05 / 06
birds birds birds

The Coming Evangelical Collapse

June 22, 2009     Time: 00:21:57
The Coming Evangelical Collapse


Conversation with William Lane Craig.

Transcript The Coming Evangelical Collapse


Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, we’ve become aware of an article that is getting a lot of attention in the Christian Science Monitor – “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.” [1] The byline is “An anti-Christian chapter in Western history is about to begin. But out of the ruins, a new vitality and integrity will rise.” This is kind of a good news-bad news article from Michael Spencer. I thought we could talk about it a little bit as it relates to church life, Christianity in the West, Christianity in the States, and where we are headed. We’ve spoken on evangelicalism. Let’s define that quickly. By evangelical, we mean . . .?

Dr. Craig: I think we would mean someone who holds to the traditional orthodox doctrines of Christianity that are exemplified in the great creeds of Christendom. But also someone who recognizes the importance of the personal decision of faith on the part of the individual to come into a personal relationship with God through Christ to experience an inner spiritual renewal called regeneration (or the new birth) which puts one into a saving relationship with God. Also, a strong emphasis upon biblical authority as the sole rule for faith and practice as opposed to church tradition or ecclesiastical teaching. Those would be some of the emphases of evangelicalism.

Kevin Harris: That is a definition that so many of us would hold to be basically a New Testament Christian. Call it evangelical or whatever it’s become necessary to differentiate among various branches. What is disturbing is the first line of this article. He says,

We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity.

Now that will get your attention immediately.

Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.)

. . .

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.

First of all, do you agree that we really are in a post-Christian West?

Dr. Craig: That I do think is true. I think it is very clear that we have a high consciousness of the religious plurality of our Western society today. I think the rise in consciousness of Islam has helped to promote this understanding of ourselves as a pluralistic society. This is especially evident in Canada (which is very, very pluralistic), and in Europe, and I think increasingly in the United States as well. So I do think there is a consciousness that we do not live in a Christian society in this country anymore.

Kevin Harris: He gives some reasons for why he thinks that evangelicalism as we know it will collapse.

1. Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.

The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can't articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.

He has got some things there, Bill. Jerry Falwell has died. The Moral Majority is no longer really in existence. A lot of the aging leaders are passing the baton. [2] Many of the recent aging leaders of the evangelical movement really did put a lot at stack in the political process – political conservatism – and these various causes.

Dr. Craig: That is certainly true. Yet on the other hand, Kevin, what concerns me is the question: what is the alternative to standing for right-to-life, traditional marriage, and so forth? I don’t think that we can trim our sails to fit the current political winds. It seems to me that in some cases evangelicals have to take unpopular political stands on ethical issues. So to say that because it will make us culturally despised and unpopular to be pro-life is no reason, it seems to me, to let one’s support of pro-life causes fail. There it seems to me we are in a genuine dilemma. If it is true that this will make us unpopular and despised, then I fear we have little choice but to say we must let the consequences fall where they may. We are taking a principled ethical stand on certain issues like being pro-life or being in favor of traditional marriage. And God help us here we stand. That I don’t think we can compromise.

Now, certainly that doesn’t mean that we need to be in the pocket of any political party. I think it is good when Christians express their independence and may take stands on non-ethical political issues that can be issues of genuine debate. There perhaps our diversity needs to be more clearly exemplified in the public square. But that first issue that he raises seems to me to be a kind of insidious attempt to get Christians to compromise their stand on important ethical issues out of a desire to be culturally approved – to be popular. And that is an appeal that we should definitely resist.

Kevin Harris: He seems to decry the fact that we have marshaled the evangelical troops, so to speak, by scaring them and by throwing up these causes. I guess he is saying we’ve been kind of demagogic in that. We’ve got to rally the troops and raise our funds, so we have to tell everybody how bad it is. Well, certainly that is, but then when that booger-bear is not so bad anymore, then what once marshaled the troops no longer does it. So we can’t build our faith around causes, we should build our faith around Christ.

Dr. Craig: Certainly that’s true. And the second part of what he said is a genuine concern. I am deeply concerned with the superficiality that exists in the evangelical church. My colleague J. P. Moreland has called this “empty selves.” He describes in his book Love Your God With All Your Mind the kind of church that we seem to be building in the evangelical community, a church that is filled with what he calls empty selves – people who are non-reflective, who don’t value the interior life of the mind, who are sensate, and who go for pictures and visual arts and music rather than intellectual reflection and study and careful discipleship. [3] I do think that J. P. is right when he says that a church which is filled with these empty selves will be a church that is impotent to resist the encroachment of secular culture and will ultimately accommodate itself to secular culture. Moreland predicts that in the next generation, this kind of church will become its own gravedigger. Because through its accommodation to secular culture, it will become indistinguishable from it. So I do have a tremendous concern and a great fear that he may have his finger on something that is correct here in this article.

But what I would say is that it is utterly incorrect – and he provides no evidence to think – that this superficiality is due to a depletion of resources because of evangelical stands on traditional marriage and pro-life causes. That is just silly to think that these are related to each other. There is no trade-off here whatsoever. You can be ardently pro-life and be a reflective, intellectually engaged Christian with a profound understanding of Christian doctrine and apologetics. Indeed, I would say that those Christians who are most ardently pro-life are those who have a deep grasp of the ethical issues here and who are reflective Christians.

But he is absolutely right in that we have got to somehow counter this superficiality in the evangelical church. [4] That is one reason that we started Reasonable Faith two years ago. It is the burden of this ministry to provide an intellectually credible and articulate voice for biblical Christianity in the public arena and to train Christians to be similar – articulate and intelligent defenders of the Christian faith.

Kevin Harris: Having said that, Bill, you may like this next point that he makes. It is rather related to the end of his first point. That is,

2. We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we've spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it.

Dr. Craig: Yeah. Oh, Kevin, and this worries me, I must say, so much. I see these statistics from Barna for example about the number of Christian kids who, once they leave high school – leave home and go out to college – never darken the doorway of a church again. They’ve already lost their faith while in that high school youth group, but so long as they’re still under mom and dad’s tutelage at home they continue to go through the motions, they attend the youth group. But once they go off to college, they jettison it – they abandon it. I do find it bewildering when I think of all of the effort that has been invested in Christian music and worship and Christian activities for young people and all of the sorts of things that we’ve done to make our churches relevant and attractive to teenagers, that it doesn’t seem to be producing the sort of lasting fruit that one would want to expect. So I do think that we desperately need to disciple high schoolers in the life of the mind and train them what they believe and to train them how to defend what they believe. Again, that is a problem that he is right about that we have got to do better on.

Kevin Harris: He says,

3. There are three kinds of evangelical churches today: consumer-driven megachurches, dying churches, and new churches whose future is fragile. Denominations will shrink, even vanish, while fewer and fewer evangelical churches will survive and thrive.

He puts a period right there. I don’t disagree with the fact that there are many, many consumer driven megachurches, so-called seeker churches, seeker-sensitive, seeker-driven churches. There are a bunch of those. Dying churches – there are some traditional denominations whose members are evacuating. But then he says, “and new churches whose future is fragile.”

Dr. Craig: There isn’t any evidence there – is there? - that he gives.

Kevin Harris: Not really.

Dr. Craig: Dying churches tend not to be the evangelical churches. These tend to be these old mainline denominations that have adopted liberal Protestantism. Those are bleeding members, but it is no wonder. Why get up in the dark and the cold on Sunday morning to go to some church service that just preaches a sort of humanism? You don’t need God and Christ to be a good humanist and live a decent life. So it is no wonder that those kind of churches are losing members. I think as these mainline churches have declined, traditional Protestantism has lost its grip on American culture and American culture has become more secularized. The challenge will be whether this precipitous decline in the mainline denominations can be offset by the growth of evangelical churches which are becoming increasingly prominent, I think, in our American culture. Somewhere these lines need to cross so that the decline is offset by the increase in evangelical churches. I simply disagree with him that all of these megachurches are consumer driven, superficial churches. Some are but certainly not all of them. So there I think he is overly pessimistic.

I think that there is hope for the revival of the mind in the church. I do see this going on, Kevin. I noticed in this article he takes no cognizance whatsoever – he seems utterly unaware of – the revolution that has been going on in Christian philosophy over the last forty years, and how this is beginning to trickle down to popular culture in the church. Through popularizers like Lee Strobel and Ravi Zacharias and others, this intellectual material is beginning to trickle down out of the academy into the man in the pew. And I find tremendous grass roots interest among lay people in our churches in being trained in the defense of the faith. They are hungry for it. They want it. If this revolution can continue to grow and be fostered, that gives grounds for optimism that this internal collapse that he describes won’t happen. But I do fear that it may be a race against time. Will the collapse occur more rapidly than the resurgence in apologetics and doctrine? [5] I just pray and hope that the latter will grow more rapidly than the collapse occurs.

Kevin Harris: Me, too. I’ll give you an observation here, Bill. I see a light at the end of the tunnel. A lot of people are complaining about consumer-driven megachurches and things like that. You know I’ve noticed in my observations of looking at these what used to be called seeker-driven churches – all churches should be seeker sensitive (seek and you shall find). Absolutely, we should be all about seekers. But I think that a lot of these churches, the past fifteen years we’ve really tried to be more relevant, throw off maybe some baggage that didn’t need to be there and be perhaps a little more of what church needs to be to reach out to the secular world. There has been a growing process in the last fifteen years to make sure that all of this consumerism is tempered with worship and with good teaching. So I am seeing some signs of that.

Dr. Craig: Some self-correction.

Kevin Harris: I am seeing some self-correction.

Dr. Craig: That happened at Willow Creek, didn’t it?

Kevin Harris: Of course it did. It really did. And we had to learn our lesson. We went through a transition – “Look, guys, we’ve got to be more relevant. We’ve got to be more accepting. We’ve got to welcome people in. We’ve got to let our own people express themselves in the arts. We have a lot of talented people in the pews. Let’s put them to work for the glory of God.” So I do see a self-correction. I pray as well that that race against time – that correction – will continue.

He says,

4. Despite some very successful developments in the past 25 years, Christian education has not produced a product that can withstand the rising tide of secularism.

Dr. Craig: See, there that is where I wonder – is he aware of what’s happening in Christian philosophy. Or maybe – here is where I wonder and I have my own self-doubt, Kevin – is the fact that I am so involved in Christian philosophy causing me to be myopic and think that this is a bigger influence than it really is. Sort of like holding your thumb right in front of your nose and it looks as big as a skyscraper. Maybe I am overestimating the impact of Christian philosophy. But I hope not. My hope is that, as this revolution continues, that more and more we’ll impact the secular university with Christian philosophers in all disciplines, and that this will have an increasingly positive leavening effect upon Christian education and our culture. So I am not sure this fellow is really in touch with what’s happening in Christian education.

Kevin Harris: As we wrap up today, just a couple of points. Some of his observations as well. For one thing, he expects the emergence church (so-called) that everybody is talking about these days – he does think that that will diminish and have a tendency to go away.

Dr. Craig: I think he’s right.

Kevin Harris: He’s not saying this but I think – and I think that you think – that the emergent church has misdiagnosed the so-called widespread postmodernism. It is not the bug-a-boo we thought it was, and they’ve gone in that direction and built a foundation of sand. Then they are so nebulous. We can get into the emergent church, but I’m just telling you that he is saying they are going to go away. But he hopes that a better evangelicalism will arise. He says, “Evangelicalism doesn't need a bailout. Much of it needs a funeral.”

He says that our children are not going to be as confident in the Bible as we are:

6. Even in areas where Evangelicals imagine themselves strong (like the Bible Belt), we will find a great inability to pass on to our children a vital evangelical confidence in the Bible . . .

Dr. Craig: I noticed he seemed to be very much in favor of home churches emerging as the sort of new, vital Christianity, which I suspect is, again, just sort of his proclivity personally. I don’t see any reason to think that that is going to characterize church life in general in the United States. So I think that there it probably does reflect some of the personal preferences of the author.

Kevin Harris: It says,

Michael Spencer is a writer and communicator living and working in a Christian community in Kentucky. He describes himself as “a postevangelical reformation Christian in search of a Jesus-shaped spirituality.” This essay is adapted from a series on his blog,

So, yes, home churches, home cells, Christian community. I think it is an attempt to look more like the book of Acts of the New Testament Christian. Nothing wrong with that. Home churches. Some of the churches I’ve noticed are having a hard time getting people into these home cells as the paradigm shifts toward that. Rather than in your traditional Sunday school get together on Sunday morning in your Sunday school class, home cells are developing. Yet some pastors are saying that is a good New Testament thing but it disconnects them from the church.

Dr. Craig: I don’t see any reason to think that within the wider context of a church group – a church community – that you can’t have these small groups that add additional intimacy and connection with a small group of people. But they don’t need to be divorced from the larger context. This larger church will have great advantages to impacting culture and society. [6] I lived in France for some time with my wife, and I have to say attending these small little insular churches can be tremendously depressing because you don’t have things like great music, for example, that you will get in a church like we currently attend where we have a wonderful choir, a full orchestra. I appreciate great music. And you won’t have that when you have eight people sitting around the living room trying to sing choruses together. You won’t have the same talents that can be exercised in the context of a large body. So there are tremendous advantages to being part of a larger group and then having your smaller intimate group within the context of the larger group.

So while there are certain things that this fellow says that I think are warnings that are definitely to be headed, good admonitions, I don’t think we need to be as pessimistic as he is nor necessarily follow all of the advice that he gives. [7]