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Guest Editorial: Coming Evangelical Collapse

by Michael Spencer

Editor’s Note: When this piece was originally written on Jan. 27, 2009, it immediately was widely read and picked up by mainstream media sources. It is a sobering warning to all those who consider themselves evangelicals in the modern era. Michael has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and The Baptist Messenger
thought it fitting during these days of discussion in the SBC about the Great Commission Resurgence to carefully re-read his words and prayerfully take them to heart. Our prayers remain with Michael—that he may courageously die well; that he would have confidence in the day of judgment because of Jesus Christ and His resurrection; and that he might find peace in the abode of God where sorrow and crying will be no more. Christus Rex.

UPDATE:  Michael Spencer died on April 5, 2010.

I believe we are on the verge—within 10 years—of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity; a collapse that will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West. I believe this evangelical collapse will happen with astonishing statistical speed; that within two generations of where we are now, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its current occupants, leaving in its wake nothing that can revitalize evangelicals to their former “glory.”

This collapse, will, I believe, herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian west and will change the way tens of millions of people see the entire realm of religion. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become particularly hostile towards evangelical Christianity, increasingly seeing it as the opponent of the good of individuals and society.

The response of evangelicals to this new environment will be a revisiting of the same rhetoric and reactions we’ve seen since the beginnings of the current culture war in the 1980s. 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.

Many who will leave evangelicalism will leave for no religious affiliation at all. Others will leave for an atheistic or agnostic secularism, with a strong personal rejection of Christian belief and Christian influence. Many of our children and grandchildren are going to abandon ship, and many will do so saying “good riddance.”
This collapse will cause the end of thousands of ministries. The high profile of Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Hundreds of thousands of students, pastors, religious workers, missionaries and persons employed by ministries and churches will be unemployed or employed elsewhere. Visible, active evangelical ministries will be reduced to a small percentage of their current size and effort.

Nothing will reanimate evangelicalism to its previous levels of size and influence. The end of evangelicalism as we know it is close; far closer than most of us will admit.

Why Is This Going To Happen?

1) Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This was a mistake that will have brutal consequences. They are not only going to suffer in losing causes, they will be blamed as the primary movers of those causes. Evangelicals will become synonymous with those who oppose the direction of the culture in the next several decades. That opposition will be increasingly viewed as a threat, and there will be increasing pressure to consider evangelicals bad for America, bad for education, bad for children and bad for society.

The investment of evangelicals in the culture war will prove out to be one of the most costly mistakes in our history. The coming evangelical collapse will come about, largely, because our investment in moral, social and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. We’re going to find out that being against gay marriage and rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence and are believing in a cause more than a faith.

2) Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people the evangelical Christian faith in an orthodox form that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. In what must be the most ironic of all possible factors, an evangelical culture that has spent billions on youth ministers, Christian music, Christian publishing and Christian media has produced an entire burgeoning 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 that they will endure.

Do not be deceived by conferences or movements that are theological in nature. These are a tiny minority of evangelicalism. A strong core of evangelical beliefs is not present in most of our young people, and will be less present in the future. This loss of “the core” has been at work for some time, and the fruit of this vacancy is about to become obvious.

3) Evangelical churches have now passed into a three part chapter: 1. mega-churches that are consumer driven, 2. churches that are dying and 3. new churches whose future is dependent on a large number of factors. I believe most of these new churches will fail, and the ones that do survive will not be able to continue evangelicalism at anything resembling its current influence. Denominations will shrink, even vanish, while fewer and fewer evangelical churches will survive and thrive.Our numbers, our churches and our influence are going to dramatically decrease in the next 10-15 years.

4) Despite some very successful developments in the last 25 years, Christian education has not produced a product that can hold the line in the rising tide of secularism. The ingrown, self-evaluated ghetto of evangelicalism has used its educational system primarily to staff its own needs and talk to itself. I believe Christian schools always have a mission in our culture, but I am skeptical that they can produce any sort of effect that will make any difference. Millions of Christian school graduates are going to walk away from the faith and the church.

There are many outstanding schools and outstanding graduates, but as I have said before, these are going to be the exceptions that won’t alter the coming reality. Christian schools are going to suffer greatly in this collapse.

5) The deterioration and collapse of the evangelical core will eventually weaken the missional-compassionate work of the evangelical movement. The inevitable confrontation between cultural secularism and the religious faith at the core of evangelical efforts to “do good” is rapidly approaching. We will soon see that the good evangelicals want to do will be viewed as bad by so many, that much of that work will not be done. Look for evangelical ministries to take on a less and less distinctively Christian face in order to survive.

6) Much of this collapse will come in areas of the country where evangelicals imagine themselves strong. In actual fact, the historic loyalties of the Bible belt will soon be replaced by a de-church culture where religion has meaning as history, not as a vital reality. At the core of this collapse will be the inability to pass on, to our children, a vital evangelical confidence in the Bible and the importance of the faith.

7) A major aspect of this collapse will happen because money will not be flowing towards evangelicalism in the same way as before. The passing of the denominationally loyal, very generous “greatest generation” and the arrival of the Boomers as the backbone of evangelicalism will signal a major shift in evangelical finances, and that shift will continue into a steep drop and the inevitable results for schools, churches, missions, ministries and salaries.

Michael Spencer is a writer and communicator living and working in Kentucky. His website is
www.internetmonk.com. Used with permission.

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  • http://www.jfokc.com Ryan Abernathy

    Thank you Baptist Messenger for publishing this tough and timely article. Michael Spencer was not a hack or a doom sayer. He was an intelligent and orthodox believer whose wise eyes see a tough future for the church in America. We need these kinds of wake up calls to drive us out of the beds of politics and moralism and back to the Gospel, which is the ONLY thing that can change the hearts of men and women. I pray that we will be ready. I fear we will not be. May His Kingdom advance!

    • Douglas Baker

      Thank you, Ryan for your kind words. Indeed, Michael was an excellent writer who literally influenced countless thousands with blog. I personally benefitted from his work so very many times.

      We remain grateful for your life and ministry as well.

      Blessings,
      DB

  • Larry W. Wilson

    Michael Spencer will be missed by many. His journey through this world ended April 5,2010. I believe Michael did die well, and the Good Shepherd welcomed him home. The future of evangelicals in general and Southern Baptists in particular is cloudy. We would do well to consider Michael’s words carefully. Thanks Baptist Messenger for publishing this editorial.

    • Douglas Baker

      Thanks for your comment. Michael will be missed.

      Blessings,
      DB

  • Charlotte Proffitt

    Very good points made and I agree with them. However, the basis for all these goes back to one thing and that is the lack of a Final Authority. The new generation of Christians is experiencing what us old timers have dished up on a plate to them and that is a type of “lite” or “counterfeit” Christianity. Our Pastors spend a great deal of time correcting the King James 1611 Bible, the Bible in which God used to bring about the great revivals of the past 350 years (no recent revivals in the last 50 years). The Christian colleges also do the same thing, thus creating a generation of Christians that no longer have faith in God’s ability to preserve and protect HIS WORDS, which HE promised to do. The Sunday school quarterlies have sold out to whichever Bible version fits their lesson and regardless of what some may think, this does lead to a confusion and lack of faith in God. Then there are the numerous quotes of the teachers as if they are to be held in some high regard for their great wisdom and to top it all off, the quarterlies have sold out to a non-Baptist theology in the books and authors they recommend. Youth leaders have also brought in the crowd with what they call “Christian” music….which is Christian in “some” of the lyrics only but the music is so much like secular music, you might as well be listening to it. The latest thing that has appalled me in the SBC is the propagation of the book called “One Month To Live” by Kerry & Kris Shook. Although they made some great points in the book, they have a Lutheran background and they taught Lutheran Doctrine in the book (they teach Peter is the rock). These kind of practices only go to confuse the younger generation. As “Elders” and the “Aged” of the church invisible and local, we should be building their faith in God’s ability to preserve His Words and God’s ability to teach us the meaning of those words instead of changing the texts to the point that it doesn’t even have the same meaning or impact, thus using “counterfeit Bibles”. That is what modern “Christian Educators” are doing to destroy this younger generation and the article writer was correct in saying that it is not going to get better. Below is the effect of throwing out the FINAL Authority of the word of God….the King James 1611.
    Amos 8:11 Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, that I will send a FAMINE in the land, not a FAMINE of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD:
    12 And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the LORD, and shall not find it.

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  • Gary Capshaw

    Evangelicalsim, as an act of faith, will never disappear. The Holy Spirit will overcome.

    However, evangelicalism as a political movement NEEDS to disappear is it leads to confusion among the brethren. Far too many believers define their faith by their political persuasion or stance on political issues instead of their relationship with Jesus Christ. Worse, far too many denominations, including our own, measure their effectiveness as stewards of the Gospel by the same thing. The list of cultural issues to which we are opposed is thought to be proof of “standing for God,” when, in fact, such stances are increasingly driving people AWAY from the Gospel, which isn’t success in God’s view.

    How can we expect the next generation of believers to carry forward the work of the Great Commission if we ourselves don’t know the difference between politics and faith? We, the older generation of supposedly mature Christian’s, are their teachers and mentors and they learn from us. What have we taught them? That the cultural war equates to spreading the Gospel? That empowering government to enforce Biblical standards of behavior is an act of love? That the Ten Commandments at the courthouse will somehow magically translate into saved souls? That the cure to what ails this country is something other than transformed hearts brought about by a person to person, face to face meeting with Jesus Christ?

    Evangelicalism may very well die, and Christianity with it, if we don’t reject the false doctrine of opposition to secularism and embrace again the simple instructions of Paul to Timothy: “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.”

    • Douglas Baker

      You make some very valid points. When the church conflates the gospel by thinking it is equated to political parties or movements, the gospel can quickly be obscured and even emptied of its power (I Cor. 1:17).

  • http://. Eddie Hurt III

    I think Michael Spencer has “hit the nail on the head”. I applaud his words and that of the “Messenger” for printing them. We have become too comfortable and complacent. We have lost the zeal of our fathers and their fathers before them. I am a child of the forties. I look at my children; their children; and I wonder……. I pray it is not too late.

  • Mark Nickles

    An illustration of the topic: There was a time when, as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I knew more about where Rush stood on the issues than where our Savior did. Thankfully, I became convicted of that, and am now a “recovering” political junkie. (I still have my challenging days.)

    The point: We need a clarification of purpose, not just in the pews, but in many instances, in the pulpit. Christians should certainly know what’s going on locally and nationally, but I fear there may be too much petition signing, and not nearly enough praying, testifying and witnessing. May we as pastors set the standard, getting our heads out of talk radio, and into God’s word.

  • LeRoy Hogue

    I read with great interest the article in the April 8 Messenger by Michael Spencer. I did not know who he was, and had never read anything that he had written. I went on-line and discovered that he edited a blog called “The Internet Monk”. Interesting title. I also discovered that he graduated from Southern Baptist Seminary, in Louisville, in the 1980’s. Much of what he says in this article we can agree with. We see this evangelical decline taking place even now before our very eyes. Michael says: “This collape…will herald the arrival of anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West.” There is daily evidence of this in our own nation and in Europe. But is this not what the scripture says will take place: “there will first come a falling away”. What we sometimes speak of as the “Great Apostasy” that will take place at the end time. When I first read this article, I was stunned to see this collapse spoken of so clearly, in such stark terms. But as I thought about it, I was encouraged by several things that Michael does not allude to in his article. Briefly, there is the “God Factor” that must be taken into account. God is still on His Throne (Ez. 1:26-28; Is. 6:1), and God sees clearly the end from the beginning. In 18th century England, before the Evangelical Revival, many were actually saying that Christianity would disappear within another generation. But God had other plans, and raised up William Law, George Whitefield, and John Wesley.
    There is also the historical factor. Don’t overlook what God has done throughout Christian history. In the 16th century, what was taking place in Europe? There was the utter moral and spiritual corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. The Pope was recognized as the political and spiritual head of all the governments of the world. At least, this was his claim. But in that century, the Anabaptist movement emerged. Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, and John Calvin began his influential work in Geneva. In the 18th century, in America, in a little Dutch Reformed Church, a pastor began to preach a new kind of message, about the new birth and revival in the church. Soon the Great Awakening was in progress, and the American colonies were all impacted. One more: In 1904-05, in Wales, God was preparing the instruments for the Great Welsh Revival. We still sing some of the songs that came out of that movement.
    I am also encouraged by what I call the “Holy Remnant Factor”. By this I mean that God still has, as in the days of Elijah the Prophet, “seven thousand” who have not yet bowed their knees to Baal. There is in this nation, and in other nations as well, those who believe the Bible, and who preach the gospel, and who are willing to stand up and be counted for the Lord. This is God’s Holy Remnant, and God is using them and blessing them even now! One final element to consider is the “Geographical Factor”. Michael Spencer is very correct when he says that evangelical churches will never again exercise in this country or in England the influence and the power that they possessed in the 19th and 20th centuries. But keep your eyes on China, Taiwan, and South Korea. The next century belongs to the Asian Christians, and God is going to use them in a mighty way. He is using them even now! These young Korean and Chinese Christians are dedicated, joyous, evangelistic, and they are not afraid of anything. God will use these nations and the churches in Asia to do a great work in the next 50-100 years. Have you heard of the “Back to Jerusalem” movement? What I am saying is that I do agree with what Michael Spencer has said in his article, but look up, Christian, see what God is doing! God is the Sovereign, and the kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ! Praise the Lord!

  • Jim Wells

    The coming collapse of evangelicalism, in regards to our children seems not so much in political issues or “the rising tide of secularism” but rather how we address questions to our children about the essense of God. I believe in our lord Jesus simply because I have “faith”. But many young people ask legitimate questions(age old questions) like how can God be omnipotent and omnibenevolent and evil exsist? Why did God create Satan to begin with? How does one reconcile free will and the omnisciense of God ? etc. These are the “Core” of evangelism. If we can focus more on these kind of problems there will not be any collapse.

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