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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Church as Prophet or Church as Mouthpiece of Democratic “Progressive” Socialism?

There’s a lot out there about the “new evangelical left,” the “emerging church,” and new missional communities that are seeking to embody the gospel in new ways and live out the mission of Jesus in the world. I’m painting in hugely broad strokes, but many of these churches share in common a skepticism / critique of church as it has been practiced and especially of the political activism of the religious right. It is an easy to blog surf and find some church, group, preacher, or random know-it-all with a laptop (guilty!!) spouting off about how the church has ceased to be relevant, how abortion and gay marriage are important but not really, how the church needs to apologize for so many things, and on and on. There is a good deal out there about how the church needs to deal with issues of poverty, social justice, and oppression and complaint that the church hasn’t done enough. And again there is usually a call for the church to apologize.

Theologically speaking, there is ample room for the emerging dialogue to take place under the umbrella of orthodox evangelicalism, defined broadly as belief that: 1) the Bible is true, and authoritative and we ought to follow it, 2) Jesus is the only Son of God and Savior, 3) return of Christ in judgment, 4) umm something else that I’m probably forgetting. The current movement though is often self described as being “prophetic” because of the ways that the prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus himself spoke about the poor and the marginalized. They see themselves as standing in that stream seeking to “be the church” in a prophetic kind of way rather than just “proclaiming” the gospel in a way that is disconnected from the day to day lives of the average person.

Socially speaking the movement seems to be dominated by White middle class, college educated people who wear black rimmed glasses and use Macs instead of PC’s. They tend to hang out in coffee shops and have churches with one or two word names like “Quest” or “Missio Dei” that obscure more than they reveal. They care about multiethnicity and try to actively pursue it. They have “creative class” jobs and live in gentrifying neighborhoods that have local food markets. They know what arugula is.

In other words, they fit neatly the typical demographic of liberal Democrats except for their pesky clinging to evangelical religion. But honestly, much of what is discussed in the blogosphere and bandied about in circles of these new evangelicals is hardly distinguishable from the Democratic Party platform. Without intending to, their prophetic voice on issues like abortion is suspiciously reminiscent of the bumper sticker, “Against abortion? Don’t have one!” Of course, it much more nuanced than I am portraying it, but there is a distinctive unwillingness to be notably and publicly FOR anything typically associated with recent evangelical politics and a concomitant willingness to be AGAINST anything championed by the Republican Party.

How prophetic though is it to align oneself with the prevailing currents of social and political thought? Has the Christian right spoken only a “negative and condemning message,” and if even they have, isn’t that also in the prophetic tradition? John the Baptist was not exactly sitting down for a conversation with those he preached repentance to, and Jeremiah would likely have been treated for clinical depression based on his frequent weeping and lament over the sinful state of his nation. Does being a faithful follower of Jesus mean that you support the notion of Universal Health Care Coverage?

Christians Politics Part 2 — to endorse or not to endorse?

Should Christian leaders endorse political candidates? In an election year when the presumptive nominees of both major political parties have had their share of “preacher problems” the question arises both for candidates and their supporters as to whether any association with religious figures is worth the potential backlash that may come when those leaders come out and say what they really believe, which in most cases is hardly politically palatable.

Beyond that and more to my own interest is whether Christian leaders themselves should be in the business of actively endorsing political candidate as author Brian McLaren recently did Sen. Barack Obama. It should be noted and is well known that Christian leaders have supported and endorsed candidates in elections for a long while, though in more recent history it has been the evangelical support of Republican Party candidates that has received the most attention. The term “Religious Right” has entered into popular lingo and the perceived wholesale support of evangelicals for President Bush is credited with much of his electoral success. (I say perceived because most African American Christians would theologically be considered evangelical but often vote Democratic).

I believe that such political engagement, while understandable and in some cases laudable, ultimately undermines both the prophetic and priestly function of the church in society. Any time a Christian leader, no matter how qualified and nuanced his phrasing, goes on record as saying, “This guy is better than that guy (or gal)” that leader runs the risk of conflating Christianity with whatever agenda that politician has. More than that is the implicit idea that to vote counter to the endorsed candidate is to somehow be fighting against God’s will or purposes.

As an aside, I find McLaren’s implicit characterization of the issues and the thinking which have motivated many Christians to often support Republican candidates as “wedge issues” and “binary thinking” to be insulting and dismissive. Many believers, though standing in full agreement with the Democratic Party on many issues, simply cannot in good conscience support pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage policies and see them as antithetical to their convictions. Further, he seems to imply (I’m being generous as he doesn’t imply it; he states it) in his endorsement that those who have voted in this way have been mindlessly manipulated into marching obediently in the parade of cynical politicians.

Christians politics

It strikes me as demeaning rather than flattering that political candidates so obviously fall over themselves to pander to the opinions of religious conservatives every election cycle. It is even more pathetic that we Christians go out of our way to invite such pandering and have become rather embarrassingly self congratulatory that we’ve final found issues “worthy” of being taken seriously enough to merit the attention of the presumptive nominees of the two major political parties in the US. Is it not obvious that evangelical interest in issues of poverty, justice, and environmental stewardship (none of which are new concerns for Christians, despite rhetoric to the contrary) is merely being used as a wedge to garner votes and that political elites both “conservative” and “liberal” have no interest in serious engagement with the intellectual and moral foundations of these ideas?

In many ways Christians in the US have become like the proverbial “easy” girl in high school who mistook her popularity with the boys with genuine interest rather than recognizing that her phone number was inscribed on the walls of every ill scrubbed toilet stall, “for a good time call…”. Cheap perfume and dime store flowers seem to be enough to win the affections of Christians in the US.

Having failed to take advantage of the “dial a date” availability of the evangelical vote for some time, the Democratic party conceded such votes to the Republican Party with a kind of attitude reminiscent of the high school know-it-all who claims to have read all the best sex technique books, but can’t get a date to save his life. He was above all of that; and besides who wanted to be part of the in crowd with all the popular kids when it was much more fun to join the chess club, play dungeons and dragons and hang out with the nerdy girls who wore peasant skirts and refused to shave.

Now like that same teen awakening from his adolescent slumber, the Democrats too have ditched the glasses for contacts, gotten a decent haircut, and learned to talk Christian-ese with flattering intonations of “faith” and “justice” and “God.” And like any desperately insecure girl, Christians fall for it all over again, lured by false promises and false hope.

Are we so easily impressed; so easily bought and sold by a political system that is primarily concerned with the preservation of its own power, and is decidedly and firmly not interested in the things of God and of the kingdom? Issues of “faith” have been all over this election, but not because of any substantive interest in the foundational issues of greatest concern to Christians. It has rather been a parade of pandering; a veritable side show of contortionist politics that would put the most flexible circus performer to shame. And we take much of it as complimentary; flattering ourselves to believe that this most recent shift shows that Evangelicals and other Christians don’t “belong” to the Republican Party and likewise that issues of “faith” and “morality” are not the exclusive preserve of the religious right. We borrow the language of a secular media and tell ourselves that we’ve “grown up” and matured despite the fact that Christian thought is nearly two millenia older than the republic itself.

I believe that we fail to recognize that the more Christians twist themselves to accommodate to the societal status quo – either through aggressive power politics of the last twenty years, or so called “subversive” hyper-contextualization that removes from the gospel all of its prickly and unpleasant rough edges (like the uniqueness of Jesus and the full weight of human sin) – the more we lose our witness. Even more, we will rapidly fall into the trap of those who “follow worthless things and became worthless themselves.” It is, in the end, against demonic principalities that desire nothing more than to keep millions stumbling in the dark without the light of Christ. Like those of ancient Israel, in our desire to be “like the other nations” that is, like unbelievers, we will readily trade our divine inheritance for something much more pragmatic and modern, or in our case, post-modern.