The Coming Evangelical Collapse (3): Good or Bad?

UPDATE: Great Minds Think Alike: Jared Wilson heard Tim Keller recently. Here’s the quote from Jared’s summary:

Related to that, he predicted, in response to someone’s question in the Q&A time, that in one generation’s time, there won’t even be the nominal Christianity in the South that there is now. The megachurches will flounder and people will just stop going. Now they are only going b/c it is somewhat expected, part of the culture, or as some moral exercise to “stay right” or raise “good families” or do what their parents did or to “connect” with other Christian consumers.

Keep reading IM, Dr. Keller. (That’s a joke.)

3. Is all of this a bad thing?

I’ve received many notes and emails over this series of posts, and I’m glad that it has been provocative and discussion-producing.

Is the coming evangelical collapse entirely a bad thing? Or is there good that will come from this season of the evangelical story?

One of the most encouraging developments in recent evangelicalism is the conviction that something is very wrong. One voice that has been warning American evangelicals of serious problems is theologian Michael Horton. For more than 20 years, Horton has been warning that evangelicals have become something almost unrecognizable in the flow of Christian history. From the prophetic Made in America to the incredible In The Face of God to the most recent Christless Christianity, Horton has been saying that evangelicals are on the verge of theological/ecclesiastical disaster.

Horton’s diagnosis is not, however, the same diagnosis as we saw in the heyday of the culture war, i.e. that evangelicals must rise up and take political and cultural influence if America is to survive and guarantee freedom and blessing. Horton’s warning has been the abandonment of the most basic calling of the church: the preservation and communication of the essentials of the Gospel in the church itself.

The coming evangelical collapse will be, in my view, exactly what Horton has been warning us about for two decades. In that sense, 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?

As I’ve said in the previous post in this series, what will be left will be 1) an evangelicalism greatly chastened in numbers, influence and resources, 2) a remaining majority of Charismatic-Pentecostal Christians faced with the opportunity to reform or become unrecognizable, 3) an invigorated minority of evangelicals committed to theology and church renewal, 4) a marginalized emerging and mainline community and 5) an evangelicalized segment of the other Christian communions.

Is it a good thing that denominations are going to become large irrelevant? Only if the networks that replace them are able to marshall 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, leaving evangelicalism with a more committed, serious core of followers? Possibly, if churches begin and continue the work of renewing serious church membership?

Is it a good thing that the emerging church will fade into the irrelevance of the mainlines? If this leaves innovative, missionally minded, historically and confessionally orthodox churches to “emerge” in the place of the traditional church, yes. Yes, if it fundamentally changes the conversation from the maintenance of traditional churches to developing new and culturally appropriate churches.

Is it a good thing that Charismatic-Pentecostal Christianity will become the majority of evangelicals? Yes, if reformation can reach those churches and produce the kind of unity we see in Wesley and Lloyd-Jones; a unity where the cleavage between doctrine and spiritual gifts isn’t assumed.

The ascendency of Charismatic-Pentecostal influenced worship around the world can be a major positive for the evangelical movement if that development is joined with the calling, training and mentoring of leaders. If American churches come under more of the influence of the movement of the Spirit in Africa and Asia, this will be a good thing. (I recognize, btw, that all is not well overseas, but I do not believe that makes the help of Christians in other cultures a moot point.)

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. For those communions, it’s a good development, but probably not for evangelicals themselves.

Will the coming evangelical collapse get evangelicals past the pragmatism and shallowness that has brought about its loss of substance and power? I tend to believe that even with large declines in numbers and an evidence “earthquake” of evangelical loyalty, the purveyors of the evangelical circus will be in full 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. (I rejoice in those megachurches that fulfill their role as places of influence and resource for other ministries without insisting on imitation.)

Will the coming evangelical collapse shake loose the prosperity Gospel from its parasitical place on the evangelical body of Christ? We can all pray and hope that this will be so, but evidence from other similar periods is not encouraging. Coming to terms with the economic implications of the Gospel has proven particularly difficult for evangelicals. That’s not to say that American Christians aren’t generous….they are. It is to say that American Christians seldom seem to be able to separate their theology from an overall idea of personal affluence and success American style. Perhaps the time is coming that this entanglement will be challenged, especially in the lives of younger Christians.

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.

I expect to see a vital and growing house church movement. This cannot help but be good for an evangelicalism that has made buildings, paid staff and numbers its drugs for half a century.

I expect to see a substantial abandonment of the seminary system. How can a denomination ask its clergy to go into huge debt to be equipped for ordination or ministry? We all know that there are many options for education from much smaller schools to church based seminaries to internet schools to mentoring and apprenticing arrangements. We must do better in this area, and I think we will.

In fact, I hope that many IM readers will be part of the movement to create a 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. There are encouraging signs, but evangelical culture has the ability to disproportionately judge the significance of movements within it.

I’ll end this adventure in prognostication with the same confession I began with: I’m not a prophet. My view of evangelicalism is not authoritative or infallible. I am certainly wrong in some of these predictions and possibly right, even too conservative on others. 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? Does anyone think all will proceed without interruption or surprise?

71 thoughts on “The Coming Evangelical Collapse (3): Good or Bad?

  1. James Joyce once told someone that he had lost faith in the RCC (Not Royal Crown Cola). The person asked him, “Did you become a Protestant?” Joyce replied, “I said I lost my faith not my reason.”
    Christianity gets weaker and will disappear because it has become fully Judaized, Zionized, and Jewified. Maybe some of the Eastern Orthodox Churches will hang on, especially the Palestinian branch. The Christianity that has betrayed Palestine deserves to disappear. GOOD RIDANCE TO BAD RUBBISH!

    Like

  2. Mike,
    Thank you for your well thought out assessment of the near future of the church. It is a shame that we focus so much on the organization, and so little on the organism. The Life of the Church will always take care of His body. But the form of the body in organization is open to any change He wishes. It does not matter what happens to the organization, as long as the health of the organism thrives. Regrettably, the organization has hindered the health of the organism, so I tend to concur with your assessment. Father cares more for the organism and will cut out like a cancer the organizations that harm the organism.

    Like

  3. Great series. I especially like this bit:

    “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.”

    It seems that the church has approximately three choices to make in the face of an increasingly more secular culture: resist, conform, or redeem. As you’ve already noted, some will resist (most likely the SBC), others will conform (maybe some mainliners and emerging folk), and hopefully, a remnant will redeem the culture and see a new Christianity rise from the ashes.

    Thanks for not telling the church that it should simply be more relevant, listen to trendier music, or just stop being so darn worldly. I appreciated your biblical, balanced, yet realistic approach to the future of evangelicalism.

    Like

  4. IM, don’t you think it is the world that is “collapsing?” All around us and to the extent it exists in us? So the worldliness, the idolatries, of the evangelicals, is collapsing with all the other things of this world, which will be ultimately dissolved. So what else is new? We have parallels, after all, in Israel and Judah. Hasn’t the “church” equaled or even at times surpassed them in darkness over the last 2000 years? Hasn’t judgment begun with the household of God? You think you see the future of these things? The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but can you tell from where it came or where it is going?

    Like

  5. I, frankly, would deplore the end of the seminary system. The little Lutheran church of which I recently was a member was being served by a lay-deacon who went though a locally-based non-academic training program and I have to say the man (though friendly and kind) was absolutely cueless theologically.

    If American Christianity, both Evangelical and non-evangelical, dosen’t develop traditions toward a theologically astute laity, then the church will disappear on this continent. In this era of near universal literacy, why are so many Christians uninterested in the study of dogma?

    Like

  6. How can the “church” collapse. Thats impossible. What is collapsing is what we THINK is the church. But the church is really the assembly, the body of Yeshua (Jesus). Buildings may be evacuated, the denominational bodies may fall, but the church will always be the church and be doing what the church is supposed to be doing, or its simply just not the church at all. If you want the blessing of God on your congregations take care of the poor, the orphans, the widows. Love God with all our heart and Loving our neighbors – find out what pleases Him. Obeying God has become very unpopular and uncool. Well, the body of Yeshua will always do what Yeshua did, or simply, they are not the body at all! Pastors have become philosophers and instead of shepherds they have become motivational speakers. I really don’t go to church to find out what a man has to say. I want to know what God has to say. Read the word to your congregations. Ask them what THEY think it means. You may be surprised at how the spoken word in and of itself transforms people. We talk about how prayer is taken out of the schools? Well, I noticed the Word has been taken out of the church’s message. Yeshua told us to preach “Repent, for the Kingdom is near.” Yet we would tell him to stop preaching that!

    Like

  7. I listened to Chris Fabry live today and heard you for the first time and then was directed to this site.

    Thank you, thank you, for your insights and wisdom. I am so thankful that I can read/hear your well articulated thoughts instead of just getting frustrated on top of my own “soap box”.

    I grew up in western Canada raised in very sheltered Christian/evangelical/fundamental background. It has taken years to shed the unnecessary, hurtful extras that come with the evangelical subculture. I am still most likely one of those pias, self righteous ones, but also rebellious Christians that don’t want to follow all the “rules”. I am deeply impressed with Christ and redemption and his grace and love, but wholly unimpressed with what shows up from the American evangelical subculture especially when things don’t go their way. i.e. moral values and a non-republican president. I desperately wish the gospel of Christ could emerge easily and readily without all these confusing extras. But then again this is a very fallen world. If we could just get that. If we could just get the fallen part and not seek to raise ourselves up as if we could develop such a perfect godly kingdom simply because we are “Christians”. I too want to take shots at it.

    I am left with the what now? I am left with the reality that the cross was and is good enough. God is much bigger than all of this. The truth of Christ and His redemptive plan is and will not be threatened and cannot be threatened by our prideful ignorance.

    Enough from me,
    Cindy

    Like

  8. “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. For those communions, it’s a good development, but probably not for evangelicals themselves.”

    Full disclosure: I’m Catholic.

    On balance we should recognize that Protestants have been “evangelizing” predominantly Catholic countries in Latin America for a long time.

    As a Christian (both when I was Protestant and now as a Catholic), I took Jesus prayer in John 17 for unity seriously, but there can only be unity in the fullness of the truth. A scattering of home churches or other small, unconnected Christian groups who make their own statements of faith and decide their own doctrine, leads to disunity: mutually exclusive doctrines about important matters of the faith. We cannot become unified in the truth by further dividing into more and more groups or by creating yet another church, but only by finding the visible Church Christ established.

    Of course I understand that most Protestants, especially evangelicals, do not believe Christ established a visible Church, but what are the consequences we see in Protestantism of no visible Church, which then has no visible authority and no protection against teaching error? Doctrinal chaos and the widespread promulgation of error, even on fundamental tenets of our Christian faith.

    I would argue it is not good for evangelicals to be split into even more mini-denominations or home churches than they are now, but if the claims of the Catholic Church are true, then it is most certainly a “good development” for evangelical Christians to enter full communion with the Church and come to believe in the fullness of the truth.

    If there is no visible Church, no binding authority given by Christ to men on earth, and no safeguard from teaching error, then every man for himself, and yes, establish your own home church or You-church and try to find some people who believe close to whatever you believe and worship with them.

    I hope that the coming evangelical collapse causes evangelicals to ponder and investigate what they believe and why they believe it, including the tenets of the Reformation and the 1500 years of Christianity before the Reformation.

    Like

  9. Your comments about seminaries piqued my imagination and passions a bit. I think this would be fantastic. I don’t find this idea (seminary training) anywhere in scripture. Too, most people I’ve witnessed go through seminary (with some exceptions), seem equipped to keep the machine humming along, but don’t really seem more equipped to be disciples. Doing the latter is a work of the Holy Spirit and doesn’t require a ThD.

    Hopefully The Church of the future will have a simple, organic, reproducible means of growing leaders. Lord-willing, maybe we’ll even stop using resources to have trained “professionals” rather than all the body diligently pursuing Jesus Christ.

    Lastly, I hope The Church of the future stops making a distinction between the life of a believer and “ministry” and that anything not born of the Spirit of God is set aside.

    Like

  10. Love the site and the discussion. As an SBC who has been teaching church history for nearly 10 years I find much to agree with Michael. What is happening is nothing new. The Church ebbs and flows. One must remember that both Rome and Constantinople fell into serious error accepting the Arian heresy. God raised up a man, Athanasius, who stood against all who tried to take control of the Church and deny the tri-une nature of God. I say tried because men cannot take control of the Church. The Church is Spirit filled men and women who are followers of Jesus Christ and not any denomination.
    Believers who do enter into Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic will find this barrier. Both say “they” are the Church. Both EO and the RC will not admit to the errors in their own history.

    Like

  11. The problem is that the Bible itself is flawed. It was created by men, the books included and excluded were decided by men, it contains the doctrine of men, and has been altered many times by men. Any church attempting to have a full fledged repentance based on a seriously flawed set of documents will itself result in a seriously flawed church. Repent of following the doctrine of the church and the doctrine of men and you will be saved.

    Like

  12. Appreciated your piece on the collapse of evangelicalism. We started a new independent Methodist movement known as the Bethel Methodist Church for that very reason in 1988. We have only four small churches in Texas but we know we are called of God to “get it right.” We are always looking for other souls and chuches who feel the same way. Thank you.

    Like

  13. Evangelicals are going to be just fine. We are on the brink of rebirth not collapse. Or, perhapse, reformation instead of collapse. I am non-denominational. Our church has, in four years, grown from a house to roughly 700 members every Sunday. Hardly a 50% collapse. I live in a college town.

    We have thriving small group system.
    I am part of the intercessory team, and we pray each Sunday that God’s will would be done in our service.

    I and another member have just started reading AW Tozer’s Knowledge of the Holy. AWESOME. Hopefully it will become a Sunday school class.

    Finally, evangelicasl (at least non-denom) derive their strength and vitality from a personal relationship with God. When we truly impact society it is not through a centralized church system, but through many individual doing their best to lead a life pleasing to God. Thus, certain trends and “lack of leadership” are useless monikers as they try to measure what does not exist.

    Like

  14. wow! Great series, IM, we have lived out a little of what you’ve described. Grew up fundy Baptist and realized with maturity and personal study that some traditions are man-made and not of God, went into non-denominational evangelicalism, you know, Bible-only and found that every group has a penchant for establishing their own traditions over Christ.

    Now, we have a home fellowship of a handful of believers. I have seen the gifts of the Spirit more active in the home group than I ever did at the weekly ‘show’ down at the church-house. We have abandoned the show-church to seek a group of people who want to follow Jesus, establish His Kingdom (not organizations), and please the Father.

    God has been sending us opportunities to share the Gospel in unexpected ways, through old relationships or people we never met that we suddenly were thrown together with. hmmm. OUTSIDE the structure of what we call ‘church’ in America, the Kingdom lives on.

    Very timely series, thanks for writing it.

    Like

  15. I got here from the abbreviated version of this series on the CSMonitor web site… couple of comments. I think that in the unchurched NorthWest, we are still in the pre-church stage and the number of church goers is very low. While many would take your article and sound the alarm, I see this as actually calling the lukewarm to either fight or flight and, for eternity sake, is needed to get repentent beleivers on mission.

    There are many strong evangelical churches in the NorthWest, however many call themselves evangelical but would not pass the evangelical test. There are people that play Christianity… health and wealth, pro-homosexual, pro-abortion, pro-tradition, etc. that miss the fact that the Bible is not a story of rules but a story of salvation and repentence.

    I think that the best you can do with major headlines like this is scare off the lukewarms… until we are under further persecution, they are unlikely to repent – in that regard, persecution becomes beneficial, albeit unpleasant. I would say that in the NorthWest, persecution is already live and well and those that truly seek repentence already face persecution. For those that have not yet been presented with the Gospel of repentence, it is either welcomed for it’s direct calling to repent and turn from all sin or it is ridiculed as old fashioned and no longer relevant. Lukewarm is not a typical adjective of a Seattle-ite’s faith.

    We in the West often wonder what “Bible belt” actually means since in many ways it seems that the church in the Bible belt is more susceptible to complacency due to a lack of persecution. My family in the Midwest is much more complacent than the majority of those that would call themselves evangelical in the NorthWest – likely because to be associated with a gospel of repentence in the NorthWest does open you up to persecution.

    Bill

    Like

  16. In all the posts here, not one has mentioned the elephant in the room. Evangelical Christianity will never be taken seriously by non-Christians as long as it is identified with anti-intellectualism, and that means ADMITTING ERROR ON EVOLUTION. Conservative Christians are wrong about evolution and wrong about the exegesis that they use to excuse their willful denial of reality. In fact most anti-evolution literature isn’t merely wrong but outright deceitful. How you resolve this is up to you – you painted yourselves into the corner and you can jolly well get yourselves out. When it comes to interpreting how the natural world works, science, not religion, is the lawful authority.

    Someone mentined teaching the archeological evidence for the Bible. Nobody will take that seriously, either, unless you are equally willing to teach archeological evidence that either contradicts or fails to support the Bible. A good working definition of a cult is any religion that refuses to accept correction or admit error. If the shoe fits….

    Like

  17. Brilliant observations. Brilliant series. All students of church history should be able to see the cracks in the foundation.

    Like

  18. Our mental abilities, gifts from God, available for analysis and parsing of intellectual points of view. The ideas here expressed, most interesting. The thoughtfulness, appreciated, because we’re all hoping to express more of God in our lives — at least, I can hope that we share the goal for the greatest good as we write our ideas in this forum.

    And yet, didn’t Jesus identify the low-caste “doer of the word” Samaritan of undefined religiosity as the true friend who helped the injured stranger (in a pre-Christian world of the educated religious devout who passed on the other side)? And didn’t Jesus specify being friends through the reign of infinite God (defined by scripture as Spirit and Love)as the goal to which we aspire? He becomes our friend when we follow the steps of ministry modeled — not when we argue among ourselves over who is more devout and whose doctrinal spin is better.

    Wisdom, Mary, the sacred feminine: all exist(equal in Christ) in the canonical biblical texts alongside the sacred masculine’s attributes, yet the finite man-made ego has infiltrated organized Christianity (as well other organized religion) to the point that women leave in droves (mentally if not physically) while evangelicals argue to their demise.

    The true Christ, the Holy Spirit, the One who holds the cosmos in timeless compassion will see us through this. If we really know Jesus, we will not wrangle over dogma. He never did.

    Like

  19. Headless Unicorn Guy, I trust the salvation of my kids to God (I’m sure you do too.) — NedBrek

    I have no kids. I never married. Too geeky for any woman to ever find me attractive. Unbroken string of rejections.

    And whenever I hear the phrase “WWJD” I think FLUFFY! FLUFFY!

    Like

  20. No offense Jeff, but having attended a United Church of Christ Bible college, if you think they’re going to help save Christianity in America….you’re wrong. The difference between it and a secular college was mainly less drinking and the religion classes. And they tried to hide the sex.

    DD

    Like

  21. Presby/PCUSA, The Episcopal Church/TEC, Lutheran/ELCA, United Church of Christ/UCC, United Methodist Church/UMC, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) usually just called “Disciples” or DoC, and the American Baptists/ABC make up the one-time “mainline.”

    The 12 NCCC stalwarts (they do try in recent years to add the third C for “of Christ”) would add Church of the Brethren, Reformed Church in America, Moravian Church in America, and the African Methodist churches (AME, AMEZ, and CME, with the latter two merged in all but name). There are more, but these are the communions with the highest profile in NCCC affairs.

    Like

  22. Jeff,

    For those of us who were raised intolerably ignorant of other denominations, Just who are the mainline/seven sisters group, and who are the twelve NCCC mainline/oldline stslwarts?

    Just curious

    Like

  23. Methodists, actually, are doing pretty well (compared to the mainline/seven sisters group, like PCUSA & TEC), which is interesting given that they have given the least concessions, denominationally, to gay/lesbian ordination, let alone marriage equivalence.

    I think we’ll see a big batch of mergers in the next five-seven years among the twelve NCCC mainline/oldline stslwarts, down to three or five, and the Tim Keller observation is already at work in the South — the hole card the UMC has is that annoying old apportionment system. Methodists have the strongest incentive system to keep records and membership numbers clean and accurate, not that we have much truck with “regenerate church membership.”

    SBC can claim what they want, but if they had an apportionment system, they’d be down to seven, eight million members tops the next year. COGIC — oh, my. Same issue; if they had to pay just 50 cents per member they’d be down to two, three members.

    Like

  24. I would like to add an “on the other hand” to the possible benefits of the fading away of seminary education. Few churches currently equip their congregation with the Gospel let alone significant understanding of doctrine.

    That’s how we got Joel Osteen…..his only claim to ministership is that his dad was, so why not him. There is no gospel or biblical teaching in his message because he never heard it himself.

    Like

  25. I find that I agree with what dac said about there not being “a real decline in true Christianity … because there’s been so little of it.” I’ve stumbled around the Evangelical wasteland my entire adult Christian life and it just seems that no matter where I’ve ended up (from Charismatic to Fundamentalist to Reformed to Pentecostal to Mainline to non-denom to whatever) it just seems to be a matter of essentially moving from one heresy to another. Currently I’ve landed at a PC(USA) church. GASP! Scary, huh? And I’m even on staff there now. 😉 But I see a remnant of hope in this tiny little mainline church as it aligns itself with Presbyterians for Renewal (PfR). I think we’ll start seeing the rise of organizations (such as PfR) that will be calling for Biblical renewal and a return to Biblical standards in some of the liberal mainline denominations. But I think there will be a further splintering of those denominations, as well. I see it happening right before my eyes.

    Like

  26. Pingback: Khanya
  27. You are correct – I guess I was reacting to the tone of the series, at least as I percieved it. My perception of the past 150 years of christianity is more jaded than yours – I do not see a real decline in true christianity, because I think there has been so little of it.

    but thats me

    Like

  28. Did I not make it clear that I did not believe ALL of evangelicalism was collapsing? I said that I expected evangelicalism to be about half its current size post-collapse.

    Like

  29. While in general I agree with this series, I think that perhaps things are not as you might think

    First, I think that little of what passes for Christianity has been such since pre 1900. Indeed, one could argue the civil war was the major declining point, forcing a break into the church, one of increased liberalism for some, increase fundism for others. One preaches no repentence, the other preaches no grace. Neither are christian.

    Second, there are a number of popular churches that do preach the gospel, and are getting more and more attention. Driscoll, Chan, etc. Not, as you point out, Joel Osteen numbers. Yet there is a faithful portion

    Like

  30. Along with the end of the seminary system will come an end of the specialized academic. Stanley Fish has recently written about the end of the university system as we know it.

    http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/01/18/the-last-professor/

    But if the seminaries fall to pieces, we will still need to train pastors who can be the master of all trades — at least enough of a master that he can teach others to be masters as well. Never has this been the case for the Church. We have always had our universities to fall back on, and they have been led by specialists in their fields.

    I think the best way for Christianity to gain influence (though this will greatly compromise the spending power of individuals) is to foster stronger, healthier, and larger families (yes, this might mean that mother or father doesn’t work, and each family has 5 or more kids instead of 1 or 2) instead of youth programs. People concerned with wealth won’t have kids because they’re a financial drain, but if we multiply and instill our values in our communities, within 50 years, we stand a much better chance of having influence than if we were to complain and bemoan the passing of influence we didn’t really have.

    Good series, Michael. I’m normally the apocalyptic apostle of Gloom and Doom here in the office, but you have me beat.

    Pax,
    Eric

    Like

  31. Headless Unicorn Guy, I trust the salvation of my kids to God (I’m sure you do too 🙂

    It’s probably the Dispy in me showing. If Christianity is getting annihilated, then Christ has to come back (Luke 18:8).

    It’s going to drive the post-Mils crazy. Too bad for them! 😛

    Like

  32. “what are some old fads that were once popular in Evangelical culture?”

    What Would Jesus Do wrist bands and gear.

    From what I can tell: Prayer meetings.

    I should probably be able to come up with more but…

    DD

    Like

  33. Thank you iMonk, this series has left me saying, “Praise God!” — Nedbrek

    Just so long as the collapse doesn’t end up leaving your grandchildren (and their descendants for ten thousand generations) saying “Al’lah’u Akbar!”

    “AFR believes that we are in a culture war and evangelicalism is losing that war. More praise music isn’t going to help but talk …”

    Good to know the folks at AFR agree with you regarding evangelicalism, sort of, in a backward kind of way. — DT

    Sounds more like the old Soviet solution to every problem with their political system: Increase Political Consciousness Indoctrination. And when that doesn’t work, do it again BUT THIS TIME SCREAMING LOUDER AND LOUDER! And if that doesn’t work, SCREAM EVEN LOUDER!

    Dunnigan says the wildest fantasy fiction ever written appears in a wartime country’s news media the day before that country loses the war. I suspect the collapsing Evangelicals will follow that pattern to the bitter end. (And Christ won’t be there to beam them up like they expected.)

    Cultural isolation, subcultural arrogance, and “eager-to-leave” eschatology have brought Evangelicalism to this. All that remains is seeing who picks up the pieces (and how many pieces there are) after the crash. And scrap dealers from Dawkins to Mohammed will be competing with Christians to salvage the wreckage.

    Like

  34. Imonk, great post as usual. I noticed that you referenced Michael Horton in your article. I’m glad of that because as a reformed evangelical he seems interested in seeing the church return to its theological and biblical roots. As many have said in previous posts the past few months, the problem is that we have dropped the Gospel and the church needs to recover it. I believe in spite of a crumbling evangelical empire that there will always be healthy churches, but they will be those that stay faithful to Scripture and to the Gospel. In that sense I think it is good for false converts to go back home and false churches to close. I hope it will lead to even more genuine conversions.

    Like

  35. Michael:
    It is difficult for me to see any good that can come from the ascendancy of Charismatic-Pentecostal Christianity. The “if” statement regarding reformation reaching those churches is a gigantic “if”. The deck is extraordinarily stacked against that ever happening. The elevation of personal experience, unfettered by Biblical checks and balances, leads inexorably toward chaos. The lack of accountability and self policing of charasmatic/pentacostals by their own people is particularly revealing. How do you reason with a person who answers your objections with “the Lord told me.” My best hope for these people is a slow evaporation from the churning pot of Pentecostal passion by a few who see the huge gap between reality and performance, and who have the courage to make the leap out of the pot. If the last 30 years of Latin American experience with the C-P movement is any indicator, what will happen is most of these folks will conclude that all religion is a fraud and will abandon the “Christianity” they knew.

    Mort Chien

    Like

  36. Flipping radio stations this morning and heard this from an American Family Radio station on why they switched to an all talk format in the morning:

    “AFR believes that we are in a culture war and evangelicalism is losing that war. More praise music isn’t going to help but talk …”

    Good to know the folks at AFR agree with you regarding evangelicalism, sort of, in a backward kind of way.

    Keep up the good work Michael. The kind of honest assessment you provide in these posts actually gives me hope.

    Like

  37. Thank you iMonk, this series has left me saying, “Praise God!” I’m sorry I missed the comments earlier.

    I’ve long felt the worst thing in Christendom was when Constantine made it “cool” to be Christian. I think you’re right, that is going to change.

    And it will be a good thing. This is going to shake a lot of tares out of the Church field, and into the next field over.

    When witnessing, I find it a lot easier to deal with open atheists (or plain secularists). False Christians are the worst!

    Praise God!

    Like

  38. “America is going to embrace gay marriage” Can’t say I think this’ll happen Michael. It may become legal, it may become accepted by many and maybe even a majority (although I doubt it) but I think it will always create and define a split culturally. Like abortion issue, while the pro-life side has lost virtually all but the most modest political battles, the movement is as alive as ever. I expect gay marriage will be like that. If you said half of America will embrace gay marriage I’d believe it.

    Gay marriage is a particular challenge for Catholics as marriage is a sacrament it will not be possible to accept it. Although you can be sure many will argue in it’s favor.

    But this is a topic way off the path from the Evangelicals in the future. Except that I think stark cultural divides could stimulate Evangelical growth as a reaction to the popular culture. Hard to know really, there has to be a compelling voice to rally around. I’m sure I’d be the last to hear if there was such a person.

    Like

  39. “A church that IS a seminary? Or a church that, by the giftings of its members, is called and equipped to do seminary level teaching?”

    I’m not sure I understand the question. It may be because I haven’t had any caffeine yet….

    I believe in a church that is well schooled in all aspects of our faith. This includes opposing views on various controversial subjects and why we believe what we do. Is the intent that every member will become an elder/pastor/deacon? No, but we all have a ministry and therefore need to be equiped for the task. It would be free or as close to it as possible. It would also be open to members of other churches; though a close eye would be kept on how that was working…knowing human nature and all. Certainly, we would be willing to send people to teach at other churches.

    Also, and this is one of the keys for me, it provides a steady stream of educated and equiped people who can step into the role of elder (or even pastor) easily and, if we have church plants, have a ready supply of folks who can be the leaders of the plant.

    DD

    Like

  40. Michael,

    since these are awaiting moderation, is there any way you could changed a typo in my last post and delete this one? If so, please changed “confession Presbyterians” to “confessional Presbyterians.” Thanks :). I have trouble typing before the coffee kicks in.

    Like

  41. Michael, have you read America’s God by Mark Noll? It’s quite a hefty tome, but it made so many pieces fall together for me in terms of how American Evangelicalism developed. I first heard about it because it was sited in Nancy Pearcey’s book Total Truth, which also provides an excellent overview of the development of American Evangelicalism (although her solution seems to be to become confession Presbyterians 🙂 ).

    Like

  42. “I expect to see a substantial abandonment of the seminary system”
    Well that would be a good result. So many of the problems you describe are incubated in these ivory towers. The main lesson of so many of them is,”Why our Denomination is Superior, as proven by History, Philosophy, and the Holy Bible.” The Barna survey stats for believing the basics of Christianity as one progresses through the “educational” system is depressing.
    It is easy to pick on Joel for being off target, but the truth is that so many churches are breeding grounds for legalism and/or their own breed of religious prejudice, that their absence will not affect the Kingdom as much as some think.
    The political ramifications of what you predict are worth a moments thought. We are governed we are told by the majority. The dissolution of the Evangelical “moral majority” will impact politics. This change, which does seem inevitable, in church operations and structure, will surely affect the Nation as well. There is something to pray about. The evangelical circus may be frustrating to those under the tent, but it has impacted the Nation in, I feel, positive ways. America with less Salt?

    Like

  43. Thanks for the ruminations, Michael. I am nearing 60 and have been a part of the circus for 40 years in full-time ministry. I feel like I have been in a Christian Booksellers Convention for 40 years – vendors screaming at me, everyone in a rush to the latest program, big names all over the place, music turned up to loud, and everyone networking on the latest numbers this or that will bring in the front door. I have seen so many fads blow through the church and so many big names come and go that I stopped counting. The one thing that is true at the end is that evangelicalism has not grown into an appropriate and God-honoring maturity and intellectual sophistication but descended into the mindset of world-wide wrestling. It has no ability to clean house, say what we are and are not, confront both heresy and sloppy thinking. Evangelicalism doesn’t even know who Micahel Horton is and groups like the PCA are hardly a blip on the evangelical screen. They matter, but mostly to themselves. I have searched hard for leaven in the loaf. I can’t really find it. I am not a pessimist. I think I just might have awakened and found out what evangelicalism is, not what it has fallen from.

    Like

  44. On the seminary front, I am doing my MA right now completely through the internet with Liberty. I can go through the MDiv level or even PhD if I had that kind of ambition (which I don’t) without ever leaving my house. The best part is that my only cost out of pocket is for books and registration fees, so I am not incurring any further debt either. I think your predictions about the changing of seminary education is dead on. Our little state convention here in the Dakotas has recently started a school that is both regionalized and online for classes.

    Like

  45. If the traditional seminary system is threatened by becoming a ridiculous burden to place on prospective clergy in the face of such unfavorable events you describe- it would probably be a positive thing for the church as a whole.

    Realistically, there will always be scholars who have nothing better to do than write papers and books that other wannabe scholars will read. So its not like scholasticism will die off. It will continue to exist and preserve two millenia of scholarship.

    But we WILL see people who enter the ministry with more humility and willingness to serve because the ministry is now accesible to them whereas before it wasn’t. From a personal standpoint- I would love to serve in a more official capacity but simply cannot obtain a Master’s degree without a miracle at this point.

    And at some point I would think people will be as forward thinking as Piper on this and begin training people for ministry IN a church setting and in time it won’t be such a novelty of an idea. (Didn’t Paul train elders, and instruct Timothy to appoint elders in his place at Crete? Theres no scriptural mandate for how we do pastoral training and if anything scripture would lead us to believe our seminary system is only an imperfect replacement for how the early church practiced the business of training its own)

    Like

  46. I very much enjoyed this series. I have places where I see the same thing, and others where I see other possibilities, but over all it is very well thought out. I hope at one and the same time that you are both wrong and right in where you see things headed. Thanks!

    Like

  47. Geoff D: Your anecdote about house churches may win generalization of the year. I know hundreds of housechurchers and none of them are in that category. I’m sure some are….plenty of evangelicals are strange, but house churchers no more so. A lot of us….that includes me….can’t seem to find a church for a lot of reasons and worship with friends in houses has been one option.

    Like

  48. I believe that protestantism (evangelicalism)rose to prominence off of the work of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. They had Christianized the western world (the two catholic churches that is)and laid the groundwork by inculcating a Christian worldview in the minds of the general public for Evangelicalism to prosper. I’m trying not to sound like too much of a Catholic rumpswab so forgive me. However , in the face of an ever increasing secular society void of the Christian worldview Evangelicalism will slowly fade to insignifigance (in my opinion). I belive the movement is too fractured and devisive not only among themselves but even more so with those outside the Church. I know Catholicism and Orthodoxy have their problems but they are monolithic enough to have an air of credibility and stability. I agree with one of the previous posts that the housechurch movement is a recipe for disaster, cults and heresey. I knew a group of housechurchers here in New England (about eight or ten) that packed up and moved to Oklahoma because there were too many Catholics up here(empirical for me to say so but thats some of my experience with house churches).

    Like

  49. It’s been a major part of the failed culture war agenda. America is going to embrace gay marriage. It is a major issue in the mainlines and will split the emergers. Otherwise, it doesn’t really touch evangelicals on the issue side. On the pastoral side, it will always be an important issue, but all sexuality and all sexual sin (for all of us) is an issue in the pastoral sense.

    Like

  50. Is the gay issue a key to understanding and predicting the trajectory of American Christianity, or just a relatively short-term matter that is more important in the media and in political arenas where activists are keeping it alive? In my admittedly limited experience, I certainly don’t hear much about it at the local church level, other than the usual culture war chatter that mimics what folks hear on TV.

    I don’t mean to focus exclusively on this issue. I just wonder if this will become one of the important factors in the future of the church, or something that will eventually blow over or become less of a battleground.

    Like

  51. Opposing gay marriage- but not civil unions in my case- and opposing gay ordination are not dumping anyone.

    Your language unfortunately ended your part in the discussion. Thanks for contributing.

    Like

  52. MOD Note: Due to language in this post, comment moderation is back on. Sorry. IM posters can’t use that kind of language in discussions.

    “Well we are at that moment for the mainlines- esp PCUSA, TEC (ECUSA), ELCA, UMC- where a horizon of survival is starting to appear generationally.”

    What’s your evidence for this? I haven’t studied the question in depth, but my take is that the ELCA undergoes the standard effects of changing demographics, but talk of “a horizon of survival” suggests the kids leaving in droves, which I don’t see happening.

    “I believe making an effort to open the doors to evangelicals is a huge opportunity to for all those groups. But I’m the one writing about it…not them.

    “It would be good for all concerned, but I see almost no mainline leaders who understand the opportunity that is theirs right now. Their leadership are controlled by those with a much different agenda: the redefining of the Gospel as the legitimization of homosexual marriage and ordination.

    “That’s unfortunate.”

    The thing is, we see not being anti-gay as a feature, not a bug. This may or may not be a winning strategy for gaining new members. (I suspect it will be, given trendlines of polling on acceptance of gays.) But our understanding of the Gospel includes even gays. So when you tell us that you might like to join us, if only we would dump the gays, we take that as asking us to abandon our brothers and sisters in Christ. I understand that this isn’t your understanding of the Gospel, but it is ours.

    I won’t claim that this understanding is universal within the ELCA, but to imagine that it is merely an agenda imposed on an ovine membership by [MOD edited] leadership really really misreads the situation.

    Like

  53. In Rev.3:7,after recognizing the positives of the other six churches, Jesus tells them to repent. But to Philadelphia, He finds no fault. While actually having existed in Biblical times, she seems to be the perpetual Bride of Christ. As falseness within churches callapse, Philadelphia will remain. She has only a little strength. She is comprised of doers…not just hearers of the gospel of Christ. Like Christ, she is nothing to be desired, celebrated, or taken seriously by the masses. But God is her rock, shield, deliverer, fortress, and strength.

    Imonk, Philadelphia, I believe, though already pesent but not seen, is the ultimate good to come out of the callapse we are sensing on the horizon. Philadelphia will be as ‘the light of a candle’ in the darkness. She won’t be important until she is gone. Rev.18:23 says, “And the light of a candle shall shine no more at all in thee; and the voice of the bridegroom and bride shall be heard no more in thee:”

    Like

  54. Continuing earlier thoughts on the mainlines…

    One hopeful sign in my own church is that my pastor has asked me to write some articles for our church newsletter to help our good Lutheran folks understand where an evangelical like myself is coming from, and why we have chosen to leave evangelicalism to be part of their congregation and tradition. In my view, dialogue of this type can only be helpful. Of course, this is happening only on the local level, in a small church, so I can’t speak at this point about the denomination as a whole.

    Like

  55. “Does anyone think all will proceed without interruption or surprise?”

    Surely not. We wouldn’t be participating in history if that was the case.

    Like

  56. DaveD and imonk, Yes, Bethlehem Baptist is a pretty good model, but one that has grown over a long period of time. I would suggest thinking a bit smaller. You could start with a class on theology or church history, complete with question and answer time in your church. My pastor, Cody McNutt, is careful to sculpt largely exegetical/expositional sermons, but he does not shy away from describing and defining the theology found in the Word. A couple of us sem guys teach Sunday school and Wed. night on sections of Scripture and on theological topics. Right after Advent I taught about the importance of the Virgin Birth to our faith, the next week I taught on the recent Herodian controversy. Our church members are the ones “in the world,” and they need to be equipped to answer the Open Theists, atheists, and Oprahites. Start small and it WILL grow! In my experience, most Christians are sick of being talked down to and babied from the pulpit. They want answers and real application to life.

    Well, that’s my $1.50. Blessings.

    Like

  57. “I expect to see a substantial abandonment of the seminary system. How can a denomination ask its clergy to go into huge debt to be equipped for ordination or ministry? We all know that there are many options for education from much smaller schools to church based seminaries to internet schools to mentoring and apprenticing arrangements. We must do better in this area, and I think we will.”

    Admittedly, I am only familiar with a few seminaries in Canada. Some seem to be adjusting well, making their programs easier for Pastor’s and those in other jobs easier to take. Others… not so much so. Those that adjust will flourish, others will wither away.

    My brother recently completed his MBA, almost done completely by distance education, this would have been incomprehensible 15 years ago.

    Who knows what the next generation of the internet will bring?

    Like

  58. im curious how the collapse will affect those who are presently being reached by the gospel but havent the background for understanding all the subtleties of evangelicalism and its rise and fall. do you mind speaking to this?

    Like

  59. A church that IS a seminary? Or a church that, by the giftings of its members, is called and equipped to do seminary level teaching?

    Piper’s Bethlehem Institute has morphed into a seminary level program. That’s a great model I think.

    Like

  60. “We all know that there are many options for education from much smaller schools to CHURCH BASED SEMINARIES to internet schools to mentoring and apprenticing arrangements.”

    That is my dream to one day Pastor a church that is, in all effects, seminary. The idea of a church that is so well versed in theology, the history of the church and of the Bible, the archaeological evidence for the Bible etc that other churches in the area, who don’t believe 100% like we do, still seek out our people to talk to because of their faith and knowledge is one I would LOVE to be a part of. I just have little idea of how to accomplish it. So here I sit.

    DD

    Like

  61. Chaplain:

    Well we are at that moment for the mainlines- esp PCUSA, TEC (ECUSA), ELCA, UMC- where a horizon of survival is starting to appear generationally. I believe making an effort to open the doors to evangelicals is a huge opportunity to for all those groups. But I’m the one writing about it…not them.

    It would be good for all concerned, but I see almost no mainline leaders who understand the opportunity that is theirs right now. Their leadership are controlled by those with a much different agenda: the redefining of the Gospel as the legitimization of homosexual marriage and ordination.

    That’s unfortunate.

    ms

    Like

  62. “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. For those communions, it’s a good development, but probably not for evangelicals themselves.”

    This is dead on

    Like

  63. I expect to see a vital and growing house church movement. This cannot help but be good for an evangelicalism that has made buildings, paid staff and numbers its drugs for half a century.

    With the caveat that these house churches not go equally out-of-balance in the other direction. The theoretical end state of Protestantism is millions of Only True Churches with only one member, and splintering into house churches is a step in that direction. A myriad of Only True Remnants (each a whole DOZEN strong, eight of which are My Immediate Family) all striking off on their own with no reality check is not a good thing. It’s more likely to breed splinter cults (in every sense of the term), a thousand Westboro Baptists.

    You seem to be saying now that mainlines will become increasingly irrelevant. Are you thinking that they don’t have the stuff to take advantage of the current “moment”? — Chaplain Mike

    Some mainlines will, some won’t. Too early to tell, and there’s no predicting.

    I’ve long thought that religion in a society under stress can go one of three ways (and each has a Christianese term):

    1) Practical Atheism (Christianese “Secular Humanism”), just bailing out of the whole thing either actively or passively. Might give lip service to the concept, but it has no effect on your life.

    2) Exotic Foreign Religions (Christianese “Eastern Mysticism”), where people flee their culture’s traditional faith for something Exotic (TM), the more different from their traditional faith the better. (This was the Church’s wedge into the cultural meltdown of the aging Roman Empire.) Nowadays, that could be anything from Oprah to Shirley Mac Laine to Bahai to Wicca — to Islam.

    3) Extreme/Fundamentalist versions of the culture’s traditional faith (Christianese “Born Again Bible Believing KJV1611 Only…”); take the most extreme version of the culture’s own faith and firewall it to the ultimate extreme, AKA “Talibanizing”. This is the route a good chunk of Islam is taking.

    All three of these will be prone to superstition and magical thinking.

    And not every burnout will take the same path, resulting in hostility and conflict between the three. Some of the exotic religions in (2) could get as extreme and intolerant as the ones in (3).

    Like

  64. Michael,

    How does this series of posts relate, in your thinking, to the earlier post you had about the “moment of opportunity” that mainline churches have at the present to attract evangelicals and offer them something richer and deeper? You seem to be saying now that mainlines will become increasingly irrelevant. Are you thinking that they don’t have the stuff to take advantage of the current “moment”?

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: