When Evangelicalism Falls

I know that sounds dramatic.  “The end is nigh!”  “The sky is falling!”  I could’ve gone with something much more gut wrenching, such as “The Death of the Church!”  Provocative though that may be, it simply isn’t accurate.  The Church is not dead, nor is it dying.  But it isn’t all-together well.  We evangelicals are diverse; a movement whose broad stripes include people such as Billy Graham and (twitch) Joel Osteen.  We can be Southern Baptists or an independent non-denomination.  So when I say evangelicalism, it’s a pretty broad spectrum.  That matters. 

I’m certainly not the first person to suggest the eventual downfall of the “happy clappy” camp.  I recommend you read The Coming Evangelical Collapse by the late Michael Spencer.  It’s a three-part series that answers the questions of why it will happen, what will remain, and whether or not it is a good thing.  His is commentary, not prophecy, so when you take it with a grain of salt, remember that sometimes salt tastes pretty good. 

Michael didn’t approach this subject as a researcher, and neither will I.  Nor will this simply be a re-hash of his posts, though I will touch on some of his points.  However, there is research available that did not exist in 2009, when The Coming Evangelical Collapse was written.  Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on your outlook,) some of what he wrote about is beginning to take shape. 

The “nones,” or those who claim no religion whatsoever, are on the rise, according to the Pew forum on Religion and Public Life.  But this is hardly a surprise; the writing has been on the wall for years.  The Church’s retention rate of those transitioning from youth, to college, and beyond, is dismal, and the statistics are beginning to reflect that reality. 

A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation (32%), compared with just one-in-ten who are 65 and older (9%). And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives.”

–     Pew Research Center

Some people want to play the blame game when statistics such as these come out.  Some will want to blame the media, video games, or the lack of religious education in school.  It’s easy to try to shift the blame outward, because no one wants to take the fall.  It’s always the “other” guy, the “bad” guy who is to blame (to observe this, see the tactics of every politician ever.)  Well, sometimes that might be the case.  Sometimes there is an authentic “bad guy” who causes trouble and is a thorn in everyone’s side.  Unfortunately today is not that day.  I don’t think we can look at this data and come to the conclusion that the rise in non-belief is due entirely to the influence of secular culture, and it is disingenuous to shift the blame away from ourselves, away from the church, and away from the home. 

Culture warriors unite!

Spencer blames this on a couple of things.  For one, he sees that our decision to engage “in the culture war will prove out to be one of the most costly mistakes in our history,” and is one of the main reasons people are becoming much more disillusioned with the Church.  He isn’t wrong, but if you pick up unChristian, (and you need to read this,) by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, you’ll see a much more broad approach to the reasons that the culture is shifting away from Christianity.  Generally the book states that those outside the church consider Christians to be hypocrites, aggressively evangelical (in the “come to Jesus or you’re going to Hell” sort of way,) anti-homosexual, sheltered, overly political, and judgmental.  Looking over that list, I can’t say that there is anything there that isn’t true, and that’s pretty sad. 

The reality is that our problem, the one that is slowly strangling the advancement of the Gospel, is all of those things, and much more.  However this isn’t a result of outside influence, unless, of course, you consider Christianity’s uninspiring adoption of pop culture in an effort to be trendy and relevant.  If that’s the case, secular culture shares half the blame. 

The problem of anti-intellectualism

With the exception of the off-putting nature of the culture war, I believe one of the most damaging things we do inside the church is the shunning of intellectualism.  We live in an age of information; if you want to know something, it’s there.  For evangelical churches (and this is a generalization,) we spend nearly all of our time skimming the surface, afraid to delve into the deep end, for fear of . . . what?  That learning about more substantive aspects of our faith and scripture will be too difficult for us to handle?  Let’s be honest, we don’t even teach the basics well.  Our lack of systematic teaching of doctrine and scripture results in people who are against the church better knowing what we believe and why we believe it.  Many times church leaders and Sunday school teachers are without theological training.  Despite that, they both have a significant influence on the direction of the church, and spiritual development of the congregation.  When people who are naturally curious thirst for knowledge, they’re going to be satisfied, regardless of the source.  We have a deep well of scripture to draw from, and yet we offer sippy cups.  If that doesn’t change, people, as we can see is happening, will take their thermoses elsewhere. 

This title of this blurb is When Evangelicalism Falls.  That’s when, not if; if we don’t change, we will die.  How’s that for dramatic?  The growing numbers of who are unaffiliated with any religion has taken the tortoise approach, slowly creeping up the scale over the past decade, now reaching nearly 20% of all who respond.  Michael predicted those numbers would reach 30% in 10 years, and that will become a reality; the momentum is there.  Unless we do something about it. 

Change takes dedication and a willingness to swallow one’s pride.  Ultimately it begins with admitting that we’re doing something wrong.  That self-sacrifice and self-denial is at the heart of our response to the Gospel.  We have to decide whether we’re going to adapt to the changing environment or look the other way.

What do you think our response should be?  Please share your thoughts below, and “like” the Semi-Theologian Facebook page.

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3 thoughts on “When Evangelicalism Falls

  1. “What do you think our response should be?”

    Surrender. Seriously, that’s it. Retain your dignity, circle the wagons, and ride out the decline as best you can. The die is already cast. The 30% non-religious population has been born and is just waiting for old folks to die off and un-skew the demographics. The generation after them will be even less religious. Organized religion is facing a double threat with the combination of the attitude of young people toward religion and the ever-more-widespread access to high speed Internet that we enjoy. Evangelicals will soon be faced with the task of trying to convert the most secular, informed, and interconnected population of young adults in the history of humanity, so…don’t try. The more frantically evangelicals attempt to share their interpretations of the Bible, the more negative impressions will build up against them. Vocal evangelicals played a large role in developing the secular view of Christianity as loud mouthed and intolerant like you pointed out; this trend will accelerate as more denominations panic in the face of dwindling enrollment.

    There may be a few options. Is more prayer the answer? After all, if God exists, listens to prayers, and wants Christianity to succeed (all seemingly core tenets of Christianity,) then He’ll certainly do something to stem the decline. I’m surprised that Christian denominations haven’t tried praying for more recruits, as it seems like an obvious and foolproof solution if indeed they’re correct in what they teach. Likewise, prayer could be leveraged to beat back the encroaching tide of technology that threatens to allow people everywhere to examine the truthfulness of the claims made by holy books. Perhaps a massive solar flare to destroy our communications technology and usher in a new dark age? Just a thought. Prayer has the added benefit of being private and quiet (if you’re doing what Jesus says, at least,) so evangelical churches will be less at risk of cramming their feet into their mouths about gay people, birth control, and other issues that have so successfully isolated them from mainstream values in the past. A decade or so of quiet, private prayer to send more recruits and possibly to ask God to destroy the Internet is your best bet, and more likely to succeed than a newly deepened focus on the “deep well of scripture.” That well is dry. It’s not like people are short on options; I could Google up a list of literally tens of thousands of articles and sermons regarding scriptural interpretation, theology, and apologetics if I wanted to. Access to in-depth information about scripture has increased, not decreased, over the years. It’s not helping.

    For thousands of years of human history, the vast, overwhelming majority of people had very little or no education, no prospects of advancement, and no hope for a better tomorrow. Religion, with its claims of paradise for the faithful and justice for those too pitiful to enjoy temporal protection, flourished and prospered. That time is over. It is not coming back, barring aforementioned global-scale cataclysms. Bearing that in mind, perhaps the best thing Christians can do to prepare for the demographic shift is to investigate the claims the skeptics make about the Bible’s accuracy, question the reasons for their commitment to their particular denomination, and honestly consider the alternative secular explanations for the answers religion provides about life. If they find their brand of Christianity to be the correct answer after all, the reasoning that led them to that conclusion will assist them in explaining it to nonbelievers. So, surrender, pray, or question…at least you have some options. Any way you go, good luck! You will need it.

    1. Thanks for your response. There’s certainly a shift. The Pew report was interesting on a lot of levels, but one of the more notable things that I didn’t discuss is about that unaffiliated 20% that I mentioned. What caught my eye was that out of the nearly 20% of those who claim no religion, the “nothing in particular” group was the largest at 14%, compared to the atheists and agnostics who remain quite steady over the five years listed. So yeah, the numbers are growing, but it isn’t from the dyed in the wool Dawkins/Hitchens-loving atheists. It’s the apathetic, I really don’t care about anything, folks who either never had religion or had a bad go at it. Like the country, the face of the church is changing. I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out. Thanks again.

      1. Hey, thanks for reading. While I’m opposed to what you stand for, I enjoy discussing it with someone who knows your side well.

        I wanted to highlight this:

        “So yeah, the numbers are growing, but it isn’t from the dyed in the wool Dawkins/Hitchens-loving atheists. It’s the apathetic, I really don’t care about anything, folks”

        From the perspective of those of us who are actively anti-theist, either type is fine. It’s incredibly heartening that so many children today can grow up without a faith already ingrained by the time they’re old enough to make independent decisions. Also, bear in mind that atheism is well-documented as one of the least-publicly-accepted ideologies to espouse (http://www.religioustolerance.org/atheist8.htm – a few examples of what I mean.) I am willing to bet that this unpopularity necessarily leads to chronic under-reporting as many who would qualify as atheist under any typical definition hesitate to self-apply the term due to their feelings about its connotations. That’s not as uncommon as you might think. Cf. African American homosexuality reporting trends for a perfect example. If you’re not familiar, it boils down to the idea that as many black folks are gay as would be expected in any population of humans, but many black men who regularly engage in sex with other men will self-identify as straight to avoid the unsettling violation of ingrained cultural taboos. Google “on the down-low” (with safe-search on) for more info. But I digress.

        When it comes down to it, many of us non-religious people really have absolutely no interest in whether others identify as atheists or agnostics explicitly, but rather whether or not they give their time, money, and attention to religious leaders and organizations. Whether through direct opposition or merely apathy, those of us who consider religion to be deeply abhorrent see your loss as our gain. Thanks for reading.

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