The Collapse of Evangelicalism?

Perhaps you’ve already read this article about the coming collapse of evangelicalism in the Christian Science Monitor, or perhaps you’ve seen discussions around the blogosphere. My fellow blogger Eugene Cho is talking about it, and despite his posting before me, I’m not copying him.

The article combined the recent results of the American Religious Identification Survey conducted by Trinity College indicates what we have all long suspected: Americans are not as religious as they were previously and the most religious of them all, evangelicals, are losing dominance and influence in American life, so much so that it is being called a “collapse.”

There are many who are celebrating this collapse, both within and outside of evangelical circles. Some because they believe it will lead to a needed reformation, or because they are sick of the culture of evangelicalism. Others are glad because they believe that Christians are altogether wrong, that religion is unhelpful and the bane of civilization. Some share his concern about the dumbing down of Christianity in order to generate mass appeal.

The article makes several good points, but his second particularly is striking for someone who works with young adults. He asserts:

2. 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.

I can testify to the truth of this assertion. As I mentioned in an earlier post about Biblical illiteracy Christian students are woefully ignorant about their own faith. Combined with a thrust for activism, I foresee that evangelicalism will not so much collapse as cease to be orthodox. Of course orthodox (small o) Christian is thriving in America and around the world There is a subtle assumption in Spencer’s article that evangelical = white middle class American. It does not.

Though we may not care to remember it, and some now view evangelicals as out of touch, evangelicalism was (and is) the movement of the non-elites in American society. It thrived, in all its various forms, among those who were not especially well educated and certainly who viewed themselves as not being among the “in-crowd.” During the hey-day of mainline churches in America, evangelicals (then called fundamentalists) were definitely not the cool kids. They still aren’t. Despite their perceived political strength, they are, at best, the red-headed step child of the Republican party, which likes the evangelical vote, but is somewhat less enamored of actual evangelicals. The evangelical left, which has increasingly become associated with the Democratic Party treats run of the mill evangelicals like the crazy uncle that embarrasses you whenever you have friends over. You can’t really disown them, but if you could get away with you’d like to keep him lock in the attic. In fact I daresay that evangelicals probably get worse press than any other religious group in America, far out of proportion to their numbers or influence.

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Biblical Illiteracy, Cultural Critique & Socio-Politcal Engagement

As one who works daily in the cauldron of ministry with the next generation of social, political, economic spiritual leaders (college students), I am well aware of the level of engagement or disengagement that many students have with the issues of the day. I also have an opportunity to evaluate, anecdotally, the level of biblical literacy that students coming from an evangelical background bring with them into college.

It is an understatement of the highest degree to assert that the current generation of college student evince a high level of Biblical illiteracy. Though many of them have been raised within the context of the church, have participated in missions, church youth groups, Sunday School, and numerous other church related activities, most of them do not have anything remotely resembling a worldview based on their Christian commitments, beyond that demanded by a cultural Christianity. They know, or are at least vaguely aware, that the Bible has something to say about sexual ethics – chiefly that believers ought to abstain from sexual activity until married. They also know that the Christians are to be generous, kind, share their faith, avoid lying and other overt sins. In many ways though, there consciousness, their life choices, their politics, their cultural engagements and social relations (including their sexual behavior) is not much different that of their peers.

One the other hand, we are in the midst of a dynamic season in the life of the larger church, as many pastors, theologians, and lay people are having conversations about how to revitalize what has become for many a dead orthodoxy or lifeless faith. There is a great deal of critique of current church culture which seems to be in many ways disconnected from the every day of life. There is a vitality among many, especially in the “millennial” generation who are excited about engagement in missions, social justice issues, diversity and multi-ethnicity and are examining how the gospel is connected with these questions. There is tumult in the church around critical issues, which often breaks down around geographical, social, and financial lines.

I am excited about how engaged and creative many are in wrestling with these issues, but I am also concerned that much of this activity and concerned, driven by the Spirit though it is, is being laid atop a very low level of Biblical knowledge, which leads to a social and political engagement rooted not in the gospel, but in sociology or political science. The thing is, we’ve been here before.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a new religious Spirit driven movement was being birthed (Pentecostalism). The American church at large was orthodox in their theology and yet the issues of the Progressive movement (women’s rights, social justice, labor reform) were pressing concerns for the church of the day. Many American churches actively moved to engage these issues, or even took the lead in them. In time, many of those churches abandoned orthodoxy and are now, in terms of relevance, numbers and scriptural fidelity, are mere shadows of their former selves. Other churches retreated from any involvement in social issues, became proudly known as fundamentalists, then not a derogatory term, but one that denoted fidelity to the fundamental claims of the gospel. These believers retreated from engagement in the public sphere, from the university and in many ways from socity and were the forebears and progenitors of today’s evangelicals.

I do not think that we are repeating history. In fact I believe that we are in many ways on more solid ground than our predecessors. Evangelicals have in the years since the mainline/fundamentalist split, developed seminaries, worked to engage social issues more actively, and thought long and hard about how the gospel has social implication. However, we are at a disadvantage in that our predecessors, both mainline and fundamentalist, were much more thoroughly versed in scripture than we are. Likewise American society shared a common language of Christian ethics which provided the social apologetic for many of the reform movements. It was very possible to hold to an orthodox view of scripture, of miracles, of Jesus, and yet remain socially engaged. Many in the millennial generation however, are illiterate concerning the Bible. They do not know how to think Christianly about their own lives (which was the concern of fundamentalists) much less about society. What will be the impact of a generation of Biblically illiterate believers charging into the fray to engage society and transform the church?

Diversity = Asian & Gay?

Maybe I’m exaggerating here; actually, I’m certain that I’m exaggerating. Hyperbole is sometimes useful to illustrate a subtler point. And there is a point to this post, obscure though it may be. The point is simply this:

It seems to me when people talk about living in a “diverse” city, or having “diverse” friends, or being in a church that welcomes “diversity,” what they’re really saying is Gay people and/or Asian people with perhaps a sprinkling of Middle Easterners or Eastern Europeans thrown in for good measure. What they don’t mean is Black Americans, or White people from the south, or Hispanics (the “work in your yard, sit in the back of the pickup truck” kind of Hispanics don’t count in terms of diversity, only the “wow, can you teach me salsa dancing” kind do).

Okay… I’m and evil wrong person for using these exaggerated stereotypes. But how wrong is it really? To discuss diversity one metric to possibly use would be the raw percentages of non-Whites (since Whites / Euro-Americans are dominant in the US) in a city. The higher the percentage, the more “diverse” the place; this is a simple measure, right? Given that metric, the state of Mississippi would be considered one of the most diverse in the nation since it has a non-White population of nearly 50% or more. Except that most of those non-Whites are Blacks, and they don’t count towards the idea of diversity, unless there are some Asians and gay people in the mix and the Black people aren’t too low brow.

So perhaps that metric isn’t a good one. Maybe it is better to analyze diversity based on residential housing patterns. A diverse city would have many different ethnic groups living there. Thus, Chicago or L.A. are very diverse cities, right? Except that Chicago is notoriously residentially segregated, at least most of the Black people are. And there are many White ethnic enclaves throughout the city as well.

Is that diverse or not? Does being able to find good “ethnic” food count as being diverse, even though usually what counts as “ethnic” are various Asian cuisines with the occasional nod to Ethiopian and Mediterranean/Middle eastern dishes.

What if someone is Asian and grew up in the south, and their favorite foods are grits and turnip greens? Does that count as suitably “diverse?”

What does any of this have to do with anything, and what does it all have to do with the church, and Christianity, which is after all the topic of this blog? Actually, I’m not sure. It’s just that I wonder how much the much touted “diversity” we talk about in our society is really just a proxy for saying “Wow, there are Asian people here, and Asian people are the currently ‘cool’ ethnicity, so yay!!” It is kind of like the way people say “urban” when they really mean Black.