Hey all you party people.
So there’s this guy named Michael Spencer in Kentucky living in a “Christian community.” He runs a really great blog called Internet Monk. And he just wrote a piece for The Christian Science Monitor predicting a major collapse of Evangelical Christianity over the next ten years. Some of his predictions will likely happen, while others are a bit more far-fetched. In any case, it will be interesting to see how this plays out. But the best thing about Spencer’s article is how well he identifies much of the malaise that is affecting evangelicalism. (A note on terms. People are always mixing up “evangelicalism” and “evangelism.” Evangelicalism is a type of Christianity with roots in the Protestant Reformation and heavily influenced by the Pietist movement in 16th century Germany. Evangelism is when you try to convert someone to Christianity. Both words come from the Greek word “evangelios,” which we translate as “gospel,” and simply means good news.)
Here’s one of Spencer’s prescient observations:
We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a 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.
What he’s saying is that a Christianity based on protecting kids from “evil” culture is one rooted in fear–not freedom. Ultimately, the parallel universe that is the Christian subculture has produced people who don’t know much about theology or Scripture. They just know what they are “supposed” to believe (morally and politically) and “supposed” to like (Christian books and movies and art). They are not able to address the question that so-called “secular” media is asking–indeed, screaming–through TV, music, books, and film. Namely, how can God be for me when all I see is suffering?
Here’s another one of Spencer’s predictions (I think this one will come true):
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.
Here Spencer is referring to a popular (but possibly already fading) movement among disaffected evangelicals to renew the church. The emerging church takes its theological cue primarily from so-hot-right-now English bishop and scholar N.T. Wright (Don’t believe me? See Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolgers, Emerging Churches, 53-54, 59, and elsewhere). The movement is an attempt to make church “missional” and “relevant.” While it has some good impulses and intentions, in many of its local manifestations it is mostly about being “cool” and “edgy,” creating a hodge-podge of various liturgies, with little content or structure. The largest failing of the emerging church is its re-definition of the gospel that ultimately waters down the message. Here’s what one emerging church leader said: “The gospel is that God wants you to help solve [the world's] problem, to participate with God…” (emerging leader Joel McClure in Gibbs, p. 56). Gibbs notes that the emerging church is focused on the “gospel of the kingdom,” not the “gospel of salvation” (91). The idea is that the good news is that we get to “cooperate” with God in fixing the world. This might be good news if you have your life together, but for sufferers, it comes off flat, if not cruel. The Gospel gets so big, it means nothing to actual people who need a Savior. Thus, I think think Spencer is right. With all the emphasis in the emerging church on doing things with God (which almost always becomes, in the human heart, a doing of things for God), Spencer is right to predict that the emerging church will go the way of the Episcopal church: liberal theology, lots of do-gooding, and empty churches.
Finally, here’s another of Spencer’s probably-true predictions:
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, responsible leadership, and a reemergence of orthodoxy.
Good luck. Spencer is right to be worried. Almost all current “praise and worship” music in evangelical churches comes out of this movement. Example: Hillsong in Australia, a megachurch with a global music publishing arm. Hillsong packs Christian bookstores with their CDs and provides the music at most contemporary services across the world. Hillsong, in the opinion of some who have visited their megachurch and written about it, is, theologically speaking, a mile wide and an inch deep, full of narcissistic feel-good navel-gazing. It’s “power of positive thinking” stuff, with no sin, no cross, no savior. Some Australian evangelicals attended a Hillsong conference and wrote that, instead of hearing the Gospel, “we found ourselves being beckoned down a broader and far more awesome road; a road paved with promises of blessing and divine purpose; a road with inspiring tour-guides, thousands of warm and enthusiastic fellow-travellers, and a soundtrack to die for.”
So what to do?
The temptation here is to think we need to pile on more Law–” Let’s make Christianity really hard!”(Spencer doesn’t do that explcitly, but some of his words point in that direction.) More Law (or at least, Law improperly understood) is never the answer, so I get nervous when people want to return to what is sometimes called a more “muscular” Christianity. I’m OK with muscles as long as they belong to Jesus. Muscular Christianity can sometimes be legalism in disguise, an appeal to the “Old Adam” who wants a role to play in salvation. The idea that Jesus does everything and we do nothing does strike a blow to one’s pride.
The author ends on a slightly hopeful note, quoting some other wise observer: “Christianity loves a crumbling empire.”
There is hope, he says, for building something new and good in the ruins of “the vacuity of evangelicalism.” If he’s right, and the evangelical world as we know it crumbles, I hope Christians can get out of the judgment business and back to the “old, old story”: Jesus Christ came not to call the righteous, but sinners.