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.