I bet that nowadays, some people can’t even remember a time when evangelicals weren’t in decline. It’s been going on for a long, long time now. But when one evangelical leader predicted the looming decline of evangelicalism in 2009, the entire Christ-o-sphere erupted into anger and disbelief. They simply couldn’t accept the idea of one day losing their dominance over America. Let’s take a voyage through time to see their reactions, and then compare those reactions to the ones we see more often these days.
(This post went live on Patreon on 11/7/2023. Its audio ‘cast also lives there and should be available by the time you see this!)
Everyone, meet iMonk: The guy who predicted the decline of evangelicalism
Back in 2000, Michael Spencer created a blog called Internet Monk. It quickly became a big deal in the right-wing Christ-o-sphere. Spencer was a hardline Calvinist guy with a vision of what evangelicals could be, might be, if they only Jesused as correctly and as hard as he did. Some of his ideas were the kind that start pretty well and end on a cringey note, like this one from 2006 admonishing evangelicals to stop telling their marks they had a “god-shaped void” in their hearts. Except they really did, you see:
The God-shaped void is absolutely there. It is the HUMAN PERSON! But it is not a void…it is someone made in God’s image, a person loved by God; a person for whom Christ did all his mediating work. This person and their beliefs (or lack of beliefs) are not a threat to us. We do not need to manipulate or control them. We can allow them to have their life, their journey and their experiences. We do not need to demand anything of them for us to present/represent Christ to them.
Yes. Today’s young people are bored with God. They are not “seeking” God at all, but are living on the hardened surface of a fallen human experience, seeking to make sense of what is incomprehensible apart from Christ.
Hopefully, this gives you a good idea of how Spencer, like most evangelical leaders, trips himself up. Young adults weren’t “bored with God” in 2006. They just weren’t as interested in joining and sticking around evangelical groups as previous generations’ young adults had been once.
As you might also guess, a lot of his advice to evangelicals makes someone like me go: Yes, yes, but what does that even look like? I’m 99% sure that not even he knew what real actions his advice should have produced in his audience. In the case of that 2006 blog post, here’s his exhortation to evangelicals:
If we take seriously the unbelief of unbelievers, then we pray, share the Gospel and do so in a way that is completely incarnational. We do not make them into projects. We fully humanize the process of evangelism, and we take unbelief seriously. [. . .]
Our calling to be witnesses is not to approach the world like cattle to be herded, but as persons to be loved in the way God loves this fallen world through Jesus Christ. We live in a generation and time dead to God and alive to entertainment and a consumer mythology that promises and delivers meaning through stimulation and amusement.
Not a single bit of that blahblah can be visualized in concrete terms.
When Spencer passed away in 2010 of cancer, he appointed some associates to continue the blog. They continued it until 2020.
But before he passed, he wrote an opinion piece for Christian Science Monitor that exploded across the Christ-o-sphere like a new supernova in the night sky.
2009: The year of “The Coming Evangelical Collapse”
In 2009, readers of Christian Science Monitor found themselves confronted with Michael Spencer’s opinion post (archive), “The coming evangelical collapse.” Its subtitle was no less incendiary: “An anti-Christian chapter in Western history is about to begin. But out of the ruins, a new vitality and integrity will rise.”
Evangelicals had long felt that American culture was “anti-Christian.” Pentecostals in the 80s and 90s had refused to truck with just about any part of it. But evangelicals at the time saw themselves as humanity’s Designated Adults: There to save us from ourselves, there to guide us—lovingly, of course!—into Jesus’ embrace. They strode bravely into popular culture to shine their imaginary Jesus auras at all those poor widdle unwashed heathens around them.
For a long time now, I’ve marked the high point of evangelical cultural dominance at the year 2006. That’s the year that Jesus Camp came out—and promptly freaked normies out to the point of no return. After someone’s watched evangelical fanatics brainwashing little kids and calling it perfect Jesusing, there’s just no going back from that. So I’m not super surprised that Spencer’s post came out in 2009. By then, he’d had a few years to absorb the same signs I was seeing at a far remove.
In his first paragraph, he warns:
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.
And then he offered a short list of reasons why he thought this collapse would lead to “intolerance” and “hostility” toward TRUE CHRISTIANS™ like himself.
Michael Spencer’s seven reasons for the coming decline
Just so we have everything in one place, here’s a quick whisking-through of Spencer’s reasoning:
- Culture wars and over-politicization. “Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. [. . .] 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.” Yes, their inability to parrot the Plan of Salvation is totally The Big Problem Here.
- Evangelical parents’ inability to fully and effectively indoctrinate their children.
- There being only “three kinds of evangelical churches today,” these being “megachurches, dying churches, and new churches whose futures are fragile.” I’ve got no clue why he felt this was a reason for evangelicals’ decline.
- Christian education being a total mess that utterly fails to fully and effectively indoctrinate evangelical children.
- All the “good” that poor widdle TRUE CHRISTIANS™ want to do will increasingly be seen as “bad by so many” outside their culture. This will lead to Christian ministries adopting a more and more secular face to the public, which is apparently another reason why evangelicalism was headed for decline in 2009.
- Even in the Bible Belt, evangelicals fail to fully and effectively indoctrinate their children. (Seeing a trend here?)
- “The money will dry up.”
In the wake of this decline, Spencer predicted the disappearance of “the emerging church” and the rise to dominance of “pragmatic, therapeutic” megachurches. He also felt that Catholic and Orthodox leaders would draw off many evangelicals. Amid all this chaos, though, he was certain that “a small band” of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ would be working overtime to “rescue the movement.” He couldn’t even fathom the notion of evangelicals permanently losing their cultural dominance:
We can rejoice that in the ruins, new forms of Christian vitality and ministry will be born.
As we know now, though, that triumphant vision didn’t come true at all.
And how evangelicals reacted at the time
A couple of years ago, we talked about Spencer’s predictions. I didn’t talk much about what happened in the Christ-o-sphere as a result, though. I wanted to, but it would have been a definite mission drift. But then, not long ago, I happened across a post by one evangelical about it, and that led me through a fascinating rabbit hole of evangelical arrogance, willful ignorance, and hubris.
First up, a quick note from someone who sounds astonished (archive) that “the influence of right-wing evangelical Christianity seems to have evaporated virtually overnight.” He sounds exactly like those awful men who swear up and down that their wives just left them out of the clear blue sky with no warning at all. Then, he offers us this link to a survey published about a week after Spencer’s post (archive). The survey, called the “American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS),” found that not only were fewer people identifying as Christian, but the ranks of the unaffiliated were rising quickly. This survey also notes that Christians had lost very serious ground since their previous survey in 1990.
Mark Galli, then the senior editor of Christianity Today, tried to take an optimistic view of things (archive). He criticized Spencer for not basing his predictions on facts (which he clearly didn’t, so fair cop there), then assessed evangelicals’ situation:
What we know as evangelicalism is a temporary cultural expression of the Christian faith. It comes with idiosyncrasies, good and bad. It has produced the populist Religious Right activist Jim Dobson and the careful, moderate scholar Mark Noll. [. . .] It has proven itself to be small-minded, judgmental, and legalistic, as well as generous, sacrificial, and heroic (I think especially of evangelical work with HIV/AIDS and sexual trafficking today).
After that, Galli predicted that the cultural expression of modern evangelicalism could fade all it wanted, because TRUE CHRISTIAN™ evangelicalism would last forever and ever.
Kevin DeYoung, writing for The Gospel Coalition (TGC), largely agreed with Spencer’s seven-point failure listicle (archive). But he refused to accept that a “collapse” was truly imminent:
It’s true that church attendance is down. The percentage of Americans calling themselves Christian is declining. But there are signs of theological renewal in the American church too, a renewed interest in doctrine, God-centered worship, and mercy ministries, especially among the young. [. . .]
If evangelical Christianity collapses within 10 years I will be very sad. And very surprised.
Oops. That did not age well.
And then we have this lady who responded to hints of decline with a three-part blog series
Christine Miller, an older lady who writes at A Little Perspective, really did not like Spencer’s predictions. She graced us with not one (archive1), not two (archive2), but three blog posts (archive3) outlining all her disagreements with him. Of course, she didn’t really need to go to all that trouble. She lets the cat out of the bag almost immediately after reprinting Spencer’s predictions:
I find myself disagreeing with all of these assertions, and all for the same reason. It doesn’t take into account God’s plan, provision, or power to bring His church forth triumphant from the world, as He did Israel from Egypt. [. . .]
For many years now, prophecy has come forward from the church that a new Great Awakening is about to come upon God’s people.
Her reasoning for rejecting Spencer’s predictions, given in the first post, consists of very well-indoctrinated blahblah straight from the blahblah factory:
- She mistakenly thinks the Old Testament is a history book.
- Likewise, she mistakenly thinks her genocidal monster of a god is “just.” That, apparently, means he will brutally punish anyone who sasses him, because that’s totally fair.
- And also likewise, she mistakenly thinks her god could keep a single promise that the Bible says he’s ever made.
In the second post, Miller informs us that totes for realsies miracles—MEERKULS YAWL!—are happening in Africa, and that the money is not, after all, “drying up.” She’s wrong about both assertions. Evangelical churches are closing left and right for lack of funds, and they were starting to do so even in the late 2000s. And not a single verified miracle has ever been uncovered in her entire religion, much less tons of dead people rising in Africa “every week.”
In her third post, Miller just throws a total Hail Mary: Spencer’s predictions can’t possibly come true because America is “on the verge of another Great Awakening.” Therefore, conditions will only encourage evangelicals’ numbers to grow. Yes, Miller talks a lot like Pentecostal women did back in the 80s and 90s.
I suppose we can call these posts a longform Appeal to But-Jesus-Would-NEVER.
At least some evangelicals liked Spencer’s post
Jeff Riddle, a Calvinist pastor, wasn’t thrilled to read Spencer’s post, but he agreed overall with it (archive). In particular, he agrees that evangelicals have failed to fully and effectively indoctrinate their children.
S. Michael Craven, who works to promote evangelicalism (archive) as America’s dominant worldview, liked it because it made him feel totally persecuted (archive) by meaniepie heathens:
The defeat of same-sex marriage (SSM) in California, followed by the legalization of SSM in conservative midwestern Iowa, reminds us that the battle to redefine marriage is far from over. The rapid and massive extension of government power suddenly threatens our most basic individual liberties. Growing segments of the American populace are being seduced by Marxist-socialistic ideas and schemes. Emboldened hostility toward religion-as in the case of Connecticut, in which lawmakers put forth legislation to “reorganize” the Catholic church-and an unprecedented economic disaster have all combined, making proclamations of collapse credible[. . .]
When someone’s been dominant for as long as evangelicals have, they inevitably perceive any chipping-away of their power as persecution. Like Spencer, Craven certainly doesn’t want evangelicals to stop grabbing for power. Both men just want evangelicals to do it in a more Jesusy way. As well, both men are convinced that if evangelicals would only Jesus harder, everything would be fine again.
William Lane Craig, a big-name apologist, agrees on both counts (archive). He thinks if evangelicals start Jesusing like they should, evangelicalism will stop being so “superficial.” However, he disagrees that new churches are “fragile.” Maybe ickie liberal mainline churches are, but not TRUE CHRISTIAN™ evangelical churches!
And the years passed, one by one, closer to evangelicals’ realization of decline
That was all in 2009, the year Spencer’s opinion piece came out. But evangelicals couldn’t forget what he’d predicted. He’d hit too close to home with it. He’d laid bare all the whispered secrets evangelicals knew but didn’t dare discuss.
In 2010, we find people at Reddit’s atheism community hoping Spencer’s predictions (archive) come true. Its top commenter, “chwilliam,” has this to say:
Christians really became a problem in the US recently (80s) when they started pushing against cultural shifts. They had been in the faith closet for years on major issues and generally weren’t politically active until the neocons pushed some of the bigger church leaders to politicize their congregations. Now that things like anti-gay marriage positions are on par with the gospel in some cases, the foundation will start crumbling when people’s kids realize that gay people aren’t evil penis thieves with rape claws.
I want that last bit on a shirt. On my coffee mug. On the cat’s ears. Everywhere.
In 2011, we find Shane Raynor at Ministry Matters writing about the post (archive). Raynor asserts that evangelicalism itself is doing just fine. Instead, it’s evangelicals’ reputation that needs some help:
From my perspective, evangelicalism is doing fine, but the term evangelical has seen better days. I see no evidence that the core elements of evangelical theology (conversion, evangelism, Biblical authority, and the centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) are in decline. The word evangelical, however, is now a loaded term in American culture, because it has unfortunately become associated with conservative politics and the Republican party in recent years.
He references a then-new Pew Research poll (archive) indicating that evangelicals were continuing to decline in cultural dominance. Then, he admonishes evangelicals to quit fighting about nonessential doctrinal stuff, focus more on “changing hearts” than grabbing for power, maintain optimism, “stop whining,” and use the word “evangelical” only as an adjective and not a noun. In fact, he’d rather evangelicals not call themselves that at all, given how much most people despise evangelicalism. He wants evangelicals to still totally be evangelicals, yes, but to stealth their way through society.
In 2012, a Calvinist at Near Emmaus notes two other blog posts (archive) besides Spencer’s that predict a decline for evangelicals. Of note, one is from a Calvinist who joined Catholicism.
Jumping ahead to the 2020s, we find evangelicals arguing with their decline
In 2020 and shortly before the blog closed for good, the iMonk writers assessed their departed leader’s predictions (archive). “Chaplain Mike” offered updates from a number of the sources we’ve already seen today, including one from Mark Galli in 2019 called “The Heart of the Evangelical Crisis” (archive). In it, Galli writes:
I was skeptical at the time he wrote this, and said so in print. But today I admit that Spencer was more right than he was wrong. Recent events and surveys bear out many of his predictions. We truly are in a moment of crisis in the American evangelicalism… contemporary evangelicalism is in serious trouble.
Galli blamed the decline, of course, on evangelicals’ insufficient Jesusing; he quotes Alexander Solzhenitsyn as saying, “We have forgotten God.” It’s an interesting post; Galli confesses that for years, he didn’t Jesus correctly at all—even as the editor of Christianity Today. He also notes that increasing numbers of evangelicals were eschewing the label and going stealth as “followers of Jesus” or just “Christians.”
In 2023, some guy named Rick Clough wrote an entire paper addressing Spencer’s 2009 post, Kevin DeYoung’s response at TGC, and iMonk’s 2020 followup. A Rod Dreher-approved apologetics site, The Areopagus, used it this past February (archive) in a seminar called “Frontline Apologetics.” (We might talk about that seminar later on, because it sounds like an absolute hoot.) In his paper, Clough concludes that Spencer was right about a lot of things, and that other evangelicals are right to fret over evangelicals’ diminishing cultural power. He also gets very heated up about the notion of public schools being schoolchildren’s version of “church,” in a stunning display of the Law of Conservation of Worship:
Our children have been going to church:
Their desk in the classroom is the pew
The lectern the pulpit
The preacher their teacher who is the agent of “change”.
Oh. My. DOG, that is amazingly cringey and stupid. Schools are nothing of the sort. Children have been attending public school for generations and graduating from them as fervent Christians for life. But Clough’s bad comparison does illustrate just how furious evangelicals are that they’re not allowed to indoctrinate children in public schools anymore. They know exactly what’s at stake.
Clough ends his paper by asserting that The Big Problem here is evangelicalism’s increasing “impotence” as a cultural force. To recover their power, they must Jesus harder than they have ever Jesused before! Then evangelicalism can’t possibly collapse!
(With that, the seminar just advanced a few steps closer to our agenda.)
And yet, it
It doesn’t seem like evangelicals disavowed Michael Spencer after he wrote his 2009 post. They quibbled with or accepted various points he made, but he didn’t find himself thrown outside to the wolves or anything. But the overall impression I get from reviewing reactions both in 2009 and afterward is that evangelicals have always had a hard time imagining their flavor of Christianity becoming culturally irrelevant.
They’re an authoritarian crowd, after all. Moreover, they’re a dysfunctional authoritarian crowd. Their flavor of Christianity has long been unable to fulfill its own stated goals, if it ever could accomplish them. Nowadays, evangelical groups largely exist to funnel power and money to their leaders. But in an atmosphere of voluntary affiliation, those leaders are having a tougher and tougher time finding willing followers.
Despite their insistences and their proclamations and their Jesus-errific euphoria bursts, their decline is still happening. It reminds me of something attributed to Galileo after Catholic leaders forced him to recant his astronomical theories. He did recant to save his own life, but then is thought to have said, “And yet it moves.” Galileo meant that no matter what anyone said or didn’t say, the Earth still moves around the Sun—not vice versa as Catholic leaders insisted.
Similarly, evangelicals increasingly find themselves helpless to stop their own decline. It doesn’t matter if they accept that decline or not; it’s still happening regardless. Every time one of them offers up Jesusing harder as the solution to their decline, like this guy Carey Nieuwhof did, it just reminds me—as I hope it does all of us—that somehow, evangelicals have completely failed to take that advice for fourteen years at least.
Let me repeat that:
Somehow, the self-styled representatives of a living god have—for many years now—utterly failed to Jesus hard enough to save their own flavor of Christianity from irrelevance.
And now they’re out of time.
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