The Coming Evangelical Collapse?

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.

0 thoughts on “The Coming Evangelical Collapse?

  1. Peter

    Thinking f your prevous post, hopefully this one will draw some comment.

    I must consider its challenges and see if I can add anything profound!

    Some random immediate thoughts before returning to refelection prior to the next sermon:

    I was wondering if the strong influence of the Right leaning Evangelical constituency in the States was past its season, or whether it will recover. Might depend on what President Obama actually delivers.

    The Evangelical constituency in the UK is quite a diverse thing. e.g. Reform and Church Society via Fulcrum to Accepting Evangelicals.

    Certainly I can see that the charismatic-Pentecostal dimension may become more predominant – does that mean mainstream and almost establishment? But as the on going debate on Todd Bentley and Revivals shows, the more conservative (probably mostly traditional Calvinistic?) dimension is equally vocal. From what I hear, the Metroploitan Tabernacle is strong. Might we see more thriving congregations of similar leaning and emphasis . That tension could be interesting.

    I will watch how discussion develops and hopefully come back another day

  2. Thanks, Colin. I don’t suppose anyone can do more than speculate about most of your answers. I suspect that the old Religious Right is dying. Something new might arise in reaction against Obama, but unless he tries to take radical pro-abortion or anti-family measures I wouldn’t expect anything like that to become a mass movement. Somehow I can’t see Todd Bentley style charismaticism becoming “almost establishment”!

  3. I think you are right, Peter, in saying that British evangelicalism is in many ways ahead of the American version. Analyses of the American situation will never directly translate to the demographics over here.

    In Britain, we have never been a significant proportion of society and so have long learned to cope as a minority. Hence we are quite a resiliant bunch and our institutions do not require the support of large numbers to make them viable.

    The questions that the British church will have to face are more likely to be concerning postmodern thinking and human sexuality than a huge numerical collapse. In fact, my understanding is that the percentage of evangelicals in the UK church is increasing whilst other streams of Christianity are in decline.

    Just to respond to Colin’s thoughts. Most observers would say that the evangelical mainstream (ie the “establishment”) over here is at least moderately charismatic in its theology and practice. I think the conservatives/reformed/calvinists are still also a small minority of evangelicals. Their numbers may be increasing slightly, but not significantly – perhaps the Met Tab is doing well because of the scarcity of other like-minded churches. And a lot of the vocal opposition to Todd Bentley came not from the conservative evangelicals (Lakeland was basically off their radar), but from charismatic evangelicals like myself who had major concerns with his methods and theology.

  4. Thanks, Sidefall. Of course postmodern thinking and human sexuality are major issues for evangelicalism in the USA as well as here. Also I think in both countries there is a danger of serious division between charismatics and reformed evangelicals – and I admire newfrontiers for taking a mediating position here even when this might endanger their acceptability at both extremes.

  5. Thanks for this posting Peter (and for the comment on my equivalent). I think that iMonk is correct when he predicts that the future of the church in the west lies in the Charismatic/Pentecostal vein. Philip Jenkins makes similar comments in his book The Last Christendom. To me, a lot of this is tied to the issue of the world church (which is majority Pentecostal) re-invigorating the Church in the West. This will find more fertile ground in the west as post-enlightenment rationality makes way for a more open attitude to spirituality. A challenge that we will face in this new world is how to balance an expectant attitude to the work of God with the dangers of prosperity teaching. This is a constant tension and one which the West will not be immune from. I do not think this is an insurmountable problem but all moves of God have their dangers for fallen humans.

  6. Indeed, Eddie. I think I would agree that “the future of the church in the west lies in the Charismatic/Pentecostal vein”. I see the renewal of Reformed theology as an essentially reactionary movement which will fail in the long term, at least if it remains separate from the more charismatic stream. But better still, and possible, is some kind of fusion of the two, the Reformed people keeping the charismatics from going too far. But first the two sides need to learn to talk without hurling anathemas.

  7. I agree with what you say about sexuality and postmodernism in the US, but they may also have the fallout from a numerical collapse to content with.

    Regarding reformed and charismatics, there are already huge divisions between them in both the UK and US. The charismaticisation (if there is such a word!) of the mainstream seems to have caused the reformed churches to become even more insular. NFI have definitely made some inroads in building bridges, but there are many hardliners in the reformed camp who will reject anyone with a non-cessationist pneumatology, even if there is the mutual subscription to a calvinist soteriology.

    (eek, I’m sounding like a theologian! I must repent!)

  8. Maybe, Sidefall. But I wonder how many of these hardline reformed types there are here in the UK. Some, of course, but I doubt if they will be a long term significant force. There are a larger number who are justifiably suspicious of many charismatic practices and so in practice don’t allow the gifts of the Spirit to be consciously exercised, but without being dogmatically cessationist. These people can be reconciled to careful Reformed charismatics such as newfrontiers.

  9. Of course, laudatory and condemnatory views can be run in both directions.

    The new Reformed movement may be driven in part by reactionary impulses, but that need not be condemnatory. Any revisionist movement will be supported by some who are reactionary, and in many ways the movement is about a generation trying to seek for an intellectual as well as spiritual grounding for their faith. I suspect that a fair few New Reformed types grew up in the Pentecostal movement and didn’t really find it satisfactory.

    The Charismatic/Pentecostal movement will continue to grow, but in many ways it’s a product of the general Spiritualisation of society and Third world migrants bringing a version of Christianity back with them. It’s probably no accident that it grew at the same time as the New Age movement really started to take off. In the long run it will only stay part of the church to the extent to which it can solve it’s problems with leadership and epistemeology. Bits of it will simply implode in the next few decades, others will continue to take on syncretic forms. Yet oher parts will take on a Moralistic-Therapeutic-Deism coupled with a signs and wonders that continue to drift further and further away from any biblical moorings. It’s that same problem with epistemeology replayed in different ways.

  10. Chris, I didn’t intend “reactionary” as a condemnatory word. But the new Reformed movement is at least in part a reaction against a wider trend in the church and society away from absolute standards towards relativism and subjectivism. I would expect that in historical perspective (unless the Lord comes again first) it will be seen as a short-term movement with minority appeal going against the long-term trends. That is what I meant by “reactionary”. I have tried to portray this in non-evaluative terms.

    It is possible, but in my opinion unlikely, that the Reformed movement is an early sign of a new long-term trend reversing the one that has dominated for more than a century, but in my opinion this is unlikely.

    If I am asked to evaluate this situation, I would say that the Reformed movement is right to reject some of the extremes of the Charismatic and Pentecostal movement but wrong to oppose it altogether. Because of this my advice to Reformed leaders would be to try to build bridges with charismatics and Pentecostals, in the hope of reining in their excesses, rather than breaking off all ties. But your evaluation may differ.

  11. It is possible, but in my opinion unlikely, that the Reformed movement is an early sign of a new long-term trend reversing the one that has dominated for more than a century, but in my opinion this is unlikely.

    If you are referring to the long term trend of decreasing church attendance in the West, then I would agree with you.

    The centre of Christianity continues to shift, but that’s not exactly a new phenomena. To quote Andrew Walls “The movement of Christianity is one of serial, not progressive, expansion.”

  12. Chris, I meant to delete the first “but in my opinion unlikely” from my last comment. The long-term trend I was referring to was what I had mentioned before as “a wider trend in the church and society away from absolute standards towards relativism and subjectivism”. One symptom of this is of course decreasing church attendance, not necessarily matched by decreasing interest in spiritual things.

  13. If I am asked to evaluate this situation, I would say that the Reformed movement is right to reject some of the extremes of the Charismatic and Pentecostal movement but wrong to oppose it altogether.

    I can’t think of many in the new reformed movement who are opposed to charismatic doctrines. Even the ones who are personally cessationist tend to apply that doctrine to themselves rather than globally.

    I don’t think the various TR blogs are a particularly good reflection of the new reformed movement – assuming that is what you were thinking of.

  14. Chris, I think we really agree here. I was speaking mainly hypothetically about Reformed types who oppose the charismatic movement. We agree on the good news that there aren’t very many of them.

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