The Coming Evangelical Collapse
December 4, 2013 By
The late Michael Spencer (a.k.a. iMonk) was one of my favorite bloggers. I remember skimming through his blog years ago. His podcast section intrigued me, so I gave a listen to one of them.
The result: I was monumentally impressed.
In the podcast, he tackled some difficult issues. I agreed with everything he said, and I found his insights stimulating.
To my surprise, Michael took time to review my books, Pagan Christianity, Reimagining Church, From Eternity to Here, and Jesus Manifesto (the essay). And he was fair, honest, and kind (smile) in his assessments.
While I never had the privilege of meeting Michael in person nor talked with him on the phone, three descriptions come to mind based on my reading of his blog and my interactions with him via email:
1. Intellectually honest
May his tribe increase.
It’s no wonder that his blog became one of the most popular among Christians today.
In 2009, Michael wrote an article entitled “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.”
Within a few days after it was published, six different people forwarded the article to me. It was picked up by The Christian Science Monitor and The Drudge Report. Even Mark Galli from Christianity Today weighed in.
I thought Michael’s article was superb. And I agree with his observations. Although I have no idea what will happen on the Christian landscape in the next 10 years, his predications map very closely to George Barna’s forecast.
That said, I’d like to make four brief observations about the article and the discussion surrounding it:
1) Michael foresees the two main types of churches growing heavily in the next 10 years as being the house church and the high church denominations (Catholic, Orthodox, and as Mark Galli rightly observes, Anglican).
I agree with this. George Barna’s research has already shown that the micro-church is among the fastest growing segment of the Christian world today. And according to his data, it will be even more so in the next 10 years.
On first glance, one may think that there isn’t much in common with low churches and high churches. But that’s not the case. There’s one common feature that is central to both: Their strong emphasis on community.
Both high churches and (many) low churches strongly emphasize the importance of Christian community in their theology.
On this score, a good number of Anglicans and Catholics have read my book Reimagining Church (which isn’t a “house church” book, but instead expresses the organic nature of the body of Christ). Their main comment is that my theology of the church is similar to theirs.
By that they mean the strong focus on the fellowship of the Godhead, the intimate connection between the Trinity and the believing community, the incredibly close identity of Jesus Christ with His church, the strong emphasis on Christian community and the corporate (collective) nature of the Christian life.
God’s people are crying out for authentic community. It’s in our blood and the marrow of our bones. It’s a spiritual instinct that all devoted Christians have. Some are more in touch with it than others, but it’s there.
High church denominations are highly communitarian in their theology, and some are quite good at practicing it. Micro churches try to embody it; some do it better than others.
Both are tapping into something that is part of the DNA of the ekklesia.
2) I thought Mark Galli’s response to Spencer’s article was very good. However, I feel that Galli is defining evangelicalism much more broadly than Spencer is. To my mind, Spencer is speaking of “evangelicalism” more in terms of a religious (“church”) system and a cultural and political movement. Galli, on the other hand, seems to be speaking of it as a set of theological beliefs and (more) a spiritual mood.
Here’s a quote from Galli’s piece:
Evangelicalism is a word that describes a phenomenon that transcends time and place. British historian David Bebbington talks about it in terms of certain theological emphases and behaviors (crucicentrism, conversionism, biblicism, and activism). I think of it more as a religious mood. It is a spiritual sensibility that includes pessimism about human nature, a longing to be converted from the worst of our selves, mystical moments when Jesus Christ is experienced, a conviction that nothing can be redeemed without suffering and that resurrection is ultimate reality, and a passion to make a difference in the world.
If we define evangelicalism this way, then I would agree that it’s not going to go away any time soon.
3) I consider myself to be an evangelical theologically in the way that Galli defines it. That said, I believe that evangelicalism (much like classic Pentecostalism) was born with certain birth defects.
Namely, it rooted itself in modernity (which has just as many problems as postmodernity). It failed to fully grasp and teach God’s Eternal Purpose (Eph. 3:11). And it retained the Western individualistic bent that marks historic Protestantism.
This was true for the post-war shapers of early evangelicalism as they broke from “the isolated fundamentalism” (to quote Roger Olson) of their time. It was often true for some of the neo-evangelicals as well.
To borrow a phrase from Carl F. Henry, “the uneasy conscience” of evangelicalism is just now beginning to surface. So it seems to me anyway. (Henry wrote The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism.)
My friend Hal Miller has made some astute observations on this score. I’m going to take the liberty to quote him at length simply because what he has to say is so good and so little known.
Christianity is culturally relevant when it offers a qualitatively different society. Jesus called it “the kingdom of God.” Paul saw its first outlines in the gathered disciples of Jesus, and so he called them ekklesia – we translate it “church”- a Greek word denoting citizens assembled to attend to their common project, their city.
The evangelicals missed this. Evangelicalism sought to transform people and so transform the world. They did not see that something might be missing from this vision, something their assumption of American individualism would hide from them. The true Christian vision is to transform people, transforming them into a people, and so transform the world.
The evangelicals missed that middle term. They could not see the church as a foretaste of the new society; it was a club for the new individuals. The evangelicals simply dressed American individualism in Christian clothing. They ended up with new isolated individuals, but in the old society. Since their expression of Christianity did not take form as a new society, it quickly became culturally irrelevant, even though it was admirably culturally open.
To be culturally relevant, Christianity must offer an alternative. God has indeed chosen to deal with persons as individuals- in this the evangelicals were right. Yet they are not simply individuals; they become members of a social reality called ekklesia, which is the entering wedge of the new society of God’s making.
Too often, for example, we assume that evangelism involves the simple aggregation of more and more new individuals. If enough people are “born again,” the world’s problems will diminish. But the experience of the last twenty years- in which we had more and more people “born again” as well as more and more marital tragedies, more and more international tension, and more and more bondage to the demons of our age- seems a perfectly contrived counter-example to this theory.
The Christian calling requires being reconciled with God, to be sure. But it also requires being a new, reconciling society characterized by forgiveness, acceptance, and responsibility in a common task- a society qualitatively different from its culture, yet engaged with it. Little gatherings of Christians for worship and mutual help in being disciples become the seeds of God’s coming new society.
Such a new society will be culturally relevant because it springs from God’s movement among God’s people. The persons who make up this new society live their faith in the face of day-to-day problems that they share with the world around them. They face the same questions as unbelievers: finding joy and meaning in work, living at peace both personally and globally, raising responsible and compassionate children. And in facing those questions, Christian faith becomes relevant even for unbelievers.
Imagine a group of people gathering to help each other in the common task of seeing God’s kingdom incarnated in their work, in their families, in their towns, in their world, in their midst, and (rather than only) in their individual lives. This gathering is ekklesia. It will be relevant to its world because it lives the life of the kingdom in the world, not apart from it.
4) One of the questions I was left with after reading Spencer’s article was, “Michael very rightly puts his finger on some of the key problems of modern evangelicalism, but why those problems? What is the cause of so many of them?”
It is my conviction that since evangelicalism’s inception, we have focused on the symptomatic problems instead of trying to go to their roots. The systemic problems have been largely ignored.
George Barna and I have tried to challenge evangelical Christians with the idea that one of the systemic problems is the very system of organized Christianity – particularly as it relates to the expression of the local church.
In the past, many Christians would never hold that out as a possibility. In fact, before 2005, no Christian publisher would have published books like Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church.
That has changed.
The uneasy conscience of evangelicalism is beginning to cry out. God’s people are looking for answers. And they are looking in some new and sometimes unfamiliar places (such as the high church traditions).
I think John’s Stott’s famous quote is where we need to pitch our tents today.
The hallmark of an authentic evangelicalism is not the uncritical repetition of old traditions, but the willingness to submit every tradition, however ancient, to fresh biblical scrutiny and, if necessary, reform.
Thank you, Michael, for stirring up our thoughts and our hearts. May your article cause all of us to return to the living Person of Jesus Christ as the Center and the Reality of the church. Not just in theory, but in experience.