First appearing on his blog, The Internet Monk, and then in The Christian Science Monitor, Michael Spencer has generated a lot of commentary on his article “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.”  I have to say, sadly, that I concur with his evaluation of the situation, and I generally agree with his reasoning.  I’ve seen much of the evidence he puts forth myself.

For most of the past thirty years, I have worked in the field of Christian education.  For close to half of that time, I served churches as a youth pastor and discipleship minister, and for a little over half of it, I served as a faculty member, department chairman, coach and administrator in Christian schools.  It has only been in the last three years or so that I have worked in discipleship ministry in a broader sense, including adults.  I’ve seen many of the things to which Spencer refers in his article take place right in front of me.

 As much as any single cause mentioned, the fact that we have not laid a solid foundation for our youth and young adults in the church is most definitely a leading factor in what has transpired, and with regard to what we will face down the road.  Anyone who has attempted to make a serious effort to disciple the youth through a church-based youth ministry has encountered both resistance to depth, and to the kinds of Bible study that would help those involved prepare for the challenges to their faith that they are going to face down the road.  Parents and church leaders, concerned about keeping young people “engaged,” and about competition that comes from larger congregations who offer a smorgasbord of activity to attract teenagers, want to see a high level of fellowship and fun, and less of the “heavy stuff,” as it was once put to me.  When I served as chairman of the Bible department at a relatively large, affluent Christian school, at least one administrator noted that my classes were “awfully heavy” with regard to things like apologetics and theology, and somewhat “light” on the fun and relational activity.  I took that as a compliment, along with dozens of letters, emails, calls and cards, along with three nominations to Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers, later on from both former students and parents thanking me for taking exactly that approach, and for the awareness they took to college with them. 

So I concur, and wholeheartedly agree that one of the major factors contributing to the decline of evangelical Christianity is that we have not given our youth the necessary spiritual and intellectual foundation they have required for effective, enduring faith. The major problem with the educational system that has developed in evangelical Christianity is not the “success” it has enjoyed, at least in terms of growth and development.  But, as Spencer noted, “Evangelicalism has used its educational system primarily to staff its own needs and talk to itself. ”  This includes not only higher education and the seminaries and theological schools, but also the rather extensive system of grade schools, middle schools and high schools that have come on the scene.  The problem with this form of evangelical, “Kingdom education” is that it is tuition driven, and therefore unavailable to most of those in the “Kingdom.”  It has also had a very difficult time actually separating itself from the public education system, still relying, in many cases, on state standards of achievement, teacher certification programs and secular accreditation, all of which have substantially weakened its effectiveness.  But that’s another subject.

There are a couple of things in this article which caught my attention.  First, the fact that Charismatics and Pentecostals will predictably move into a leading role in evangelical Christianity in America is not surprising.  Though these two groups are often plagued with doctrinal difficulties and problems in churches, it is the energy and spirit which they bring to their worship that has proven to be an effective avenue of assimilation for people.  The fact is that they are very oriented toward receiving the Holy Spirit through their worship, it is not a spectator venue, and as a result, they experience spiritual transformation in worship.  I know a lot of my fellow Baptists who could benefit tremendously from that kind of experience. 

Second, the thought that America now needs the missionary efforts of people from countries in Asia and Africa is also a fascinating concept.  This also deals with the energy and movement of the Holy Spirit, and the vibrance and power of a faith that is brought to the table by people who have had to face much more in the way of persecution and hardship to practice it than we have in America.  In a large urban area, I frequently encounter Christians from African or Asian ethnic backgrounds, and the faith they practice, along with the worship in their churches, is energetic and alive.  There is a large, hispanic, Spanish-speaking congregation about a mile and a half from where my church sits, and I noticed while passing there last Sunday on the way to home group that the parking lot, and surrounding streets, were packed with cars.  This is a very low key building, a former Kroger store converted into sanctuary and educational space, yet it is likely the single largest church in our whole area. 

We’ve done this to ourselves, but perhaps, without the benefits of being the favored faith, and depending on cultural acknowledgement, the collapse of evangelical Christianity will be a sort of threshing of the church in America in which the chaff is blown away, and we can get about the business of being the body of Christ. 


About LS

I'm 56, happily married for 25 years, B.A., M.A., career educator with experience in education as a teacher and administrator, native Arizonan living in Pennsylvania, working on a PhD and a big fan of the Arizona Wildcats, mainly in football and basketball.

5 responses

  1. Jack Matthews says:

    Pretty insightful stuff for a guy from Kentucky!

    The shuffling of the membership of churches from smaller, neighborhood churches into the gigantic megachurch culture that is consumer driven has done two things. One, by gathering in larger and larger groups, it has taken the church away from its New Testament roots and turned it into something it was never intended to be, with semi-celebrity preachers being the drawing card, and entertaiment being the value by which it is measured. Two, fewer people are actually involved in ministry, and it touches far fewer lost people than it would if those smaller churches were still there. A few megachurches have at least admitted that in spite of having their pews filled up, they have not seen much in the way of spiritual growth among their membership. There is no way they can be the church that Jesus intended, or that is described in the New Testament because there are too many people sitting around sucking up the resources, and too few people out actually involved in ministry. Some have realized this too late to do much about it, while others are still caught up in it, and will never shake loose.

  2. Robert Revier says:

    just borrowed your post and the comment to share with key members here at Shadow Hills in Lubbock, Tx.

  3. Colby Evans says:

    This is a great article. Too bad it is a wake up call that came too late. The problem is that there hasn’t really been a return to the Biblical basis for a church in most cases, there has simply been either complete ignorance of the need for change, the continued pushing of the current system by those who benefit the most from it, and name calling and accusations of doctrinal error and theological apostasy against those who are trying to make a difference. The fallout from all of what is going on is the loss of a significant portion of the baby boomer generation, and the almost complete loss of everyone younger than that.

    Last year, I went to one of Willow Creek’s “Reveal” conferences, related to their discovery of the fact that church attendance and activity, and a growth in their overall attendance was not producing spiritual growth in their membership. Duh. Today’s megachurches are all centered on the celebrity status of the preacher, and one look at their facilities will tell you this. That isn’t what Jesus intended, nor is it the model we see in the New Testament. It may take a collapse, and the deflating of some celebrity preacher egos for the American church to get back to Biblical Christianity and a Biblical church.

  4. K Gray says:

    I think the author says what many believe instinctively. But our various fears and man-made traditions grab the steering wheel.

    When John Paul II became Pope, he strode onto the stage and said first, “Don’t be afraid!”

    He was onto something.

  5. Jerald says:

    I agree that there are issues with the “depth” of discipling of our youth but I wouldn’t just lay that on the church they attend or the school, Christian or secular. I’d lay that problem right where it should be laid – right at the feet of the parents. Then we have something to talk about when it comes to discipling the parents so that they will want to take it home and make what they’ve learned a family lifestyle.
    I’m glad you’re talking about this. It’s important!