The Death of Evangelicalism?

In early 2009, the late Michael Spencer (aka the Internet Monk, or iMonk) wrote an article entitled “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.” In this article, Spencer gave his assessment of the future of the evangelical movement. His forecast was not a pleasant one, especially for those who believe that evangelicalism is doing just fine. I tend to agree with most of Spencer’s reservations about the effectiveness of the movement in the years and decades to come, and like Spencer I also believe that this is a good and necessary thing. Movements, in general, serve a limited purpose and can be found scattered throughout the history of humankind. Like successful countercultures (for a very interesting book on this topic, get a copy of Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture), movements tend to move from the fringe to the center, only to be replaced—or at least modified—by a new movement coming in from the fringe. Simply put, evangelicalism is beginning to feel the strain of life at the center.

In order to understand how movements work, we must first recognize that every generation considers itself as the normative standard for everyone else. Kids judge their parents as ignorant and out of touch, parents judge their children as ignorant and out of touch, and both groups look at their grandparents as ignorant and out of touch. The grandparents and great-grandparents look on everyone else and wonder what is going on, because the whole world seems to be ignorant and out of touch. This is to be expected and should not come as a great revelation to anyone reading this. The conflict arises when any one generation, thinking it has all the answers, tries to force its way of doing and thinking on the entire population. While the Bible certainly extols wisdom and commands that we honor our elders, it does not limit wisdom to any particular age or generation.

I recently read an incredibly perceptive essay, written more than twenty years ago by Jacques Barzun, that helped to put much of this into clearer perspective for me. I will reprint some of it here, because I believe that knowing our place in history is of the utmost importance, because it can remind us to not jump to conclusions and make “generational judgments” about the way things should be. Barzun’s opening paragraph gets straight to the point:

Sooner or later, the sophisticated person who reads or hears that Western civilization is in decline reminds himself that to the living “the times” always seem bad. In most eras voices cry out against the visible decadence; for every generation—and especially for the aging—the world is going to the dogs. In 1493—note the date—a learned German named Schedel compiled and published with comments the Nuremberg Chronicle. It announced that the sixth of the seven ages was drawing to a close and it supplied several blank pages at the end of the book to record anything of importance that might occur in what was left of history. What was left, hiding around the corner, was the opening up of the New World and a few side effects of that inconsequential event. A glance at history, by showing that life continues and new energies may arise, is bound to inspire skepticism about the recurrent belief in decline. [1]

Barzun’s example of the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle should serve as a reminder that every generation has its moments of hopelessness and discouragement. Elijah had the same shortsightedness when he complained: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:10). When God reveals to Elijah that He has reserved 7000 in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Baal, Elijah begins to realize that the world does not hinge in him. God has a bigger plan, and Elijah is only a part of it. And so it is with us.

God has called us to obedience, not to a movement or a method, but to Him. While we may be very nostalgic and sentimental about what evangelicalism has accomplished, or the way it has come to be defined, we must always remember that the heart of evangelicalism is the evangel—the Gospel. The methods and means of delivering this Gospel will certainly look different to each generation, but we should never mistake the means for the end. If evangelicalism must die so that the Gospel can live, the choice should be an easy one.

Although we have come to view death as a bad thing—an unwelcome intruder that needs to be avoided at all costs—we must remember that death is as much a part of life as is birth. Humans have been dying since Adam and Eve sinned, but death touches all parts of the human condition. Plants die, animals die, our technology “dies” when it gets old and worn-out, even ideas and movements “die,” only to be replaced by something else. Death is a natural fact of this present life.

This does not mean, though, that we should be indifferent about death. Death is an end, a radical change that affects both the dying and the living, both positively and negatively. Without death, we could never see God face-to-face. Without death, we could never die to self and live for Christ. In fact, the apostle Paul tells us that sin was “dead” until the law came:

I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful. (Romans 7:9-13)

In Ephesians 2, Paul further writes that we were “dead in sins and trespasses,” which means that we were actually born dead. Life and death is a part of God’s economy, but we need to make sure that we have the proper view, i.e. the biblical view, of what this means.

Barzun seems to understand this. In the following passage from his essay, he gives an important assessment of the way movements, ideas, and cultures in general are constantly living and dying:

Sophistication—and skepticism—should go a step further and ask why that same phenomenon recurs; in other words, the historical-minded should look into the meaning and cause of the undying conviction of decline. One cause, one meaning, is surely that in every era some things are in fact dying out and the elderly are good witness to this demise. Manners, styles of art and politics, assumptions about the aim of life or the nature of man and the universe change as inevitably as fashions in dress; and just as no one could deny that men’s stiff collars two inches high have vanished into the attic of history, so no one should deny that less tangible entities—say, the idea of “a man of honor”—have vanished too. The very words look quaint and evoke no answering emotion. What is involved here is the vivid faith and the cultural form, not the underlying reality that there are always honest and dishonest men. If such faiths and forms are considered good by a generation that grew up to value them, that generation will experience at their passing a legitimate feeling of loss.

The very notion of change, of which the twentieth century makes such a weapon in the advocacy of every scheme, implies the notion of loss; for in society as in individual life many desirable things are incompatible—to say nothing of the fact that the heedlessness or violence with which change takes place brings about the incidental destruction of other useful attitudes and institutions. Right now for example, one can ask whether all over the world the idea of a university has not been battered without hope of recovery for a long time. This impression, if correct, has nothing to do with the merits of the cause that produced the attack: the historian notes results in the way an insurance assessor notes a broken shopfront. [2]

Barzun goes on to apply this “notion of loss” to civilizations that have perished, namely Greece and Rome, but our focus is not quite so broad. Although many evangelicals believe that the death—or radical restructuring—of evangelicalism may very well be the beginning of the end of western civilization, we are not making that leap here. That evangelicalism is changing is beyond dispute, the real question is (or should be): “What is it changing into?”

While many have been wondering lately about how we “do” church—so much so that it has become a cliché—the question itself remains valid. The evangelicalism which we inherited from our spiritual forefathers operated a certain way because of where and when it was active. The evangelicalism of 100 years ago assumed a familiarity with the Scriptures, even by non-believers, which provided a common understanding between those in the church and those outside of it. That common understanding is now gone. The Bible has become a bookshelf ornament for most people—whether churched or unchurched. The Bible is no longer even taught as literature, so any sort of knowledge of its contents cannot be taken for granted.

This disconnect is one of the primary reasons that evangelicalism is currently struggling to find a place in the culture. Even though he is discussing this phenomenon at the level of whole civilizations, Barzun’s observations are still applicable to the lower levels:

One must recall…that entire civilizations do perish. The tremendous endings of Greece and Rome are not a myth. True, life somehow continues after the fall, but it is that very “somehow” which tells us that something above mere existence has disappeared. That something is what we call civilization. It is an expression of collective life cast in determinate ways, an expression that includes power, “growth,” a joyous or grim self-confidence, and other obvious signs of a going concern. But it consists also of tacit individual faith in certain ideals and ways of life, seconded by a general faith in the rightness of the scheme. It follows that widespread disbelief in those intangibles, and the habits they produce in day-to-day existence, brings on the dissolution of the whole.

The only question then is: How deep goes the disbelief? For history shows both big and little decadences. Decadence means “falling off,” and it is possible for a civilization to experience a lesser fall from trust in its own ways without wrecking the entire fabric. The passage from what we call the High Middle Ages to the Renaissance and Reformation was one such falling away and new beginning. The time just before the French Revolution was another. At these moments—roughly the end of the fourteenth century and the end of the eighteenth century—Europe saw old institutions crumble, long-accepted thoughts dissolve, feelings fade away, and new ones take their place. [3]

Barzun’s words should remind us that the church has always played a part in every civilization where it was present. This is a remarkable thought. The Church has survived, even flourished, in its 2000-year history of cultural change. Many times it was the church itself that helped to effect change, which is as it should be, but there were also many times where the church itself was being changed. The question of asking whether evangelicalism will survive is wrong-headed. The Gospel, the “evangel,” will always survive; it is the “ism” part where we must focus our efforts. If the “ism” isn’t communicating the “evangel,” the problem lies with the method, not with the message. Nathan O. Hatch has observed that “evangelicals tend to measure the importance of an issue by its popular reception. By this logic, any position worth its salt will command a significant following. A best-seller by definition becomes a ‘classic’; to be read is to deserve to be read.” [4]

Barzun continues:

The old system comes to what looks like a halt, during which all the familiar things seem empty or wrong. Despair, indifference, the obsession with cruelty and death, the Samson complex of wanting to bring down the whole edifice on one’s head and the heads of its retarded upholders—those passions seize the souls of the young generations and turn them into violent agents of change, or disabused skeptics and cynics. From both the activists and the negators come the new ideas and ideals which permit the march of civilization to continue. But it can also happen that not enough new ideas, no vitalizing hopes, emerge, and civilization falls apart in growing disorder, mounting frustration, and brainless destruction. [5]

It is nothing short of ironic that the very institution that holds the answers to society’s sickness is finding itself ill-equipped to handle the situation. In a culture where the idea of absolute truth has been abandoned as a relic from the modernistic past, the church stands by wondering how to communicate with the culture on its own terms. Absolute truth cannot be watered down into relative terms. Living water can only quench those who know they are thirsty. The methods and ideas which have come to characterize evangelicalism in the last 20-30 years have not succeeded in the Great Commission task of making disciples. While they may have been successful in filling up big buildings with lots of people on Sunday mornings, these pew-fillers have not yet begun to register a change within their own communities and cultures. The church must stay focused on its message of absolute and sovereign truth, and not allow numbers to dictate what its methods should be. “A society that cultivates commonness, that is suspicious of genius, that has more esteem for the entrepreneur who caters to the tastes of the many than the visionary who challenges the spirits of the few—such a society is always in danger of defining worth in terms of immediate demand rather than eternal significance.” [6] Remember it took only two—Paul and Silas—to be accused of “turning the whole world upside down” with their preaching and teaching of the Gospel (Acts 17:1-9). Numbers and methods are not important, obedience to the message is what counts. The “evangel” will effect the change, not the “isms.”

Notes:
[1] Jacques Barzun, “Toward the Twenty-First Century,” The Culture We Deserve (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), 161.
[2] Barzun, “Toward the Twenty-First Century,” 161-162.
[3] Barzun, “Toward the Twenty-First Century,” 162-163.
[4] Kenneth A. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1989), 22.
[5] Barzun, “Toward the Twenty-First Century,” 163.
[6] Myers, All God’s Children, 22-23.

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