American evangelicalism is headed for collapse, warns Christian thinker Michael Spencer. He doesn't offer evidence in his Christian Science Monitor piece, though fellow blogger Michael Bell provides supporting data such as average age and birthrates among Baptists, declining church attendance, and so on. Having lost their focus on spreading the Gospel of Christ, Spencer believes evangelicals are set to begin a slow disappearance from the American stage.
Spencer attributes the collapse he foresees to a number of usual suspects, like the marriage of evangelicals to political conservatism. This is a popular critique, but it misses the mark for being too gentle: The problem has not been that too many American Christians embrace genuine conservatism, it is that we have aligned ourselves too closely---and often too uncritically---with a political tribe that does not put Christ first, does not adequately police its own ranks for crooks and perverts, and has historically viewed Christians as a collection of ignorant shock troops to be used in pursuit of its ends.
The tarnishing of American evangelical Christianity by its association with Republican venality, however, is not the driving force behind Spencer's thesis. Here we can look to his scathing assessment of our failure to educate our own children. "Ironically," Spencer writes, "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."
It gets harsher: "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."
What's to come of all this? "Expect evangelicalism to look more like the pragmatic, therapeutic, church-growth-oriented megachurches that have defined success," claims Spencer. "Emphasis will shift from doctrine to relevance, motivation, and personal success---resulting in churches further compromised and weakened in their ability to pass on the faith."
This will draw in enough people to pay the bills and enrich a few charismatic preachers, as it always has. Others will abandon church involvement altogether, preferring the deceitful calm of genteel agnosticism for the passionless nagging of a watered-down faith. Meanwhile, those hungry for something more will continue to migrate to Catholicism and Orthodoxy, or to emotion-driven Charismatic and Pentecostal churches.
Despite his dim view of the evangelical future, Spencer professes optimism, particularly for the growth in house churches. The rest of us might be forgiven for queasiness at this prospect, given that the causes of American Christianity's disarray include home-brewed heresies, wolves in sheep's clothing, and lack of Church authority in the face of consumption-minded congregants seeking designer churches.
We might also ask whether the various Reformed churches might be neglected in Spencer's analysis. Historically doctrine-focused, perhaps these churches will draw in many of the people Spencer envisions leaving other evangelical homes. The success of Seattle-area Mars Hill Church, for example, can be credited at least in part to pastor Mark Driscoll's preaching of unapologetic Calvinism.
Regardless, maybe this prediction of evangelical collapse is just wrong. After all, who would have predicted 50 years ago the growing vitality of African churches, or the spread of Christianity through persecuted regions of Asia? Men can spy trends all they like, but the Holy Spirit does as He will. One thing we can be assured of is the promise that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church. However, not every tax-exempt organization with a pulpit and a preacher can be so certain. Maybe that's not such a bad thing.