Friday, March 13, 2009

The iMonk et al on the Future of Evangelicalism

[Update: Soon after I posted this, I noticed that Fr. Jonathan Tobias and Ochlophobist had posted on the same article, here and here. Both are excellent. If pressed for time, read theirs and skip mine.]

James links to an interesting article in his "Obligatory Evangelical Collapse Post," found here. At least several weeks have passed since I last had an OECP, so I thought I would link as well. The article in question is a recent Christian Science Monitor story here by Michael Spencer, an evangelical who posts on the popular The expanded version can be found in 3 parts, here, with 238 comments (and counting) that only confirm Spencer's thesis. In short, he foresees the coming collapse of evangelical Christianity amidst the rise of the post-Christian West. He notes several factors as reasons:

1. Evangelicals have identified...with the culture war and with political conservatism.

2. Evangelicals have failed to pass on to...young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught.

3. There are three kinds of evangelical churches today: consumer-driven megachurches, dying churches, and new churches whose future is fragile. Denominations will shrink, even vanish, while fewer and fewer evangelical churches will survive and thrive.

4. Christian education has not produced a product that can withstand the rising tide of secularism.

5. The confrontation between cultural secularism and the faith at the core of evangelical efforts to "do good" is rapidly approaching.

6. Even in areas where Evangelicals imagine themselves strong...we will find a great inability to pass on to our children a vital evangelical confidence in the Bible and the importance of the faith.

7. The money will dry up.

Spencer doesn't see this as a bad thing, necessarily, noting that much of evangelicalism doesn't need a bailout, but a funeral. And he is skeptical that anything will ever "shake lose the prosperity Gospel from its parasitical place on the evangelical body of Christ," concluding that "American Christians seldom seem to be able to separate their theology from an overall idea of personal affluence and success. "

Spencer sees the trend as benefitting the Catholic and Orthodox communions. Perhaps, but we should not take too much comfort from that. In his post, James notes that "if the future is as bleak as iMonk makes it out to be for evangelicals, well we should all be worried - or in faith NOT be worried."

That is exactly the point. The coming years will not be easy ones for Christian disciples of whatever stripe. Of all people, Orthodox believers should not be surprised by this. The deficiency I always detected in popular American evangelicalism--long before I ever entertained the notion of Orthodoxy--was that it was such a creature of the modern, contemporary world. There was nothing transcendent about it. It patently did not have the legs for the long haul. On the other hand, a church that has survived Romans, Persians, Arabs, Turks and Bolsheviks can certainly steel itself for what lies ahead, that "rough beast, its time come round at last."

Of course, the reformation impulse never dies and many evangelicals recognize the disease, if not the cure. Alan Jacobs, over at First Things, reviews 3 new works: The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices by Brian McLaren and New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today's Church by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Jacobs describes these authors as a third generation of evangelicals who are seeking to appropriate some traditional Christian practices. To Halter and Smay this is the "incarnational community" (or "church" to the rest of us), to McLaren it is "missional" living, and Wilson-Hargrove seeks a "new monasticism." And while Jacobs characterizes the movement as both "deeply historical and vibrantly contemporary" (yes, God forbid we ever be anything other than vibrantly contemporary), he finds little of value in the books.

On Halter and Smay:

Their chapter on the history of the Church since the fourth century is called “The 1,700-Year Wedgie.” That neatly captures the book’s tone and its level of intellectual seriousness. If we can call this an argument, it’s a familiar one. From Luther’s time to our own, every generation of Protestants produces people who rise up to proclaim that the Church lost its way within decades of Jesus’ death, leaving the true gospel forgotten and unproclaimed until . . . well, us.

On McLaren:

It has the same fondness for sweeping historical generalizations and for charts that are just cleaned-up PowerPoint slides. He tells a lot of stories, some of them about fishing. (All these books may set out prescriptions for changing the world, but one verity they never question is the absolute necessity of having at least one-third of their text taken up by folksy anecdotes.) He has a fondness for sage statements that don’t add up to anything discernible.

On Wilson-Hartgrove

...set the bar for monasticism as low as Wilson-Hartgrove sets it and you might as well call a Christian college dormitory a monastic institution. Frugality, fidelity, and consistency are very good things, maybe even essential things, but they aren’t the same things as poverty, chastity, and obedience.

He pinpoints the flaw in their approaches, finding that these books and the general movement they represent constitute an attempt to borrow or transfer charisma: Ancient and monastic traditions of piety embody a community-building power and a devotional richness that these folks want to appropriate—but not at the cost of embracing either the doctrine or the authority of the Catholic Church or any other church....A key assumption of all these books is that the beliefs and practices of other traditions that we like are detachable and transferable: It’s a buffet, not a home-cooked meal.


Anonymous said...

2. Evangelicals have failed to pass on to...young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught.

One of the things that concerns me about Orthodoxy is the lack of Bible classes for children. Say what you will about Evangelicals; their congregations typically encourage participation in Sunday School classes in which the young are taught, if not direct theology and ecclesiology, then at least the foundational stories and parables from both testaments.

Terry (John) said...

Hi, Kirk.

I see where this could be a concern, particularly in small missions like ours, with limited resources and manpower. I know in larger churches, there are classes--but AFTER the Liturgy. The Liturgy (and other services) of the Church is where we all learn, young and old. And then there are occasions where teaching materials are sent home with the parents, as happened here 2 weeks ago.

Finally, I look back over 20+ years spent neck-deep in Protestant SS (my wife as well) and wonder if it really had much effect at all. I guess I am saying that we Orthodox should be aware of the need to ensure proper instruction of our young beyond the services of the Church, while recognizing that the benefits of an entrenched SS program may be overblown. [As a young boy I attended Baptist SS with my sister and her husband. The only thing I learned was how to glue tufts of cotton onto the outline of a lamb.]