Hopefully The Church of the future will have a simple, organic, reproducible means of growing leaders. Lord-willing, maybe we’ll even stop using resources to have trained “professionals” rather than all the body diligently pursuing Jesus Christ.

    Lastly, I hope The Church of the future stops making a distinction between the life of a believer and “ministry” and that anything not born of the Spirit of God is set aside.

  12. “Will the evangelicalizing of Catholic and Orthodox communions be a good development? One can hope for greater unity and appreciation, but the history of these developments seems to be much more about a renewed vigor to “evangelize” Protestantism in the name of unity. For those communions, it’s a good development, but probably not for evangelicals themselves.”

    Full disclosure: I’m Catholic.

    On balance we should recognize that Protestants have been “evangelizing” predominantly Catholic countries in Latin America for a long time.

    As a Christian (both when I was Protestant and now as a Catholic), I took Jesus prayer in John 17 for unity seriously, but there can only be unity in the fullness of the truth. A scattering of home churches or other small, unconnected Christian groups who make their own statements of faith and decide their own doctrine, leads to disunity: mutually exclusive doctrines about important matters of the faith. We cannot become unified in the truth by further dividing into more and more groups or by creating yet another church, but only by finding the visible Church Christ established.

    Of course I understand that most Protestants, especially evangelicals, do not believe Christ established a visible Church, but what are the consequences we see in Protestantism of no visible Church, which then has no visible authority and no protection against teaching error? Doctrinal chaos and the widespread promulgation of error, even on fundamental tenets of our Christian faith.

    I would argue it is not good for evangelicals to be split into even more mini-denominations or home churches than they are now, but if the claims of the Catholic Church are true, then it is most certainly a “good development” for evangelical Christians to enter full communion with the Church and come to believe in the fullness of the truth.

    If there is no visible Church, no binding authority given by Christ to men on earth, and no safeguard from teaching error, then every man for himself, and yes, establish your own home church or You-church and try to find some people who believe close to whatever you believe and worship with them.

    I hope that the coming evangelical collapse causes evangelicals to ponder and investigate what they believe and why they believe it, including the tenets of the Reformation and the 1500 years of Christianity before the Reformation.

  13. I listened to Chris Fabry live today and heard you for the first time and then was directed to this site.

    Thank you, thank you, for your insights and wisdom. I am so thankful that I can read/hear your well articulated thoughts instead of just getting frustrated on top of my own “soap box”.

    I grew up in western Canada raised in very sheltered Christian/evangelical/fundamental background. It has taken years to shed the unnecessary, hurtful extras that come with the evangelical subculture. I am still most likely one of those pias, self righteous ones, but also rebellious Christians that don’t want to follow all the “rules”. I am deeply impressed with Christ and redemption and his grace and love, but wholly unimpressed with what shows up from the American evangelical subculture especially when things don’t go their way. i.e. moral values and a non-republican president. I desperately wish the gospel of Christ could emerge easily and readily without all these confusing extras. But then again this is a very fallen world. If we could just get that. If we could just get the fallen part and not seek to raise ourselves up as if we could develop such a perfect godly kingdom simply because we are “Christians”. I too want to take shots at it.

    I am left with the what now? I am left with the reality that the cross was and is good enough. God is much bigger than all of this. The truth of Christ and His redemptive plan is and will not be threatened and cannot be threatened by our prideful ignorance.

    Enough from me,
    Cindy

  14. One of the Branches says:

    How can the “church” collapse. Thats impossible. What is collapsing is what we THINK is the church. But the church is really the assembly, the body of Yeshua (Jesus). Buildings may be evacuated, the denominational bodies may fall, but the church will always be the church and be doing what the church is supposed to be doing, or its simply just not the church at all. If you want the blessing of God on your congregations take care of the poor, the orphans, the widows. Love God with all our heart and Loving our neighbors – find out what pleases Him. Obeying God has become very unpopular and uncool. Well, the body of Yeshua will always do what Yeshua did, or simply, they are not the body at all! Pastors have become philosophers and instead of shepherds they have become motivational speakers. I really don’t go to church to find out what a man has to say. I want to know what God has to say. Read the word to your congregations. Ask them what THEY think it means. You may be surprised at how the spoken word in and of itself transforms people. We talk about how prayer is taken out of the schools? Well, I noticed the Word has been taken out of the church’s message. Yeshua told us to preach “Repent, for the Kingdom is near.” Yet we would tell him to stop preaching that!

  15. Kenneth Schmidt says:

    I, frankly, would deplore the end of the seminary system. The little Lutheran church of which I recently was a member was being served by a lay-deacon who went though a locally-based non-academic training program and I have to say the man (though friendly and kind) was absolutely cueless theologically.

    If American Christianity, both Evangelical and non-evangelical, dosen’t develop traditions toward a theologically astute laity, then the church will disappear on this continent. In this era of near universal literacy, why are so many Christians uninterested in the study of dogma?

  16. IM, don’t you think it is the world that is “collapsing?” All around us and to the extent it exists in us? So the worldliness, the idolatries, of the evangelicals, is collapsing with all the other things of this world, which will be ultimately dissolved. So what else is new? We have parallels, after all, in Israel and Judah. Hasn’t the “church” equaled or even at times surpassed them in darkness over the last 2000 years? Hasn’t judgment begun with the household of God? You think you see the future of these things? The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but can you tell from where it came or where it is going?

  17. Great series. I especially like this bit:

    “I think we can rejoice that in the ruins of the evangelical collapse new forms of Christian vitality and ministry will be born. New kinds of church structure, new uses of gifts, new ways to develop leaders and do the mission- all these will appear as the evangelical collapse occurs.”

    It seems that the church has approximately three choices to make in the face of an increasingly more secular culture: resist, conform, or redeem. As you’ve already noted, some will resist (most likely the SBC), others will conform (maybe some mainliners and emerging folk), and hopefully, a remnant will redeem the culture and see a new Christianity rise from the ashes.

    Thanks for not telling the church that it should simply be more relevant, listen to trendier music, or just stop being so darn worldly. I appreciated your biblical, balanced, yet realistic approach to the future of evangelicalism.

  18. Mike,
    Thank you for your well thought out assessment of the near future of the church. It is a shame that we focus so much on the organization, and so little on the organism. The Life of the Church will always take care of His body. But the form of the body in organization is open to any change He wishes. It does not matter what happens to the organization, as long as the health of the organism thrives. Regrettably, the organization has hindered the health of the organism, so I tend to concur with your assessment. Father cares more for the organism and will cut out like a cancer the organizations that harm the organism.

  19. Patrick Henry says:

    James Joyce once told someone that he had lost faith in the RCC (Not Royal Crown Cola). The person asked him, “Did you become a Protestant?” Joyce replied, “I said I lost my faith not my reason.”
    Christianity gets weaker and will disappear because it has become fully Judaized, Zionized, and Jewified. Maybe some of the Eastern Orthodox Churches will hang on, especially the Palestinian branch. The Christianity that has betrayed Palestine deserves to disappear. GOOD RIDANCE TO BAD RUBBISH!