Got news? Evangelical crash ahead?

united_states_of_canada_and_jesusland_tshirt-p235441393542492745q6xn_400jpgThe reaction continues to roll in as the mainstream press surfs through the results of the new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), the one that points to the rising wave of the post-denominational age in American religion.

For background on the survey itself, click here to head over to ReligionLink. For my initial reaction to the “fading Christianity” meme in the MSM Round I coverage, click here. The bottom line: Niches ‘R’ US.

However, I expect that GetReligion readers will — sooner rather than later — start running into a Christian Science Monitor essay by Michael Spencer of that ran under the apocalyptic headline, “The coming evangelical collapse — An anti-Christian chapter in Western history is about to begin. But out of the ruins, a new vitality and integrity will rise.”

Spencer describes himself as a “postevangelical reformation Christian in search of a Jesus-shaped spirituality,” to which I ask, is that “reformation” or “Reformation”?

Anyway, his essay isn’t news copy, that’s for sure. Yet it is a meditation on some of the trends that have shown up in the ARIS survey and in many other places in the past few decades, as I mentioned in my earlier post. These trends are now filtering into mainstream news coverage. I imagine that GetReligion readers are going to want to discuss some of his predictions, as Rod “friend of this weblog” Dreher has already done on his blog.

Read it all. But here is the set of bullets that will set legions of tongues wagging, in Catholic, Orthodox, mainline and Evangelical sanctuaries (both digital and analog). As Spencer sees it, here is the end result of the mainstream Protestant splintering that is just ahead (I have done a tiny bit of pruning):

* Expect evangelicalism to look more like the pragmatic, therapeutic, church-growth oriented megachurches that have defined success. Emphasis will shift from doctrine to relevance, motivation, and personal success. …

* Two of the beneficiaries will be the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions. Evangelicals have been entering these churches in recent decades and that trend will continue, with more efforts aimed at the “conversion” of Evangelicals to the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

* 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.

* The emerging church will largely vanish from the evangelical landscape, becoming part of the small segment of progressive mainline Protestants that remain true to the liberal vision.

* Aggressively evangelistic fundamentalist churches will begin to disappear.

* Charismatic-Pentecostal Christianity will become the majority report in evangelicalism. Can this community withstand heresy, relativism, and confusion? To do so, it must make a priority of biblical authority. …

* Evangelicalism needs a “rescue mission” from the world Christian community. It is time for missionaries to come to America from Asia and Africa. …

And one more for those who must see religion through a political lens:

* Expect a fragmented response to the culture war. Some Evangelicals will work to create their own countercultures, rather than try to change the culture at large. Some will continue to see conservatism and Christianity through one lens and will engage the culture war much as before — a status quo the media will be all too happy to perpetuate. A significant number, however, may give up political engagement for a discipleship of deeper impact.

To cut to the chase, is Spencer merely saying that mainstream evangelicalism needs to settle on a doctrinal core, some kind of creed that defines what that vague, vague, vague word means? Good luck on that. And is he saying that religious liberty will lose some kind of showdown with the sexual revolution at the U.S. Supreme Court?

That’s the kind of detail one would offer in a news report, which this essay most decidedly is not. But still, I wanted to put this up for “Got news?” discussion, before readers swamped us with emails asking us for commentary.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Rev. Michael Church

    Another feature of Spencer’s odd little meditation is his idea that today’s Evangelicals will lose the ability to pass on a coherent doctrine to their children. This seems to assume that such a coherent doctrine presently exists.

    From the perspective of a “mainline” denomination (Lutheran, ELCA) this assumption looks dubious. Anglo-American “Evangelicals” certainly did possess a coherent doctrine in the 18th and 19th centuries — basically, Calvinism with an emotional spin. But it seems to me that, as responses to modernity became a more pressing challenge, the movement splintered, so that after the 1920s the same confusing word has been used by groups with different and often conflicting theological views — various shadings of literalism, but also the “gospel of prosperity” movement, as well as both political quietists and political activists.

    The movement still looks more coherent than it really is, even from the inside, basically because the word “evangelical” doesn’t come attached to any common confession of faith. It is a fuzzy denominator, made fuzzier by the unfortunate metaphorical uses of the word in the non-Christian media — and so well documented in GR.

  • Jerry

    This is an area that is very interesting to me. The facts are one thing but what the facts mean is much more important than the bald statistics. Spencer’s essay offers quite a bit of food for thought with well thought out ideas.

    From what I can see, there are two central points. One is that too many Christians don’t know what really is the message of the Christ. The second root consideration is what organizational structure is most helpful for Christians to express their worship of the Christ. Your excerpts are a delineation of some possibilities.

    We can rejoice that in the ruins, new forms of Christian vitality and ministry will be born…

    That is a dramatic and from one perspective an attractive frame-of-reference. But I don’t think the transition is so stark. I believe a careful observer can spot trends which indicate that new structures are already being born now even as the old ones fade away.

    Though it’s not been widely reported, many I know are very attracted to those who actually live Christ’s message. Even many militant secularists become noticeably quieter when presented with examples of people who live their beliefs often very quietly rather than hammer others over the head with them.

    So from that I don’t think the new few years will be as anti-Christian as Spencer does even though there will no doubt be a lot of media coverage in this area especially when politics meets religion in the boxing ring. Flying beneath the regular media radar will be stories that quietly show what it’s like to live differently and that coverage will gradually and quietly have an influence on the culture.

  • stazshu

    The Antiochian Orthodox Church AKA Christian Orthodox Church has been actively evangelicalizing Evangelicals since the 1980s They have accepted dozens of congregations and (re)ordaining priests sub conditione. These congregations have kept their core Evangelical values while adopting Orthodox tradition. The very Arab ethnic background does not seem to be a stumbling block.

  • danr

    “Evangelicalism needs a “rescue mission” from the world Christian community. It is time for missionaries to come to America from Asia and Africa.”

    It’s already happening. For decades now, Christians in historical mission-field countries and cultures have been foreseeing this recently reported trend of an increasingly agnostic post-Christian America (and Europe), and have been sending missionaries back.

  • Arni Zachariassen

    What came to mind when reading his article (and when I read his original blog posts a couple of weeks ago) was how is this collapse any different from the growing secularism that we’ve experienced here in Europe for decades? Obviously different in the specific details, but generally it looks just the same: Lessening social and cultural control and influence, decline in church attendance and membership, drying up of funds and resources, growing apathy in the general public.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    I’ve understood myself as an evangelical for roughly 30 years, and I’ve reported on portions of this movement with some frequency.

    I’m fascinated that this movement, which Spencer’s essay describes as being so close to cultural and theological chaos, still has the energy to publish documents like the self-critical Evangelical Manifesto or the doctrinally precise NAE Statement of Faith.

    That scores of self-described evangelicals have not heard of either document neither surprises nor worries me. A parachurch movement cannot be more uniform than millennia-old and noble communions such as Catholicism, which struggle with theological confusion among both clergy and laity.

  • FW Ken

    It’s been close to 30 years since I’ve understood myself as an evangelical, at least in the denominational (or non-denominational) sense. So I have to ask:

    “postevangelical reformation Christian in search of a Jesus-shaped spirituality,

    Do evangelicals actually talk like that these days?

    I’m don’t mean to be unkind, especially since it’s not by tribe, but it does seem that a certain sort of evangelical makes an effort to differentiate from the herd, the great unwashed of the megachurches, and that impulse is not ao different from the attitude which has engendered “theological confusion” (a charitable construction) among my own tribe.

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  • H. E. Baber

    There will always be ecclesiolae in ecclesia: the Gnostic spiritual elite amongst the hearers, religious orders, serious evangelicals in the mega-church audience and committed Catholics amongst culture-Catholics. What’s changing is the style and extent of the culture-religion that surrounds and supports the ecclesiolae.

  • Scott Spiewak

    Fascinating discussion. Being a PR practicioner in many of these circles the essay has in my opinion made some very good points. So many folks right now are searching for truth and really are struggling to find it in organized religion right now. No matter what the form.

    Love the comments about missionaries needing to come from Africa and Asia to America.

    American Christianity needs a fresh perspective on reality these days.

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  • hcat

    The T–shirt in the picture represents the 2004 election, not the ’08 one, in which “Evangelicals for Obama” began to figure more prominently. But I remember the graphic from ’04-’05, and at that time I wanted to call the southern part “Jesusland” and the northern-western part “Santa Claus Land.”

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