Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk, makes interesting predictions of The Coming Evangelical Collapse (1) (2) (3). He denies they are prophecies, but to me they have a prophetic edge, not as infallible predictions but as a prophetic call to the church to take note of what is likely to happen in future, and to act accordingly. I have not read the large number of comments on these posts. Thanks to John Meunier for the links.
Michael starts part 1 as follows:
I believe that we are on the verge- within 10 years- of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity; a collapse that will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and that will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West. I believe this evangelical collapse will happen with astonishing statistical speed; that within two generations of where we are now evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its current occupants, leaving in its wake nothing that can revitalize evangelicals to their former “glory.”
But it seems to me that here Michael is really talking about the US scene. In the rest of the West the collapse he is predicting has already taken place, more gradually. Perhaps it already has also in less conservative parts of the USA. He seems to be suggesting that the evangelical church in the US Bible belt will soon become much more like it currently is here in the UK and elsewhere in traditionally Protestant northern Europe. Here we already have “a de-church culture where religion has meaning as history, not as a vital reality.”
From a global sociological perspective the continued high level of evangelical church attendance in parts of the USA is an anomaly in the century old trend towards the secularisation of the West. I believe that the church can buck this trend if it really relies on the power of God to do so. But if it retreats into conservatism without real substance, as seems true of so much US evangelicalism, it becomes a movement of reaction which will not outlast the current generation.
Michael suggests in part 2 that the beneficiaries of the collapse of traditional evangelicalism will be “the pragmatic, therapeutic, church growth oriented megachurches”, as well as “An evangelicalized Catholicism and Orthodoxy”. But I feel he is too negative about these megachurches. They may not preach “the Biblical Gospel” in the traditional way, but that does not imply that those who attend are not genuine Christians. Indeed “Core beliefs will become less and less normative and necessary in evangelicalism”, but salvation is not by “core beliefs” in doctrinal propositions, but by a living faith in and relationship with God through Jesus Christ. To the extent that megachurches do promote this (and some certainly do) I don’t think it is right to criticise them.
Michael also predicts that
A small portion of evangelicalism will continue down the path of theological re-construction and recovery. Whether they be post-evangelicals working for a reinvigoration of evangelicalism along the lines of historic “Mere Christianity,” or theologically assertive young reformed pastors looking toward a second reformation, a small, but active and vocal portion of evangelicalism will work hard to rescue the evangelical movement from its demise by way of theological renewal.
This is an attractive, innovative and tireless community with outstanding media, publishing and leadership development. Nonetheless, I believe the coming evangelical collapse will not result in a second reformation, though it may result in benefits for many churches and the beginnings of new churches. But I do believe many evangelical churches and schools will benefit from this segment of evangelicalism, and I believe it will contribute far beyond its size to the cause of world missions.
Again this reminds me of British evangelicalism, small and not always conservative but generally more active than the US variety and with a worldwide influence disproportionate to its numbers.
I am also encouraged by the prediction that
Charismatic-Pentecostal Christianity will become the majority report in evangelicalism.
But Michael is right that this strand, as well as others in evangelicalism, needs to put its house in order concerning leadership and avoiding heresy.
It is also interesting that he picks up the possibility of “a “rescue mission” from the world Christian community”. British evangelicalism has already benefited a great deal from input from African, Asian and Latin American Christian leaders. If the US church accepts this kind of mission it will also benefit greatly.
I must also agree with Michael’s last point in this part,
it is long past time for westerners to use their resources to strengthen work within a nation and not to just send Americans to the mission fields.
Indeed – and include Europeans here.
In part 3 Michael asks if all of this is a good or a bad thing. He writes that
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?
Michael sees a good number of hopeful signs in the different parts of the church he has already looked at, but also sees in each of them conditions which may or may not be fulfilled.
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.
But again many of the new ways he predicts, such as house churches and the abandonment of the seminary system, have long been a matter of course in some church strands here in England. In certain quarters I have heard that the US church is several years ahead of the UK one, in its good and bad aspects, and in some ways that is true. But I can’t help thinking that in other ways, good and bad, British evangelicalism is decades ahead of the American variety.