We continue on with the third part of my re-post of a piece written four years ago by the late Michael Spencer (AKA The Internet Monk). If you have yet to visit Internetmonk.com please do so, there’s some really great discussion going on. My first post in this series can be found here and the second one here if you need to get up to speed. Following this post, I’ll begin my own reflection while also posing some questions that I hope some of you will answer. So here we go.
3. Is all of this a bad thing?
I’ve received many notes and emails over this series of posts, and I’m glad that it has been provocative and discussion-producing.
Is the coming evangelical collapse entirely a bad thing? Or is there good that will come from this season of the evangelical story?
One of the most encouraging developments in recent evangelicalism is the conviction that something is very wrong. One voice that has been warning American evangelicals of serious problems is theologian Michael Horton. For more than 20 years, Horton has been warning that evangelicals have become something almost unrecognizable in the flow of Christian history. From the prophetic Made in America to the incredible In The Face of God to the most recent Christless Christianity, Horton has been saying that evangelicals are on the verge of theological/ecclesiastical disaster.
Horton’s diagnosis is not, however, the same diagnosis as we saw in the heyday of the culture war, i.e. that evangelicals must rise up and take political and cultural influence if America is to survive and guarantee freedom and blessing. Horton’s warning has been the abandonment of the most basic calling of the church: the preservation and communication of the essentials of the Gospel in the church itself.
The coming evangelical collapse will be, in my view, exactly what Horton has been warning us about for two decades. In that sense, there is something fundamentally healthy about accepting that, if the disease cannot be cured, then the symptoms need to run their course and we need to get to the next chapter. Evangelicalism doesn’t need a bailout. Much of it needs a funeral.
But not all; not by any means. In other words, the question is not so much what will be lost, but what is the condition of what remains?
As I’ve said in the previous post in this series, what will be left will be 1) an evangelicalism greatly chastened in numbers, influence and resources, 2) a remaining majority of Charismatic-Pentecostal Christians faced with the opportunity to reform or become unrecognizable, 3) an invigorated minority of evangelicals committed to theology and church renewal, 4) a marginalized emerging and mainline community and 5) an evangelicalized segment of the other Christian communions.
Is it a good thing that denominations are going to become large irrelevant? Only if the networks that replace them are able to marshall resources, training and vision to the mission field and into the planting and equipping of churches?
Is it a good thing that many marginal believers will depart, leaving evangelicalism with a more committed, serious core of followers? Possibly, if churches begin and continue the work of renewing serious church membership?
Is it a good thing that the emerging church will fade into the irrelevance of the mainlines? If this leaves innovative, missionally minded, historically and confessionally orthodox churches to “emerge” in the place of the traditional church, yes. Yes, if it fundamentally changes the conversation from the maintenance of traditional churches to developing new and culturally appropriate churches.
Is it a good thing that Charismatic-Pentecostal Christianity will become the majority of evangelicals? Yes, if reformation can reach those churches and produce the kind of unity we see in Wesley and Lloyd-Jones; a unity where the cleavage between doctrine and spiritual gifts isn’t assumed.
The ascendency of Charismatic-Pentecostal influenced worship around the world can be a major positive for the evangelical movement if that development is joined with the calling, training and mentoring of leaders. If American churches come under more of the influence of the movement of the Spirit in Africa and Asia, this will be a good thing. (I recognize, btw, that all is not well overseas, but I do not believe that makes the help of Christians in other cultures a moot point.)
Will the evangelicalizing of Catholic and Orthodox communions be a good development? One can hope for greater unity and appreciation, but the history of these developments seems to be much more about a renewed vigor to “evangelize” Protestantism in the name of unity. For those communions, it’s a good development, but probably not for evangelicals themselves.
Will the coming evangelical collapse get evangelicals past the pragmatism and shallowness that has brought about its loss of substance and power? I tend to believe that even with large declines in numbers and an evidence “earthquake” of evangelical loyalty, the purveyors of the evangelical circus will be in full form, selling their wares as the promised solution to every church’s problems. I expect the landscape of megachurch vacuity to be around for a very long time. (I rejoice in those megachurches that fulfill their role as places of influence and resource for other ministries without insisting on imitation.)
Will the coming evangelical collapse shake loose the prosperity Gospel from its parasitical place on the evangelical body of Christ? We can all pray and hope that this will be so, but evidence from other similar periods is not encouraging. Coming to terms with the economic implications of the Gospel has proven particularly difficult for evangelicals. That’s not to say that American Christians aren’t generous….they are. It is to say that American Christians seldom seem to be able to separate their theology from an overall idea of personal affluence and success American style. Perhaps the time is coming that this entanglement will be challenged, especially in the lives of younger Christians.
But it is impossible to not be hopeful. As one commenter has already said, “Christianity loves a crumbling empire.” Christianity has flourished when it should have been exterminated. It has conquered when it was counted as defeated. Evangelicalism’s heyday is not the entirety of God’s plan.
I think we can rejoice that in the ruins of the evangelical collapse new forms of Christian vitality and ministry will be born. New kinds of church structure, new uses of gifts, new ways to develop leaders and do the mission- all these will appear as the evangelical collapse occurs.
I expect to see a vital and growing house church movement. This cannot help but be good for an evangelicalism that has made buildings, paid staff and numbers its drugs for half a century.
I expect to see a substantial abandonment of the seminary system. How can a denomination ask its clergy to go into huge debt to be equipped for ordination or ministry? We all know that there are many options for education from much smaller schools to church based seminaries to internet schools to mentoring and apprenticing arrangements. We must do better in this area, and I think we will.
In fact, I hope that many IM readers will be part of the movement to create a 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. There are encouraging signs, but evangelical culture has the ability to disproportionately judge the significance of movements within it.
I’ll end this adventure in prognostication with the same confession I began with: I’m not a prophet. My view of evangelicalism is not authoritative or infallible. I am certainly wrong in some of these predictions and possibly right, even too conservative on others. But is there anyone who is observing evangelicalism in these times who does not sense that the future of our movement holds many dangers and much potential? Does anyone think all will proceed without interruption or surprise?
TO BE CONTINUED…….