Eugene Cho

the coming evangelical collapse?

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Some of you may have already seen this article entitled The Coming Evangelical Collapse [@Christian Science Monitor].  There are certainly some good things for ruminations, discussions, and considerations but like many things written for the purposes of drawing attention, it makes some grandiose statements.

I’d love to hear from you regarding your thoughts and commentary about the article [below].  Do you agree? Disagree?  What stood out to you?

And if you believe the Western church is in trouble, here’s the million dollar question:  Why and what can be done?

Is Christianity in trouble?  It really depends on how you look at the situation.  I have shared for some time that we live and have lived in a Post-Christendom Western world for a long time.  But because we dominate the resources of the world including information, we think we still remain the cradle of all things vibrant Christianity.   Having spent some time in other countries and pastoring two years in Korea in the ’90s, the Western world is NOT the center of the world.  I’m not trying to diminish the work of the Church in the West as it’s clear that it’s still influential but the Gospel is flourishing in many places outside the Western world especially in places around Latin America, Asia, and Africa.  Furthermore, while Christianity – in its various forms – are struggling in the Western world, we should also point out that it’s not the case in every situation. For example, ethnic churches, on the most part, are still flourishing in the West…

So, are we in the midst of a collapse or a spiritual recession in the West?  Well, these are certainly challenging times but just like the current economic recession, I see this as an opportunity for the “evangelical church” to re-discover their identity and grow deeper in our mission.  What I’m saying is that decline and talks of death aren’t necessarily bad things since sometimes, those very things will wake us up.  And perhaps through ‘death,’ we see the possibility of life anew.  

In fact, perhaps this collapse ought or needs to take place in order for us to discover ourselves once more from all that which have lured us away from our identity:  both as individuals and as a larger community.

And what’s the solution?  Not enough time and energy to share all my thoughts now but this I will share:  For me, Western Christianity have become victims of our own hype and press.  We’re suffering from the consequences of our perpetual self reliance: our dependence on our self enlightenment, intelligence, hubris, resources, and ‘humanity can solve all things’ mindset.

Conferences, books, conversations, strategies, hard work, technology, fab pastors and leaders, connections, networks, etc….are all legitimate considerations but should all be in submission to the work, presence, and power of the Holy Spirit.  Seriously, I don’t care if you’re traditional, contemporary, liberal, conservative, new Calvinist, Arminian, Emerging, House Church, Mega Church, or whatever:  

Apart from the Holy Spirit, we will fail.  We need the Holy Spirit.  My sermon recently from Acts 19:1-22 was about the importance and role of the Holy Spirit [subscribe to PODCAST]:

Let me know what you think about the article below.  It’s an opportunity for a fantastic and stimulating conversation.

******************************************************

The Coming Evangelical Collapse by Michael Spencer

Oneida, Ky. – 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. I’m convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.

Why is this going to happen?
Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.

The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.

We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.

There are three kinds of evangelical churches today: consumer-driven megachurches, dying churches, and new churches whose future is fragile. Denominations will shrink, even vanish, while fewer and fewer evangelical churches will survive and thrive.

Despite some very successful developments in the past 25 years, Christian education has not produced a product that can withstand the rising tide of secularism. Evangelicalism has used its educational system primarily to staff its own needs and talk to itself.

The confrontation between cultural secularism and the faith at the core of evangelical efforts to “do good” is rapidly approaching. We will soon see that the good Evangelicals want to do will be viewed as bad by so many, and much of that work will not be done. Look for ministries to take on a less and less distinctively Christian face in order to survive.

Even in areas where Evangelicals imagine themselves strong (like the Bible Belt), we will find a great inability to pass on to our children a vital evangelical confidence in the Bible and the importance of the faith.

The money will dry up.

What will be left?
•Expect evangelicalism to look more like the pragmatic, therapeutic, church-growth oriented megachurches that have defined success. Emphasis will shift from doctrine to relevance, motivation, and personal success – resulting in churches further compromised and weakened in their ability to pass on the faith.

•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.

•A small band will work hard to rescue the movement from its demise through 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.

•The emerging church will largely vanish from the evangelical landscape, becoming part of the small segment of progressive mainline Protestants that remain true to the liberal vision.

•Aggressively evangelistic fundamentalist churches will begin to disappear.

•Charismatic-Pentecostal Christianity will become the majority report in evangelicalism. Can this community withstand heresy, relativism, and confusion? To do so, it must make a priority of biblical authority, responsible leadership, and a reemergence of orthodoxy.

•Evangelicalism needs a “rescue mission” from the world Christian community. It is time for missionaries to come to America from Asia and Africa. Will they come? Will they be able to bring to our culture a more vital form of Christianity?

•Expect a fragmented response to the culture war. Some Evangelicals will work to create their own countercultures, rather than try to change the culture at large. Some will continue to see conservatism and Christianity through one lens and will engage the culture war much as before – a status quo the media will be all too happy to perpetuate. A significant number, however, may give up political engagement for a discipleship of deeper impact.

Is all of this a bad thing?
Evangelicalism doesn’t need a bailout. Much of it needs a funeral. But what about what remains?

Is it a good thing that denominations are going to become largely irrelevant? Only if the networks that replace them are able to marshal resources, training, and vision to the mission field and into the planting and equipping of churches.

Is it a good thing that many marginal believers will depart? Possibly, if churches begin and continue the work of renewing serious church membership. We must change the conversation from the maintenance of traditional churches to developing new and culturally appropriate ones.

The ascendency of Charismatic-Pentecostal-influenced worship around the world can be a major positive for the evangelical movement if reformation can reach those churches and if it is joined with the calling, training, and mentoring of leaders. If American churches come under more of the influence of the movement of the Holy Spirit in Africa and Asia, this will be a good thing.

Will the evangelicalizing of Catholic and Orthodox communions be a good development? One can hope for greater unity and appreciation, but the history of these developments seems to be much more about a renewed vigor to “evangelize” Protestantism in the name of unity.

Will the coming collapse get Evangelicals past the pragmatism and shallowness that has brought about the loss of substance and power? Probably not. The purveyors of the evangelical circus will be in fine form, selling their wares as the promised solution to every church’s problems. I expect the landscape of megachurch vacuity to be around for a very long time.

Will it shake lose the prosperity Gospel from its parasitical place on the evangelical body of Christ? Evidence from similar periods is not encouraging. American Christians seldom seem to be able to separate their theology from an overall idea of personal affluence and success.

The loss of their political clout may impel many Evangelicals to reconsider the wisdom of trying to create a “godly society.” That doesn’t mean they’ll focus solely on saving souls, but the increasing concern will be how to keep secularism out of church, not stop it altogether. The integrity of the church as a countercultural movement with a message of “empire subversion” will increasingly replace a message of cultural and political entitlement.

Despite all of these challenges, it is impossible not to be hopeful. As one commenter has already said, “Christianity loves a crumbling empire.”

We can rejoice that in the ruins, new forms of Christian vitality and ministry will be born. I expect to see a vital and growing house church movement. This cannot help but be good for an evangelicalism that has made buildings, numbers, and paid staff its drugs for half a century.

We need new evangelicalism that learns from the past and listens more carefully to what God says about being His people in the midst of a powerful, idolatrous culture.
I’m not a prophet. My view of evangelicalism is not authoritative or infallible. I am certainly wrong in some of these predictions. But is there anyone who is observing evangelicalism in these times who does not sense that the future of our movement holds many dangers and much potential?

• Michael Spencer is a writer and communicator living and working in a Christian community in Kentucky. He describes himself as “a postevangelical reformation Christian in search of a Jesus-shaped spirituality.” This essay is adapted from a series on his blog, InternetMonk.com.

Filed under: bible, christianity, church, pastors, religion, ,

26 Responses

  1. Rupert says:

    Could you please make your next post harder to read and fill it full of more impenetrable jargon, there just wasn’t enough for me in this. To be fair I only skim read it but that was the reason.

    Religion out – spiritualism in
    Idealism out – pragmatism in

    Does it really need to be complicated than that?

  2. Erik says:

    I thought the article was fascinating. A little over the top though but I don’t think it’ll collapse at all. In fact, I think it’ll continue to grow but not in the way I think it will grow. Look for more small churches to be decimated and for the large church to grow larger as the seek to compete against the consumption needs of larger society.

  3. randplaty says:

    Hmmm, interesting post. Completely agree with your assessment of the ethnocentric nature of the article.

    Even in the western world, I think the article is more speculation from anecdotal evidence and personal experience than a true assessment of the state of evangelicalism. I’d have liked to see more facts and less conjecture.

  4. Daniel says:

    Honestly, the article read like some sort of fiction story or some sort of Evangelical version of “Left Behind.” Weird.

  5. James says:

    Christianity (Evangelical or otherwise) gets in trouble whenever it compromises Biblical principles in order to attract more church members or fit in to modern culture.

  6. Steve says:

    Interesting premise. I don’t think evangelicalism will disappear, but will merely morph into a different form. This has always been the case with Christianity (see Bryan Wilson’s thesis about religious transformations). Moresoever, non-Western forms of Christianity will persist and remain. And this is why I’m waiting for Soong-chan Rah’s book to come out: http://www.amazon.com/Next-Evangelicalism-Freeing-Cultural-Captivity/dp/0830833609/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1237248084&sr=8-1

  7. Paul says:

    I feel that the writer brings a valid point. Evangelical christians really have to look at the way we have been living “Christian” lives. As a college student, I see the lack of theology among the people in the church. I feel that many Christians don’t really understand what it is to live in the Gospel. That’s why I feel Evangelical Christianity does need a makeover or a funeral in a sense. Christianity has to become Gospel-centered and through that the unchurched will see why the church exists and why it is so very different. Because essentially it’s nothing about us, but it’s everything about God and what He has done for us

  8. James says:

    Unfortunately Paul, the problem is that the church today, at least in the west, isn’t particularly different from the general cultural environment. I agree that theological teaching seems to be at a minimum, at least in some churches, and the concept of discipleship, something that Jesus worked very hard to illustrate to us, isn’t conveyed by many churches. It’s not just “saving” people, then waiting for the second coming. It’s living a life of faith, driven by Jesus’ example of leading by servanthood. If we are disciples of Jesus, then we should behave as students who learn by imitating his example. Faith isn’t nice words and warm and fuzzy feelings, it’s a lifestyle.

  9. Sam says:

    If you think this is fiction and/or need more facts/information, go to the internetmonk’s blog and read Michael Bell’s guest posts regarding the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS).

  10. Rachel says:

    Isn’t there going to be a great falling away before Jesus comes back?

  11. Beth says:

    We need God.

    We need Jesus Christ.

    We need the Holy Spirit.

    Churches that find ways to balance their understanding and love for all the three Persons that God is will do the best job of being faithful to Him, and His work.

  12. thanatos says:

    i think Spencer is mostly on or at least i hope he is. i would like nothing better than to witness the end of the Evangelical Culture and i hope that when it dies it will take all of the lies, bigotry, legalism, superficiality, self-righteousness, judgmentalism and hypocrisy so often found hand-in-hand with evangelicals with it. although i fear that even after people stop referring to franchised lip-service religion as Evangelical, that nothing will really change. folks might not go to the same large buildings every week to sing and vist and their vocabularies will probably change but they will still be the same broken people inside with the same misordered priorities and the same vain hopes and the same soul-shackling habits of self-destruction and pride that they always were.
    i can only hope and pray that when people no longer are told (as they currently are – at least implicitly) that salvation from ourselves is easy and that there isn’t any real work involved in caring for your soul that people will wake up and get serious about God and about the Kingdom of Heaven.

  13. Steven Kim says:

    I guess the gist of it all (adding my two cents here) is his point on the need to have the Holy Spirit be the focus for the “new” church, and the need for more orthodoxy. I agree. Having grown up as a United Methodist I have embraced the “freedom” in the way of worship in evangelical churches but, at the same time, have missed the backbone of emphasis on the deep theological teachings (we all need to be apologists to a certain extent), the structure (a.k.a. discipline?) and the need to be open-minded without watering down our faith. We also need pastors who are truly committed to servanthood, even sacrifice. Too many pastors today think being a pastor is a 40 hour a week job. It’s a shame.

  14. eugenecho says:

    @beth: agreed.

    we need the a deeper understanding and expression of Trinitarian theology and expression.

    father. son. spirit. scriptures. worship. expression. action. humility. passion.

  15. Nancy says:

    I agree for the most part with Spencer’s view of the evangelical church. There is a great lack of substance in many of the evangelical churches I have been to lately. I was raised Southern Baptist and I am having a hard time finding a Baptist church to attend because their worship services have gone from good doctrinal teaching to a one hour entertainment program. Scripture says that being a Christian is difficult, but these churches make God out to be a divine ATM machine who gives you whatever you want when you ask.

  16. Kacie says:

    Yeah, I do agree to some extent, but I think what will really happen will be that the CULTURE of evangelicalism will die out. Which… to be totally honest… I look forward to.

    I think that the theological beliefs and the body of Christ that is evangelicalism will keep on, in different forms, which is exactly as it is supposed to be. So long as we continue to worship God in truth, I don’t care how it’s labeled.

  17. Daniel says:

    “Evangelicalism” may die out, denominations may fold, programs be cut, buildings sold, structures abandoned, but the Church of God will continue, because the Church is none of these thigns….

    The Church is simply those who belong to Jesus, purchased by His Blood, made new by His Spirit…

    While many see the decline of all these humanly-devised systems as a tragic thing, a few see it as great blessing in disguise… Will we be able to let go of all the crutches that we rely on to function as the Body, instead of relying on the Power of God alone?

    Let the systems crumble, let the religious corporations go bankrupt, for none of those things are what have given us LIFE in the first place… The One who gives us Life, has defeated Death itself, and no economic hardship, no cultural shift, will be able to defeat Him, or the people who find refuge in Him….

  18. Andy M says:

    It is very interesting. It is with this kind of subject where it feels like my pessimism and my optimism meet.

    Maybe the best thing that could ever happen to the Western church is for everything to crash. A major theme throughout the entire bible is of people in the desert who have to rely on God. When you are in the desert you have no choice but to rely on God, but if you are not in the desert you can begin to rely upon your own skills and resources. We talk about relying on God’s provision, but really we rely on our paycheck and God is an afterthought. God wants us to rely on him fully wherever we are. Christianity thrives when it is in the desert, in places of oppression, places of scarcity, places of fear and need. But when we are safe, secure, and well-fed we have a hard time hearing God and seeing his presence in the world around us.

    Now, I don’t want everything to crash. I want everything to happen nice and smoothly and Christians everywhere learn to really rely on God without going through a major crisis, but that seems unlikely to me. We like our safety and comfort too much. I don’t think that anything quite as dramatic as what that guy describes, but mainline churches and such are declining overall. I have no idea what form it will take, but times of crisis will come for all denominations at different times. But through real crisis comes faith.

    There are things many Christians are doing around the U.S. that make me optimistic. But much of it, not all, is outside the walls of what you might call traditional Christianity. I could imagine that the public understanding of who Christians are could change dramatically within the next 10 or so years. Maybe we will no longer be defined by the type of building we use, or the kind of music we play, or the titles we give to certain “holy” people. Maybe we will learn to rely on God in the desert and God will reveal himself to others through his providence.

    Steven Kim – we need more than just pastors to be committed to servanthood. We are all called to that. I believe in leadership in the church, but we cannot continue to rely on the professionals to do it all for us.

  19. [...] Science Monitor, or perhaps you’ve seen discussions around the blogosphere. My fellow blogger Eugene Cho is talking about it, and despite his posting before me, I’m not copying [...]

  20. Chris Scott says:

    I agreed with the article and as an employee of a Evangelical church I would think it would frighten me, but it didn’t. I got excited that the things within our religion that need to die will die, the things that are not true but venially developed over decades of prosperity gospel self centered church. I’m encouraged as a young Christian leader that this mantle falls on the next generation, my generation, not on the boomer-led mega church movement that dominates the conversation currently. I am awaiting the time when people can once again look upon Jesus naked of the all the Christian garbage. As morbid as it sounds I hope he’s right.

  21. truth says:

    I agree with the other thoughts voiced here as well as Eugene your thoughts as well. I think what Michael points to is nothing new…it’s not new news. The church in America is in bad shape. I think if there is going to be a collapse it needs to happen. I echo Eugene’s thoughts on the Holy Spirit. The church in the west depends on itself…It’s own programs, ideas, theological knowledge, biblical precision and competence,…..it’s the self reliant posture. I don’t think that lack of biblical knowledge is the big problem. There are circles within evangelicalism that are big on bible knowledge and the study of doctrine and scripture but their churches are dead, lifeless, stale. Martyn Lloyd Jones called this ‘dead orthodoxy’ and said that this was one of the biggest dangers facing the church. I think the church in the west needs to stop trying to depend on itself and it’s own wisdom and look to where the church is growing and alive and follow their lead. I think we should go back to the simple things in the bible.

  22. Mark says:

    Funny to see this today on your blog. I just wrote some comments to a group of friends that were discussing this article:

    An interesting article, i think with its share of provocative statements and a few assumptions that we may not all share. I’m not sure that i would agree with the use of the word “collapse”. I think there will definately be a change in the look of the evangelical communities (and all church communities for that matter) when the next generation moves into a place of ownership. Partially because of the “circles” i run in, i know many people who would call themselves “disillusioned evangelicals”… Not because they have forgotten their roots in scripture and doctrine (or as the author writes never learned them in the first place) but because they desperately want those roots to be founded in a compassionate faith that transforms the world outside the million dollar cathedrals we have constructed. I think the author is right on the money in noting that the Evangelical segment of the church has latched on to political arguments that for many of us younger evangelicals seem incongruent with scripture and tradition or at least see them lived out with an absent of love. Furthermore when younger evangelicals question the methods or raise a dissenting voice they were labeled as “Liberal” (Heaven forbid!) or of questionable faith. Its hard to stay in a community that views you like that.

    I had a conversation with Doug Pagitt a year or so ago and we were talking about this subject of Young people who have a very orthodox theology and foundational root in scripture but who were leaving churches in droves. We began using a “peanut allergy” metaphore to talk about it. For some of us peanuts are a tasty snack and maybe even make up the majority of our diet with no problem (I lived on PB sandwiches and top ramin in high school and college!) for others a peanut makes them sick and for a few it will even kill them! The Evangelical church can be like peanuts. For some it is the foundation of their faith and they have no problems navigating the issues involved with it. For some it is something that makes them sick (to varying degrees) maybe they have concerns that they never voice or just limit their contact with it because they fundamentally agree with the foundational principles of it. For others It has been fatal to their faith and they are desperately seeking a “soy” community where they can live in a community that believes the orthodox theology they hold dear and can be lived out in a compassionate way that transforms their world with love and hope, rather than separates us into “us and them.”

    I also find it interesting that “the money will dry up” will cause the collapse in his opinion. I agree that more churches will close due to $ issues than to theological debates in the future, especially if we continue to perpetuate and create a consumer oriented church.

    LOL Sorry, I’ll stop or i’m gonna’ start preaching…

    Your milage may vary…

    Mark

  23. [...] “The Coming Evangelical Collapse” has made asizable splash in the blogosphere over the past few weeks. His predictions are bleak (or encouraging, depending on your point of [...]

  24. [...] Talk about a string of bad press! In addition to a write up in the Christian Science Monitor [The Coming Evangelical Collapse], a cover article of the Newsweek Magazine entitled “The End of Christian America,” a [...]

  25. Another book to add to this list is one that I’m currently reading: “unChristian” by David Kinnaman

    It’s based on research by the Barna Group for the Fermi Project and uncovers the sobering reality of how most 16 to 29 year olds view the church: unChristian, having lost what Christ taught.

    It’s an awesome read so far. :)

    Here’s a link to their site:

    http://www.unchristian.com/

    And the Amazon book page:

  26. booga says:

    christianity out, islam in !
    whatever makes sense will survive.

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