The folks at Internet Monk are revisiting a prediction made by the site’s late founder, Michael Spencer.
It’s been five years since Spencer wrote of “The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” outlining what he foresaw/guessed/dreaded would begin during the next 10 years. Spencer anticipated that this collapse would “happen with astonishing statistical speed,” leading to a more secular culture “that will be between 25-30 percent non-religious.”
At the time, Spencer seemed to be making a pretty audacious claim. But just a few years later, a 2012 Pew Research Center study on religious affiliation sparked a mini-panic when it found “‘Nones’ on the Rise“:
The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.
In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15 percent to just under 20 percent of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6 percent of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14 percent).
The trend seems to have turned in just the direction that Spencer predicted. Pew’s study and other polling also seems to confirm part of what Spencer suggested would be the cause of this increase in non-religious affiliation. Here’s his first point under the heading “Why Is This Going to Happen?”:
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 (yes, that’s what I said) 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.
Spencer, who died in 2010, wasn’t necessarily arguing that (white) evangelicals were wrong to oppose marriage equality and legal abortion. He was, rather, arguing that white evangelicalism had made those culture-war “stances” the core of their identity and their faith, supplanting any understanding of the Gospel itself.
Re-reading Spencer’s original series predicting this “collapse,” I was struck, too, by the prescience of this bit, from his second post, “What Will Be Left?“:
The Southern Baptist Convention will experience dramatic losses in the numbers of churches in the next 25 years. By 2050, the SBC will have half the number of churches it has today. (Who knows how many members it will report.) The SBC will become “exhibit A” for the problems of evangelicalism, with fragmentation appearing everywhere and a loss of coherence on many fronts.
This is another part of Spencer’s prediction that seems more likely today than it seemed back in 2009.
In 2009, observers were worrying that the SBC’s membership had “peaked” or “plateaued.” Five years later, it seems that talk of a “plateau” was wishful thinking.