Monday, April 13, 2009

Collapsing Evangelicalism Redivivus

There have been some recent prognostications predicting the coming/actual decline of evangelicalism or Christianity in America. One was an article called "The Coming Evangelical Collapse" in the Christian Science Monitor, and then last week there was "The End of Christian America" in Newsweek. A group is getting together at the IWU Indy north campus tonight at 7 to chat a bit about what's up and how Christians might respond. I thought I would jot down some thoughts.

First, what's behind the decline? This is going to hurt, but I'm simply describing the situation in this first part. We can say it shouldn't be so, but this is where we are at.

1. More "bad" is associated with religion and evangelicalism than good.
We can all probably think of a few saints but we remember the slip ups better. And what's worse, we really remember those who are massively hypocritical. What good does Christianity have to show for itself, especially when its prevailing ethos is "I'm not perfect, just forgiven"? And it's most vocal advocates are often perceived to be very negative.

9-11 is just one example of religious zealotry in a climate where skeptics are more than happy to show those instances where religion has bred violence and oppression. These voices are very powerful right now and everywhere. Even among Christians we find a push to distance Jesus from Christianity and religion--a symptom of the broader trend.

2. Evangelical Christianity often looks stupid and wrong.
When the overwhelming and vast majority of those who know the evidence and are qualified to assess it come out with a certain conclusion, and Christians are just as lined up on the opposite side, well, regardless of the truth it doesn't look good. I am not qualified to weigh the evidence on topics like what's causing global warming or macro-evolution, but when the vast majority of those who are qualified don't even think the evidence is open for debate, I'm not going to look very smart to argue against them.

3. Ideas (alone) usually lose any fight with sexuality.
A recent grad student did a study of his former teens. He found that they tended to drop out of church after high school until they got married. The reason, I concluded (I'm not sure he followed his own evidence) was that the church couldn't compete with sexuality. So in the open sexuality of their early 20's, these kids just dropped out of church. Then when they had children and began to think about values, several returned.

Now there's a situation where the sexual conflict wins for a period, but marital faithfulness then can make the issue moot. Now consider those who are attracted to the same sex. Since there usually is never a point of resolution, the younger ones will tend simply to disappear from evangelical churches forever. They might join a church that accepts monogamous homosexuality. Most are currently on a trajectory to disappear from church for good, I suspect, although there may be many from older generations who have been silently among us for decades.

4. No perceived need for God or religion.
If we were in a war that we felt in our every day lives, if we were being invaded, indeed, if the economic crisis gets bad enough, then we might feel a need for a God to save us. When we face the ulimate, are losing a loved one to cancer, are searching for our lost child, then we might feel a need for a God to save us. But things have been going pretty well. Those in their late teens and early 20's were raised on the easy money and stuff that helped cause the economic collapse.

Every middle class kid has a car and a nice one too. Every middle class kid thinks they can be a star of some kind and be rich. Where does God fit into all this? Not needed (at least that's what they increasingly think). The church certainly isn't needed for social networking. I can text several hundred messages a day and do Facebook.

So, assuming that Christianity is still true, what's going to happen and what can/should we do about it?

1. Become very open, honest, and authentic about who we are and the way things are.
Those forms of Christianity that are going to be most successful in the days to come will be those that take an "influence" approach to transforming others rather than the "frontal assault" approach that has so predominated the evangelical scene these last few decades. We're going to have to invite rather than compel. We'll have to trust God to do the rest.

It is of course possible that the form of evangelical Christianity that helped elect Bush will return to power again some day. But most of the signs are that it is decisively disempowered. That doesn't mean its ideas were wrong, although I personally believe much of them were. But it is now disempowered. When you aren't as strong as the person you are arm wrestling, the answer isn't push harder. You have to rethink your strategy. So the days of trying to force Christian values on America are probably over for the foreseeable future. We're going to have to do some wooing now (which I think would have been more effective and less counter-productive in the first place).

This doesn't mean hiding or not sharing what we believe. It means sharing in a way that does not alienate. It means making judgments without being judgmental. It's all about tone. Am I having a reasoned conversation with a smile, disagreeing without a tone of condemnation and rejection? Can I disagree agreeably? Can I model tolerance while affirming conviction? These conversations may take place deeper and deeper in the church, where we have often sequestered ourselves from outsiders who believe outlandish things.

And then I'll have to leave it to God. If I really believe in God, then my goal is not to "win" the debate but to be faithful to the One I believe myself to represent. My goal is to represent my convictions in a spirit of generosity with a warm heart.

2. Be a Christian.
And that means you will do Christian things. While "missional" is all the buzz right now, if by it we mean that we actually take our Christianity into the world for the better, that's what it's always supposed to be about. Are we helping those who need helped? Are our lives changed? Are we better people? Are we nicer people?

If Christianity doesn't actually change people's lives and the lives of those around us, it's worthless. Let it die. The New Testament knows nothing of this kind of "do nothing" Christianity. Good riddance. The NT teaches that the Spirit empowers people to do things they couldn't have done otherwise. That means power over evil. That means miracles. Those forms of Christianity where "stuff's happening" will survive--and I mean authentic stuff, not hype.

3. Reach for the deep.
One failing of evangelical Christianity is that it has done away with symbol and ritual. Ideas really aren't very forceful in themselves. They have to get connected with something else to have any power at all. Teaching of a cognitive sort--which so often seems to be the answer people suggest--is pretty impotent. Expect for the more cognitive and less life oriented forms of Christianity to decline in the days to come.

Values are sub-cognitive--at least the ones that really count, the ones we fight for. Those groups that get people to fight for ideas really aren't getting people to fight for ideas. There are deeper things going on under the surface. That means the best place to instill them is when a person is a child, before they can think. If you've waited till they're in middle school, it's almost too late, really.

So much of Protestantism has impoverished itself by doing away with sacrament and the sacred. A person who has long since stopped believing with their head may still find themselves moved by the symbols of childhood catholicism. The ancient-future movement tries to reach back into the past on its way forward. What is the teaching of a lone, renegade small group against 2000 years of common faith? What is a bunch of words against something I can touch, taste, and smell? Answer: nothing.

We would do well to renew the ancient symbols and rituals, as well as to create new ones that are meaningful to our local congregations and youth groups.

4. Brainstorm with the experts, without necessarily committing to them.
Again, I'm not qualified to evaluate evolution, but it looks like I'm going to have to deal with it. Yes, I can poke a little fun from the sidelines at those who think they have the world all figured out. We know that paradigms can change and change fundamentally. Where today are the ones who mock the thought of splitting an atom? Where are the Newtonian physicists of the late 1800s to tell us how set in stone the laws of physics are?

But those forms of Christianity that will have the most impact will strategize with the scientists. What if they're right? Is evolution so fundamentally opposed to Christianity that the one must be false if the other is true? Maybe it is and maybe it isn't. Do I really know for sure? We absolutely do not want to tie the Christian wagon to a cultural trend or a phase of history, but it's hard to see how we can't strategize when a paradigm is so prevailing.

Is God in control or isn't He? I believe we are being forced to let go of certainty on some of these things and hang loose. If you're a Christian biologist and think you can dethrone evolution, go for it. The rest of us who got C's in biology should probably be quiet and let God take care of it. Do we really believe He is in control or not? Why do we behave as if nothing will happen if we don't do it?

5. Christian sexual ethics may change.
This one is hard, but I'm playing the role of prognosticator. I'm not advocating change here. I'm saying that this may be where it is headed no matter what we do or do not do. Our grandchildren, assuming they are still Christian, may have different rules about sexual ethics than we have considered the baseline of Christian practice. There will come a time when we are no longer calling the shots, and then all we'll be able to do is pray for them and leave it in God's hands. Why is God allowing such change? I don't know, but we may have to live with it. We'll see.

The common theme I see running throughout this post is disempowerment. How should we as Christians live, not when our ideas have changed, but when we have no power to change those around us? The ironic answer is that we never really had the power to change those around us where it really counts in the first place. Changes of heart are God's business.

Certainly I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't try to change the world for the better. God changes the world through people. But forcing a person to change outwardly does not at all mean they have changed inwardly, and that's the change God most wants. Indeed, forcing a person to change outwardly often changes them in the wrong direction inwardly.

These are my attempts to come to grips with where we are at in American Christianity, what we can and should do, and what we are forced to do. What I see is that, in some respects, we are being brought to where we should have been all along--needing to influence the world rather than conquer it. In some respects, therefore, we have this coming because we have used our moment of power foolishly.

What do you think?


andrewbourne said...

An old saint said `you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar` Apply

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Very wise words!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I do think that evolution does change everything, as to one's understanding of Christianity. How can one believe in god? as god has to be re-defined. There have been ways of re-defining god based on different scientific theories...but , understanding that models of reality are what we all work with when we "talk" or "think" about "god" would help many Christians to be more tolerant to those who differ....and then social issues don't become thought of in such black and white terms...which is a good thing..

But, some Chrisians would think that this undermines "the gospel" which it cannot talk about a personal god, and even previous understandings of science, such s "cause and effect" are complicated by 'new scientific theories about how the world "works"....and what does this mean metaphysically?

Ken Schenck said...

Evolution without some sort of Fall does seem to prompt some rethinking. But I know of some Christian evolutionists who still believe in a Fall of sorts, whether of Satan or the first homo sapiens (Adam). It probably requires Arminians to rethink God more than Calvinists, because it might require (some rethinking about the nature of good and evil. We probably would not be able to consider any animal processes, death, predators, extinction, etc. evil, for example, including earthquakes, volcanos, and so forth.

I regret to say that I don't have easy answers to these sorts of questions. I can say that there are much smarter people than I who have been thinking about these things for a long time (few of whom I've read, I'm afraid to say).

And of course it may turn out that things are much different than most scientists now think on this topic, in some way they cannot possibly imagine now.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I think the best way to "use" the science/religion debate is not by absolutizing a speicific scientific theory, but understanding different theories, and knowing that they each "work" in different spheres of "understanding", and sometimes different theories can apply to the same phenomena, it is just a matter of what one is looking for...
Then, one can with humility, understand that there is so much to understand...that we will "walk" with a little more humility when it comes to "knowing" truth....which is absolutely a necessary thing, as far as character....

Anonymous said...

Ken..This was a very good post. I have been thinking about this also as a pastor. All a called out community can do is follow & serve Christ and if we fall short, then I think God's power will clean up the mess or bring judgment. You can see it in the OT. I do not think it is our job at all to conquer the world, we are called to influence it and when we fail it is evidence that we have lost our saltiness. That I think is our biggest problem.

Ken Schenck said...

I take that as a high compliment indeed from you, Craig!

Jonathan Parsons said...

Speaking of younger people, I think part of the problem is general ignorance of the class of "religion" in general. Most of my students in philosophy class associate religion with an archaic, explanatory principle of the origin of the universe--meaning, that almost all of my students think that the only question religion deals with is "how did I and everything else that exists get here?" What is the result? My non-religious, or somewhat atheist students believe that "if evolution is true, then there are no divine beings of any sort." My religious students--whether Christian, Muslim or whatever--believe "if evolution is true, then there are no divine beings of any sort."
Even though both sets of students fall on different sides of the field, they both make the same faulty assumption: biological evolution in and of itself does not presuppose philosophical naturalism.

Jonathan Parsons said...

Oops . . . posted to early.
However, there is another area where my students all agree with one another, even though they fall on different sides. When I ask the question, "how many of you think that there is something wrong with the world?" every one of my students are raising there hands. It is that type of basic recognition that I think is conducive for reorienting young peoples' understanding of religion.

Bill said...

"In some respects, therefore, we have this coming because we have used our moment of power foolishly."

Do you mean the last 25 years of evangelical politics in the USA? Or do you mean the last 1700 years of christian denominational authority? It seems to me that either one applies just as well.

Good thoughts, Ken. Thanks.

John Mark said...

Another thoughtful but disturbing post. I hope the church is up the challenges we will face in this century. I fear we are not. I personally think we will face terrific opposition and pressure to conform to the culture, and this will not all be just backlash for our heavyhandedness (both real and perceived-I am of the opinion that the Christian Right has been in many cases simply motivated by a desire to preserve freedom rather than impose values).
Such pressure, if it comes, may serve to purify the church.

John Mark said...

As to changing sexual mores, Joel Belz of World points out that even Prop. 8 in Calif. only passed by a small margin, and that if Iowa (apparently he is/was a native) has embraced such sweeping social changes as we have seen this is a compelling argument that we are passe in many ways about it.

As a recovering Pharisee I am disturbed about where we seem to be headed, as a Christian I am praying that God will help me to love as he would have me to.

John Mark said...

Ken, apologies for multiple comments. You might want to check out GetReligion-Monday the 13th post on Dobson. A brief post which supports some of your opinions, I think......

Martin LaBar said...

Well said. I wish I could get pastors, or my friends in my local church to read this post.

As to evolution, the Bible doesn't say when, how, or where things began. It says very little about why. What it does say is Who began them. The issue with naturalism shouldn't be over whether the earth is 6,000 years old, or even over how and when humans began. It should be over whether or not there is purpose and plan in the way things are. There is no scientific evidence that will disprove (or prove) that there is purpose and plan in the universe, and, of course, in our lives. Our emphasis should be that there is, and that it matters eternally.

Thanks again.

Keith Drury said...

What a delightful strategy of response to the premature (and gleeful) reports of the demise of Cjristianity,... as Mark Twain once said of the mistaken news reports of his demise... "the reports of my death were greatly exaggerated."

Ken Schenck said...

April 21, 2009

The Miss USA pageant incident, where Miss California lost the crown because she opposed gay marriage, is a dot on the trajectory I suggested in this piece. The Miss USA judge on Larry King Live who asked the question considered it so obvious that her answer was wrong and unworthy of the best of America that he considered it beyond any debate that she should not be Miss U.S.A. His matter of factness and his non-chalant assumption that everybody knows this, was jarring in the face of the fact that the majority of Americans would almost certainly oppose it in a vote.

I am predicting (not advocating) that this is likely the position our Christian grandchildren will consider a no brainer and that teens in high school right now probably by and large are already on the same page as this judge. My hunch is that evangelical Christianity will go along with the prevailing American culture on this issue over the next few decades as the older generation dies off.

I plan to continue to post "dots" here over time as they either reinforce or detract from the overall predictions I made in the post above.