Coming Evangelical Collapse
This was a fasincating opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor (I was referred to it from my facebook homepage; how do you like that, Carl?). The writer essentially argues that because evangelicals have linked themselves to the culture war and because the culture war is turning against evangelicals, that brand of Christianity will collapse within the next 10 years. In the writer's doomsday view:
"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."
The writer goes on to list a number of reasons why this will be the case and what will result. Most of what he says centers on the linkage between conservative politics and religion and the failure of evangelicals in matters of catechesis (my word, not his).
I had several reactions to the piece. 1) The link between conservative religion and politics is by no means new. To act as though Protestants have never linked the two is to fail to read history. Likewise, the collapse of political commitments in the past hasn't brought about a collapse of religious commitment. Historically speaking, his predictions rest on shaky historical ground.
2) That is not to say that the links between God and country which evangelical make are not frightening and are not harmful for Christianity long term. That strikes me to be among the solid claims which D. G. Hart made in his A Secular Faith. Transforming the Christian faith into a political positon seems to raise questions about whether our focus is Jesus or America.
3) The writer has only megachurches, dying churches, and fragile new churches in view. But there is far more to evangelical Protestantism in America than that. Even within denominations such as the Southern Baptists and Presbyterian Church in America, there are vibrant mid-size congregations that are doing a solid job passing their faith on to the next generation. And seminaries are providing a vital role in equipping ministers with doctrine and not simply techniques for church life. To miss this is to have a too narrow view.
4) I do believe that he is right that the challenge is going to come from Catholicism and Orthodoxy and it will center on questions of authority--in an uncertainty world with competing claims about the Bible and what it means, the "certainty" provided by a church that can claim a two thousand year lineage is hard to deny. Evangelicals must do a better job recognizing that apostolic succession is a real challenge and that the Bible offers its own type of apostolic succession (one of doctrine, not of ordination).
Still, this is a thought-provoking piece, one well worth pondering while you check your facebook page.