The evangelical church as we know it is shrinking in size and influence. What is happening?
Churches from numerous types of backgrounds see that their numbers are dropping and are quickly upgrading their style of worship, renovating the church foyer into coffee shops, pressing people into the weekly small groups, producing bigger or better special dramas or shows, or spending on new personnel and equipment to better communicate through the web, apps, video and other burgeoning technologies. These help but there is something far deeper going on.
The problem of intellectual integrity
Rachel Held Evans, a popular American christian blogger and author, has recognized the serious problem of younger people dropping out. She wrote an important article on why millennials are leaving the church. She states, among many things, that it has to do with the clash between faith and modernity. Millennials feel caught between “their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.”
Mark A. Noll, a well-known history professor at the University of Notre Dame adds to the idea of intellectual integrity. He wrote in his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind that Evangelicals don’t think, and concludes that there is not much of an evangelical mind. This problem then surfaces in the evangelical church being ill-equipped to challenge the world of contemporary learning with little room for self-criticism or complex faith issues. Children today are raised up in a social climate with accelerated methods of learning that are complex. Therefore, the attraction between the younger generation and the older evangelical culture is tenuous at best.
Kevin Vanhoozer, research professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, adds to this. He believes that evangelicals have never been taught how to think for themselves within a christian framework.
Evangelicals have been very good at providing Bible-study helps—word studies, for instance… But I’m not sure your average evangelical is able to use the Bible as the interpretive framework for his or her daily life.
The largest and fastest growing christian sect, and one the fastest growing religions in the world today, the Renewalists, an umbrella term for Pentecostals, Charismatics, and any person or group influenced by their mystical doctrines, are not equipped to intellectually engage with the modern culture. They have neither the knowledge of 2000 years of christian history and practice, nor the understanding of modern technology and social constructs to actively participate in the complex challenges that society is confronted with. They have instead into the realm of christian mysticism as an alternative to engaging the challenges confronting all of humanity. Many Pentecostals, and especially Charismatics, believe that reason and faith are opposite in meaning and that the only solution is to meet God through a mystical experience. Reason is a barrier. This solution appears even more distant and radical than the previous iteration of evangelical christianity to the public. Christian mysticism is a shift in approach but the anti-intellectualism remains consistent.
There have been so many changes in health, technologies, gender roles, morality, relationships, and scales of economics, that they have created many grey areas. The Bible was written when none of the present technologies and discoveries existed — contemporary discoveries that have impacted greatly. They have created tectonic societal shifts. The future of evangelicalism is how leadership engages in these discussions. Avoidance or one-word answers are not sufficient.
Evangelicals are coming to realize, especially children growing up in this framework, that their religious system contains an insufficient answer for today’s challenges. Many churches weekly promote the old evangelical lines of accept Jesus or that any of life’s problems can be answered with Jesus or promote more faith, piousness, earnestness or sincerity to plow through life’s difficult challenges. It doesn’t take long to discover that these simple formulas do not work in most situations and are too superficial.
However, it is not just millennials, it is also generation x people leaving as well for similar reasons.
The war against modernity is over. Evangelicals need a new identity.
The evangelical movement has always been a counter-movement. One of its central tenets was rejectionist of modernity. Science was believed to be a competitor for the religious mind and the overthrower of the old order. This war against modernity has been honourably lost but many evangelicals have not given up fighting in this battle field. It is part of the evangelical tradition. Modernists hear these volleys as sounds in the distant past, echoes of a time that was. Evangelicalism as an opposer of modernism has run its course. It is no longer relative. The younger generation can no longer use this as part of their religious identification.
The Church as a marketed brand instead of a trusted source has negative consequences.
Another challenge is the fact that millennials and gen-x have become much more adept at screening out marketing and campaign pitches. That is old schtick. The evangelical churches emphasis on slick marketing and branding with little emphasis on content has hit many peoples BS radar.
This can be found in one George Carlin’s most famous comedic routines. George was a well-known stand-up comic, satirist, writer and author. He stated that “When it comes to bull***t, big-time, major league bull***t, you have to stand in awe of the all-time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims, religion.”(1)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r-e2NDSTuE
As of August 5, 2016, there are over five-million views on his delivery on this subject. He was merely reflecting a common public opinion – one similarly echoed in my home and community that surrounded me while growing up. George’s audience loudly cheered him on. The evangelical church has not attempted in any way tried to remedy this tension except for dismissal of this community as utterly lost.
There are so many diverse evangelical churches competing for the same audience that it makes propositional truth appear as a relative entity.
There are so many independent evangelical churches being established with different sets of values, missions, and emphasis, that the public has become confused on the evangelical faith. With no central authority or definition, the conflicting messages remove the idea of a consistent propositional truth. Evangelical churches are viewed then as personal brand from the selection of choices found in the religious supermarket.
The Church does not have the budget or the skills to compete as an alternative entertainment package.
The attempt to compete with music studios, movie theatres, Netflix, sports and recreation for their audience has gone flat. They can never compete at this level and win due to the massive amount of money needed to produce a successful project. Neither is it the primary mission of the church to do this.
Adapting to the changing role of church in society.
The church as a universal institution was once involved in all the processes from birth to death. Education, hospitals, welfare, marriage, and cemeteries were once in the realm of the church affairs. This has all been completely transferred to the state. There is no primary role for the church in the present society. It is in an identity crisis.
What needs to be done?
For the evangelical church to survive, there are a number of steps that need to be taken, the first being the most critical one — real content through empowered leadership. They need to be specifically trained to lead congregations through the accelerating myriad of technological, ethical, and moral labyrinths being produced at a dizzying rate.
Secondly, If christians simply understood their own history, there would be much less need to reinvent the wheel in many basic structures of right christian living in this modern day.
Studying the ancient sages is a good reference point and should be the start for creating a christian worldview. As one reads historical writings, one will naturally conclude that these ancient writers were far more intelligent than given credit, and although our technology has definitely evolved, philosophically, we are no different. For everything that happens today, there is likely a philosophical parallel in history where societies, communities and peoples have wrestled with and have come up with a solution.
Discovering these ancient writers and applying them to modern problems should not be a requirement for the lay-person, but mandatory for any church leader. It is their responsibility to communicate these messages in a manner easily understood by a contemporary audience.
When using historical traditions as a guide for building an alternative worldview, it is not meant to be rejectionist of the modern science community or their opinions. Philosophically there are some important differences, but truth, whether it is found in science or in religion, still remains truth.
An emphasis on content would bring churches to similar core values and the public would recognize a coherent set of truths consistent among the broad spectrum of the evangelical faith.
Evangelicals have to change the approach to Scripture. Scripture does not contain every answer to life’s problems. It does provide essential information on the character and nature of God, our relationship with Him and life’s vital questions, but it cannot be used as a legal text for daily living. It is the role of the church to decide exactly what those answers are, based on inference, history, experience and wisdom. It takes strong, trained and experienced leadership to accomplish this.
Evangelicals need to be more active in right daily living and positively contributing to the greater social discussion with emphasis pointing to a better alternative. The Catholic Church is a great example. The Pope and the Catholic Church always brings about alternative views to the world on health, social, and political viewpoints. They are very well thought out and make sense. It is very rare that political pundits or the public have disdain or disregard for their message. Public pundits do not normally agree but accept the Catholic Church as part of the global discussion. Evangelicals have never been invited to that greater discussion because they have never demonstrated this same type of approach.
One of the greatest problems in building a comprehensive framework for understanding and interpreting life from a christian religious perspective is the Renewalist/Evangelical bias of history. There is an assumption that the contemporary mind has far superior ideas about God, the world and life around us than medieval man. This view tends to be rejectionist of all history and its writings. The historical thought has no utilitarian value for today. A short synopsis is this: the church was good up until 300 AD, and then went corrupt, sporadic instances happened for the next 1200 years but nothing of importance, then the Protestant revolt happened, and some acceleration happened in proper christian living. In essence, 1500 years or so of christian history was irrelevant and it was up to the protestant sect of Christianity to reinvent itself. This reinvention is still in process but since 1500 years of antecedents have been rejected, there is a look to alternative influences to fill the void. These alternatives are usually found through celebrity endorsements, the building of a religious celebrity persona, cliches like got Jesus? or abandoning any sense of reason and going into an extreme form of christian mysticism.
There is also an assumption that modern evangelicals are superior to their catholic counterparts in moral and intellectual thought. This excludes taking ideas and thoughts from this community who has diligently wrestled through many of these contemporary issues on a deep level.
So my answer on how the evangelical church can remain relevant and attract people — get some rich content and communicate it well. Superficial can only go so far.
This is a crisis time for the evangelical movement. If it cannot redefine itself with a deep and real purpose, its future will be uncertain.
For further reading:
- Why the Church is Declining: Part II. Why the church cannot compete as an entertainment franchise.
- Evangelicals on the Problem of Being Saved.
- What it means to be Saved A textual look into the word for saved in Luke 7:50 and Mark 5:34.
- Fanatics, Extremists and Religion. Greatness and fanaticism is a part of the human condition and not restricted to a problem of religion.
- Charismatics, Headaches, and Healings How staged healings hurt more than help the church image.
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