A reader, perhaps motivated by the recent blog posts here meditating on the crisis within the Roman Catholic institution, passes along this fascinating 2009 column by the late Michael Spencer, laying out the contours of what he believes will be a “collapse” of Evangelical Christianity in the US over the next two, three generations. Excerpts:
Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.) In the “Protestant” 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.
This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.
Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I’m convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.
Why is this happening to Evangelicalism? Among the reasons Spencer lists:
2. We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.
3. There are three kinds of evangelical churches today: consumer-driven megachurches, dying churches, and new churches whose future is fragile. Denominations will shrink, even vanish, while fewer and fewer evangelical churches will survive and thrive.
4. Despite some very successful developments in the past 25 years, Christian education has not produced a product that can withstand the rising tide of secularism. Evangelicalism has used its educational system primarily to staff its own needs and talk to itself.
Number 2 above is without question the most critical, at least in my judgment — but it’s true not only of Evangelicals, but all Christian churches, except the Mormons. This is why Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the real religion of young American Christians. It is pseudo-Christianity, and Spencer is correct to point out that it cannot withstand the currents in our culture.
More from Spencer’s essay:
The loss of their political clout may impel many Evangelicals to reconsider the wisdom of trying to create a “godly society.” That doesn’t mean they’ll focus solely on saving souls, but the increasing concern will be how to keep secularism out of church, not stop it altogether. The integrity of the church as a countercultural movement with a message of “empire subversion” will increasingly replace a message of cultural and political entitlement.
Despite all of these challenges, it is impossible not to be hopeful. As one commenter has already said, “Christianity loves a crumbling empire.”
We can rejoice that in the ruins, new forms of Christian vitality and ministry will be born. I expect to see a vital and growing house church movement. This cannot help but be good for an evangelicalism that has made buildings, numbers, and paid staff its drugs for half a century.
We need new evangelicalism that learns from the past and listens more carefully to what God says about being His people in the midst of a powerful, idolatrous culture.
As a small-o orthodox Christian, and as a big-O Orthodox Christian, I find this extremely encouraging, actually. To be able to admit that this culture is lost to Christianity is liberating, if seen the right way. Subvert the empire! I’ve had this growing feeling that the little country mission church our small band of Orthodox Christians have established here in the hinterlands of the empire is going to be more important in the days to come than I perceive now. (We have a website now too!) I was in liturgy this past Sunday, saying my prayers, listening to the choir chant the Psalms, and thanking God for this wonderful church, a community that every member has helped to build, and is helping to build, with a good young priest who preaches the Gospel, especially on humility and repentance, plainly and without compromise. It’s not MTD; it’s the real deal. We’ve only been having services since the first of the year, but already I find it hard to imagine how we’d live without it.
Christianity loves a crumbling empire. I love that. In 2009, I wrote an essay for TAC talking about the “gift of catastrophe.” Excerpts:
Perhaps it’s a measure of the depths of my cultural pessimism, but when I take a sounding of the conservative predicament these days, I find myself not asking, “What would Reagan do?” but rather “What would Benedict do?” Benedict of Nursia, I mean, the 5th-century founder of Western monasticism, the man most responsible for preserving European Christian culture through the Dark Ages.
The Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre famously ended his landmark 1982 bookAfter Virtue with a gloomy meditation about the collapse of a common moral sense in the West. He suggested that we were too far gone into nihilism and relativism to save and that those devoted to the traditional virtues should consider hiving off, as Benedict and his followers did in Rome’s final days, to build communities that can withstand the incoming tide of chaos and despond. MacIntyre wrote that our unawareness of how lost we are “constitutes part of our predicament,” one that can only be adequately addressed by “another—and doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
What could that mean for conservatives today? That we should consider what I’ve come to call the “Benedict Option”—that is, pioneering forms of dropping out of a barbaric mainstream culture that has grown hostile to our fundamental values. The case for traditional conservatives to make a strategic retreat to defensible perimeters, so to speak, has become even more appealing since 1999, when Paul Weyrich issued his famous fin de siècle call for conservatives to pull back radically from “a [cultural] collapse so great that it simply overwhelms politics.”
Walker Percy once wrote of the modern novelist’s sense that “the happy exurb stands both in danger of catastrophe and somehow in need of it.” Sometimes, it takes a catastrophe to make us come to ourselves, to see the world in a new and more truthful way. The political catastrophe the Republicans are living through, and the far more consequential cultural catastrophe we’re all enduring, obviously call for fresh political and economic thinking. But even more, they call for a renewal of our moral and spiritual vision. We have to learn to retreat from the passions of the moment, making use of this gift of catastrophe to enter into contemplation and draw once again “from the moral and spiritual depths” (Ryn) of the sound of church bells calling the faithful to evening prayer, the cattle lowing in the fields, the cold beer on the village square in the twilight of a world that, as Russell Kirk said, “remains sunlit despite its vices.”
What else is there? Another gathering of the CPAC tribe? Fox News every night? More Vandals vs. Visigoths derring-do on Capitol Hill?
I really, really need to quit talking about the Benedict Option and write the book already.
One more thing. Michael Spencer had a popular online following as The Internet Monk. His admirers continued Spencer’s blog after his death. The latest post on the blog is from Jeff Dunn, and it’s about the failure of Christian pastoral leadership. I’ve been talking on this blog about the role of clerical scandal demoralizing and scattering the Catholic flock. Dunn speaks about the same in Evangelicalism, but with a very different twist. He says that in his former job, he learned of all kinds of scandals of sexual abuse and the like in churches and ministries (one presumes he’s talking about Evangelicalism), but none of those, in his view, are as bad as the scandal he sees plaguing Evangelicalism today:
The greatest scandal that I see, one that has such far-reaching consequences that I wonder if the church will ever recover from it, is the desertion of the sheep by those called to be shepherds.
You will notice I don’t often use the word “pastor” on this blog, simply because so many of those we talk about here are not pastors. A pastor is a shepherd, and shepherds care for sheep. I use the term “leader” in reference to those in charge of a church. Shepherds focus on sheep entrusted to them; leaders focus on the structure of the organization that employees them. Shepherds walk behind their flocks to be sure that they stay together and no one gets lost; leaders walk out ahead, “casting the vision” so that all know who is in charge. Shepherds are filthy and dirty from caring for filthy, dirty sheep; leaders are dressed for success. Shepherds get very little recognition; leaders get book contracts.
Being a leader of a church, no matter what size the church, means to study demographics and business models. It means reading case studies and taking cues from the latest research published by business school teachers. Being a leader means setting goals and establishing benchmarks and, at the end of the day, mastering the latest business catchphrases, like “at the end of the day.”
Being a shepherd, meanwhile, involves visiting MaryLou in the hospital where she will want to talk with you about her medical history for the entire afternoon. It means meeting for breakfast with three men who resent even having to go to church, but do so to only please their wives. It means sitting bedside with a man whose wife is dying of cancer, and then taking the brunt of his anger as he accuses you and God of taking the one thing from him that mattered.
Leaders are professionals. Shepherds are laborers. Listen to what John Piper says about the danger of professionals taking over the church.
Brothers, we are not professionals! We are outcasts. We are aliens and exiles in the world. Our citizenship is in heaven, and we wait with eager expectation for the Lord. You cannot professionalize the love for His appearing without killing it. And it isbeing killed. (Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, John Piper)
Church leaders have professionalized the love for Jesus’ appearing, and it is being killed. As are the flocks of sheep in desperate need of shepherds. Shepherds are not cool, are not hip, are not trendy. As soon as you try to create a formula for tending to the sheep, you have a corporate farm, and not a place where sheep are nurtured.
He’s talking about Evangelicalism here, but there is a Catholic version of this, and there is an Orthodox version of this. The churches and church communities that thrive in the difficult days and decades ahead will be those headed by pastors, not leaders, and flocks who honor and reward shepherds, not ordained CEOs.