I’m not a Prophet or a Prophet’s Son. I can’t see the future. I’m usually wrong. I’m known for over-reacting. I have no statistics. You probably shouldn’t read this. The “Gracious God” post depressed me.
Part 1: The Coming Evangelical Collapse, and Why It Is Going to Happen
Part 2: What Will Be Left When Evangelicalism Collapses?
Part 3: Is This A Good Thing?
I believe that 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 that 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.”
The party is almost over for evangelicals; a party that’s been going strong since the beginning of the “Protestant” 20th century. We are soon going to be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century in a culture that will be between 25-30% non-religious.
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. Christian schools will go into rapid decline. 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.
My prediction has nothing to do with a loss of eschatological optimism. Far from it. I’m convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But I am not optimistic about evangelicalism, and I do not believe any of the apparently lively forms of evangelicalism today are going to be the answer. In fact, one dimension of this collapse, as I will deal with in the next post, is the bizarre scenario of what will remain when evangelicals have gone into decline.
I fully expect that my children, before they are 40, will see evangelicalism at far less than half its current size and rapidly declining. They will see a very, very different culture as far as evangelicalism is concerned.
I hope someone is going to start preparing for what is going to be an evangelical dark age.
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 (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.
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 of 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 that 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. And they will be replaced by an evangelical landscape that will be chaotic and largely irrelevant.
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.
Next: What Will Be Left?
I Monk: I used to be optimistic on those fronts (Asia & African evangelicalism), but missionaries who have been there and many others have convinced that the exported problems of evangelicalism- especially the Prosperity Gospel and poor teaching- are polluting these evangelical advances….. the prosperity cancer is deeply affecting Africa. And its our fault.
Mr Pages: “It’s difficult for someone to see the truth when their salary depends on them not seeing it.”
Mark Sayers: the United States tends to be slightly behind other Western countries in terms of the march towards secularism. The suprising thing is that in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom, for the last 20 years experts have been predicting the continued decline of evangelicalism. The interesting thing is that there has been in some cases a small amount of growth or plateauing, whilst this is not evidence of a huge turn around the old girl still has life in her yet.
Roger: How much of evangelicalism has really collapsed already, leaving a shell and only the appearance of vibrancy? I think that the death of evangelicalism is well underway. Some benefits? Some of the current idols of evangelicalism will be shown up as the bankrupt substitutes for the real gospel that they are. This lesson won’t come cheap for those disillusioned, cynical souls who abandon Christianity wholesale because of them. Of course, the death of evangelicalism will not mean the death of Christianity. But it will signal a bleak time for serious Christians none-the-less, much as our present situation is bleak.
Paul: I stumbled across this article and found it incredibly interesting. I’m not someone who has any faith – I don’t believe in god and I have never been part of any religion. As someone from the other side, so to speak, I found what you’re saying very perceptive and accurate. I have friends who are evangelical and, as they struggle to maintain a friendship despite our differences (as I do too), it’s issues such as those you mention (anti-gay, pro-life etc) that constantly separate us.
Chip Morton: What this article talks about is exactly what Reggie McNeal talks about in “The Present Future”, which begins, “The current church culture in North America is on life support. It is living off the work, money, and energy of previous generations from a previous world order.”
I think the rabbit hole goes much deeper than we have already seen.
Evaneglicals are not good at talking to post-moderns, who are skeptical of anyone to thinks they know the absolute truth absolutely. Evangelicals (and I consider myself one) would drive seculars away a lot less quickly if they lightened up on the insistence that they know exactly the right answer to every issue (and that everything is their way or the highway). However, learning to engage the culture differently will require a different epistemology, pneumatology, and soteriology. Given how many evangelicals shout “Heretic!” the moment anyone tries doing anything different, there’s going to be a lot more pain before all these new “ologies” rise up form the ashes.