Michael Spencer’s pessimism regarding the future of evangelicalism recently went mainstream when his article on “The Coming Evangelical Collapse” was published in the Christian Science Monitor. Michael (a.k.a. Internet Monk) is a nice enough guy, his intentions are honorable, most of his observations are pretty accurate, — but his prognosis seem inconsistent with this diagnosis.
Following are a selection of quotes (collected by my friend Mark Witte) from David Wells’ book Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World. Wells is dealing with the same material as Spencer but does a lot less hand wringing “Woe is me(vangelicalism)” and much more searching for productive change. I encourage you to read the following excerpts.
The central argument I want to make is that the rebellion against the Enlightenment project which postmodern thinkers have waged and which they think has produced a clean breach with the modern world – and hence they are postmodern – is only a small part of the story and, in my judgment, not the most important part. Indeed, what I will argue is that modernity and postmodernity are actually reflecting different aspects of our modernized culture. They are more like siblings in the same family than rival gangs in the same neighborhood. (p. 62)
There are important threads of continuity between modernity and postmodernity and not least among these is the fact that at the center of both is the autonomous self, despite all the postmodern chatter about the importance of community. During the Enlightenment, this was worked out in anti-religious ways, the Enlightenment thinkers refusing to be fettered by any transcendent being or any authority outside of themselves. In postmodernity, the autonomous being refuses to be fettered by any objective reality outside of itself. In the end, the difference is simply that the revolt in the first case took a more religious turn and in the second a more general turn. (pp. 67-8)
This is Western freedom and Western commercialized culture. Here, we have the ability to hope for what we want, shop where we want, buy what we want, study where we want, think what we want, believe what we want, and treat religion as just another commodity, a product to be consumed. The reality is that modern consumption is not simply about shopping because what we are buying is not simply goods and services. Modern consumption is about buying meaning for ourselves. … The road to this meaning, however, is reached only by a path that runs through a valley of choice so diverse and so multilayered that it is easy to become lost. (p. 77)
There is a deep sense of frustration with organized religion today which is merging with a renewed yearning for the sacred, and the result is an explosion in these personalized, customized spiritualities. This appears to be not only an American phenomenon but one that is found throughout the West. In a study that was done in Britain in 2000, for example, it was discovered that during approximately the final decade of the twentieth century, regular attendance at church dropped from being a practice of 28% of the population down to 8%. During this same time, however, those who described themselves as spiritual, or who had had spiritual experiences, rose from 48% to 76%. (pp. 113-14)
… seeker churches are brilliantly exploiting this spiritual search. It is producing a seeker’s culture. America is tuned in to spiritual matters but not to religious formulations. This makes it very easy to gain a hearing for what is spiritual but hard to maintain a genuinely biblical posture because that becomes a part of “religion.” It is very easy to build churches in which seekers congregate; it is very hard to build churches in which biblical faith is maturing into genuine discipleship. It is the difficulty of this task which has been lost in many seeker churches, which are meeting places for those who are searching spiritually but are not looking for that kind of faith which is spiritually tough and countercultural in a biblical way. (p. 119)
An outside God, such as we find in biblical faith, is comprehensible because he is self-defined in his revelation; the inside god is not. The inside god is merged into the psychological texture of the seeker and found spread within the vagaries of the self. The outside God stands over against those who would know him; the inside one emerges within their consciousness and is a part of them. Religions have their schools of thought and their interpreters, and always the debate is over who most truly understands the religion. Spirituality, in the contemporary sense, spawns no such debate because it makes no truth claims and seeks no universal significance. It lives out its life within the confines of private experience. “Truth” is private, not public; it is for the individual, not for the universe. Here is American individualism coupled with some new assumptions about God which are being glossed off with infatuations about pop therapy, uniting to produce varieties of spirituality as numerous as those who think of themselves as spiritual. (pp. 130-31)
… this contemporary spiritual search is inclined to oppose itself to religion, to doctrine as a set of unchanging beliefs, to the public and institutional forms in which that spirituality might be expressed. While it is the case that the various religions are sometimes raided for their ideas, today’s spirituality remains a deeply privatized matter whose access to reality is through a pristine, uncorrupted self. And all of this happens without any necessary reference to, or connection with, others. With its individualism, its wholly privatized understanding, its therapeutic interest, its mystical bent, its experimental habits, its opposition to truth as something which mediates the nature of an unchanging spiritual realm, its anti-institutional bias, its tilt toward the East, its construction of reality, and its can-do spirit, it is something which is emerging from the very heart of the postmodern world. This is, in fact, the postmodern soul. And its ancient forerunner was seen in gnosticism. (p. 152)
The dichotomy which postmodern epistemology wants to force is one between knowing everything exhaustively or knowing nothing certainly at all. And since it would be arrogant in the extreme to claim to know what God alone knows, the only other option, it seems, is to accept the fact that our knowledge is so socially conditioned, so determined by our own inability to escape our own relativity, that we are left with no certain knowledge of reality at all. Here, indeed, is the old liberal fear of becoming outdated coupled with the postmodern infatuation with spirituality in its divorce from religion. (p. 158)
That is why in these new spiritualities it is the spiritual person who makes up his or her beliefs and practices, mixing and matching and experimenting to see what works best, and assuming the prerogative to discard at will. The sacred is therefore loved for what can be had from loving it. The sacred is pursued because it has value to the pursuer and that value is measured in terms of the therapeutic payoff. (p. 159)
In religion of a Christian kind, we listen; in spirituality of a contemporary kind, we talk. In religion of a Christian kind, we accept a gift; in spirituality of a contemporary kind, we try to seize God. In the one, we are justified by the righteousness of Christ; in the other, we strive to justify ourselves through ourselves. It is thus that spirituality is the enemy of faith. (pp. 161-62)
Theirs is an experiment in tactics in which innumerable questions have been asked about the ways the Church can become successful in this culture and they are all prefaced by the word how. How do we get the Boomers back into the church? How do we get on the wavelength of Generation Xers? How do we do worship so that the transition from home to church, from mall to church, and from unbelief into a context of belief, is seamless and even unnoticed? How do we speak about Christian faith to those who only want techniques for survival in life? How can we be motivational for those who need a lift without burdening them? How can we say what we want to say in church when the audience will give us only a small slice of their attention, especially if we are not amusing? And what is emerging, as the evangelical Church continues to empty itself of theology, is that it now finds that it is tapping, wittingly or not, into this broad cultural yearning for spirituality, and capitalizing on that disposition’s inclination not to be religious. Evangelical spirituality without theology, that even sometimes despises theology, parallels almost exactly the broader cultural spirituality that is without religion. Evangelical faith without theology, without the structure and discipline of truth, is not Agape faith but it is much closer to Eros spirituality. This, however, is not understood. Church talk about “reaching” the culture turns, almost inevitably, into a discussion about tactics and methodology, not about worldviews. It is only about tactics and not about strategy. It is about seduction and not about truth, about success and not about confrontation. (pp. 162-63)
Revelation, then, is public, not private. It is public in the sense that God’s primary locus of communication is not within the self nor are his intentions accessed by intuition. He has spoken, and he continues to speak, through the words of Scripture which constitute the Word of God. This revelation, however, is anchored by events within the redemptive narrative by which God called out to himself a people, led them, preserved them, judged them, and finally brought the promises he had made to them into final and full realization in Christ. This is a history which took place apart from human consciousness, and not within the human psyche, and though it has to be understood and interpreted, its meaning is always objective to the interpreter. It has to be understood solely on its own terms; Scripture, the Reformers said, is sui ipsius interpres. The Holy Spirit who inspired the Scripture is also its privileged interpreter, which means that the content of Scripture is not subject to being overridden by the interests of the interpreter, or those of a later culture, or those of an ecclesiastical tradition. (p. 174)
In our own private universes, we are free of external constraints, free of social custom, free of the past, free of values we ourselves have not selected and in that selection authenticated, and free of all beliefs which are incompatible with our internally constructed world of meaning. We have all become free in a most radical way, and in that radical posture we have become as light as a feather. (p. 238)
… operating off methodologies for succeeding in which that success requires little or no theology. It produces an evangelism which is modest in its attempts at persuasion about truth, but energetic in its retailing of spiritual and psychological benefits. So successful, so alluring, has this experiment become that it would not be an exaggeration to say that it is transforming what evangelicalism looks like. (pp. 265-66)
… this changed cultural context is producing spiritual seekers. It is to this “shadow culture,” this parallel market of spiritual desire, that seeker churches have been intuitively drawn. Their methodology is peculiarly adapted to this moment because to those who seek spirituality without religion, as so many in the postmodern world do, these churches are offering spirituality without theology. It is, most often, spirituality of a therapeutic kind, which assumes that the most pressing issues that should be addressed in church are those with which most people are preoccupied: how to sustain relationships, how to handle stress, what to do about recurring financial problems, how to handle conflicts in the workplace, and how to raise children. It is these issues, and a multitude like them, which prescribe where Christian faith must offer some answers if it is to remain relevant. While biblical truth is not itself denied, and while the importance of being doctrinally orthodox is not questioned, neither is seen to be central to the practice of meeting seekers who are looking for answers to other issues in their lives. They are looking for answers, perhaps to find ways of constructing a spirituality which works for them, but they really have not come into church to find the kind of truth by which the Church has historically been defined, and by which it has lived, across the generations and centuries. (p. 269)
While the routes taken by the earlier liberals and now by contemporary evangelicals may be a little different, there nevertheless is an important shared belief. It is that the only means to survival in the modern world is to adapt Christian faith in some way. The liberals did this by modifying its doctrinal content; seeker-sensitive evangelicals claim not to be doing this but, rather, modifying its form of delivery. This raises the issue as to whether traditional religion will be unaffected by its non-traditional delivery and practice, whether content is secure from the change which enters its form, how far and in what ways a traditional orthodoxy can be wrapped in contemporary consumer culture and still survive intact. In other words, the very way in which survival is being sought raises questions as to whether that strategy for survival may not itself bring on the demise of its orthodoxy just as it did in liberal Protestantism. Seeker churches, then, represent a coalition bound together not by a theological vision of the world but by a common strategy for reaching particular segments of society and by a common methodology for accomplishing this. Interestingly, it is a methodology that can be hitched up equally as well to evangelical faith as to New Age belief, or to anything in between. Why is this so? The reason is that there is no theological truth upon which the methodology is predicated and upon which it insists, because theological truth, it is thought, is not what builds churches. (p. 281)
The fact that this line between commerce and belief is eroding makes it easy for people to think that there may be a market for religion even as there is for goods and services and that these two markets work in similar ways. This is not an entirely aberrant observation. Yet the parallels are now being pressed so injudiciously, so unwisely, that the promotion of (imperishable) faith has come to be indistinguishable from the promotion of (perishable) products (I Pet. 1:4-5,18-19) as if the dynamic of success in the one naturally duplicates itself in the other. Seekers become consumers, pastors become business tycoons, churches become marketing outlets, the gospel becomes a product, faith becomes its purchase, and increasingly the outcome in people’s lives is no different than if they had made any other purchase. (p. 297)
… for what the marketers have done has been to read the needs of the consumer as being “spiritual” (in the contemporary sense) but not theological, as being psychological but as having little to do with truth, as being more about techniques of survival than about the need to understand that there is meaning in life that transcends the mere business of surviving. That, I believe, has been a fatal mistake, as fatal as the one which the liberal Protestants made earlier. (p. 299)
As seeker churches mine this vein of spiritual yearning in society, without challenging its grounding in fallen human nature and postmodern individualism, they may be finding a marketing niche that will lead them into certain decline. The question they are going to have to ask themselves is whether the clientele they have assiduously courted have the kind of casual relationship to biblical truth, and the low commitment, to guarantee that their churches will go the way that many mainline churches have gone. If they cannot clarify for themselves who is sovereign – God or the religious consumer? – what is authoritative in practice – Scripture or culture? – and what is important – faithfulness or success? – they will find themselves walking the same road and facing the same fate as the churches that failed before because whatever seriousness now remains will dissolve into triviality. (p. 301)
Today, all too often, the Church is not being the Church. It has become a business for the retailing of spirituality, a spirituality in which truth is at best a peripheral consideration and sometimes not a consideration at all. Should we be surprised when we find out that those who are born again, or who say they are, live no differently, ethically speaking, from those who say they are secular? Of course not! This is the inevitable outcome to the massive defection from truth at a practical level which has happened in the evangelical Church. (p. 316)
Now, go read what my friend Barry Creamer has to say on this issue.