Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated

There’s an alarming story floating around the blogsphere for the past week about the death of evangelicalism. This story first originated on Michael Spencer’s blog and then was picked up by The Christian Science Monitor. Spencer’s predictions are dire and portentous. Simply put, evangelicalism, as we know it here in the West, is “on the verge… of a major collapse” and will cease to exist within 10 years. This doomsday prediction is partly based on the simple premise that evangelicals are slow to understand, exegete, and adapt to the changing social and cultural landscape and have failed to pass on the fundamentals of Christian faith and spirituality to the next generation. Added to this mix is the encroaching pressure of secularism, and evangelicalism, in Spencer’s view, will not survive such onslaught. In its place, Pentecostal, Catholic, and Orthodox churches will thrive, and Western evangelism would benefit to receive missions from Global South churches.

This is a hard prediction to swallow. Church attendance is declining and fewer people are identifying themselves as being “religious” but rather spiritual. In the past four decades, social scientists have observed there is indeed a shift toward subjective spirituality. There is no doubt evangelicalism is embattled. Yet the doom and gloom prediction is all too hasty.

Predictions of the death of evangelicalism sound awfully similar to the theory of secularization sociologists proposed in the 1960’s and 1970’s. This theory broadly states that as modern society progresses, religion will indeed decline. Spencer attributes the erosion of evangelicalism to the “rising tide of secularism.” Spencer’s point is that given the external pressures facing evangelicalism, this movement will collapse. The assumption all religion will eventually fizzle out into oblivion is a generally accepted axiom. But recently social scientists have begun to question this assumption given the rise of subjective spiritualities, growth of new religious movements, and the resurgence of religious fundamentalism. Most notably, the main proponents and originators of the secularization thesis, Peter Berger and Bryan Wilson, both recently recanted their views on secularization. Adding to that voice, both Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge also believe the idea that a “religionless future is but an illusion.”[1]

My point is this: it’s presumptuous to say that evangelicalism will sputter out into nothingness. “Evangelicalism” has always been a slippery term to nail down, and nowhere in Spencer’s predictions was this term defined. And even if we are to take on David Bebbington’s definition of evangelicalism, church affiliation figures nowhere in this definition.  This begs the question: is evangelicalism merely defined as affiliation and belonging to a structural institution? If this is really the only mark of evangelicalism (something Spencer’s analysis seem to suggest), then what makes evangelicalism different from Catholics, or mainline churches? It’s faulty to assume “evangelicalism” can be equated to mere institutional affiliation and attendance.

While institutional belonging is indeed waning, belief in general is not. This already has been observed by many social scientists. In fact, when institutional affiliation decreases, there is always a rise in alternative religious groups such as para-church organizations (say, campus ministries).[2] Again, if we understand defining evangelicalism does not limit us to include institutional affiliation, then to jump to the conclusion that the decrease in church attendance is a definitive sign pointing to the decline of evangelicalism is a bit hasty. This is too much of a simplistic explanation of the decline in evangelicalism.

If this shift from institutional to loosely affiliated religious structure is indeed occurring in the U.S., then what I want to suggest here is that this shift is merely a transformation or a re-ordering of belonging and affiliation. It’s too soon to say whether evangelicalism will really sputter out. Structurally, evangelicalism may merely reorganize itself into something different in the future but all the while retaining the basic tenets of Bebbington’s description of the movement. Historically, evangelicalism’s strength has always been its ability to re-invent itself to adapt to new contexts and environment. The story of the rise of evangelicalism in early 1700’s in England, its transatlantic move to America, and its growth in this country illustrate all but the extraordinary resiliency of this movement.

It is still unclear whether a decline in evangelicalism will truly benefit Catholic and Orthodox churches. As noted already, affiliation with religious institutions is shifting toward subjective forms of spirituality, both in Christian and non-Christian groups.[3] Evangelicals may retain their spirituality while discard institutional belonging all together. And still, news abounds of the closing of parishes and dioceses, with the most recent closing notable in Cleveland, Ohio.[4]

What Spencer has observed is indeed a decline in church attendance. Again, the future of evangelicalism is not so much a sputtering death, but perhaps we are witnessing the transformation of a movement into a new expression, something we have yet define. Evangelicalism is extraordinarily adaptive, and given the current challenge of a changing social landscape, it will no doubt remake itself. The prevailing postmodern context is in large parts reordering traditional religion – that of evangelicalism – into a new religiosity.5 Given the challenges of a changing social landscape, it’s up to the church to be watchful, prayerful, and alert to speak and act in truth and grace in Christ’s name.

[1] See for example, Rodney Stark, “Secularization, R.I.P.,” Sociology of Religion 60, no. 3 (Fall 1999): 249-273; Peter Berger, ed., The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Eerdmans, 1999); Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation (University of California Press, 1985).
[2] Grace Davie et al., eds., Predicting Religion: Christian, Secular and Alternative Futures (Ashgate, 2003).
[3] Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950′s (University of California Press, 1998).
[4] See for example, Regina Blett, “Cleveland parishes may close but Catholic church will be resurrected within all of us.” The Plain Dealer (March 15, 2009); Jessica Ravitz, “Catholic faithful face church closure.” CNN.com (http://www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/wayoflife/03/25/cleveland.catholic.parish.closures/index.html – March 25, 2009).
[5] Daniele Hervieu-Leger “Secularization, Tradition and new Forms of Religiosity: Some Theoretical Proposals” in New Religions and New Religiosity (Aarhus University Press, 1988).

Reply

Get Adobe Flash player