Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Analysis 0f Michael Spencer's "The Coming Evangelical Collapse" (Part 1)

Thanks to the various people who emailed me the link to a very provocative post by fellow blogger Michael Spencer who blogs at Internet Monk.

You can read the version of Spencer's blog post most people have read here. In fairness to Mr. Spencer, he wrote a more expansive post on his blog, the Christian Science Monitor version was a bit edited, but not so much that it changed the gist of his thoughts.

I suggest reading his post as I will take several posts of my own to interact with what he has written.

Spencer starts his article very provocatively-

"We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West."

This is a provocative introductory statement because such a wide range of Christians think of themselves as evangelical. If you are a bible believing Protestant Christian, you probably think of yourself as "evangelical" so a post like Spencer's garners an immediate response. He's saying there will be a "major" collapse of evangelical Christianity which effects me and my church, many will think. Within the past 24 hours I have received 8 emails from close friends linking to Spencer's article so he has struck a widespread chord for sure.

Defining "evangelical Christianity" is very difficult. Almost two years ago I wrote on my growing dislike for the label "evangelical" because of how meaningless it has become. The historic meaning behind the label "evangelical" is one who believes faith in Christ is the only way of salvation and the bible is the inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God. In the present day "evangelical" means less about a creed and more about a cause, a valid point Spencer makes and sites as one of the main reasons there will be a downfall in evangelical Christianity. Please read my post on "Liking the Term 'Evangelical' less and less" as it might give some perspective to the "evangelical" label Spencer uses.

Personally, I am a Reformed Christian, meaning the main tenets defining my beliefs are the "Solas" of the Reformation:

Sola Scriptura - Scripture Alone
Solus Christus - Christ Alone
Sola Gratia - Grace Alone
Sola Fide - Faith Alone
Soli Deo Gloria - The Glory of God Alone

I believe these five points generally capture Apostolic/Biblical Christianity. My denomination considers itself "Reformed and Evangelical", but this refers to the older definition of "evangelical" I note above. Frankly, I think it is time for the PCA to drop the label "evangelical" because it is too confusing, something evidenced by Spencer's thought-provoking post.

Spencer's use of "evangelical" refers to a vast landscape of "Christians" who are identified as much with a brand of social conservatism as they are with their supposed belief in the Bible as God's Word. R.C. Sproul Jr. has been credited with making this observation- An evangelical is a fundamentalist that wants the respect of modernists, and sells his soul to get it. Spencer says 25-25% of Americans claim to be evangelical. He thinks "evangelical Christianity" is on the verge of a major collapse and makes a good case that it will.

My first point of analysis is this- the evangelical Christianity Spencer speaks of is not equal with Apostolic/Biblical Christianity. Evangelicalism, even when it was easier to define, is too vague to be the label a Christian should be comfortable with. I'd much prefer the term "Reformed Christian" to describe who I am, so I'm not unduly alarmed by Spencer's predictions for "evangelical Christianity". I simply do not think genuine Reformed Christianity will suffer the same fate as American Evangelical Christianity, but I am dismayed with how seemingly large "evangelical Christianity" is, if it is on the verge of collapse.
But to be clear, Spencer is not saying that apostolic/biblical Christianity will collapse but rather "evangelical Christianity" in the West will collapse in the next 10 years.

Lots more to day in the next few days....


Jared Nelson said...

If evangelical is a generic term refering to a sentimental feeling about Christ regardless of any actual knowledge about who that is, that encompasses as a description everybody from Billy Graham to Joel Osteen, then good riddance "evangelicalism."

In fact, if the movement of a vague effeminite Christ preached (occasionally) in something that bearly resembles a church dies, perhaps we can start to have a real churchly, intellectually robust expression of Christianity with properly ordered affections, rather than the mess we have now in American Christendom... But maybe that's just me...

Frontier Forest said...

I first read your thoughts, then followed my way to Spencer’s “Christian Science Monitor” article, then on to your powerful May 31, 2007 blog and all the comments. I think all thoughts and comments conveyed were frighteningly real. Furthermore, I also relate to the point he was making, about the “death to traditional religious thinking”, in almost the same background that seems to be staring capitalism right into the face of certain obscurity. Another startling fact that wasn’t shared was the sudden emergence of a number of new Islamic centers in and around the Kansas City area. Kansas City phone book shows 7 different locations for Islamic worship centers, and 2 are now in Johnson County. Freedom of worship means freedom for all to worship.

Reepicheep said...

Jared, It's not just you. I agree with you, so maybe it's just us.

Wayne said...

I'm more inclined to see American Evangelicalism go out with less of a bang and more of a whimper (a la TS Eliot). However, I'm also less sanguine about how such an eventuality would impact a body like the PCA.

Reepicheep said...

Wayne, you may be right on how the decline of evangelicalism will affect the PCA. We're at a pivotal moment as a denomination I think. If the PCA becomes more evangelical than Reformed, I'll be looking elsewhere for affiliation.

What's your take?

Wayne said...

My take? I appreciate Michael Spencer and have followed his blog for nearly six years, but I think this whole thing called American Evangelicalism is far too big for anyone to know what will happen. It's a provocative and challenging piece, but at the end of the day we're still chasing the wind when it comes to the "big picture." What I take from Michael's piece is the challenge to pursue 1) Doctrinal fidelity, 2) Authentic Christian Praxis, and 3) Clear articulation of the gospel to our neighbors.

So while I think Michael goes a little too far in his prognostication, there's a lot to take from it. However, one does wonder what will be made of that creature called American Evangelicalism one day; especially by the churches of Asia, Africa, and Latin America standing over its grave having re-evangelized the West.

Rick Calohan said...

While I agree with what Michael wrote, I am not at all concerned for God is Sovereign, His Kingdom is HERE and NOW and will SHALL ever be, oh wait the Evangelicals don’t preach that, the preach the Gospel according to Tim Le Hay.

I think Michael’s second point

“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.”

is spot on so far as synergist crowd of Evangelism that is pervasive in Evangelical circles.

For how can people know the Gospel without the regeneration of the Holy Spirit? This is why Doctrine is important in interpertanting Scripture and presenting the Gospel!

So from a Reform view while we obey the Great Commission and proclaim the Gospel, we know that salvation is God’s choice by His Grace, not by our choice. If the Gospel of Grace was preached as oppose to the Gospel of Coercion as our synergist do on the street corners then there would not be the fall of ‘Evangelism’ as it is defined in this article. I think a more correct title should be The coming synergism collapse

Anonymous said...

Pastor Tony,

I look forward to more of your thoughts on this article in coming days. I read it yesterday and it seemed to confirm much of what I already believed was destroying American evangelicalism.

The problem with evangelicalism is that it lacks deep theological content. It is so focused on helping people "be a better you" that it has gotten rid of much of it doctrinal basis. Too many "evangelical" churches simply don't preach the gospel anymore. They are supposedly beyond it. Even worse is the new trend, started by Willow Creek and its association of churches, of encouraging "self-feeding." If you're unhappy with your spiritual growth, it's not the church's fault--you're just not practicing enough spiritual disciplines! Nevermind that the sermons are more like pep talks than explanations of the biblical text.

I wouldn't be surprised if much of the evangelical world suffers from the same problems of the mainline congregations. They both seem be defined more by moralistic therapuetic deism, as opposed to the faith once delivered.

By the way, I continue to be encouraged by what I see at Redeemer. It is very attractive to those who want something that is deeper than what the church growth gurus have to offer.

Scott Hirons

M. Jay Bennett said...

Great series Tony!

And well said Mr. Nelson.