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The Crystal Cathedral & Evangelicalism’s Decline

Several of you have sent along this story from the American Scholar, calling the collapse of the late Rev. Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral ministry as a bellwether for Evangelical Christianity. Excerpt:

Secularization alone is not to blame for this change in American religiosity. Even half of those Americans who claim no religious affiliation profess belief in God or claim some sort of spiritual orientation. Other faiths, like Islam, perhaps the country’s fastest-growing religion, have had no problem attracting and maintaining worshippers. No, evangelicalism’s dilemma stems more from a change in American Christianity itself, a sense of creeping exhaustion with the popularizing, simplifying impulse evangelical luminaries such as Schuller once rode to success.

Prominent figures in the evangelical establishment have already begun sounding alarms. In particular, the Barna Group, an evangelical market research organization, has been issuing a steady stream of books and white papers documenting the erosion of support for evangelicalism, especially among young people. Contributions from worshippers 55 and older now account for almost two-thirds of evangelical churches’ income in the United States. A mere three percent of non-Christian Americans under 30 have a positive impression of evangelical Christianity, according to David Kinnaman, the Barna Group’s president. That’s down from 25 percent of baby boomers at a similar age. At present rates of attrition, two-thirds of evangelicals in their 20s will abandon church before they turn 30. “It’s the melting of the icebergs,” Kinnaman told me. Young people’s most common complaint, he said, is that churches are too focused on sexual issues and preoccupied with their own institutional development—in other words, he explained, “Christianity no longer looks like Jesus.”

A book making the rounds among evangelical pastors these days is called The Great Evangelical Recession. Written by John S. Dickerson, a former investigative journalist turned evangelical pastor, it chronicles in unsparing statistical detail how evangelical Christianity is hemorrhaging members, money, and influence. “The United States has shifted into a  … post-Christian age,” he writes. “No one disputes this.”

Now, I know little about American Evangelicalism; I post this story because it’s interesting, and because I know many of you readers are Evangelicals, and can help me understand if there’s anything to the writer’s thesis. That phrase above, purporting to explain Evangelical decline — “a sense of creeping exhaustion with the popularizing, simplifying impulse” — makes me skeptical. Is it really the case that Christian Americans are seeking a more complex version of their faith than what’s on offer at Evangelical churches? Or is it more the case that they are bored with the style of worship at those churches?

Michael S. Horton, writing in Modern Reformation, says Evangelical churches have done it to themselves. Excerpt:

Yet, finally, we will have to examine ourselves and our own capitulations to the spirit of the age that Paul captured so poignantly in 2 Timothy 3. There are no easy targets or silver bullets. We are the problem. As the prophets pointed out with great seriousness, Israel’s apostasy was evident not by a mass exodus from public worship, but by the corruption of worship and the standards of the covenant for human relationships. Israel had become like the nations, yet wondered why God was so upset.

Many of the same people who decry moral relativism and religious pluralism in the culture, have-in their thinking, ministry, and personal life-unwittingly adopted the habits of modernization that are more directly responsible for relativism in the first place. George Barna, for example, routinely decries the lack of any obvious disparity between Christians and the secular culture, while he accepts the most secular assumptions of the self as sovereign consumer. If God is not the focus of our church life, why should we expect the culture to take its cues from God’s script?

If most churchgoers cannot tell us anything specific about the God they consider meaningful-or explain basic doctrines of creation in God’s image, original sin, the atonement, justification, sanctification, the means of grace, or the hope of glory-then the blame can hardly be placed at the feet of secular humanists.

When our churches assume the gospel, reduce it to slogans, or confuse it with moralism and hype, it is not surprising that the type of spirituality we fall back on is “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” In a therapeutic worldview, the self is always sovereign. The great questions of life do not concern what an external authority has determined to be good, true, and beautiful, but one’s own sense of well-being and fulfillment. God is there to be used as needed, but does not surprise, contradict, judge, or disrupt our lust to control our own lives and destinies. Accommodating this false religion is not love-either of God or neighbor-but sloth, depriving human beings of genuine liberation and depriving God of the glory that is his due. The self must be dethroned. That’s the only way out.

It would be a fine thing, in my opinion, if people were seeking out a Christianity more theologically detailed and grounded in history and liturgy (hey, come be Orthodox!). But I don’t think that’s what’s happening in Moralistic Therapeutic Deist America. I could be wrong. You tell me.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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