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You may have read that “the latest American Religious Identification Survey shows that the number of those who believe in no religion at all has almost doubled in the last 18 years, rising from 8 percent to 15 percent since 1990.”1 Then there’s the article that appeared on the Christian Science Monitor site by Michael Spencer about a coming “evangelical collapse.” Spencer opens the article with these dire conclusions:
We are on the verge—within 10 years—of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.
Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.) In the “Protestant” 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.
This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.
Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I’m convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.
The end-timers will shout out a “told-you-so,” claiming that such results indicate that the end is near. Similar warnings have been offered in the past. One of my favorite historical assessments of an imminent collapse of everything is a portion of the Prologue that appears in Samuel Eliot Morison’s Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Columbus:
At the end of the year 1492 most men in Western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future. Christian civilization appeared to be shrinking in area and dividing into hostile units as its sphere contracted. For over a century there had been no important advance in natural science, and registration in the universities dwindled as the instruction they offered became increasingly jejune [dull] and lifeless. Institutions were decaying, well-meaning people were growing cynical or desperate, and many intelligent men, for want of something better to do, were endeavoring to escape the present through the study of the pagan past. Islam was now expanding at the expense of Christendom. . . . The Ottoman Turks, after snuffing out all that remained of the Byzantine Empire, had overrun most of Greece, Albania and Serbia; presently they would be hammering at the gates of Vienna.2
Change the date and modernize the language, and we have a description of our day in almost every detail. In 1492, not only couldn’t sailors see beyond the physical horizon, but they could not see beyond the horizon of time. Did these intrepid explorers quit in despair or did they meet the challenges of the unknown head-on? There was very little evangelicalism in the 15th century. But within a quarter of century, the Reformation sparked and later burst into flame when an Augustinian monk read a verse from the Bible and changed him from the inside out: “The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). Did the world change at that point? What little evangelicalism there was at the time was met with intense opposition and even persecution. Luther’s refusal to retract his writings resulted in excommunication and made him an outlaw by an official declaration of the Diet of Worms in 1521. It was a crime to aid Luther in any way, even giving him food or shelter. This official church edict permitted anyone to kill Luther without legal consequence.3 Translating the Bible into English could get you killed as well. In 1535, William Tyndale was arrested, jailed for over a year, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake.
During his period of exile, under the protection of Frederick III, the Elector of Saxony, Luther did not sulk or whine about his circumstances or acquiesce to the external conditions over which he had no control. It was during his exile, which he referred to as “my Patmos,” that he translated the New Testament from Greek into German and continued to pour out doctrinal and polemical writings.
There is much about evangelicalism that needs to go. So I see these signs of evangelical discontent as positive indicators of a more vibrant world-and-life-view Christianity on the horizon. There was no homeschool movement, legal organizations like the Alliance Defense Fund or Liberty Counsel, hundreds of Christian radio stations, publishing houses, and print-on-demand publishers, and blogs and websites that reach millions of Christians around the world in Luther's day. The conduit for change is in place. What we need is a major theological shift similar to the one Luther and later reformers instituted. I have no idea how the shift will manifest itself, but I am certain that a number of pet evangelical doctrines will be relegated to the dust bin of history. American Vision is doing its best to break the stranglehold that end-time prognosticators have had on the Christian psyche. I have seen tremendous changes in this area in the past 20 years. There’s more to come. Christian conservatives must abandon the belief that the State can be a positive force for change if only Christians were in charge of the strings of power. This was the mistake of the Moral Majority and other Christian Right groups. We need a truly biblical view of government, a philosophy that I outlined in my three-volume God and Government series.
Christians must abandon the idea that government schools should be changed to the degree that we start seeing prayer and Bible reading return and some form of creationism or Intelligent Design being taught. Instead, there should be a wholesale exodus. Any criticism of socialism must begin with the rejection of one of the engines of the socialistic worldview—in practice (confiscatory taxation) and philosophy—government education. How can evangelicalism hope to survive when its advocates continue to send their children to institutions that undermine the foundation of evangelicalism and then hope to counter the influence on Wednesday evening youth group meetings? It’s insanity!
The American Vision on Facebook
While there are some hopeful trends streaming their way through the evangelical community, there is still a lot of work to be done. A defense-only strategy will not work. Pop culture has become the new worldview transmission belt. Actually, it’s always been the conduit for worldview stickiness.4 (I’m working on a comprehensive study of the subject.) It’s unfortunate that Christians have ignored pop culture for so long. This is one of the reasons that American Vision is getting behind Collision, a documentary made of the debate between anti-theist Christopher Hitchens and Christian apologist Douglas Wilson (see Doug's books responding to Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitches). The first screening of Collision will take place at the Christian Book Expo on March 20 and 21, 2009. Collision is not the typically produced Christian debate video. Producer and director Darren Doane has done a masterful job in developing a pop-culture version of what really goes on in day-to-day water cooler exchanges about religion. Darren will be one of our featured speakers at American Vision’s Worldview Super Conference (July 22–25, 2009). I’m curious to see how the Christian Book Expo audience will respond since it was developed and produced to be seen by non-Christian audiences. If you would like to meet Darren, Doug, and me at the Christian Book Expo, here are the details you’ll need.
American Vision is following Luther’s model by continuing to put out doctrinal and polemical writings to challenge the status quo of the church and the world.
1 Andrew Klavan. “Believe in God or Die!,” Pajamas Media (March 12, 2009).
2 Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1942), 3.
3 “The Edict of Worms was a decree issued by Emperor Charles V, declaring, “we forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favor the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manner of proceeding against the said Luther. Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.”
4 Malcolm Gladwell, “The Stickiness Factor,” The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Boston: Little, Brown and Company/Back Bay Books, 2002) and Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (New York: Random House, 2007).