Wednesday, March 11, 2009

On the Demise of Evangelicalism

“The Coming Evangelical Collapse”—such is the provocative title of an op-ed that appeared in Tuesday’s edition of the Christian Science Monitor. The author is Michael Spencer, a Southern Baptist pastor in Kentucky, who blogs here.

Here’s a teaser:

We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.

Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.) In the "Protestant" 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.

This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.

Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline.

For Spencer’s assessment to be totally coherent, one should probably insert “American” before “Evangelical,” and understand “Evangelical” in a refined sense as referring to a post-WWII religious-cultural-intellectual movement that was a sort of “cleaned up” Fundamentalism. This is to distinguish it from both Evangelicalism broadly-conceived, which can properly refer to any ecclesial entity or tradition with roots in the Reformation, and also—for purposes of this blog, at any rate—from the Evangelical stream of Anglicanism, though there are overlaps all around. Billy Graham, Fuller Seminary, and Christianity Today were some of its early signature institutions. (Full disclosure: This is the milieu in which I was formed before my early twenties.)

In the ‘70s and ‘80s (i.e. when I began thinking of Evangelicals as “them” rather than “us”), leaders like Jerry Falwell and James Dobson led what we might call “second generation neo-evangelicalism” into the arena of secular politics, overlaying an identifier that the media took to calling the “Religious Right.” More recently, a third generation of leaders typified by Rick Warren have made tentative moves toward de-linking American Evangelicalism from automatic association with conservative politics, not abandoning the “culture wars,” but opening up to a bit more political diversity within the Evangelical fold.

From where I sit . . . well, where is it, exactly, that I sit? That’s a bit of a complex question that deserves more than a casual answer.

First, I sit in a place where I think I “get” Evangelicals, even though I don’t identify myself as one. I was raised in that culture, and even though the culture has changed—quite a lot in some ways (particularly musical!)—I know its vocabulary and its intellectual architecture. And I can affirm many points of commonality between my own Anglo-Catholicism and Evangelicalism, not the least of which is a devotion to Jesus Christ as the divine Son of God whose death and resurrection provides the basis for our reconciliation with God. So while I may be a critic at times, I’m a sympathetic critic.

Second, I occupy a seat in a denomination that is dying. The Episcopal Church is dying. It will be pulled down in the same vortex that swallows Evangelicalism. But the eventual autopsies will reveal, I believe, rather different causes of death. Different, but strangely similar as well. Both will die because they implicated themselves too closely with the political Zeitgeist—the Episcopal Church with the Left, Evangelicalism with the Right. Though diametrically opposed on some concrete issues, they drink the same Kool-Aid, which causes them to sacrifice the Best on the altar of the merely Good. So I read Spencer’s prognostications with an awareness that, while I may not be on the same roller coaster, I’m on one very much like it, and the ride is going to be just as rough.

Third, I sit in the Catholic section of the Christian tent. You can argue with me if you want to about whether the Episcopal Church retains a meaningful fragment of whatever substantive Catholic identity inheres in Anglicanism generically; I’m aware of all the arguments. But from an operational standpoint, as far as my day-to-day religious practice is concerned, personally and pastorally, I’m a Catholic. My week is anchored in the Eucharist on Sundays and Holy Days. My days are rooted in the Daily Office. I venerate icons, statues, and relics. I invoke the saints and pray for the dead. I pray the Angelus and the Rosary regularly. I make my confessions regularly and encourage others to do the same. I love Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. My years—the last 35 or so, at any rate—revolve around the incarnational, paschal, and ferial cycles.

So, from where I sit … from all three of those places … here’s what most got my attention in Spencer’s article:

Two of the beneficiaries will be the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions. Evangelicals have been entering these churches in recent decades and that trend will continue, with more efforts aimed at the "conversion" of Evangelicals to the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

You see, I am always, in the “background” (as we would speak of a computer), trying to craft an ecclesial survival strategy for the post-nuclear (I speak metaphorically) era. And so I see in this prediction by Spencer a potential life raft—or the mirage of a life raft, at least. As a Catholic with an Anglican brand name (aka “denomination”), I’m already used to confecting gourmet fare from the crumbs I’m able to catch from the table of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. That’s a skill I’ve already honed. Could it be that I will be able to employ that skill even after the Episcopal Church effectively (if not quite formally) collapses? Can I and others keep the ember glowing by being “Catholic enough,” and profiting from the Evangelical-to-Catholic migration that Spencer predicts? Or will it be impossible to remain immune to the “toxic assets” that are weighing TEC down?

Only time will tell.

I am neither alarmed nor discouraged by Spencer’s apocalyptic vision. Come what may, the gates of Hell will not prevail against Christ’s Church. The gospel will remain good news. Between the fourth and seventh centuries, Christianity’s center of gravity moved from the eastern Mediterranean to western Europe. The rise of militant Islam sealed the deal, completely eliminating Christianity from places that had been Christian bastions for centuries. There’s no reason the same can’t happen to Europe and North America; indeed, it’s difficult to deny that the process is more than half complete. Some might call it Divine Judgment. I won’t take that notion on here, but it’s worth pondering. In any case, though, the Spirit will blow in other places. I hear it’s windy in Africa.


Anonymous said...

Fr. Dan,
I read Spencer's article in the Christian Science Monitor which was probably enthusiastic to publish it.
There are two points in this thought provoking article for me.
1. What is the role of Christians in our culture and to what extent is that role a political one? I think evangelism is the most effective and legitimate role we have to play. Converted minds see things differently than unconverted minds.
2. Increasing persecution is a reality and it will reveal those for whom the seed has fallen on shallow soil. Anglicanism is not a drop in and worship kind of faith. It is participatory and requires years of cultivation. We come from similar backgrounds and the Anglo Catholic aspects of our faith actually provides for me a deeper personal relationship with Christ than my Baptist experience. The corporate relationship through Liturgy was an additional bonus from being a Baptist. Even the struggles within Anglicanism have helped provide deeper soil. Spencer is optimistic and so am I that the coming persecution will help Evangelicalism. Dcn Dale

Anonymous said...

So Dan, are you and I rearranging the deck chairs on the HMS TECtanic? I have thought so long before 2003. Yes, this is a dying, or sinking church and I feel at times like one of the trio playing "Tales of the Vienna Woods" as the ship disintigrates all around me. Not what Strauss had in mind. I have a book somewhere, "Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail," that I think was published at least 15 if not 20 years ago. The Exodus of Evangelicals from their captivity to the Religious Right to the Promised Land of [Anglo] Catholicism has been prophesied at least that long ago. I am still waiting to see it in TEC. Oh, I hear occaisional stories of Evangelicals "secretly" worshiping in an Episcopal Church somewhere, like Marion, IN, for example. But, J. W's church, by his own addmission, isn't growing.... Clergy and laity alike in TEC keep insisting that Evangelicals are coming "back" or converting or whatever. But the bottom line continues to sink lower and lower. It appears that Denial is now a river in New York, NY. The Rev. Mr. Jones

Bob G+ said...

Dan - As you, I'm always trying to figure out a way to navigate through the "fall-out" and survive.

In The Episcopal Church, it will be only another decade before the current leadership is gone and the Church is effectively passed to a new generation. This generation will still bear the stamp of the previous one, although I think the pendulum will begin to swing back to the center - the middle way.

Give another ten years, and TEC will be a very different entity. Smaller, I suspect by a lot, but from the ashes and the fall-out will emerge a better and more consistent and faithful Church. Less about leftist or liberal politics, and more about living the faith. Reality and a form of persecution will necessitate this.

I believe the same will be experienced within American-Evangelicalism. Less about rightist or conservative politics, and more about living the faith. Reality and a form of persecution will necessitate this.

Martial Artist said...

Rev. Mr. Jones,

One very minor point. To make the analogy closer, it should really be the RMS TECtanic. The Titanic was designated RMS (Royal Mail Ship) as the firm who had her built, White Star Line, were commissioned for the rapid transatlantic transport of passengers, cargo, and mail.

Blessings and regards,
Keith Toepfer