April 24, 2014

Was 2012 the Year of the CEC?

“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.”

- Michael Spencer, CEC (2009)

“In 2012 we witnessed a collapse in American evangelicalism.”

- John S. Dickerson, NY Times

* * *

In 2009, Michael Spencer wrote three widely-read posts that became synonymous with Internet Monk on “The Coming Evangelical Collapse” –

John S. Dickerson is an evangelical pastor and author of the forthcoming book “The Great Evangelical Recession: Six Factors That Will Crash the American Church … and How to Prepare.” On Sunday, he wrote an opinion piece called, “The Decline of Evangelical America,” in which he posited that Michael’s prediction has come true. “Evangelicalism as we knew it in the 20th century is disintegrating,” he claims.

His evidence and observations?

  • A 2011 Pew Forum poll in which 82% of evangelical ministers reported their sense of a growing loss of influence and a movement that is losing ground.
  • Evangelical polling organizations such as Lifeway and Barna that have found in their research that: “a majority of young people raised as evangelicals are quitting church, and often the faith, entirely.”
  • His own research project, which found that: “the structural supports of evangelicalism are quivering as a result of ground-shaking changes in American culture,” and that: “The more that evangelicals attempt to correct course, the more they splinter their movement.” His conclusion? “In coming years we will see the old evangelicalism whimper and wane.”
  • Dickerson observes that evangelicals are a shrinking minority in the U.S., and he cites the work of Christian Smith, whose findings show that Christians who identify as evangelicals make up only 7% of Americans.
  • The movement also faces a looming donation crisis.
  • The reputation of evangelicals is declining as they find it difficult to adapt to rapid changes in culture.
  • Though evangelicals have a relatively sophisticated network of communications and resources, their own machinery often gets in the way of their primary mission of making disciples and pointing others to Jesus Christ.

Dickerson concludes:

How can evangelicalism right itself? I don’t believe it can — at least, not back to the politically muscular force it was as recently as 2004, when white evangelicals gave President George W. Bush his narrow re-election. Evangelicals can, however, use the economic, social and spiritual crises facing America to refashion themselves into a more sensitive, spiritual and humble movement.

He suggests that much of the cultural backlash against evangelicalism is not directly so much toward their views as it is toward their posture of sitting as moral judges. Christians have forgotten that their faith started as a minority position in a pagan world, and unless they recover the ethos of being “resident aliens” in the world, they will continue to be marginalized.

He also reminds us, however, that weakness is not a bad position for Christians to be in. “For me, the deterioration and disarray of the movement is a source of hope: hope that churches will stop angling for human power and start proclaiming the power of Christ.”

Comments

  1. It is interesting how Mr. Dickerson believes that evangelicals should move away from political engagement (since this makes us look bad, “repressed bigots” and so forth) while imitating the early Church. As fine fellows like N.T. Wright are reminding us, the Gospel for the early Church was political from the start: Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. That means something, no? Maybe something…err…political?

    You can see that the early Church was political because of what she produced: the Christendom of the Middle Ages. When Constantine wanted to convert, the early Church, for better or for worse, took him in.

    Richard Wurmbrand, Lutheran pastor and the famous founder of Voice of the Martyrs, once wrote in one of his books (I think Tortured for Christ) that if the leaders of a society are not converted to Christianity, missionary activity will be slow, meet with constant opposition and will never have a chance at reaching the whole culture. But once the leaders convert, the people follow them, and then you have the possibility for broader outreach. This was the experience of the Church in the Middle Ages in Europe. From Rome, she sent out missionaries to the far corners of barbarian kingdoms.

    American evangelicalism has historically been unsure of itself politically because it is steeped in baptistic/revivalist theology, which isn’t all bad of course, but it lacks a covenantal vision, a vision of what discipling whole families and nations looks like. As more evangelicals begin to read the works of the Reformers, we may hope these trends will change.

    • The Gospel certainly has a political element to it, but primarily that operates over and above the existing political power structures. There may be certain times when we can become involved in certain political issues, but I think it requires wisdom in doing so. We have to be able to walk away from causes once they demand that we compromise on core values. I think that’s the problem with Evangelicals being so closely tied to conservative politics. The issues themselves quickly become secondary, and beating a political opponent becomes the most important thing.

      • I agree. I think the sight during the Bush years of evangelicals making excuses for torture, making excuses for civil liberties violations and making excuses for unjustified wars based on lies was a terrible terrible sight. We harmed our witness, and we did it because we were too enamored of the GOP and not reading our Bibles or Constitutions closely enough.

        But the previous paragraph indicates that I hold to certain standards of behavior that are external to myself. Others clearly do not; most notably our federal government (even under Mr. Obama, who has essentially taken Mr. Bush’s policies and made them worse). This means there is disagreement over right and wrong; there is a battle being fought, and my side is losing. There are “opponents” to be denounced, yea, even beaten.

        From my limited vantage point, it sure does seem like the pro-life and anti-gay marriage Christians, standing alone in a sexualized culture being vilified for their beliefs, are more committed to the historical orthodox Christian faith and are behaving more like the early Christians (also anti-abortion, also accused of sexual repression, also vilified and hated) than the suave liberals/emergent folks who seem to be timid about taking a hard position on anything. But maybe that’s just me.

        • From my limited vantage point, it sure does seem like the pro-life and anti-gay marriage Christians, standing alone in a sexualized culture being vilified for their beliefs, are more committed to the historical orthodox Christian faith and are behaving more like the early Christians (also anti-abortion, also accused of sexual repression, also vilified and hated) than the suave liberals/emergent folks who seem to be timid about taking a hard position on anything. But maybe that’s just me.

          Evangelicals would have more moral authority on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, etc. if they practiced what they preached. That’s the problem. People don’t want to be lectured about the sanctity of marriage by people who have divorce rates about the same as the general public.

          From my perspective as one who grew up entrenched in the Evangelical movement, I know I always thought of myself as just a little bit better than everyone else. I think if you talked to a lot of Evangelicals, and they were honest, they would say something like that too. So we like to issue these pronouncements on top of our moral perch, but meanwhile we don’t stop to take an introspective look at ourselves.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Evangelicals would have more moral authority on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, etc. if they practiced what they preached. That’s the problem. People don’t want to be lectured about the sanctity of marriage by people who have divorce rates about the same as the general public.

            And who always seem to be involved in clergy child-molesting scandals and child-molesting coverup scandals. (And I’m not talking about Catholics; we might have been first past the post with the latest wave of clergy sex scandals, but the Evangelicals are catching up FAST as a lot of them are now getting outed.) Get outside the four walls of Christian Bizarro World and you discover “Christian” — especially “Chrsitain Spokesman” — means a more genteel version of Fred Phelps. And probably with a secret life like Ted Haggard.

          • as one who grew up entrenched in the Evangelical movement, I know I always thought of myself as just a little bit better than everyone else.

            I second that experience. It makes it rather difficult to relate to those heathen unbelievers who are constantly degrading themselves morally with the kinda of heinous and selfish acts I would never do! I’ve gotta somehow convince them to clean up their act like me! …or at least, that’s how the evangelical subculture taught me to think. We’ve nothing to loose by getting less of that. Sometimes Evangelical teaching does nothing but get in the way of love for one’s neighbor. (Especially when they have a bulls-eye painted on their necks by would be evangelists.) It’s no wonder that most Evangelicals have few meaningful relationships with unbelievers.

        • Marcus Johnson says:

          Quick question, Ben Carmack: If your side is losing, then are you sure you’re on God’s side? Just saying, the God I worship doesn’t lose battles.

          Maybe if we quit fighting these culture wars and took up the cross, we wouldn’t find ourselves losing battles we were never meant to fight.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I think that’s the problem with Evangelicals being so closely tied to conservative politics. The issues themselves quickly become secondary, and beating a political opponent becomes the most important thing.

        And the Gospel becomes nothing more than a coat of paint for a Power Struggle.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      You can see that the early Church was political because of what she produced: the Christendom of the Middle Ages. When Constantine wanted to convert, the early Church, for better or for worse, took him in.

      The same “Christendom of the Middle Ages” that Evangelicals denounce as Pagan Apostasy?

    • > It is interesting how Mr. Dickerson believes that evangelicals should move
      > away from political engagement (since this makes us look bad, “repressed bigots”
      > and so forth) while

      Which… is a political calculation. How about just determining what is wise and prudent and doing that. Get out of the game of the great calculation.

      > imitating the early Church

      Ugh! I’m so tired of “the early Church” as avatar of awesomeness. In any case, even if we agree about what the “early Church” was or was like … this is 2,000+ years later. Now is not then. What is wise and prudent now? Let’s just discuss that without having to be beaten by this trope.

      • I agree with your being tired of “the early Church” avatar of awesomeness. Read Acts more closely. Within a short time of being “perfect” problems began popping up. I would venture to say that the early Church was as broken as it is now. I could argue that its venture into the political was what caused early Church brokenness.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Like Little House on the Prairie and The Nifty Fifties, “The Early Church” period has become a mythic Godly Golden Age. When it was probably more like Dickens said in the intro to Tale of Two Cities:

          “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… In short, it was a time like any other.”

    • >American evangelicalism has historically been unsure of itself politically because
      > it is steeped in baptistic/revivalist theology, which isn’t all bad of course,

      Or maybe it is [all bad]. Or at least just nonsense. Does revival have any connection to the day after? Or enough connection to even be worth mentioning? Get rid of it. It doesn’t make sense in a literate world – if someone is seeking they have innumerable tools to help them find.

      > but it lacks a covenantal vision, a vision of what discipling whole families and nations looks like

      Ditto. Stop telling me all about the things to be feared, what you don’t like, what makes you angry…. tell me about the world you would create, what you think I should do, and what you think is beautiful and good. Just stop being war mongers, and become builders.

      But I don’t believe Evangelicalism can do that; they’re institutions are simply to dishonest and proud to endure critique.

      Christianity will be healthier with them gone.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I’ve heard it said that you can tell whether a preacher is in trouble when he stops preaching what he’s for and only preaches what he’s against. And we’ve heard a lot of Evangelical preaching about What We’re Against.

    • Randy Thompson says:

      It seems to me that the astounding growth of Christianity in modern China and the first three centuries of Christian history suggest that Wurmbrand overstates his case. The Gospel of a crucified Messiah doesn’t need Caesar’s help.

      By the way, there is much that “Caesar” needs to learn from a Gospel about a crucified Messiah!

    • Ben Carmack,
      The model that the early church ended up following was one of coercion. On the one hand, it became socially advantageous for people to convert to Christianity, following their leaders, while the culture itself retained much of the same worship of power and success and violence (yes, criminals and rebels were thrown to the lions by Christian rulers with the full approval of many bishops) that it had under pagan rule; on the other hand, many people were forced to convert at the point of a sword, meaning that their rulers were compelled to be baptized, and then they had no choice in the matter because societal protocol required the subjects to follow their rulers example. Such conversions did not succeed in altering the pagan nihilism that existed at the core of classical society, and it has continued to exist under the patina of Christendom throughout the history of the West. We are seeing that latent pagan nihilism re-assert itself now in Europe and North America, and we can not take the same track that the early church did, because it does not lead to true conversion of either societies or individuals.

  2. It’s not just evangelicalism, its Protestantism in general that is contracting. The best way to understand why it is to weigh costs against benefits. Setting aside those which are purely supernatural and cannot be demonstrated in any meaningful way, we see declining benefits (no social stigma attaches to nonaffiliation, the church no longer occupies the center of social, cultural, or intellectual life) against social costs which vary from denomination to denomination, but can be substantial in the case of especially strident groups like fundamentalists or evangelicals. More and more people are asking the question, “…and for what?” It’s just like the fall of Communism.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      My writing partner (the burned-out preacher) has told me that “John Nelson Darby and Hal Lindsay destroyed Protestant Christianity in America.”

      Because when you’re going to be beamed up to a Heavenly Galt’s Gulch any minute now, you won’t have a stake in what’s going on — all vertical, no horizontal. And while you’re up on the hilltops in your white robes waiting, the outside society goes on without you. And without any input or influence you might have had in it.

      And then when things drift far enough from you that you finally notice it, you react with even more Purity-of-Ideology Fundamentalism and wild plans to take over and FORCE your Righteousness on everyone else. In reality, such power usually doesn’t extend farther than the four walls of your sealed-off church, which is why Wartburg Watch et al are reporting more and more control-freak abusive church situations.

    • Jose Gonzales says:

      IMMORAL people are increasingly less interested in religion because they don’t believe in hell or even in God anymore. Increasingly it is getting to the point where only MORAL people care about religion, and they don’t like “faith alone” so Protestantism will decline. Pretty simply, isn’t it?

  3. I thought that the church really grew when it was being persecuted by the government. That is the way it started and that lasted quite a while. All the while the church grew…and apart from being political.

    I don’t believe that the church should be political (nowadays), but that Christians should, and ought to do their political duty. Just don’t tie it to the gospel. Ever.

  4. Matt Purdum says:

    Wright’s definition of “political” isn’t precisely the same as Pat Robertson’s. Wright understands that all the Kingdoms of THIS world are lined up against the Kingdom of God. Robertson-types, following the Puritans, believe America is the City on a Hill and that “we” Americans are the “people of God.” The Puritans, of course, were Christianity’s most extreme sect in the early 1600s, people who defined a witch as “any old widow who owns property the church covets.”

  5. The older I get the more I see that “Evangelicals” really don’t fully get the Gospel. For example;

    The core evangelical belief is that love and forgiveness are freely available to all who trust in Jesus Christ. This is the “good news” from which the evangelical name originates.

    Perhaps most folks won’t stub a toe in those two sentences, but Dickerson’s statement of what he calls the “core evangelical belief” is indicative of an essential misunderstanding of the Gospel which has plagued the movement and made it what it is. The love and forgivenss of God to all people is a catholic reality, and not to just those who “trust in Jesus Christ.” Evangelicals have turned the Gospel into a transaction just as they have turned the church into a business corporation.

    T

    • Matt Purdum says:

      I don’t think the preaching of universalism does anyone any good. The Bible certainly indicates that not all are saved.

      • No one should preach “universalism”–which isn’t the Gospel but rather a systematic theology.

        The core proof-text of Evangelicalism is a universal/catholic proclamation;

        16 “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. 17 God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. 18 Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.

        God’s gift of salvation to the world is a gift (“God gave”) to be trusted, not a deal yet to be closed.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          No one should preach “universalism”–which isn’t the Gospel but rather a systematic theology.

          As is Calvinism.

          Maybe the moral of the story is taking Systematic Theology too far (to where it becomes Purity of Ideology-ism) is a bad thing? Don’t take it too far?

          • David Cornwell says:

            I think all systematic theology falls short at one place or another. In the end, we as humans, only see through a glass darkly. Be careful because God will mess up our theology.

          • As is Armininism.

            Did you sniff some Calvinism in my remarks? The only positive I could say for Calvin is that perhaps he was right half the time.

            T

        • The gospel is a reality.

          In the hearing of it, some will come to a living faith. Many won’t. That’s not our business. we cannot shoehorn anyone into believing.

  6. Does Dickerson give Michael any credit? Considering all the criticism he received when he first made coming evangelical collapse proclamation, it is a little frustrating for him to be ignored, now that he is being proven to be right.

    • Not in the article itself. I think he’s giving a year-end reflection and thinking about the election and so on. We will have to wait and see if the book, which is coming out in Jan., cites MS.

  7. Tim van Haitsma says:

    His website has the Intro and 1 st chapter as a preview. Those do not mention the iMonk. They are a nice read though.

  8. Nice post and it should be interesting to see how things play out over the next few years.

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    He suggests that much of the cultural backlash against evangelicalism is not directly so much toward their views as it is toward their posture of sitting as moral judges.

    Moral Judges like Jimmy Swaggart, Fred Phelps, Ted Haggard, and Rush Limbaugh?

  10. “He suggests that much of the cultural backlash against evangelicalism is not directly so much toward their views as it is toward their posture of sitting as moral judges.”

    But isn’t most of society, including those outside of evangelicalism, made up of moral judges?

    I think it is more the contemporary moral code of “tolerance” that is at issue here.

    • He is comparing evangelicals with other religious groups and traditions that have equally unpopular positions but who nevertheless carry a better reputation in the culture.

  11. Personally, I think the decline of Evangelicalism, in it’s current form in the West, will be a good thing for Christianity and the kingdom of God. At some point I believe it has become more of a hinderance to faith than a conduit to it. The Wesleyan-Pietistic-Revivalism that dominates the scene and has fueled things like the seeker-sensitive and church growth movements ultimately leads people away from faith in Christ with its hyper-pragmatic decision theology pointing to experience and emotion. When people wake up and realize they are numb to God without the lights and glam of strategic productions getting them all spiritually stirred up, it’s only a matter of time before they walk away in order to be honest with themselves. Too many leaving evangelicalism don’t realize how drastically different it has become from the rest of historic Christianity, so the walk away from Christ without ever having gotten to know Him (ironic, considering the Evangelical emphasis on the “personal relationship with Jesus”). It’s time for the older faces of Christianity to step up to the plate and give a better picture of what following Christ in the community of faith looks like. Evangelicalism has accumulated too much baggage, and its leaders are not going to correct course with as much as they have invested in novelties. God will build His church on the foundation of Christ, and whatever is built on sand collapses and does not drag Christ down with it.

  12. Christiane says:

    Has anyone noticed how many ‘cross-overs’ there are now among Christian evangelicals who have come into the warmth of liturgical worship?

    I am seeing this a lot on some Southern Baptist blogs where I visit.

    They still see themselves as evangelicals, but they are being nourished in ways of prayer that connect them more to their Christian brothers and sisters who don’t wear the label ‘evangelical’ in the fundamentalist sense.

  13. “He suggests that much of the cultural backlash against evangelicalism is not directly so much toward their views as it is toward their posture of sitting as moral judges.”

    This is a true statement, but in a strange sense, I actually say a hearty Amen to it. Think back to early Rome. Part of the reason that the Christians were thrown to the lions is because the Roman state was wicked and immoral and the Christian community had an absolute standard with which to judge their society. Combine this with the fact that they refused to worship the emperor alone, and you understand why they were killed. So part the conundrum with the quote above is that I believe most readers of this blog will see the statement and think “yah, that’s right, we don’t need sit in judgement of our wicked society.” Of course, I vehemently disagree with that sentiment. Jesus Himself said that the world would hate us, just as it hated Him. Either we believe that statement or we don’t. So, if you believe the words of Christ, then you are forced to disagree with the quote in question. The world will hate us, because of our views and because we have an absolute standard by which to judge our society. Personally, I agree with the main point of the article. It’s obvious that the church is declining and that freedom of religion will go out the window, in favor of complete tolerance and affirmation of all views (irony of ironies though… historic, orthodox Christian views will not be tolerated). But I see this as a positive, due to the fact that the wheat will be separated from the chaff.

  14. Jose Gonzales says:

    “He suggests that much of the cultural backlash against evangelicalism is not directly so much toward their views as it is toward their posture of sitting as moral judges.”

    To me the problem is very different: While they pretend to moral superiority they are NOT moral and their doctrine is the CAUSE of the immorality inherent in modern secular culture.

    From where does the homosexuality epidemic come from? From Protestant faith-onlyist preaching that belittles the need for moral living! They can sit on their high horse pretending to moral superiority all they want, but they CAUSE this. Their “born this way excuse” (i.e. original sin) is the culprit. And although they condemn homosexuality, its only a party trick, because out of the other side of their mouth they say “faith alone! faith alone!”

    Anyone well read in the first three centuries of patristics — i.e. before Augustine — knows that Christianity wasn’t like that then. There was a great deal of emphasis on morality, and people actually lived it, not just toyed with it or used it as a bludgeon to beat other people down because there was no “faith alone” excuse to do the very things you were condemning or similar things (like condemning homosexuality but then having pre-marital sex and pleading “faith alone” when called on it).

    • This is incoherent.

      Why do you exclude Augustine from the patristics? Let me guess, you’re a Eastern Orthodox apologist in training .

      “Faith-onlyist” preaching denies the ability to claim moral superiority, but nevertheless, also puts a great deal of emphasis on God’s demand that we love our neighbor, because the purposes of the Law (to curb bad behavior, to show the need for Christ, and to instruct Christians about the good), can’t be served without the Law.

    • Wait, hold the phone! So Protestantism is what’s been causing homosexuality? That is so hilarious! It made my day.

  15. Jose Gonzales says:

    Also “Evangelical” is most of the time a code-word for Calvinist — and when it isn’t, its a codeword for Calvinist sympathizer. And real people are tired of being told they don’t have freewill — if they wanted to believe in determinism, they’d rather do it as atheists.

  16. Jose Gonzales says:

    IMMORAL people are increasingly less interested in religion because they don’t believe in hell or even in God anymore. Increasingly it is getting to the point where only MORAL people care about religion, and they don’t like “faith alone” so Protestantism will decline. Pretty simply, isn’t it?

    • Jose, I can’t tell if you’re wearing a wry smile or not. There are plenty of moral people who don’t care about religion and plenty of immoral people who are very much interested in religion. I’m not sure there’s even a connection between morality and religion.

      As for the religious ones not liking “faith alone” I don’t see that as related at all, or even as accurate. Some will insist on faith alone, some will add good works; and both camps may be very religious. Maybe Protestantism will decline after all, but I don’t see your connections.

  17. Maybe Christianity was never as benevolent as we like to remember. Following my Fall of Communism analogy, The medieval Catholic Church could easily be compared to Stalinism, while early Protestants would be like the Trotskyites (the Mennonites), Tito (Anglicanism), or Maoists (Calvinism). After 1989 or 1991 we get rump Communist figures like Vladimir Zherinovsky (fundamentalism–think Fred Phelps), a bunch of European post-Communist (“democratic socialist”) parties (evangelicalism), and mutations like the Black Bloc (pentecostalism). That is, reforms are motivated not so much out by idealism or genuine soul-searching, as by a desire to retain some vestiges of power (or wrest it from others). And then voices like iMonk ask how Communism can be revitalized or made attractive to the new generation.