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The coming Evangelical collapse?

31 January 2009

The blog “Dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness” by “Internet Monk” has an interesting series of three articles on the future of Christianity, focusing on the prediction of an Evangelical collapse.Hat-tip to Cobus of MyContemplations for the links.

You may find the articles here:

Part 1: The coming evangelical collapse.
Part 2: What will be left?
Par 3: Is it good or bad?

I think Internet Monk is thinking mainly of North America, and I have little firsthand experience of the Christian scene there, but from what I’ve gathered from various sources, I think his prediction in the first part is pretty accurate. It’s an extrapolation of what is already happening.

Outside North America, things are somewhat different.

In Britain, for example, Evangelicals have not generally aligned themselves with right-wing politics, whereas many American Evangelicals seem to have done so, self-consciously and deliberately, with only a minority bucking the trend.

Another problem, especially in the second and third parts, is that Internet Monk appears to conflate Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, Calvinism and Pentecostalism under the general label of “Evangelical”.

Perhaps there has been a historical trend for these to amalgamate, especially in North America, but in the past they often seemed to be quite distinct and were often at loggerheads with one another. And if they have tended to amalgamate, has it been under the general heading of the “religious right”. rather than any distinctive Christian doctrine? Are they now all Premillennial Dispensationalists, for example? Has that particular eschatology become standard among American Evangelicals, so that it can be said to be a doctrinal distinctive?

One reason that this interests me is that a couple of years ago I embarked on a research project to discover what had happened to the charismatic renewal movement in South Africa.

The project got bogged down because it has proved very difficult to find anyone willing to talk about it. In the 1970s the charismatic renewal movement was quite strong and influential among Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics (all traditionally non-Pentecostal bodies). I’m not sure whether it affected Methodists, Congregationalists and Lutherans because I’ve found no one from those denominations willing to talk about it. A few Anglicans were willing to talk, but not enough to form a representative sample.

But from what I have gathered so far I get the impression that the charismatic renewal movement was strong in in the South Africa in the 1970s, and began to disintegrate in the 1980s.

Among the reasons for its disintegration are factors mentioned or implied in Itnernet Monk’s articles.

One was the rise of the Prosperity Gospel teaching, another was the rise of the Religious Right in North America and a third was the rise of neopentecostal megachurches..

Since the charismatic movement was worldwide, South African groups arranged conferences, national, regional and local, which often had speakers from other countries, including North America. Video and audio tapes from these speakers were widely distributed, as were the books they wrote. People like Derek Prince, Bob Mumford, Michael Harper, Tom Smail, Terry Virgo, Don Bashham, Francis McNutt and many others became household names in South African charismatic circles.

In the 1980s the contradictory messages emanating from these sources began promoting division. The prosperity gospel and religious right messages emanating from North America became stronger. In South Africa those who believed them left their original denominations and joined neopentecostal megachurches that promoted them. And those who did not believe them often became disillusioned with the charismatic renewal movement, and suffered from “charismatic burnout”.

Those who were against it all along have written the charismatic renwal movement out of the church history of the 1970s and 1980s as if it had never existed, or have interpreted it in terms of later developments, and so distorted it.

Developments in American “Evangelicalism” have had effects in South Africa that people in North America have hardly imagined, and the same may apply to other places as well.

The Internet Monk also predicts that some post-evangelicals will drift to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, leading to the “evangelicalisation” of these bodies. Again, at least among the Orthodox, this is happening, in two ways, one good, another not so good.

Evangelicals who have become Orthodox are often in a better position to explain Orthodoxy to Evangelicals, and Evangelicalism to the Orthodox. But some evangelical converts to Orthodoxy tend to become “superOrthodox”, with an aggressive in-your-face attitude both to their fellow-Orthodox and their former friends who have remained in the Evangelical camp.

I think Internet Monk has also underestimated the growth of Orthodoxy in Russia and other Eastern European countries, which, while it has not yet reached its pre-Bolshevik proportions, is at least halfway there. Russia has the largest Orthodox population in the world, and with a new patriarch who has travelled widely, is likely to become increasingly influential in world Orthodoxy.

So even though Internet Monk’s analysis is mainly confined to North America, I’d be interested to know what others think of this.

Do people in North America think the analysis is accurate?

And what do those in other places think that the effect of American “Evangelicalism” has been in their part of the world, and how will its collapse affect them — if, of course, the predicted collapse comes to pass?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. 31 January 2009 1:38 pm

    Yes, the North American definition of evangelicalism tends to be applied generically. Yet evangelicalism elsewhere is not, I think, the one-dimensional thing it tends to be portrayed as in North America. It may be dysfunctional there, but I’m not convinced it is elsewhere.

  2. 2 February 2009 9:01 am

    I think the analysis is correct for the United States. Here, Evangelicalism has (IMO) severed its Christian roots and become a separate religion, focused mostly on cultural and political issues and on providing a range of social activities so church members don’t have to interact with people of “the world”. Most large Evangelical churches have both a coffee shop and a bookstore in the lobby, providing plenty of opportunity for members to spend their money on something other than mission. Worship consists of singing a few songs, then listening to a lengthy sermon which is usually part of a culturally-centered sermon series.

    I grew up in a mainline Protestant denomination, and my wife grew up attending a Bible church. We’ve learned to compromise by alternating weeks at each other’s church. When we moved to a new city a couple years ago, I was able to find a church in my denomination fairly quickly, but she has still not found a Bible church. The vast majority of Evangelical churches are more concerned about being a social club than about reading the Bible.

    In the rest of the world, I’m sure it’s different. I read the blogs of some British Evangelicals, and they seem to be regular Christians who happen to have an emphasis on evangelism.

  3. 2 February 2009 9:18 am

    One other thing: I think the growing secularism in the U.S. is a direct result of American Evangelicalism’s rise. American Evangelicals emphasize the doctrinal side of faith, sometimes reducing Christianity to nothing more than a checklist of beliefs. I often get the feeling in Evangelical churches that there is no recognition or acknowledgement of mystery. Combine that with the political and cultural activism of the last 20-30 years, and it’s easy to see how the younger generation might find nothing worthwhile in the Evangelical church.

  4. 2 February 2009 10:14 am

    Bruce,

    The point about secularism seems to fit in with my obervations in a previous post Notes from underground: Christianity, paganism and literature (synchroblog).

    It seems to have led to aggressive attitudes all round, and culture wars.

  5. 3 February 2009 9:42 am

    If you follow the comments of the Brits and Aussies that dropped into iMonk I think you’ll find we were more ambivalent towards his prophecy and accompanying analysis than his compatriots, at least in terms of global applicability to evangelicalism outside of America.

    And even in terms of America, methinks he should read Philip Jenkins and consider feedback loops via immigration from Central and South America played out over a decade or two. Maybe white-is-right evangelicalism is under threat over there but I wonder what a black or latino iMonk would say. I also got the impression he had insufficient appreciation that secularization does not equal despiritualization. Atheists have a loooong way to go before they’re a majority, even in as secular a nation as Australia. Don’t see the Americans crossing that Atheist-majority boundary ahead of us any time in the foreseeable future.

  6. 3 February 2009 11:15 am

    Some British evangelical friends of mine went to work for a mission outfit in the USA in the 1990s (they may even be reading this!) and were quite surprised that the Americans all expected them to be politically right-wing, and were quite shocked that they were not, and supported the Labour Party (that was in John Major’s time, before Labour supported US imperialism in Yugoslavia, Iraq etc).

  7. 3 February 2009 1:46 pm

    interesting stuff on the orthodox piece, steve. thanks for the link here.

  8. 3 February 2009 8:43 pm

    Andrew,

    Perhaps I should have clarified one point — that Evangelicals becoming Orthodox in the USA has, to some extent, helped Evangelicals and Orthodox there to understand one another a bit better, and that has to some extent influenced other English-speaking countries. It is unlikely to have much influence in Russia, however, where the view of Evangelicals tends to be very negative as a result of a lot of aggressive and culturally insensitive missionaries who invaded immediately after the fall of the Bolsheviks in the early 1990s.

  9. 4 February 2009 1:29 pm

    Steve, yes that’s it exactly. I could tell a few interesting stories from down under too: of American Southern Baptists visiting an Australian Baptist pastor friend of mine and being shocked by his extensive beer collection; of American liberals being more right wing than Australian Evangelicals on matters of gun control; and the list could go on. World evangelicalism is much more diverse than a look at American media would suggest. It may be set to contract in some areas but overall it is growing in diversity and distribution.

  10. 4 February 2009 3:41 pm

    Matt,

    Yes, it is much more diverse. And if one counts neopentecostals as evangelicals, which the Americans seem to be doing , then the neopentecostals are growing quite rapidly in Africa, and causing some anxiety among Zionists and other traditional African Independent Churches.

  11. 4 February 2009 8:24 pm

    Imonk, having been here for more than 2 years now, I generally agree with Imonk. One should also recognise that the modern term evangelical is more often than not self-applied – by pentecostals, charismatics, baptists, some reformed and a lot of associates. The term “religious right” is what those on the relative left of the spectrum, and outside of this movement, call them. As you said, the correspondence between Right-wing in the US (by their standards, ie Republican) and evangelical is strong.

    However, having had a somewhat similar background in S-Africa, I can also state that a sizeable portion of the protestant, non-mainline church over there, irrespective of colour, falls in the same category, with many of the same issues, with the exception of the political connectations. Even in the Dutch Reformed Church, many that don’t lean emergent, lean “evangelical” – I know, I’ve in-laws in that exact position.

    Time will tell though. But I fear that Michael (ie internetmonk) is largely correct.

    Yes, and then one last quibble: The term “evangelical” is originally a very Lutheran term – till today, in Germany, if you say you are evangelical, it implies that you are Lutheran. It was some American Fundamentalists who hijacked the term back in the 20’s or so. Spoken as a Lutheran😉 …

  12. 6 February 2009 2:29 pm

    What people forget though is that, even in America there have been evangelical presidents who were Democrat, even in America there is an evangelical left. What people also forget is that there are important distinctions between evangelicalism and fundamentalism. It is a mistake to directly equate evangelism with the religious right. Strong links there may be, but its far from absolute. And Steve is right, there are also links with neopentecostalism. The situation is more complex than imonk suggests.

  13. 7 February 2009 11:44 am

    A can think of at least six different definitions of “evangelical”, and they wouldn’t all include the same group of people. But the group that comes to mind first is the Lausanne movement, which basically grew out of objections to the absorption of the International Missionary Council by the World Council of Churches back in 1961. They said it was “church” swallowing “mission”, and thus “evangelical” was seen as opposite to “ecumenical”. I suppose now they could be called “missional”. But I doubt that they were necessarily right wing, and I don’t think all the people described by iMonk are among them.

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