Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Evangelicalism: Losing Ground and Collapsing?

Yesterday, USA Today published the article Most Religious Groups in USA have Lost Ground, which reports the findings of a new survey on religion in America. It's fairly bleak looking as the only Christian groups to report any increase since 1990 are Protestant (Generic), up .5% and Charismatic/Pentecostal up .3%. Here's some key quotes:

"When it comes to religion, the USA is now land of the freelancers.

The percentage. of people who call themselves in some way Christian has dropped more than 11% in a generation. The faithful have scattered out of their traditional bases: The Bible Belt is less Baptist. The Rust Belt is less Catholic. And everywhere, more people are exploring spiritual frontiers — or falling off the faith map completely.

Among the key findings in the 2008 survey:

So many Americans claim no religion at all (15%, up from 8% in 1990), that this category now outranks every other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists. In a nation that has long been mostly Christian, "the challenge to Christianity … does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion," the report concludes.

Baptists, 15.8% of those surveyed, are down from 19.3% in 1990. Mainline Protestant denominations, once socially dominant, have seen sharp declines: The percentage of Methodists, for example, dropped from 8% to 5%.

Meanwhile, nearly 2.8 million people now identify with dozens of new religious movements, calling themselves Wiccan, pagan or "Spiritualist," which the survey does not define.

Wicca, a contemporary form of paganism that includes goddess worship and reverence for nature, has even made its way to Arlington National Cemetery, where the Pentagon now allows Wiccans' five-pointed-star symbol to be used on veterans' gravestones.

Mark Silk, director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, sees in the numbers "an emergence of a soft evangelicalism — E-lite — that owes a lot to evangelical styles of worship and basic approach to church.

"But E-lite is more a matter of aesthetic and style and a considerable softening of the edges in doctrine, politics and social values," Silk says."

Continuing the bad news, Michael Spencer writes of The Coming Evangelical Collapse for the Christian Science Monitor (I'd encourage you read the whole thing).

"We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.

Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.) In the "Protestant" 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.

This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.

Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I'm convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close."

It is not all doom and gloom from Spencer, however. This collapse of shallow evangelicalism will lead, he believes, to revitalized forms of evangelicalism and other positives. He continues:

"The loss of their political clout may impel many Evangelicals to reconsider the wisdom of trying to create a "godly society." That doesn't mean they'll focus solely on saving souls, but the increasing concern will be how to keep secularism out of church, not stop it altogether. The integrity of the church as a countercultural movement with a message of "empire subversion" will increasingly replace a message of cultural and political entitlement.

Despite all of these challenges, it is impossible not to be hopeful. As one commenter has already said, "Christianity loves a crumbling empire.""

Maybe tonight I'll have some time to reflect and write on these articles (taxes are done!). Till them, comments are open.

2 comments:

Lane said...

Dan,

Pastor Stephen Baker, Dean of the Pastors College, sent us this article a couple of weeks ago to read over. I'm glad for many of the comments Spencer makes, and even wish he would go further. I wonder what your thoughts are on this portion:

"A small band will work hard to rescue the movement from its demise
through theological renewal. This is an attractive, innovative, and
tireless community with outstanding media, publishing, and leadership
development. Nonetheless, I believe the coming evangelical collapse
will not result in a second reformation, though it may result in
benefits for many churches and the beginnings of new churches."

Lane

Dan Waugh said...

Lane,
I think it is helpful to draw a distinction between historic evangelicalism that was doctrinally defined (think Edwards and Whitfield) and cultural evangelicalism of our day and age (think Christianity Today, etc.). I think the cultural form of evangelicalism is going to decline significantly. I see the historic evangelicalism living on in churches committed to historic evangelical doctrines (Bebbington defines it as crucicentric, biblicist, conversionism and activism).

I don't know I'd call it theological renewal. I think those churches built on strong theology will last and possible prosper (though possibly not - depends on the sovereign work of the Spirit). I think churches built on flash, methodology, marketing, etc will fade from the scene.

I wouldn't call it a second reformation at all.