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.