by M. James Sawyer
(This reflection is a response to “The Coming Evangelical Collapse” by Michael Spencer)
I have for years believed that American Evangelicalism (not Christianity) was skating on thin ice, spiritually and intellectually. As a movement we (not all of us individually) have suffered from a host of problems that began generations ago, as early as the origin of the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century.
We have viewed Christianity individualistically—‘am I right with God?’ (not that this is unimportant). And in so doing have privatized the faith and have lost in large measure the larger vision of the redemption not just of individuals but society and the world.
While Christianity was founded in America by those of Puritan stock who had a high regard for scholarship and the intellectual study of both theology and creation, the heirs of the Second Great Awakening have exchanged intellect for feeling in exactly the same way as did the developing liberalism. When Pentecostalism came on the scene beginning in 1906, it pushed the envelope of anti-intellectualism to the point that you had to “check your brains as the door” when you entered church. To this day as a tradition, it still decries formal study and questioning as damaging to faith.
In the late nineteenth century and continuing through the 20th century we have withdrawn from American society which was founded on Christian/biblical ideals and principles (although some of the founding fathers were either deists or unorthodox they still shared a Christian worldview) and turned the seats of power over to secularism.
The Enlightenment, (c. 1650- 1800) made reason as opposed to divine revelation the final arbiter of truth. Through the 19th century, this assumption increasingly transformed all Western society. By the early 20th century, this presupposition was seen not only in society but also in a large part of the Church. Fundamentalism arose in opposition to this shift. The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of the first three decades of the twentieth century saw mainstream denominations capitulate to the zeitgeist (spirit of the age) and abandon their historic orthodox moorings with reference to the sinfulness of man, and the person and work of Christ, and even God as trinity. From a cultural perspective, the Scopes Trial (1925) served to nail the lid on the coffin of historic conservative Protestant Christianity in America.
In the wake of this defeat, the Fundamentalists withdrew from society as a whole and became inwardly focused, anti-intellectual, and other worldly–focusing on the imminent expectation of the rapture and using this as an excuse not to act as salt and light in society, claiming that to do so was like polishing brass on a sinking ship (”It’s all going to burn anyway”).
Modern evangelicalism was born in the late 1940’s when Carl Henry published The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Henry advocated a departure from the “Come out from among them” mentality of fundamentalism and a re-engagement with culture and the life of the mind. At that time in our history, the term “American Evangelical Scholar” was an oxymoron. To be an Evangelical was to be anti-intellectual. On an intellectual level, this re-engagement has met with considerable success. Although it took about a half a century, true Evangelical Scholarship is now a reality.
However, on the popular level the engagement with culture has been something close to disaster. Theologically and intellectually unequipped to deal with the change in worldview, Evangelicalism capitulated to cultural values and lost its distinction from “the world.” It adopted the very same type of political aspirations and tactics that a generation previously it had decried in Liberal Christianity. Evangelicalism identified itself with conservative (largely Republican) politics and became just another special interest group on the horizon that wanted a seat at the political table.
Over the past two generations, we have become so immersed in our national culture that our lifestyle is indistinguishable from that of the non-Christian and secular society. The divorce rate among Evangelicals in the country is at a level that corresponds to that of society as a whole.
In the Bible Belt, it is even greater than the divorce rate of the surrounding culture.
We as a movement decry abortion, yet about 40% of the abortions performed in the US are performed on self-proclaimed evangelical women. It is easier for these women to commit what they believe to be murder than to live with the shame and ostracism of the community that was supposed to love them. We, as a group, have lost our moral authority to speak on this issue.
The ethical reputation of evangelicals in business is so notorious as to make the term Evangelical Ethics an oxymoron. Many Christians let alone non-Christians will not do business with those who make public their evangelical commitment.
Twenty years ago when I was on the Student Life committee at a small Christian College we saw the same behavior among our students (promiscuity, abortion, alcohol abuse and drug abuse and homosexuality) that was prevalent among the broader society. (This was one of the school’s dirty little secrets that it tried not to let be known to the constituency for fear of harm to the college’s image.) What I saw was that in many cases parents who had failed to pass on the faith to their children sent them to a Christian college to make up for their failure.
In 1986 Francis Schaeffer published The Great Evangelical Disaster, addressing the question of the church’s abdication of its responsibility to truth. Ten years later in 1996 Mike Regele and Mark Schultz published The Death of the Church in which they argued, based on generational analysis, cultural trends and several other factors, that within a 20-40 year time frame the Church in America would look like the church in Europe—small, and marginalized within a sea of secularism. Michael Spenser’s article in the Christian Science Monitor echoes these same themes, but from some additional perspectives.
In our tradition, we have been committed to evangelism, but we have generally viewed evangelism strictly in terms of conversion, i.e. praying to receive Christ as savior. However, the call of the Lord in the Great Commission (Matt. 28: 18-19) is not to MAKE DECISIONS, it is to MAKE DISCIPLES. This I suspect is near the heart of our failure. Forty-five years ago as I entered my teenage years, fundamentalists/evangelicals knew and believed the Bible. (Admittedly, some of that belief was shallow and hermeneutically suspect but that is a topic for another discussion.) Today, the knowledge of the Bible in Evangelicalism is abysmal. One noted Evangelical New Testament scholar has observed that while Evangelical Scholarship has never been at a higher point—for the first time in about a century we can go toe to toe with liberal scholarship and hold our own—in the Churches we have entered a new Dark Ages with reference to Bible knowledge. As a theologian, I would argue that in the area of theology the situation is parallel but maybe even bleaker.
A bit over a decade ago, Evangelical pollster and sociologist George Barna concluded based on numerous surveys that nearly 40% of the individuals sitting in the pews in Evangelical Churches do not cognitively know enough theology even to be saved. Salvation was an experience rather than a belief in concrete facts. (I am not suggesting that experience is not involved-but that we by our failure to teach theology and the whole counsel of God, have emptied the faith of content and opened the door for Christians to commit idolatry whereby we create God out of our own desires and experience rather than who He has revealed himself to be.)
To me this is a sign of not only failure but of doom.
The parable of the Sower and the Seeds is telling. It would appear to me that American evangelicalism has become like the rocky soil on which the seed was sown. It rapidly germinates and grows impressively, but withers quickly because there is no root.
The Church as the Church will survive. But I fear that American evangelicalism is spiritually and theologically and intellectually bankrupt, having spent its intellectual capital and failing to heed the warnings of those who saw its headlong rush toward the cliff.
I may be overly pessimistic. But as a student of history I have in history repeatedly seen trends that lead to collapses. It is possible that God will intervene with another Awakening akin to the First Great Awakening. If He does “all bets are off.” But given current trends I don’t see much cause for optimism for long-term transformation in our tradition.