The Coming Evangelical Collapse

My good Internet friend and blogger extraordinaire Michael Spencer got picked up by both Real Clear Politics and the Drudge Report. He wrote an article called The Coming Evangelical Collapse for the Christian Science Monitor. It is a condensed version of a series he posted here.

While I am happy that Michael is getting some good press as a religious commentator, I am not generally persuaded by his analysis. It’s a bit too gloomy for me. Mark Galli offers some thoughtful criticisms here. I’ve been reading Michael’s blog for a long time, and Galli hit on a key flaw I’ve noticed in Michael’s writing for some time–dwelling only on the negative. Galli writes:

    What we know as evangelicalism is a temporary cultural expression of the Christian faith. It comes with idiosyncrasies, good and bad. It has produced the populist Religious Right activist Jim Dobson and the careful, moderate scholar Mark Noll. Out of its publishing houses come books like Left Behind and books like Knowing God. It has proven itself to be small-minded, judgmental, and legalistic, as well as generous, sacrificial, and heroic (I think especially of evangelical work with HIV/AIDS and sexual trafficking today). It has at times been totally out of touch with contemporary culture, and at other times on the cutting edge (for example, we have consistently been early adopters of new technology — radio, TV, the Internet).

I tend to look at the positive things evangelicalism produces. I’ve been far more interested in what theological journals are publishing (Trinity Journal, JETS), and am enthusiastic at the current renaissance in Christian philosophy which evangelicals have played no small part (see the EPS). Intervarsity Press regularly publishes good books from credible authors and scholars. Talbot Theological Seminary and Denver Seminary are rightly oriented at equipping ministers with the tools, resources, and intellectual training to communicate with the unbelieving world. Dallas Willard and Eugene Peterson have written some of the best books offering a vision of spiritual formation that would utterly transform the face of Christianity if followed. And don’t forget that evangelicals have produced some of the finest Bible commentaries available.

Obviously, I look at evangelicalism from an educational/academic standpoint rather than a cultural or ministerial one. But that is because my most passionate sense of learning has been a product of embracing a Christian worldview. It has produced in me an unrelenting curiosity that I never thought I could have. At least in my case, authentic faith seeks understanding…

Yet there are some perennial problems evangelicalism faces, and Michael outlines them well. I remain optimistic that they can be avoided if one remains discerning of both American culture and the goofy sub-culture of evangelical life. At the end of the day, no one likes to wear a label because no one really fits their minimal account of reality. For that we can be thankful.

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3 thoughts on “The Coming Evangelical Collapse

  1. I think one of the problems with “evangelical churches” is that it’s next to impossible to really define the term. What the word often means in religious circles is completely different from how a non-Christian or non-religious person would understand it. So if you define “Evangelical” as “Left Behind Books” I might agree it’s a pessimistic view. However, if you view “Evangelical” as the movie Fireproof, then I’d have to see it as an optomisitc view.

  2. I would harken back to the early 1990s, when evangelicals were sitting on the outside of the zeitgeist’s looking glass. Popular music, politics, and film were turning against traditional values. Political correctness was en vogue. And angry rich kids at Bennington college were the cultural standard bearers.

    Then, the pendulum swung back. People got tired of being told that they were racist. Parents were horrified when Jocelyn Elders proposed teaching kids to masturbate, and the public was horrified with Hillary Clinton generally. Kurt Cobain killed himself, and suddenly it wasn’t cool to wear ugly shirts and be depressed anymore.

    Numerically speaking, the evangelical movement was perhaps only a secondary beneficiary of a collective rejection of the status quo. South Park raised a hearty middle finger at political correctness. Family values became a popular term across religious lines.

    Pessimism is the eulogy for failed optimism. To expect an impending calamity for evangelicalism implies that one expected the previous shift in cultural mores to represent permanent change.

  3. Interesting thoughts Kevin. I’d just add that people are always very quick to jump on and off “permanent” trends. It doesn’t seem that long ago people were saying gas prices would be forever at $4, and that the housing bubble would never burst.

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