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The end of Evangelicalism?

In a recent blog posting on Internetmonk.com, Christian writer Michael Spencer predicted the imminent collapse of American evangelicalism, the results of which will be “that within two generations of where we are now, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its current occupants.” According to Spencer, the American religious landscape will become increasingly hostile towards Christianity and will usher in “the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West.” Evangelicals will respond in largely the same manner as they did in the culture wars of the ’80s, but this time, Spencer says, “the difference will be that millions of evangelicals will quit: quit their churches, quit their adherence to evangelical distinctives and quit resisting the rising tide of the culture.” Spencer says that many of those who leave will do so in favor of an atheistic or agnostic secularism, personally rejecting the influence of their Christian backgrounds. They will do so with characteristic immoderation, avidly proclaiming “good riddance” to an outdated religious system. The lack of financial resources will cause the decline of thousands of ministries across the nation, and will drastically limit their sociopolitical influence.

As to the cause of the coming decline, Spencer cites, among other things, the identification of evangelicalism with the culture war and political conservatism. This, he says, was “one of the most costly mistakes in our history,” and will cause evangelicals to “become synonymous with those who oppose the direction of the culture in the next several decades.” Other reasons include, ironically, a failure of older evangelicals to pass on a concrete Orthodox form of Christianity to the next generation despite billions spent on youth ministries and Christian media, and the divided state of evangelical churches into either more traditional churches that continue to lose members or consumer-driven mega-churches. Perhaps the most relevant and hard-hitting of reasons is Spencer’s view of the failure of Christian education to produce “a product that can hold the line in the rising tide of secularism.” Millions of graduates will walk away from the faith and the church, Spencer says.

It must be stated that evangelicalism and Christianity are not synonymous; thus, to proclaim the future decline, and possible death, of evangelicalism does not necessitate the death of Christianity. Spencer is not proclaiming the death of Christianity. Nevertheless, when looked at as a cultural and political movement, I, too, believe that evangelicalism, as a social entity, will not survive the inevitable onslaught of secular anti-religiosity.

I believe this because, in addition to many of the reasons stated above, I find I am witnessing some radical paradigm shifts both within and outside of the educated young Christian community. Such shifts are evidenced by the recent presidential elections, in which young Christians made a definitive statement of their concern for issues beyond abortion and gay marriage, a radical shift that undoubtedly left many parents concerned for the state of their children’s salvation. The election demonstrates the deconstruction of the fundamentalist evangelical, a label than many young Christians, including myself, are quietly fleeing from.

In his book Theology and the Arts, Richard Viladesau applies Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigmatic shifts in scientific knowledge to that of theological shifts in thinking. In Kuhn’s model, the “normal science” of the day represents the underlying method for solving scientific problems. It is characterized by the growth of knowledge, and is resistant to alteration. However, this “normal science” is self-defeating, as any new discovery creates a sort of crisis of paradigms in which the old paradigm is found unable to adequately account for the present discovery and is ultimately replaced by the new paradigm. Viladesau says, “These new data cumulatively call for a new perspective that can deal with (the new data) more adequately … The challenge is radical in that it questions not only the answers of the normal science, but also its way of dealing with the data and indeed its conception of the problem itself.” When this model is applied to the major shifts in Church history, the impact is staggeringly accurate. It explains such movements as the Protestant Reformation, and it explains the current situation. Such a shift is the catalyst for the major sociopolitical collapse which Spencer speaks of.

I can’t help but think of Abraham Lincoln, whose closely held belief in the injustice of slavery was brought about through his belief in a progressive moral conscience. Lincoln believed that through time, humanity’s conscience would change to reflect recently revealed knowledge. Such enlightenment created a responsibility for the citizen to reexamine his or her morality in light of a continuously changing cultural context. This idea was reflected in his Second Inaugural Address, in which he fervently shared his desire to reconstruct America “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”

For me, I feel a growing discontinuity between the old evangelical worldview, with all its proper associations, and the rapidly-changing world in which we live. As the gap widens, I am forced to reevaluate my worldview based upon a changing cultural context. When I do this, I find that I long for a worldview that is far more holistic than that of previous Christian generations. In this way, I almost want evangelicalism to die, if only for the opportunity to build ourselves back up again as something distinctly different. Christians should not have to hide in the shadows anymore. But in order to first come out of the shadows, we young evangelicals will first have to acknowledge the funeral of our own tradition.

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