This is a reprint of an excellent article by Maurice Smith of the Parousia Network. It’s a bit of a challenging read but worth it.
The Collapse of Evangelicalism – Part 1: Anatomy of A Collapse
The English author Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) once observed regarding the hangman’s noose, “It marvelously concentrates the mind”. Confrontation with our own mortality, whether at the point of a gun or the short end of a noose, tends to do that. There comes a point in every person’s life or the life of a community when, when confronted with the harsh facts of reality, they must decide whether or not “denial” is just a river in Egypt, or whether it represents a condition of the mind which they must overcome and move on if they are to survive. That, I believe, is where Evangelicalism as a biblically based Christian movement is at in the opening decade of the 21st Century. We stand at the short end of a noose. We are in need of a very searching self examination of who and where we are. Why? Because Evangelicalism as an identifiable movement of God’s people gives every evidence of both internal and external collapse; a collapse which will prove fatal to “church as we have known it” and is probably irreversible apart from a divine intervention unlike anything we have witnessed or experienced in well over 100 years.
This collapse really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who gets his (or her) information from any source other than TBN. The late Francis Schaeffer warned an entire generation of believers about what was taking place. Through such books as “How Should We Then Live” and “The Great Evangelical Disaster” and “Death In The City” Schaeffer warned the evangelical community that we were confronting a post-Christian culture outside the walls of the Church, and that we would soon face a collapsing Christian culture within the Church due to our abandonment of the authority of Scripture. Today, thirty years later, we are now living among the rubble of the collapse Schaeffer so accurately predicted, both within the Church and within our culture.
I was recently reminded of the reality of our situation by a series of events. The first was the February 2008 Pew “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” which revealed that 57% of Evangelicals do not believe that their faith is the “only way to God” (which begs the question, “Then why bother holding it?”). According to Chuck Colson, the people at Pew were so surprised by the result that they re-did that portion of the survey and got the same result. But they also included an additional “control” question: “Do atheists go to heaven?” Half of all evangelicals said “yes”. Next came Michael Spencer’s series of three articles entitled (drum roll please) “The Collapse of Evangelicalism”. His blog articles were picked up by the mainline media and appeared in The Christian Science Monitor. You can access all three articles at this link: http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/the-original-coming-evangelical-collapse-posts. Finally came the “eye-popping” issue of Newsweek magazine that leaped off the shelf of the Seattle airport news stand where I bought it. What caught my attention (after the black cover with red letters announcing “The Decline And Fall Of Christian America”) was that the author, Jon Meacham, interviewed someone I respect, Dr. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Theological Seminary. While I don’t agree with him on everything, Mohler has a very sharp, conservative and penetrating mind. His concern was obvious and his observations were poignant: “A remarkable culture-shift has taken place around us . . . The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture . . . Clearly, there is a new narrative, a post Christian narrative, that is animating large portions of this society”. The purpose of this article, and the one to follow, is to examine what I mean by “the collapse of evangelicalism” in the light of the above and other factors, and to ask ourselves what it means for the simple house church movement going forward.
Defining The Collapse of Evangelicalism
American Christians being the optimistic lot that they are, I have an immediate problem in approaching this topic. Attempting to describe the collapse of Evangelicalism to the average over confident America Christian is somewhat like trying to describe the sinking of the Titanic to an over confident passenger the night before the event. The problem here is that Evangelicalism has already hit the iceberg, is taking on water and is “down 15 degrees by the bow”. But since water hasn’t reached the average stateroom, no one is interested in listening. But I’ll press on, anyway. “What are you saying? Are you saying that the Church is collapsing? That Christianity is collapsing?” Let me begin this section by explaining what I am NOT saying. I am not saying that either biblical Christianity or the Church-as-the-body-and-bride-of-Christ is collapsing. Nor am I saying that there are not good ministry things happening in various places. Even in the midst of cultural collapse, the ordinary work of the Church goes on. What I am saying is that genuine evangelical Christianity is undergoing a profound . . . transition, the most profound transformation it has experienced in 500 years. What I am saying is that the form of organized Christianity which has become the accepted norm in the West and America, particularly since World War 2, and has colored how our culture perceives the whole idea of “church” is collapsing in it’s current form.
1. Evangelicalism (particularly in it’s American context) is collapsing due it’s close identification with American culture which is now in the throes of a wholesale and historic collapse. Does the name Paul Weyrich ring a bell? He was the intellectual father of the Moral Majority, and a “founding father” of the “conservative religious right”. In February of 1999, shortly after the United States Senate failed to convict and impeach President Bill Clinton, Weyrich sent an open letter to his constituents announcing that, in his opinion, cultural conservatives (including a significant number of Evangelical Christians) had lost their “cultural war of attrition” which he had helped launch some twenty years earlier. Here’s what he said: “In looking at the long history of conservative politics, from the defeat of Robert Taft in 1952, to the nomination of Barry Goldwater, to the takeover of the Republican Party in 1994, I think it is fair to say that conservatives have learned to succeed in politics. That is, we got our people elected. But that did not result in the adoption of our agenda. The reason, I think, is that politics itself has failed. And politics has failed because of the collapse of the culture. The culture we are living in becomes an ever-wider sewer. In truth, I think we are caught up in a cultural collapse of historic proportions, a collapse so great that it simply overwhelms politics.” (The September 6, 1999 issue of Christianity Today magazine reprinted Mr. Weyrich’s letter, along with responses by six leading evangelicals, including Ralph Reed, Cal Thomas, Jerry Falwell, Don Eberly, James Dobson and Charles Colson. These are a “must read.”) Ten years later Mr. Weyrich’s observation is genuinely insightful, if not “prophetic”. By tying itself to American politics, American prosperity and American culture, the Evangelical Church in America (if not the West) has effectively handcuffed itself to the deck railing of the Titanic and is being sucked under by a cultural collapse of historic proportions. The sinking is not yet over, and what exactly will float to the surface to be salvaged cannot yet be determined. But be assured that those lifeboats (such as organic house churches) which emerge will be quite different from the luxury liner that preceded them.
2. Evangelicalism is collapsing due to it’s unwise choice to identify itself with the “culture war” and political conservatism under the guise of a “cultural commission”. O.K., this is a biggie and will probably cost me my membership card in the Conservative Christian Right, but here goes. I am a “Ronald Reagan conservative,” for which I make no apologies. I regard him as the greatest American President since WW2, if not of the 20th century. I have fought the “culture war” first hand. In seminary I co-founded a pro-life advocacy & apologetics ministry. We sponsored the largest pro-life rally in the history of the State of Colorado, debated issues on local television, lectured in public schools and more (including 3 days lecturing on Christian ethics & abortion in the Philosophy Department of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs). When it comes to the “culture wars” of the past 30 years I have several “been there, done that” tee shirts. Over the past 30 years the evangelical community has poured millions of dollars (may I say “misplaced dollars”) into politically conservative movements and culture wars. The result has been negligible at best. At worst it has earned us the hostility of the secular culture and has effectively split the Church into warring political camps. In the 2000 & 2004 Presidential campaigns the evangelical vote split almost evenly between the Republican and Democrat candidates – how’s that for “a house divided”. And at the end of the day we have virtually nothing to show for it except the recent election of the most radically leftist Congress and Administration in our nation’s history. To be blunt, having confused the Great Commission with an unbiblical “cultural commission” we have squandered God’s money on a mess of dubious political porridge. We have forgotten the biblical and historical truth that Christians are at their best when they are serving others in the name of Jesus, and are at their worst when they are attempting to rule over others in the name of Jesus. I believe Michael Spencer (imonk) is right when he observes, “We are going to find out that being against gay marriage and rhetorically pro-life . . . will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence and are believing in a cause more than a faith.” While I am encouraged that recent public opinion polls show that 49% of Americans regard themselves as “pro-life” while 43% regard themselves as “pro-choice,” this support may prove to be a mile wide, but only an inch deep. And the shifting sands of opinion polls are a weak foundation for any spiritual movement, much less one’s faith.
3. Evangelicalism is collapsing due to it’s inability to coherently define itself, especially theologically, in the face of an aggressive and increasingly secular, “anti-Christian,” postmodern and post-Christian culture. On the occasion of his 80th birthday, Evangelical theologian J. I. Packer was asked what he regarded as the greatest need of the church. He responded, “The church must catechize itself. It must understand what it believes and why it believes it”.
The Impact of Postmodernism. Postmodernism is perhaps one of the most discussed but least understood movements affecting the Church today. Indeed, in a very real sense, postmodernism is perhaps the PRIMARY agent in the undermining and collapse of evangelicalism in our generation. We play with postmodern vocabulary (such as “meta-narrative”) without anything more than a superficial understanding of either it’s history or it’s impact upon either our culture or the Church. The late Dr. Francis Schaeffer understood it (he referred to it as “post-Christian” rather than “postmodern”) some 40 years ago and attempted to explain it to us in such books as “Escape From Reason” and “How Should We Then Live”. But most evangelicals (or at least those who bothered to try) scarcely understood Schaeffer, much less the philosophical trends he labored to expose. He was right. But we weren’t listening. Now we are living in the future he so ably described. Two aspects of postmodernism which impact the church today are “Nihilism” and “Narcissism”. Nihilism is the denial of the ability to discover any ultimate truth. It isn’t simply doubt. We all have doubts. Any Christian who has not experienced doubts concerning his or her faith in “the dark night of the soul” is the adherent of an untried faith. Nihilism is different. It is skepticism “writ large” and on steroids. Similarly, narcissism is self-interest writ large and on steroids. “It’s all about me” is the battle cry of the narcissist. These two philosophies come together in postmodernism to produce the denial of any universally binding truth, and the affirmation that the only meaningful “truth” we can know is the truth of our own personal story – summarized in the statement “This is true for me”. In such a cultural and philosophical context, surrounded by the competing truth claims of other religious worldviews, the truth claims of evangelical Christianity are simply dismissed as that which is “true for you” but which has no universally binding claim upon anyone else (or “What right do you have to impose your religious views on me?”)This leads to my next point.
The Abandonment of Absolute Truth. Packer’s observation (see above) is underscored by recent surveys which indicate that 53% of evangelicals say there is not such thing as absolute truth, while 63% of unbelievers deny the existence of absolute truth. In other words, a majority of both evangelical Christians and unbelievers are in agreement in abandoning the very idea of “truth”. Once a majority of professing evangelical Christians abandons the very idea of ultimate or absolute truth, it isn’t long before they begin throwing their theology overboard, especially when that theology and its application comes under attack by an increasingly secular and hostile postmodern culture. Whether that theology has to do with belief in and support of traditional marriage or traditional support of the nation of Israel, theology and practice which are not firmly rooted in a theology grounded upon absolute biblical truth will be quickly abandoned. This theological collapse of Evangelism is part of a related issue, namely, it’s inability to articulate a clear and comprehensible “worldview” that explains how biblical theology and faith integrate all of life and reality. Theology and it’s resultant worldview matters. As Chuck Colson has recently pointed out, our current economic crisis has come about because people embraced and believed a worldview that is a lie, namely, that you can borrow your way to prosperity (but we’ll deal with this in the next section below).
The Loss of Theological Homogeneity. There was a time when believers identified themselves primarily by two things: The “denomination” to which they belonged, and the creedal confession or doctrinal statement which expressed their theology. Such magnificent catechetical statements as The Westminster Confession of Faith, The Heidelberg Catechism or the London Baptist Confession came to define the doctrine of generations of believers. It was said of the Scottish Presbyterians on the American Frontier of the early 1800s that if their crops ever failed they could always live off of the Shorter Catechism (if you’re Presbyterian, that was hilarious and you should laugh now!) Twentieth Century Christianity witnessed the collapse of “denominationalism”. But in the wake of that collapse we are also witnessing the loss of any genuine theological homogeneity among professing evangelicals. The days of a theologically homogenous congregation (i.e., everybody on the same page theologically) are gone. In the opening years of the 21st century Evangelicalism is, at best, a loose knit body of believers in which “every man does that which is right in his own eyes.” This situation cannot last . . . and won’t. Which leads to my next point.
The Loss of Theological Clarity. In his lectures before students at Princeton Seminary, theologian B. B. Warfield once observed that the last great battle will be fought between the forces of atheism and Calvinism, with all competing belief systems being crushed like rotten ice between these two great colliding icebergs. Now that’s theological clarity! Whether you agree or disagree with Warfield, please understand his larger point: some of the greatest battles of our age are and will be theological in their essence. In the words of one of my favorite authors, A.W. Tozer, “The secret of life is theological and the key to heaven as well. We learn with difficulty, forget easily and suffer many distractions. Therefore we should set our hearts to study theology.” Consider the situation of the early Church. Alan Hirsch has accurately observed that the early Church communicated a “sneezable faith” embodied in the declaration “Jesus Is Lord”. But the Church soon found itself having to define this Jesus. Was he the Gnostic demiurge, the Arian “first of God’s created beings” or the ghost-like phantasm of the Docetists? As a result, the first four (4) “ecumenical councils” of the Church were called to address the issues of “Christology” – “Who is Jesus?” I have heard organic house church groups talk about “All we need is Jesus”. This is a true statement, but it is also incomplete, just as the early church of the first 4 centuries discovered. And this is no academic debate. I have personally heard prominent house church teachers tell audiences that Jesus was NOT God during His incarnation on earth; He was only a man empowered by the Holy Spirit, which means you and I can do everything Jesus did, because we are just men (and women) empowered by the Holy Spirit. This is both Christological error and really bad teaching on spiritual gifts. But because it makes us feel good and powerful to think that we are equal to Jesus during His earthly incarnation, and because we have never been taught proper Christology, we accept this type of aberrant teaching without questioning it. And this leads to my next point.
Therapy Versus Theology. We have traded our theology for therapy. In other words, I believe it because it makes me feel better, because it promises to give me my best life now. The problem with this therapeutic approach to faith is that people can find better “therapy” elsewhere without the theological and moral demands inherent in biblical faith. Want good self-help on everything from your marriage to your finances? Then forget going to church. Just catch Oprah, or Dr. Phil McGraw or Dr. Wayne Dwyer or Suzie Orman on your local PBS station (the new home for “secular televangelists”). And millions are doing just that! The second problem with the “therapeutic” approach to theology is that we now feel much better about ourselves, but have no clue as to what we believe. Forgive me, but we have bred a generation of theological nincompoops. Therapeutic theology resembles the cross breeding of horses and donkeys. You may get a herd of “healthy” mules, but it is a generation bred for extinction. It has no future beyond itself. And the Church of God cannot ride into battle and victory upon a herd of mules. The Church has always grown by standing on the shoulders of those who, at great personal cost, held a virulent faith worth suffering and dying for. History records that when Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who had studied under the Apostle John, was led into the arena to be martyred, he heard a voice from heaven declare, “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.” Little did Polycary know that 1,400 years later his example would inspire two English martyrs of the Protestant Reformation in England. As Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burned at the stake side-by-side, Polycarp’s martyrdom was replayed with these words: “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley,” Latimer cried at the crackling of the flames. “Play the man! We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” That’s a horse bred for victory. Want my “therapeutic” advice? Shoot the mules (and the donkeys). Breed horses.
4. Evangelicalism is collapsing because of a collapsing economy, a radical shift in generational giving patterns and an addiction to affluence by Western, particularly American, Christians. I could write a book on this issue alone, and if you’re a “prosperity gospel” advocate you might want to skip this part. Thirty years ago Francis Schaeffer warned that the Church in the West was on the verge of embracing what he called the “two terrible values” of “personal peace” and “personal affluence”. What this meant was the Western Christians wanted to be left alone with their affluent lifestyles, and that they would vote for any politician who promised to maintain these two values. Schaeffer has been proven right. American Christians have become addicted to their affluent lifestyles and will oppose any politician or religious leader who threatens to disturb their comfort. The epitome of this is the “prosperity gospel” movement which has turned the love of money from a sin into a positive spiritual virtue. Unfortunately, as Wolfgang Simson has accurately described, our Christian affluence has been built upon the sands of a Babylonian financial system which promotes the lie that you can borrow your way to prosperity and blessing. The recent financial crisis has been the predictable result of a collapsing debt pyramid. The solution offered by the political and economic neo-Babylonians who run this system has been unsurprisingly predictable – MORE DEBT – thereby guaranteeing either an extenuation of the crisis, or that it will disappear for the moment and re-appear at a later (and more inconvenient) time. The current financial crisis is already having a profound impact upon evangelical ministries which relied upon this false prosperity for their funding. I have heard desperate appeals for money from “big name” ministries which have seldom if ever complained publicly. Add to the current financial upheaval the reality that the post-WW2 “greatest generation” (which has also been the most generous) is now passing away and is being replaced by “baby busters” and “gen-Xers” who don’t give, and the traditional financial underpinnings of evangelicalism are quickly crumbling. And because evangelicalism is very “top-heavy” when it comes to expenses (it isn’t cheap for Jesse to lease that lear jet), the collapse of ministries and organizations could be profound.
5. Evangelicalism is collapsing due to it’s apparent inability to distinguish between a “convert” and a “disciple”. A recent “invitation” at a local mega-church which I was visiting consisted of this: “With every head bowed and every eye closed, anyone who wants Jesus to be your friend, open your eyes and look at me.” I was seriously tempted to respond. Hey, I want Jesus to be my friend! Who doesn’t! I wonder if St. Paul ever used that one on the Roman guards at the Mamertine Prison where he spent his last days. I mean, it works so well here in America . . . I’m just sayin’ . . . ! The call and commission of the Church is to make “disciples,” not converts. The result of “evangelism” is supposed to be a “disciple,” not a convert. Our goal is a radically transformed life, not a vague innocuous profession. I’ve always been amazed that in the first century church at Antioch, it was “the disciples” who were called “Christians”. We have reversed that order, and then watered it down. We’ll give the appellation of “Christian” to anyone who attends a meeting and makes some type of profession of faith. We hope that at some point they will “get serious about their faith” and become a “disciple”. The impact upon Evangelicalism has been profound. Reliable surveys by people such as George Barna indicate that the vast majority of people who make a “profession of faith” in our evangelistic meetings are not to be found in any church context in as little as 6 weeks after making that profession. We have traded disciples for converts and have been left with neither.
6. Evangelicalism is collapsing due to a faulty Ecclesiology left over from the “Christendom” phase of Western Culture, but which is increasingly untenable in our post-Christian, postmodern culture. The era of the “basilica” church which began with Constantine is now ending. Evangelicalism can no longer afford (if it ever could) the $350,000 (+) required to plant a traditional “church,” much less the monolithic multi-million dollar mega-church facility dedicated to two days of use each week. Evangelical Christianity is returning to the organic domus ecclesia (house church) of the pre-Constantine era, but updated and contextualized for what God is doing today. Small has become the new big.
7. Evangelicalism is collapsing because of God’s judgment upon our culture and upon the rampant disobedience of the Church (a la the book of Jeremiah). Off and on for the past 8 years God has taken me back to the Old Testament book of Jeremiah (yep, that explains a lot!) in order to understand what is happening in our own day. In a ministry which spanned some 40 years, Jeremiah wept over his nation as he delivered God’s message of judgment for spiritual adultery (idolatry) and a host of other sins. But alongside of that message of judgment was a constant message of repentance. We can only wonder what might have been different in the life of God’s people if they had responded to and embraced that call to repentance. Nineveh was spared God’s announced judgment for 100 years when it responded to God’s call to repentance under Jonah. But American Evangelism has no interest in the pursuit of God in genuine repentance. It might impede our march to significance. We don’t fast. We don’t repent. We don’t weep over our own sins and failures, much less for those of the culture in which we live. And we don’t experience the “revival” we all think should be on its way by now. And, in our heart of hearts, we really don’t’ believe God can or will judge American Christianity. After all, He needs us . . . doesn’t He? Really . . . doesn’t He?
© 2009 THE PAROUSIA NETWORK of House and Cell Churches