On March 10, 2009, Michael Spencer penned these words in an opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor:
We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity…
Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants.
With that, a firestorm erupted. The story was picked up around the world. And with it came the accompanying criticism. How could Michael have written such words? His denomination was having record setting attendances, year after year after year. And what a denomination it was: One in twenty Americans was a member of the Southern Baptist Convention!
Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today wrote: “Some predictions I warm up to because of my own biases, but in the end, they don’t seem to be founded on anything substantive.” I knew in my heart that Michael Spencer was right, and I believed that there were numbers to back him up. Being a numbers guy I offered to write a couple of post to back him up statistically. Michael agreed, and with that I wrote my first two posts for Internet Monk. Part 1. Part 2.
Michael covered a lot of ground in his essay. I encourage you to stop and read the entire article in the Christian Science Monitor. I encourage you to read my responses as well. Feel free to respond in the comments to any of his or my points.
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since that time. Michael Spencer passed away just over a year after those original posts were written. Jeff Dunn and Chaplain Mike stepped in to keep the blog going, and I have written another 200 posts.
Today is going to be my very last post before the Internet Monk closes its doors on January 1st. I thought it would be very fitting that I return to the topic of my very first post and see how accurate Michael Spencer and my comments were.
Because this is my final post, and I really am a numbers guy, I want to focus on his first two statements, my original support of them, and how our predictions stand up 11 years later.
We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity…
Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants.
Many people jumped on that first statement, and claimed that Michael believed that Evangelical Christianity would collapse (to nothing) in 10 years. That claim is not born out by his second statement, that within “two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants.”
In my first analysis, written two days after the Christian Science Monitor was published, I did a bunch of number crunching of Southern Baptist attendance figures. I concluded:
[Y]ou will have a net decrease in Baptists over the next ten years of roughly 10%.
So as Michael has said, the next ten years should be the beginning of the collapse, and as was shown earlier in the article, this collapse should continue for several decades until half of the Baptists are gone.
I used Baptist in my analysis because this is the group with which Michael was most familiar and they seemed to be pretty representative of American Evangelical. Michael also inferred in his essay that the decline would not be in the Charismatic/Pentecostal sector of Evangelicalism
How long a time period were we talking about? Michael said two generations. I understood this as the Miriam-Webster definition of “the average span of time between the birth of parents and that of their offspring.” So my interpretation of what Michael wrote was that this collapse would start within 10 years and that we would see it come to complete fruition “within two generations” – between 40 and 50 years from the date of writing.
So what have we seen happen in the Southern Baptists since I first predicted that they would decline 10% in ten years?
Well, from 2009 to 2019, a period of 11 years, membership in the Southern Baptists declined 10.1%. Attendance, which I consider to be a much better thermometer, declined 15.5% over the same time period. Baptisms? Because isn’t that what Baptists do? They are down an astonishing 32.6% since 2009!
Even though Membership has declined by a smaller percentage than attendance, the membership decline has been accelerating. When do I expect the Southern Baptist “be a house deserted of half its occupants.” Well if attendance decline continue at the same rate as it has over the past 11 years, we can expect that to happen 35.5 years after Michael first predicted it. I believe that we will see a similar time frame for membership as well. His predictions are holding up very well.
While I may receive some criticism for focusing on the Southern Baptists, I believe that Michael’s prediction, and my analysis, would hold true for the broader Evangelical tent.
Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity today, who initially showed so much skepticism, had a follow up of his own.
Ten years ago, the late blogger Michael Spencer sparked one of the first social media conversations about the viability of evangelicalism with his essay, “The Coming Evangelical Collapse, and Why It Is Going to Happen.” …
I was skeptical at the time he wrote this, and said so in print. But today I admit that Spencer was more right than he was wrong. Recent events and surveys bear out many of his predictions. We truly are in a moment of crisis in the American evangelicalism… contemporary evangelicalism is in serious trouble. Actually, its crisis is the same one that afflicts all Christianity in America… I believe that the crisis lies at the heart of what ails large swaths of the American church. Alexander Solzhenitsyn named it in his speech upon receiving the Templeton Prize in Religion in 1968. He was talking about Western culture when he used it. I apply it to the American church, evangelical and not:
We have forgotten God.
Thank you to Chaplain Mike and Michael Spencer for allowing me to write for Internet Monk for the past eleven years. I have greatly appreciated the opportunity and I shall miss it greatly.
118 thoughts on “The Coming Evangelical Collapse – Eleven Years In”
“The Jesus shaped life is desirable, but who leads that movement?”
One of the things we at iMonk usually agree on because of our experiences is– DON’T LOOK FOR A MOVEMENT. Rather, look for people–individuals–who are MOVED by Christ.
Chill, “church” is when and where you come across a few others who have something of a “vision of the Christ” that in each particular way works itself out in their lives. To a large degree I would call the intersections here at iMonk “church.”
As to secularization…As far as I’m concerned the trend is just fine. Secularization provides a backdrop to the stage of Faith. It also allows for a broad range for freedom of thought and action. And, as a person married to a Canadian who was very religious in an even more secularized country than the US, secularization is the reagent that indicates the Seriously Faithful from the Nominals. In a highly secularized country there is NO benefit to being a member of a Religious Business Club — actually demonstrably identifying with an RBC will damage you professionally. I definitely prefer our secularization to the possible theocracy that many “Christians” seem to want.
If it’s physical connections you seek then go to ANY church, stay a while, contribute to the well being of the people there, and, over time you will make at least several connections.
“Just like [insert pop-culture fad here], Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”
“I understand a lot of the theological/philosophical vagaries of the West that have led to where Evangelicals are. Most don’t know or care about those things, or they think that the whole scope of Christianity only includes that with which they are familiar.”
And, ultimately, IMO, the WORSE of the worse of those “vagaries” is PSA. A depiction such as that of the Father should cause thinking people to flee forthwith.
Or, as Capon said it;
“We are not saved by what Jesus taught, and we are certainly not saved by what we understand Jesus to have taught. We are saved by Jesus himself, dead and risen. “Follow me” he says. It is the only word that finally matters.”
Exactly Eeyore. There was a Maginot Line running pretty much east to west through Antioch. Peter and James to the south while Paul was to the north.
Luke’s account in Acts is tendentious–there never was One Big Happy Christian Family.
Dana, we share at least one aspect in common; What exactly is the “gospel?” I also found that people like NT Wright seemed to have a much better handle on the question that Evangelicalism, or even my fundamentalist cofC upbringing.
Thanks for your account, Ted. I’ve witnessed much the same relative to the authoritarian new-calvinist trend.
Many shopping malls across the country are in the 30-50 year age, some older.
As far as construction goes the shells are adequate as long as their mostly flat roofs are maintained. Much of the skeleton is red steel and steel stud construction with various veneers which are easily changed and not of much importance to to the integrity of the shell structure. I don’t know why they couldn’t last a hundred years if need be. However, with climate change more and more structures in the south and mid-west are going to be in the paths of tornadoes.
However, unlike the majority of Mainliner’s church buildings they dramatically lack the masonry craftsmanship and wonderful aesthetics–and a steep pitched roof trumps a flat roof any day, except perhaps in the Southwestern Desert.
IMO and experience the Mainlines could pull a plum out of this Collapse pie…
I think people younger than myself and Sen are searching for “spirituality” and one that embraces Mystery. You might think that would lead ’em toward the Tiber or the Bosphorus. I suspect that the RC’s will get some of that flow while the EO get very little. However, there are significant groups that have roots in the Mainlines and some even in Evangelicalism who have their feet in the ancient streams who are capable of transmitting a spirituality of Mystery and mysticism. It may take some rethinking of traditions, but the rivulets are there in the older forms, and, I think they are emotionally ripe to see and experience a little youngness in their Eucharist.
Baptist baptize BABIES?
(That is meant to be X to the x power, but the site just doesn’t like out-of-normal, including Koine.)
petrushka, echoing Suzanne, I do wish you had spoken out much more frequently.
“Is God less active in calling people to himself?”
Nothing like gas-lighting God…
Farewell, Mike Bell. I’ve learned a lot from your thoughtful posts. Be well.
Thanks for posting this, Seneca. We had an evangelist in our church who was saved directly or indirectly as a result of the Asbury awakening, but I never heard much about the revival itself, nor what happened when it was told about, as here.
+10, Seneca! XD
Not that it’s important (my little world that is) but I should clarify anyway that I most recently stopped attending Catholic Mass. I left Evangelicalism decades ago.
Well, the only other thing I would add is that you should read Fr Stephen Freeman’s blog. It’s very theologically informative and pastoral all at the same time; really puts forth the mindset of Orthodoxy. If you want more of a “pure theology” sort of approach, Fr John Behr on YouTube will give you a lot to think about. Really, you don’t need any more “internet Orthodoxy” than that. You will not go wrong with either or both of those.
Try out all the parishes you found in your area, and have a few words with the priests. You should be able to feel at home and able to connect with the priest in at least one of them.
“First of all, the Incarnation is not “plan B”.”
Dana, that doesn’t get preached enough, if at all.
By the way, I’m finally reading through Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation,” from your suggestion more than a year ago, and on the encouragement of a pastor friend who gave me a copy.
If the Incarnation, or the Cross that follows (and Athanasius ties these together), is not Plan B, then it must be Plan A. John 3:16 was in place from the foundation of the earth. Dante was right when he said that it is Love that moves the sun and all the stars. And Nietzsche too, in a more perverted way, said it colorfully when he screamed, “The Superman [Übermensch] is the meaning of the earth! Let your will say, “The Superman SHALL BE the meaning of the earth!”
Nietzsche over-acted his role, and got the characters mixed up, but if we delete “Übermensch” and put in “Christ,” or “the Cross,” or “the Incarnation/Cross,” there you have it. Perhaps Nietzsche could appreciate that.
“I agree with N.T. Wright, we are justified by faith, not by believing in justification by faith.”
Jon, that’s exactly right. Merely “believing” in justification by faith ends up as works. Grace gets hijacked and re-defined.
One reason why I looked at the Southern Baptist is I believed they serve as a microcosm of the Evangelical movement. They transcend church size statistics. Once you get beyond the denominational numbers where actual heads are counted it is hard to pin down numbers. And as far as megachurches go there have been some collosal collapses there in recent years as well.
9Marks kool aid. Exactly. But Mark Dever, Jonathan Leeman and the 9Marks crowd merely articulated the trend best. I think the trend is very much out of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Remember the Southern Baptist have their Mega churches too!
I actually got on the OCA website a few weeks ago and located a couple of Orthodox churches not far from where I live. There is a video channel on youtube called gospel simplicity and the young man who hosts the channel did some interviews with Orthodox priests. I’ve been interested in studying up on Orthodoxy for some time, but seeing those videos made me want to go experience a service.
Sounds like a Baptist – laughing
“We only added A/C about ten or fifteen years ago: a sad sign of moral decay. ” Lol
Sounds like a daisy-chain of Sheep Rustling.
No, Richard. That would never happen at St. George. The bell is a hallmark of our building, which is on the historic register. They have a significant amount of money invested that is kept for building maintenance and we also got some help for this particular repair.
“The pastor’s sermons, and adult ed classes, began preaching and teaching more about discipline, authority, obedience, submission, the Role of Elders, the need to streamline church government (read: Elders, and male-only). Sermons appeared more works-oriented. Men needed to “step up” and become more involved.”
Sounds like your pastor and elders drank the “9 Marks” kool aid…
Thanks, Jon. We’re not so far apart, especially if you’ve been reading Wright 🙂
First of all, the Incarnation is not “plan B”. God’s intent all along was to be united appropriately to humanity, and created us with that in mind. There is an element of “substitution” in the Crucifixion, in that Jesus voluntarily gave up his life to God on our behalf. As a human being; offering our entire life to God even unto death is what humans were made for, but we generally flee from this in its many aspects, in an attempt to find life in ourselves and not in God. So in his union with humanity in the Incarnation, having a human nature as well as a divine nature, Christ entered into everything that is human, except for sin, in order to fill and redeem it all (“recapitulating Adam”). In that, we also find the second reason: by sharing in our death as a human being, God was able to “get into” Death and blast apart its ultimate power from the inside out. (Read more about it in St Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation”; when you do, set aside your definitions of theological terms and take Athanasius’ words at face value.) The Crucifixion has no meaning without the Resurrection; Crucifixion-Resurrection is one “thing” (“Pascha”) that focuses on the deliverance of humanity from Death and dissolution in the grave. It’s also all there in the first part of Hebrews 2.
Go to the web site of the Orthodox Church in America (oca dot org); at the top where there are the red headings, click on “The Orthodox Faith”, then in the next menu click again on “The Orthodox Faith”. This will take you to a fairly comprehensive overview of EO. It’s easy to navigate, you can read a bit, leave and find your place when you come back to it later.
If you give me your location (metropolis, or compass direction from nearest moderate-sized city) I can give you some church options for when you’re ready to visit. A nice introduction is a Vespers service: quiet, usually by candlelight, lots of psalms, and a taste of the theology in general and also according to where we are in the Calendar, viz. Vespers right now features liturgical verses and chant about the nearing Nativity of Christ and what it means.
“Once my a priori became, God’s right; if I see it differently, I’m wrong it got much easier.”
Which of course assumes that God’s will for us is utterly plain and unequivocal. And that we are able to grasp it without distortion.
“for the Church to speak with a unified voice as she did before Chalcedon”
From my reading of Acts and the Epistles (not to mention the ECFs) “pre-Chalcedon unity” is just as much a chimera as the Baptist “trail of blood” – reading our own wishful thinking back onto church history.
I second that.
That’s a lot to take in. My theology would probably still be categorized evangelical, though I don’t really concern myself with that. There are a couple of exceptions. I struggle with the traditional view of hell. There’s no way I can wrap my head around it that it doesn’t seem ultimately cruel and pointless, but I just keep this to myself most of the time. Also, I don’t view Catholics and Orthodox as lost, which many evangelicals traditionally did, and still do, though not as much as they used to. If you have honestly put your faith and hope in Jesus Christ and seek to follow him, I don’t see how you could be lost. I agree with N.T. Wright, we are justified by faith, not by believing in justification by faith. I don’t see myself beliefs diverging much more from traditional evangelical theology, but who knows. I am interested in a more liturgical form of worship, and a church that pays more attention to the history of the church. If I could find a Southern Baptist Church that did that, I would probably feel right at home, at least for the time being.
I am interested in the Orthodox Church. Do you have any resources you would recommend to help a person learn about it? Some day I hope to attend a service, but finding the time is difficult.
Also, your post got me wondering, if you reject penal substitution, what is your view of the purpose of the crucifixion?
Dana, your journey is about a decade ahead of mine. I think our paths may be similar, but I haven’t had any first-hand experience with Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Yet.
I started to question, “What is the gospel, anyway?” a few years before I discovered Internet Monk, which was largely through Michael’s article “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.” I started to notice, as Headless Unicorn Guy would say, that much of Evangelicalism is all about “Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation,” which appears more self-centered and utilitarian, and not Christlike at all. If I’m in it for my own salvation, where does that leave others, and where does that put Christ?
We live on an offshore island in Maine, with only a small Congregational church, plus an even smaller Catholic chapel in the summer. Religion over the years has been mixed, and until recent decades ministers from the Maine Seacoast Mission would come a couple times per month during the winters, and a host (plethora? parade? circus?) of guest ministers in the summer, usually for two or three weeks at a time while on vacation. Some of these have been excellent, and in the mid-1980s and early 90s I was on the pulpit committee choosing the summer ministers. With help from an evangelical Episcopal priest-become-bishop, we would stack the summers with some of his friends and protegés, most of whom could preach a Jesus-based sermon with some degree of energy. Oh, there were some old favorites leftover that the old ladies still liked, and we couldn’t NOT invite them, but on the whole it was pretty good. Out of the seven or eight ministers over the summer, at least half preached something worthwhile.
Then there was a backlash. Some of the little old ladies insisted that we were Congregational, not Episcopal, and wanted to dis-invite Bishop Alden’s people. Most of those preachers were too young anyway, and their children made a mess of the parsonage. So we had to go back to the mainlines and get older, dead-from-the-neck-up ministers. Or so we thought. Turned out, some of those ended up being pretty good in spite of the ladies’ conspiring.
But in the winters, the Seacoast Mission went from bad to worse. I don’t mind “Ecumenical,” and in fact the Seacoast Mission needs to be ecumenical in order to service multiple islands and poor downeast communities. But when the guy they came up with couldn’t find most books in the bible, admitted to not having read all of Paul’s epistles, appeared most depressed on Easter, and couldn’t preach a sermon without a Zen parable, it was time to take the family elsewhere.
Note to Robert F: I’m OK with Zen parables, and believe that Christians can learn from them; but there’s a time and a place.
Out of survival, in 1992 my wife and I and three girls started attending a Baptist Church on the mainland. Great children’s ministry, great evangelical Christ-centered preaching, it is by grace you are saved, not works.There was no down side to this church for more than 20 years. My wife and I have both become involved in the diaconate and missions team.
Whether it was me or First Baptist, something shifted, as early as the 2012 election but certainly by 2014. I think First Baptist may have become part of Michael’s Coming Evangelical Collapse. The pastor’s sermons, and adult ed classes, began preaching and teaching more about discipline, authority, obedience, submission, the Role of Elders, the need to streamline church government (read: Elders, and male-only). Sermons appeared more works-oriented. Men needed to “step up” and become more involved.
I started to refer to all of this (privately, to my wife and close Christian friends) as “the white evangelical American religion.” The word “Christian” was absent in the description.
Internet Monk, and also Wartburg Watch, had already been outlining some of the trends and caveats of the “new calvinism.” This was useful and also alarming, as I was now seeing it happen in real time.
Putting it now into historical perspective, it does seem like the trends in recent Evangelicalism have come out of the “Southern Baptist Resurgence” that began more than 25 years ago, when Al Mohler took over the Southern Baptist seminaries and threw out whomever he believed were liberals, and on their butts. If they were soft on women’s ordination, or gave a nod to Wesley or Arminius, they were liberals. And God forbid charismatics. Missionaries were called home.
Mike Bell has focused on the Baptists precisely because the Southern Baptists have been at the center of a new reformation. Not only SBC churches, but also independent baptist churches, American Baptist Churches in the North, independent mega-churches everywhere, have been influenced. Para-church organizations, such as 9Marks, Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, The Gospel Coalition, Sovereign Grace, Acts 29 and others have all followed a similar authoritarian new-calvinist trend. And many churches have become “affiliated” with the SBC or with 9Marks without their participants’ awareness.
The success of the Southern Baptist Resurgence may have backfired. The authoritarian streak produces leaders without accountability, and they fall into scandal. Megachurches have fallen the worst, as in “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.” Politically in the past several years, white evangelicals have followed an authoritarian leader who insists upon no accountability. This dovetails with current evangelical trends. The president is not the cause, but rather the effect of our white evangelical American culture.
I don’t know where this will go. It does not appear that white evangelicals in this country will undergo any “season” of repentance in the near future. Pride seems to reign, not humility. The president may not leave office gracefully–or even peacefully–and many white evangelicals will encourage him in that.
I take no joy in knowing that Michael Spencer may have been right. But God bless him for the warning, and also God bless Mike Bell today, Chaplain Mike Mercer, and many others for continuing to sound the alarm.
Thanks Mike for this post, and Chaplain Mike and all the other IM writers and commenters. I’ve been coming here since about 2008 and you have all done a great job at carrying on Michael Spencer’s vision. I’m really going to miss this place and the community of sorts you have created.
As for today’s post, I have no doubt the collapse is happening, not only quantitatively in numerical terms, but also, and perhaps more importantly, qualitatively, which is to say in spiritual terms. Much of white evangelicalism is hardly recognizable as Christian community anymore. This began before the cult-like Trump worship but certainly was accelerated by it. I don’t know what direction it will take in coming years. I only know that it’s no longer a place I can even begin to consider my spiritual home.
Thank you, Mike, for all the work that you have put into writing for us over the years. Whether I agree with you or not, I am always convinced that your approach toward others is motivated by love and that always goes a long way.
Sometimes I think that the decline of both the evangelical and mainline church in North America is due to a culture change, namely to secularism or what Father Stephen calls “modernity.”. Just as Islam took over the culture of what was once predominantly Christian lands, so has secularism taken over western Christianity. They weapons of secularism are not so much war and politics, but distractions, amusements, and self fulfillment. Just as Christians in Egypt and Syria had no answer to the military and political power of Islam, so the Christians of the west have no answer to the avalanche of 24/7 culture. The hour of preaching, or liturgy, offered on Sunday and the midweek activity is simply not enough.
The church countered Islam with war and politics and learned that the church, as an institution, does neither well. The church today has fought secularism with amusements and self fulfillment and is beginning to learn that it does not do well at these things either. Secularism doesn’t persecute. It will allow anyone to live the Christian life freely. It wins because so many people choose it, even Christians.
The Jesus shaped life is desirable, but who leads that movement? Where can I find that? Even if it is there it seems drowned out in all the noise. Lord, have mercy on us,
When you’re dealing with “here comes everybody” kinds of churches, it gets hard to discern the Spirit’s working. generally the Protestant/Evangelical model for the last 250 or so years is for those touched by the new “new move of God” to condemn those untouched by it, and who prefer the old “new move of God”, as apostates and separate from them.
I saw this in my western Michigan home town where the Constantinian Dutch Reformed church split into modernist and traditionalist branches (RCA and CRC). The CRC breathed fire and brimstone down upon the ‘worldly’ RCA. The the Baptists came in with the Appalachian migrants and stole all the hot-gospelling Dutchmen by saying that the reformed weren’t ‘real’ Christians, just religious folk going through the motions.
It was the Baptists’ turn when the Pentecostals/Charismatics arrived on the scene.
So, yeah, I wouldn’t know what ‘spiritual outpouring’ would look like in the Orthodox Church. In the Catholic Church you had the Charismatic ‘outpouring’, but everyone who was involved in that is in their 60s, and the real energy seems to be with the RadTrads or the progressive Francis/Jesuit faction.
But Stephen, that is simply blaming others (the ‘world’) for the failures of the church. The early Christians (1-3 centuries) lived in a much more hostile environment than we, with a far more pluralistic culture (though admittedly one that placed more emphasis on the spiritual world – in a superstitious way), and without democracy, religious freedom, OR capitalism, but they seemed to do alright. They went from a few hundred followers at Jesus’ death to the religion of the empire in less than 300 years, and many died REAL martyr’s death during that time. Rodney Stark wrote an excellent little book back in the 1990s called ‘The Rise of Christianity’. It’s well worth the time to read it. Many lessons the current church in America could learn (except that we think WE invented all this stuff and looking at how others did it in the past is useless – a thoroughly modern, American, secular way of thinking that pervades the evangelical church).
Burro, are you sure there hasn’t been spiritual outpouring on the Orthodox Church that stand out?
Once my a priori became, God’s right; if I see it differently, I’m wrong it got much easier. At least from my perspective it requires no mental gymnastics to accept that words have meaning; and while there are some truly sticky wickets [ God’s sovereignty vs my will ] I don’t feel a greater need to insist that I understand everything as God does. I’m here on earth very briefly and I’ve determined to let God be God; and I’ll just be limited man dependent upon the Words of Scripture to know Him and to serve Him.
Here’s the verse I asked my preacher to use at my funeral Acts 13:36
“36 “For David, after he had served [a]his own generation by the will of God, fell asleep, was buried with his fathers, and [b]saw corruption;”
The length and breadth of my life has been determined; I accept that it is so. I will take my last breath in the next 10 years and join my Heavenly Father.
Church buildings built to last?
I know exactly of what you speak.
I was raised by Danish Lutherans in the Southeastern corner of Wisconsin.
I don’t have our numbers with me, but one benefit of being a downtown building is that we have steam heating: Not a furnace with radiators, but steam tunnels from a centralized facility: very old school urban. We still pay for it, but this is a pretty efficient way to go. We only added A/C about ten or fifteen years ago: a sad sign of moral decay. It is set up with a dual ducting system. It can cool either the sanctuary or everything else, but not both at once. This actually works fine, and helps keep costs within the bounds of reason. All in all, my sense is that heating and cooling are significant line items on the budget, but nothing like overwhelming.
I’m thinking 80000 might have actually been a very decent price. But church budgets are generally not set up to handle repairs like that.
A friend of mine once said. “it doesn’t matter how expensive or well built a car is. Somewhere down the line it ends up in the junkyard. Yugos or Mercedes, they end up in the junkyard someday.
$80,000 is a pretty significant hit! Was it a fix it, tear it down, or wait for it to fall down on somebody type situation? If so, I am kind of surprised you didn’t go for the tear-it-down option.
Excellent comment Dana
Seneca, I’m not up on the numbers, but right now, we have little else to spend money on, so I’m sure the percentage is high. We’re a little country church without a pastor or any programs at the moment. Repairs can certainly be costly. We had to have our bell tower rebuilt last year and I think it was about $80,000.
Behind many if not most of these analyses of the “Evangelical collapse” is the plaintive inquiry…
What are we doing wrong? What can we change to make things better?
Our culture is secularizing. Les and less people find any meaning in the Church. More and more people simply don ‘t believe anymore.
Many will come along in the troubled years ahead offering a fix. Many will follow. But it won’t matter.
The whole Orthodox cycle of services appears to me to be what would fall under ‘discipleship’ or ‘spiritual formation’ in a Protestant/Evangelical context. Maybe that’s why every time I ask father how to grow in Christ he routinely tells me just to attend more services.
I haven’t attended organized church in about 2 & 1/2 years. I don’t know what to say or think about that. I guess I’ll just have to see where things go. I will be honest and say there are a few things I don’t miss.
in the early ’70s there was already in place in the culture a desire for authenticity in one’s personal life. People were listening to God’s call because of that desire for authenticity, among other things, and God took advantage of that, so to speak. The kind of thing of which you write here did have an influence on people’s lives, including mine.
I’ve come to believe that God always, always calls people to himself, because his immutable purpose is to bring everyone to redemption and healing through Jesus Christ. Yes, we can accept or reject. Many who call themselves Christians – who have even made a profession of faith and been baptized – are more in tune with individualism, consumerism and the desire for comfort. Those cultural values have themselves been baptized; I see their very deep roots in every church in this country, including my own. This is, in my opinion, THE biggest problem, not that people outside Christianity reject God’s call.
What if no “outpouring of the Spirit” is forthcoming? How on earth did the Catholic/Orthodox/Coptic Churches survive 2000 years of adversity without these recurrent spasms of Divinity? How are they still producing Christians as good as, or even better, than the finest products of Evangelicalism without them?
I’m not going to gainsay anything Seneca says. The so-called ‘Jesus revolution’ changed my life. There was a time I could care two figs about the contents of the Bible, and two weeks later I was devouring it, although I have ever been a creature of fierce and temporary passions.
It would be of great benefit, I think, for the Church to speak with a unified voice as she did before Chalcedon and less universally afterwards until the sundering of East and West. I am seeing it more and more that Orthodox in the pew and Catholics in the pew are yearning for unity even though there are some genuine thorny issues that need to be worked out.
Thank you Ricardo
You’re right, Jon; this is a significant part of the issue. I would also say that “discipleship” is generally thought of as more specific teaching on how to live morally and make more time for reading Scripture and praying. I may be wrong about this. If it helps people to be kind and love Jesus more deeply, all well and good. My experience is that this is not always the case, especially from within a shallow theology.
“Of course, local church authority and dependence has always been a colossal, albeit successful fraud. The bluff of every senior pastor is the one that professes the people’s’ need for his existence, as well as the religious structure that he represents. For the past 50 years, the con that the local church is the biblical ‘storehouse’, to which all time, energy, and money are to be invested, has worked its magic for religious entrepreneurs. But that all seems to be shifting now. No wonder leaders increasingly look like deer staring into the headlights.”
Perhaps a bit overstated, but point made.
Sen and Jon,
My journey into the wilderness started 20 years before a significant number of Evangelicals turned to the outgoing POTUS as their Savior, and I had been out of Evangelicalism for 10 years or so before 2016, so I can’t really speak to the last 15 years. But there were some things I noticed and questions I had that Evangelicalism and its general interpretation of Scripture could not deal with. Admittedly, I have of a more theological bent, but observing how people behaved was not lost on me, either.
Firstly, there were some lovely people in those Ev. churches I knew who were/are devoted to Jesus and strove to live – and love – the way he taught and did. I had no argument with them; they are better Christians than I in terms of what they actually do out of their love for Jesus. I came to the conclusion that because of their love for Christ, they actually live “above” their stated theology. Most of the rest live morally according to their beliefs about Scripture and Christianity. Some didn’t and don’t, but I did not leave because of hypocrisy; I had lived long enough to know that there are hypocrites in every organization. I also did not leave because of being mistreated by others; there was one pastor who basically dismissed me because I’m female (he just didn’t know how to pastor me, and I think he was relieved when I left his church because he didn’t have to deal with the actual substance of my questions); by the time that came into play I was already on my way out,
I started searching Scripture for clarity on theological questions I had regarding the content of “the Gospel” as announced by Jesus, reconciling Jesus with Paul, the substance of the Kingdom of God, the place of women in the church, what “salvation” means, the connection between the situation of Israel in its time and place and Jesus’ entry into history, how the Christians of the first couple of hundred years saw that entry into history and interpreted it and Scripture around it, the meaning of suffering in our lives, and the scope of Redemption. At some of these issues and questions, the vast majority of Evangelicals I knew – including pastors and others who had studied and ministered for years – responded as if they seemed to not know what I was talking about, or else with pity because I wasn’t accepting the best answers they could give – which were, for the most part, very pat and cliche restatements of their interpretation of Scripture. This did not help me. The best help I got was from Dallas Willard – very Evangelical and somewhat Charismatic, and N.T. Wright – who would have been regarded as “outside true Christianity” to most Evangelicals, for various reasons.
Note well: I began my search with Scripture because I had a very High View of it, which I have retained throughout all my wanderings. The main reason I couldn’t ultimately find refuge in the mainlines was because of a) their mixed record on the value they place on Scripture and dealing with it and b) the statements of faith of even the most “conservative” of them being founded on a view of a god whose wrath needed to be appeased. I came to believe that view did not sync up with how the first Christians understood who God is and what he is up to. As for “Bible-believing” churches, it was Scripture itself that led me to see that the Bible is not “the word of God”, and that my trusting allegiance is to be in Jesus as the Word of God (the ultimate expression of God acting in human history). Christians in the first few centuries didn’t have a Bible as we know it, and manged to bring many thousands to the Lord without it.
For me as an Evangelical, and others like me (some of whom have shown up here at iMonk, and I think M. Spencer was among them to a large extent), the received theology and interpretation of Scripture just didn’t work anymore. The Evangelical God was small, and according to Ev. theology (and all of western theology), at bottom we need to be saved FROM God the Father. Ev. theology failed to account for the whole created world in the grand scheme of things, and failed to give any hope of meaning in suffering. I’ve written here before about these issues and others. What it came down to was that the picture of God that Evangelicalism painted, even in its very best theology, was of a kind of god who was not worthy of worship. I could not revert to the Catholicism in which I was raised because of a couple of large theological issues. I have never wanted to be anything other than a Christian, so I simply had to find another way to be one. I’m grateful that the Lord led me to that way. (A way, I might add, that pretty much steers clear of electoral politics; I could not tell you how anyone in my parish voted, except for a handful of people. Our parish has an American flag displayed – in an unobtrusive place in the fellowship hall.)
I understand a lot of the theological/philosophical vagaries of the West that have led to where Evangelicals are. Most don’t know or care about those things, or they think that the whole scope of Christianity only includes that with which they are familiar. When they run into problems of any sort, it’s really easy, in our American culture in general and in our American church culture, to just leave – some in despair and with complete loss of their faith. I think it is mostly for this reason that so many are leaving. I feel for those sincere, loving, thoughtful people who stay in Evangelicalsm. They (you?) seem to have to do a lot of mental gymnastics to remain in peace. I suspect they (you?), like my personal friends who have remained, have a lot of kind people in their churches who make it possible to stay because of good relationships. Whatever the reasons, I wish them (you) well and pray the God who is Truly Good and Loves Mankind will continue to bless and sustain them (you), and grant them fullness of life in Christ.
petrushka some words from Wordworth’s Prelude…
“What we have loved, Others will love, and we will teach them how.”
Only honest Christians have doubts.
So long IMonk. The site has been an ‘eye opener ‘ to me and has contributed to a major shift ( Good? Bad?) within my life. It is amazing how one person, in the case of IMonk, Michael Spencer, can influence a wide variety of individuals. His writing brought each of the Imonk contributors and commenters together to share their thoughts. I always looked forward to the Saturday Brunch. Yes, I will miss it, but all things must end, and I hope to remember how those of you that submitted your thoughts to IMonk through the years were a help and encouragement to me.
Those whom work with Hospice and wrote of that work on IMonk, I salute you. Thank you.
Through the years I read Michael Spencer’s piece on ‘The Coming Evangelical Collapse ‘ a couple of times. It has helped prepare me for what we are experiencing today.
Good by IMonk’ers. Thank you.
Your wise words makes me wish you had commented more often. Peace to you. I don’t comment a lot but I will miss this place.
It’s 1971 in a small Christian college in one of the oh so many chapel services. The Dean of Students gets up to introduce the chapel speaker, a young many from Asbury College. The speaker begins to describe what had been happening at Asbury with their student body. A lot of kids were spending a lot of time praying and worshipping outside normal chapel hours. Something had happened on Campus, sounded much like a real spiritual revival. So the speaker is relating what had been happening; no melodrama, no manipulative speech, just telling what had been going on. The students at my chapel were increasingly quiet and attentive. The speaker, after his 15 or 20 minutes said “Thank you” and sat down.
The Dean of students, stepped up to the lecturn and said and said 5 words: “Well what about it students?” No altar call, no plea, just “Well what about it students.”
Kids poured down the aisles – just poured. No invite had been given, no tears shed, no manipulative speeches. Kids just headed down aisles towards the front to pray, cry, beg for God to heal and forgive them. The chapel hour came to an end; nobody left. It was amazing. This happened at all kinds of Christian college campuses all over the United States as the Asbury story was shared.
It was spontaneous, it appeared to come out of nowhere. It had a significant impact upon a lot of lives, including mine.
God does move in mysterious ways, or at least as it seems to me.
So is there an ebb and flow to God’s call to His children? I think so. In the last couple of decades in the U.S., it appears we’ve mad more ebb, less flow.
God has his immutable purposes. We can accept or reject.
Each case is different. We benefit from location, making our parking spaces valuable to commuters and our building valuable to film crews. The same building a mile a way wouldn’t have the same value. We have a particularly photogenic social hall as well–much more so than your typical church social hall–making it attractive for various events. Even our special events–the sauerbraten dinner and the Christmas market–benefit from decades of accrued good will. There are people who drive impressive distances every year to attend. It is really hard to establish this from a cold start. So we have advantages that you won’t find in every old urban church.
Well, let me try a little harder then. As far as how it would look, on Sunday morning it may not look any different (although I do despise concert style worship services, but I haven’t yet been able to determine if that is just a style preference, or they are just actually terrible excuses for worship). I also want to point out that I’m not saying churches are never obeying these teaches, just not consistently enough. It would be when someone falls on hard times, the members make sure that person never does without. When someone falls into sin, the goal is redemption and not shaming the person or ignoring the problem (which are equally problematic.) It would look like taking to time for one on one discipleship rather than just classroom style learning. It would be much less vocal about politics. It would look like forgiveness and reconciliation between people who have fought or hurt one another. That’s the best I can do off the top of my head, I’m sure there is a lot more. Again, some churches already do a lot of this, some churches occasionally do some of this. But overall, it is not practiced consistently enough and has hurt the witness of the church.
“Is God less active in calling people to himself? Maybe in the Western world for the time being. Surely there has not been an outpouring of his spirit in the USA since 1971 – 50 years ago.”
I would assume, Seneca, that 1971 refers to the Asbury Awakening and similar revivals. I view those events as almost like Niagara Falls: a thrilling, mind-blowing display of power that sticks in your memory. But the noise and turbulence would soon become wearying…not to mention what would happen if you tried to drink from the falls.
Toward the end of my time in my Independent Fundamental Baptist church, our second pastor tried every service to stir up some gigantic emotional outpouring, while for various reasons the church was rotting from the inside. Before he’d preach on Sunday morning, he’d often have the special singers go for half hour, trying to get people crying and weeping on the altar. Then he’d “preach” for an hour, mostly legalism, soul-winning, and guilt-tripping, shallow as can be. And we were supposed to be the ultra-true believers who knew the KJV in-depth and had tremendous walks with God, as opposed to the rest of the milquetoast Evangelicals with their corrupt versions and “sermonettes for Christianettes.”
This happened simultaneously with me starting to follow this blog (2008? 2009?) and exiting stage right into the wilderness. I was reading here about getting off the hamster wheel of religion and seeing that pastor try to shove everyone back onto it. It then occurred to me that sheep drink from still waters, not from fire hoses, and not from Niagara Falls, either. Certainly not every Evangelical church like mine was, but I don’t think God wants any of his sheep to be beaten or fleeced, or even be fed by a well-meaning pastor’s regurgitations instead of being fed on Christ himself.
I do freelance work at my alma mater, Cedarville University, and though I love the place, their worship–and the way they train their worship majors–seems geared toward constantly creating something on a vast emotional scale. A lot of Evangelicalism is still intent on leading people away from still waters, where sheep can live.
Something else that just hit me: it was always taught that the “400 years of silence” before Christ’s birth was a time of stagnation, when God didn’t speak to his people. (This ignores the fact that God rarely spoke to millions of his people like he did to a select few.) But now I’ve realized that the so-called fallow time was when the bulk of the Old Testament was written or formed.
A roundabout way to say that the Spirit of God might be working in a very different way; if it’s because of how the culture has changed, I’d chalk it up to the Spirit’s wisdom.
I’ve rarely commented here, partly because, to quote Cinema Paradiso, “There will come a time when no one will listen, so you may as well shut up now.” But, I am so thankful for this blog, and for the hard work Michael Spencer, Chaplain Mike, and others have put into it. Almost everything written has helped shape me into a wiser, kinder person.
> my church couldn’t make it without outside revenue
And as I move around my city – – – there are so many ‘old’ churches leaving so much money on the table.
> a lot more like a good family, a lot less like a commercial enterprise,
Which easily sounds like “family values” [a white middle class suburban values scheme found nowhere in the New Testament]. I know that’s not what you mean, but in the America of the last ~30 years I don’t know if that phrasing is helpful; the cultural baggage is so heavy.
> It is hard to put into words exactly
Agree, completely. But with all the energy poured in, all books published, all the hours of radio programs, … we got effectively nothing to answer the question.
What would that look like? To my way of thinking, a lot more like a good family, a lot less like a commercial enterprise, a concert, or a TED talk. It is hard to put into words exactly. But if people couldn’t deny that we love one another, even if they disagreed with what we believe, that would be a good start.
I just did a quick google search about the birthrate among millennials, and it seems that it is historically low. So even with a large generation itself, the amount of kids they are having is down. Church attendance and traditional Christian beliefs are also lower among millennials, which I believe can be attributed to things I mention down below, so birthrate certainly isn’t everything. But if among those millennials who are regularly attending churches the birthrate is down, that is a factor. I’m not sure if that specific information is out there. It could actually be that the birthrate is higher among that demographic, I just don’t know. It is also possible that we haven’t really seen the impact of the children of the millennials. I’m an old millennial, and a lot of the people I know who are close in age didn’t really start having children until they were 30. So there is a lot to factor in there, but I do suspect a declining birthrate contributes to declining baptisms. It doesn’t explain it all, just possibly a contributing factor.
+1 me too
I don’t mean to suggest that mainlines with solid buildings are immune to shutting down, but that they are better insulated. My church in downtown Baltimore is doing OK. The pandemic is a financial hit, but one we can sustain. The problem is not congregational giving. What hurts is the loss of outside income. We have our own parking lot, renting spaces during the week, and a very nice social hall, which also brings in rental income. Film crews also use us as a staging area when shooting in Baltimore (often as a cheaper stand-in for DC). Then there are the annual sauerbraten dinner and the Christmas market. All this stuff has been cancelled. But we are doing OK. This also gives an indication of our usual revenue streams. They nearly all derive from the physical plant. By way of contrast, there was another Lutheran church less than two miles away that shut down a couple of years ago. There were two major differences. It didn’t have a parking lot, which meant one less revenue stream while putting up a barrier to Sunday attendance. What really did them in, I suspect, was that they had the same pastor for literally as long as I have been alive. This breaks the cardinal rule of emphasizing the institution, not the individual pastor. When he finally retired, the shut down of the church was a direct accompaniment.
In general, there clearly is a minimum congregation size and wealth to maintain the building. I have sat in on enough finances discussions to know that my church couldn’t make it without outside revenue. But the fact of the matter is that we have that revenue. We are even moderately comfortable. Some years back we installed an elevator, which is shockingly expensive, then just a couple of years after that we undertook a major renovation of the organ, which is about as expensive as the elevator. The debt has been entirely cleared. Life is good.
“they are inhabitting buildings designed for a ~30 year life-cycle. That cost is coming, tick tock.”
I have a similar reaction when I read about repurposing shopping malls. I have no specific knowledge of their construction, but I am skeptical that the developers put in any more money than necessary.
Old building and electric usage; generally a significant problem regardless of the denomination.
CHAPLAIN MIKE, if I may ask, what percentage of St George’s annual budget is eaten up by electric bills and repairs?
“a lot of ‘bubbles’ of information formed that separated people from one another and this was done ON PURPOSE”
Jared Yates Sexton (if memory serves me correctly) addresses this in one of his books but I can’t remember which one. It’s the fortress mentality that keeps people turreted off from the so-called real world because those that don’t know what is out there won’t be tempted by it and will be too afraid to venture out of the fortress. The problem is that at some point, they can no longer even see reality, no longer understand it at all, and things go horribly wrong when reality breaches the fortress wall, as it always eventually does.
Personality Cults usually do not outlive the death of the Cult Leader/Cult Founder.
Like Bob Jones U:
God the Father,
God the Son,
God the Grandson.
With excursions into Game of Thrones along the way.
I predict these enclaves will become MORE Extreme as they double down. With one or two generations until they enter their final Death Spiral. Like all those One True Churches (a DOZEN strong!) in my writing partner’s area.
> a failure to live out the teachings we see for the church in the New Testament
What would that look like?
Through all my years that question was ducked, dodged, and otherwise evaded. Not for lack of people asking. Eventually people stop expecting an answer.
This goes back to the “Benedict Option” discussion from the other day. Eventually someone has to have the guts to put some flesh on the bones. Via the Benedict Option, the Naaman Option… whatever. When nobody leads people find leaders elsewhere. I suspect the dreadful specter of Works-Righteousness was the squelch circuit on too much important discussion.
Yet again, the Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation.
Fifthed, sixthed and seventhed.
(I took three numbers so ChrisS wouldn’t feel so bad about taking two numbers.)
I’ll be one of those making sure nobody forgets how the Christians cheered it all on.
“Christians cheering as the world slides into the Pit.”
— IMonk, “A Marriage Made in Hell”
Only FALSE Christians have doubts.
Because a “Plain Old Christian” isn’t a REAL Christian.
Just a Lukewarm Apostate who Christi will spew out of His mouth on the Last Day.
i.e. “Not Our Fault — GOD WILLED IT!”
No it isn’t.
No nuclear missiles are flying;
No Christians being caught up to their catered Superbowl Suite in Heaven to watch it all and gloat.
> The mainlines peaked in the 1950s
And one last time on IM I get to point out how much growth and decline of various sects correlates to the grown and decline of regions. 🙂
> We German Lutherans regard building maintenance as practically a sacrament
Ha! Love it. And good old nothern pragmatism wins through.
> The megachurch model in particular seems to rely on growth
Agree. And everything that relies on growth is doomed. The mega-church remains, IMNSHO, a suburban phenomenon. Likely to have the life-cycle of all things suburban.
Also in reference to your previous statement they are inhabitting buildings designed for a ~30 year life-cycle. That cost is coming, tick tock.
> Mainlines … We struggle to be relevant,
A problem faced by no shortage of institutions as the power shifts from the Boomers to the Ms & Zs.
> Christianity is at its best when it is countercultural
Take out the word “mainline” from the first paragraph please if you want it to make sense.
With Richard, I do think the mega-churches are most vulnerable to collapse. When the pastors who founded or built the mainline churches leave/retire the church appears to inevitably retract – often with huge debt that cannot be overcome.
BUT in my metropolis, the old mainline churches are in SERIOUS financial difficulty. Yes, their edifices were built to last but the upkeep appears to be overwhelming for so many of them as their congregations die off. The congregation can no longer afford the building.
> people aren’t having as many babies as they used to
But there are a lot of babies being born.
Millennials, who out number everyone else, are 22 – 37 years old. The prime child producing years. The absence of any reflection of that in the graph is something. It made some sense under Gen-X (currently 38 – 55) as that cohort was numerically significantly smaller.
> It will indeed be interesting to see what …
Indeed. And, today, we don’t know. There are so many predictions about so many things swirling around – and many of them from people who have no qualifications or background to be making them.
> others will of course crave more social contact
Remember some of the predictions from earlier in the year that this death knell of cities, restaurants, bars, movies, sporting events. . . . And every time things open a bit people flock to them. I’ve seen lines around buildings to get into “limited capacity”.
Overall – and my real-estate investor friends agree – the strong bet is that things will go back to pretty much as they were. As they have after every other crisis in the last 50 years. Humans like what they like.
> your reluctantly pessimistic view is closer to reality
Specifically for churches, yeah, I am more Pessimistic. Many have really torched their reputations; and the smoke from those will drift over the others. They’ll loose many who were already uneasy. How many that is? Only time will tell.
> we’re still mostly talking about decades long trends
Modern humans live a l-o-n-g time. The decline in baptisms seems extremely telling. With the current largest generation – Millenials – solidly in their child bearing years that lack of an up-tick…
My thoughts about the failure to live according to the teaching found in the New Testament is more both/and, not either or. I would take your thoughts on Paul a step further. We focus on his teaching about justification and how to be saved, but not enough attention to the second half of his letters. Paul’s letters are actually full of interpersonal instruction. And too often we have failed to love another, forgive one another, encourage one another, bear one another’s burdens, etc. Those instructions flowed as the response on our part for what God has done for us in Christ.
This. Thanks Mr. Bell for the many informative and thoughtful posts over the last decade.
Your posts have always been informative and interesting (and being an STEM geek, I am a numbers guy myself).
It looks to me that the decline will start slowly, then pick up speed and eventually taper off. This looks to me to be a classic sigmoid curve.
A couple of questions:
1. Has there then been any sort of mathematical modelling to see what the future trends will be?
2. Do we have enough data over the last 11 years to have such models be useful?
The quote from Hemingway from The Sun Also Rises comes to mind:
“Slowly at first, then all at once.”
it does look as though the ‘American’ white evangelical church is becoming much less conservative and much more radicalized, but in the strangest direction, towards a committed ‘trumpism’
a lot of ‘bubbles’ of information formed that separated people from one another and this was done ON PURPOSE
(divide and conquer)
a LOT of ‘finger-pointing’ at ‘those other sinners’ – this increased mightily thanks to trumpism
a lot of ‘whining’ that ‘they’ (white evangelicals) were being ‘persecuted’ – when in fact they were being politically aggressive towards ‘the others
no need to go on,
but once the focal point of white evangelicalism became ‘trumpism’, I think something profound changed in the white American evangelical church – it was not a good change, no
can it be helped? to get better? to recover?
we can hope for this, but would that specific trumpist group be ABLE to stop the ‘pointing of the finger’ and the hate rallies and the fear-mongering using conspiracy theories???? it would be hard for them as they sought power and control from those modes of operation, and Our Lord doesn’t seem to be an acceptable substitute for the ‘the annointed one aka Donald J. Trump
changes ? you can count on it
I don’t know how close American evangelicalism is or isn’t to collapse. I do know that the building it’s constructed doesn’t keep the rain out.
thanks, Mike Bell
A few observations from the outside: The mainlines peaked in the 1950s and have been in a slow decline ever since. I suspect the Evangelical churches will go down more quickly.
Say what you will about us mainlines, but our local churches are remarkably financially sound. My congregation is a quarter of a millennium old, with the building over two centuries old and doing just fine. A solidly constructed building can last indefinitely. Routine maintenance is the key. Let water get in without doing something quick, and you will have a pile of rubble in no time. But faithfully maintain the roof, with a major replacement every fifty years or so, and you are good to go. We German Lutherans regard building maintenance as practically a sacrament, because we regard both the building and the congregation over the long term. Keep on top of things and the annual expense is manageable.
Nothing I read about Evangelical church governance suggests anything like this ability to maintain financial stability through a decline. The megachurch model in particular seems to rely on growth, taking on debt to expand and counting on the expanded revenue. This works great, until it doesn’t. Then it works really, really badly. In the meantime these megachurches have been raiding the older churches that follow the older model.
The other strength of the mainline model is that we are less prone to the cult of personality. Indeed, we work to avoid letting it develop, with a culture of not having pastors stay until they drop dead. Evangelicals used to understand this. The Methodists, back when they were the archetypal Evangelicals, raised this to an art form. But the tendency has always been there since at least the days of George Whitefield. The megachurch model of the church as the senior pastor’s personal fiefdom has taken the pattern to its logical conclusion. This too works great, until it doesn’t. The best case scenario is that the old guy will retire eventually, or drop dead in the pulpit. Then what? The tendency for the guy’s kid to take over is a vacuous response of desperation. A typical mainline congregation has a sense of identity independent of whoever happens to be the pastor at the moment. Transitions are much less wrought.
Finally, the great threat to the mainlines from the general culture is indifference. We struggle to be relevant, but the average unchurched person doesn’t have any strong feelings for or against, to the extent that said person distinguishes between the mainlines and the Evangelicals. The marriage of Evangelicalism to Trumpism is a different matter. That evokes a stronger response than indifference.
The mainline decline is ongoing. I don’t know how far it will go, but I think it will eventually stabilize, the church smaller than it is today, but able to maintain itself indefinitely. This is not entirely a bad thing. The default cultural assumptions of churchgoing in the 1950s go far toward explaining the mainlines’ complacency. Christianity is at its best when it is countercultural. Evangelicalism? I suspect that Michael’s language of collapse will prove accurate. There will remain enclaves, but I suspect that so far as general American culture is concerned, the crash when it comes will be fast and hard.
For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.
H. L. Mencken
[ in response to those who suggest a simple explanation to the “Evangelical Collapse.”]
Jon, I agree with the points you have made in the above posts, and this one as well. I particularly think declining birth rates play a large role since, for the SBC at least (of which I was part for 30 years), most of the baptisms were the children of members. New converts were a small portion of the total baptisms, and have been for the last couple of generations (the SBC heyday was in the 1950s, and largely a result of the baby boom).
Personally, looking back, and in light of current events (not to bring in politics, but the ‘culture wars’) I think it isn’t so much a lack of living out the teachings we see for the church in the New Testament (though I do agree that is true, but probably for different reasons than you – mine focus on the sociological aspects, and I assume, perhaps falsely, that you refer to doctrinal or moral aspects), but simply the teachings of Jesus himself. I have believed for al long time that there is too much focus on Paul’s letters (again, I believe misunderstood) and not enough on Jesus’ teaching in the synoptics, which is almost entirely focused on interpersonal relations (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount). In all those years in the SBC I heard very little of Jesus’ teaching – he was the ‘savior’ and figurehead of a religion that bore his name, but very little of what he said was discussed (unless, of course, it was from the gospel of John, where we see a much more ‘theological’ Jesus).
When I look at evangelicals at large, and looking back at my experience, and participation (and my own attitudes), for those 30+ years, I see a religious culture that is largely self-righteous, judgmental, and mean-spirited. As I look at the synoptics, I see Jesus who is gracious, humble, kind, and accepting. The ones he confronted were the self-righteous, judgmental, and mean-spirited religionists of his day, and he didn’t seem to like them very much.
I believe that if the evangelical churches looked and acted more like Jesus and less like those he opposed, we wouldn’t see Evangelicalism heading in the direction it is. The 1970s and 1980s were not good for Evangelicals. It turned people who talked about grace into people who seem to show very little of it.
Thirded and fourthed. Sorry for taking two numbers.
So, going back to your assertions…
We both agree evangelicalism is having evangelism and retention issues.
We argue that the problem is that evangelicalism has departed from biblical truths.
You suggest that “God (is) less active in calling people to himself”.
Which of these assertions is more likely than the other is an exercise I leave for the reader.
And, adding “Michael also inferred in his essay that the decline would not be in the Charismatic/Pentecostal sector of Evangelicalism”
This relates to charismatic. It is not clear to me whether the new mega-churches are of traditional charismatic background. Their leadership (at least in my state) are historically from that background, but it is not clear to me how much of the core theology remains (instant sanctification, tongues….)
But, we don’t have numbers for how many SBC have left for non-denominational mega-churches. I agree SBC is in the midst of a long term collapse, but it is not clear to me the future of the multi-site mega-churches. We have them 40,000+ in attendance and growing (at least pre-pandemic).
Rejoice Eeyore, Tis the season
So if one has doubts about the existence of God they can’t be a true blue evangelical? Can they be a plain old Christian, in your opinion?
It will indeed be interesting to see what the attendance patterns are after Covid is more or less tamed. No doubt some will just stay away as they’ve become accustomed to over the past year. But others will of course crave more social contact….there may be something of a swap set as new faces show up. But I suspect that your reluctantly pessimistic view is closer to reality.
And Covid aside, other damage has been done, of course, of a form and magnitude that make it unlikely that the SBC and it statistical cohorts will experience more than a temporary blip upwards. For all the emphasis on “collapse”, and as Mike pointed out, we’re still mostly talking about decades long trends.
There was comment before this that is stuck in moderation.
And lastly, what went wrong? Probably lots of things. To me it has been a failure to seriously disciple people, a failure to live out the teachings we see for the church in the New Testament, and operating our churches more like a business than a church, with the people being little more than customers. I’m sure there are other things as well, one being people wanting to maintain their comfort rather than following Jesus, but I think that falls under the categories I just mentioned.
I want to add my voice to the thanks to you, Mike, for your valued additions to the ‘canon’ of Internet Monk. There’s some nostalgia looking back over the years at this weird online community-of-sorts, where people from many different places and stages of life have shared common understanding.
Funnily enough, it was via a Twitter reference to Michael’s article that I arrived here, all those years ago. Tweeted by the only person on Twitter who I actually knew in real life.
There are a couple of things culturally that could be having a big effect on both the attendance and baptisms. One is that people just skip church more than they used to (just from observation, not researched). If half of your people only attend once or twice a month, with the other Sunday’s being used for ball games, the lake, or just being lazy, that will make attendance numbers fall much faster than membership. Secondly, people aren’t having as many babies as they used to, and let’s be honest, children are the biggest number of people baptized. Now that doesn’t account for all of it, but it does play a major role.
These are my people your talking about. I have a few thoughts on this and will put them in separate posts.
It will be interesting to see what attendance levels are like a year from now when, hopefully, the pandemic is either gone or died down enough that people are no longer afraid to take part in public events. I have a suspicion, though I hope I’m not right, that many people who were fairly regular attenders (at least twice a month) won’t come back, or will attend less than before covid. I think for some going to church was just a habit, and having gotten out of the habit and enjoying the time at home, they won’t be coming back. Again, I hope I’m just being a pessimist, but I have already seen people who aren’t really afraid to be in public, who haven’t gone back to church after shut downs were lifted. Covid might bring on the statistical collapse faster than expected.
Thank you, Mike Bell. I have enjoyed your technical pieces as well as your more personal posts over the past decade. I wish you all the best in the years ahead.
Oh we are QUITE sure what has happened.
You’ve just spent the last five years vehemently denying our analysis.
“My question, how can you even be an Evangelical if you have doubts about the existence of God?”
IMNSHO, the fact that you can’t imagine why this might be so is a huge part of your problem.
“I think the internet has brought about huge changes in our world. Not sure how”
Just wanted to say thank you for your contributions to Internet Monk. I have been a regular reader/occasional commenter here and have appreciated your posts. You have made me think more deeply about the topics you covered and I am grateful. May you have God’s continued blessing in your life.
I certainly would not disagree with the stats. SOMETHING has happened. The problem is determining what actually is happening. We know something has happened, we’re just not sure what. Is God less active in calling people to himself? Maybe in the Western world for the time being. Surely there has not been an outpouring of his spirit in the USA since 1971 – 50 years ago.
I heard a stat last week; 85% of Evangelicals are absolutely sure there is a God. My question, how can you even be an Evangelical if you have doubts about the existence of God? [ In the Mainline, only 50% are absolutely sure about the existence of God.]
I think the internet has brought about huge changes in our world. Not sure how