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The Coming Collapse of Evangelicalism

May 4, 2009
S. Michael Craven
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This was the title of a recent article by popular blogger Michael Spencer (aka Internet Monk) published in the Christian Science Monitor. The article received widespread media coverage, resulting in a potential book deal and hundreds of speaking invitations for the author. Within hours of its online posting, I received dozens of e-mails generally asking, “Have you seen this?” I spoke with many of my peers, who experienced a similar reaction through their respective ministries. In the weeks following, there were countless references to this article on radio and in print. I have rarely seen such a swift and sweeping reaction, which begs the question, What was it about this fatalistic statement that generated so much reaction?  

First, I don’t think anyone could have imagined the dramatic social, political, and economic changes that have unfolded in the last six months, changes that have shaken many of our most basic assumptions. 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, giving credence to Spencer’s opening statement:

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.

Second, there is, I believe, a growing sense among more and more Christians that there is something seriously off the mark in contemporary American evangelicalism. Spencer offers a number of plausible factors that resonate with these concerns, the first of which is:

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.

Spencer continues, “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.”

Notice that Spencer does not say we shouldn’t be invested in these “moral, social, and political issues.” We absolutely should. He simply points out that these activities pursued in the name of Christ apart from a biblical, incarnational faith are doomed to fail and will possibly obscure authentic Christian faith.

He’s absolutely right. I think this is the direct result of what I describe as “culturalized” Christianity—this watered-down, domesticated faith that is more Americanized civil religion than biblical Christianity. This “civil religion” could be described as an overarching emphasis on conservative politics, patriotism, nationalism and the like. While these values in and of themselves are not bad (I share them myself) and might even be consistent with the Christian worldview, they are not the focus of Christianity. They are not the gospel of the kingdom. One effect of this culturalization is that there are many in the church today who are more committed to preserving the values of Christianity than they are to following the Christ of Christianity.

Theological Illiteracy

In 2001, researcher George Barna warned, “The Christian body in America is immersed in a crisis of biblical illiteracy.” According to Barna’s research, the most widely known “Bible verse” among adult and teen believers is “God helps those who help themselves.” Seriously!

Less than one out of every ten believers possess a biblical worldview, meaning practically that 90 percent of professing Christians neither comprehend or know how to apply the most basic Christian theological understanding to their lives. (Among young adults ages 18-23, it’s less than one percent.)

David Wells declares in his book No Place for Truth, “I have watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy.” I would add, this theological illiteracy extends to our understanding of the gospel itself, which has adversely affected the Christian’s understanding of his very purpose and mission in life. This, as much as anything else, is likely responsible for the church’s continuing decline, both in numbers and affect.

According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, the percentage of people who call themselves in some way Christian has dropped more than 11 percent in a single generation. So many Americans now claim no religion at all that this category now outranks every other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists. Additional research indicates that “40 percent of 16- to 29-year-olds” are already “outside the church” and only a small fraction of those currently within the church will remain (David Kinnaman, unChristian [Baker Books: Grand Rapids, MI], 18).

While on the surface, none of this appears to be good news, if evangelicalism as we know it does indeed collapse then I agree with Spencer’s consolation that “we can rejoice that in the ruins, new forms of Christian vitality and ministry will be born.” Clearly something must change, and perhaps that is precisely what God is doing in these days. Are we prepared for this? Are we willing to suffer for Christ’s sake? Might it be that the light shines brightest in the darkness?

No one knows if Michael Spencer’s prediction will come to pass; nor does he claim to speak with prophetic certainty. Nonetheless, since judgment begins within the house of God, there is an imperative for self-examination in the light of Scripture—for the sake of our souls, the kingdom of God, and yes, our nation—because faith in Christ compels us to be concerned for the real world in which we live.  

© 2009 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : Patrick Haley  

May 3, 2009 7:23 AM


this explains a lot!

Response from : Ran  

May 3, 2009 11:32 PM

About "evangelical collapse" Why didnt you attempt a scriptural answer? If we continue to ignore "the least of these" nor love them ALL, is not the collapse inevitable?

Response from : Ran  

May 3, 2009 11:38 PM

and by the way. I think someone DOES know and shouldn't we be asking Him instead of bloggers?
R.U. vol prison chaplain

Response from : Starr Scott  

May 4, 2009 9:22 AM

I think Spencers article became viral because it rings true with something inside of American Christians right now. We sense a shift. We are all sorta' "shaking in our boots" as it is. I pretty much see all the signs of "evangelical collapse" Spencer speaks of. I live in a college town, and unquestionably, there is a sense among young adults that Christianity is passe' and for "old folks." It is sad, but true. Yet right next door to me is a Christian ministry that is reaching this same group in a vibrant fresh way. I tend to think God is rebuilding the foundation of American Christianity through these times that are becoming less and less friendly to Christians. The church that survives will soon be more of an amorphous, community thing and less a "Sunday sit in the pews and listen up" thing.

Response from : Cecilia Dean  

May 4, 2009 9:50 AM

Thank you for this article. I read the Spencer article several weeks ago, and admit it has bothered me to the core. I am praying for pastors, preachers, teachers of the Word of God to listen to Him and bring His word to His people, because I'm not hearing it from the pulpit today...except for a few. Except for you. I look forward to the coming weeks. I want to be true to Him until He comes. I want to know how to serve Him effectively and communicate who He is to others who don't know Him. I'm tired of "formulas". I don't want to be one of the walking dead in churches in our country. Thanks again.

Response from : Chris Sinclair  

May 4, 2009 10:01 AM

While Christians may endlessly debate whether this entirely correct, it is obvious that somehow we have gotten terribly off track. While the causes, whether defense of marriage or protection of life are of great importance, it does seem as if we to some extent use issues to justify our churches. I can sometimes sense the guilt trip placed upon members if they are not engaged with an issue at the "appropriate" level. This, of course, is often done at the expense of the gospel message, as if the issue were more important than the gospel behind our actions. Yet, the truth is that it is the gospel that should compel us to be actively engaged in the social and political issues of the world. Issues will wax and wane in their intensity, but the salvation offered through Christ will always be of the utmost importance.

Response from : P Gardner  

May 4, 2009 10:29 AM

Recently I was attending a business meeting with no connection to the church or religious activities.
I overheard a conversation that took place two rows ahead of me. A caucasian man was talking with a black man. The first fellow determined that the 2nd was a preacher so he began to recite his "spiritual credentials". He had been a member of (liberal church then this liberal church) then he was a "Born-Again Baptist for ten years, Then (liberal church) and now he's a Unitarian. No wonder our evangelical churches are ineffective. They fail to even examine their membership to ascertain their qualifications nor to develop discipleship programs to help the members grow to maturity.
What can be done to stem the tide?

Response from : Peggy  

May 4, 2009 12:06 PM


This is the hardest thing for "churched" people to get their head around.

We have been so insulated by "success," nationally, denominationally, culturally, that we cannot begin to imagine anything of pandemic proportions--beyond our will and control.

No problem finding fodder for prayer...

Response from : Karyn Brownlee  

May 4, 2009 1:56 PM

Great article, Michael! Preach it! I had so many thoughts, I decided to blog them rather than post a novel on your site. Please read my follow-up at

Keep battling!

Response from : Thomas Peck  

May 4, 2009 3:58 PM

Firts things look "bleak" but I look back on when "W" was first elected. The demise of "liberalism" and the power of "evangelicals" was touted as long-standing policies were "turned back". Man cannot thwart God, though he can make a policy that tries to do this.

What I do think is happening is that God is doing a "thinning" of His church which occurs every now and then as man, in his sin, drifts from God and makes the church an institution and not a body.

We should also not forget that we are in the end times and these set-backs could simply be more signs of His return.

Our hope needs to always continue in Christ, not in our churches or our leaders (ooh and ahhing over Rick Warren is one of Time's top 100 most influencial people - just like Billy Graham was but no longer is). God is working on His schedule and we are called to be His ambassadors, His children. Maybe God is just saying to us "look, I allowed you to be too comfortable in this foreign land - to the point that you have blended into the landscape" so He wants to remind the church that it is about Him and Him glorified - not about who is elected and what is the policy.

The church will rise on following its primary function - to worship Him and Him alone. Maybe "evangelicalism" lost sight of that. if so, good riddance!

Response from : Sally  

May 4, 2009 6:29 PM

Woah! In my own eschology I have been waiting for this "perfect storm" to arise in America. There will be a great persecution, a falling away, and before the coming of the Lord a purification of His Bride. It is time for us to make our stand as followers of Christ alone, come what may. We can no longer be lukewarm, but we must be purposeful.
Evangelicalism in America meeting an untimely demise may in fact be just what God has purposed. And out of the ashes the Church will emerge with new passion and fortitude. The prospect is both scary and thrilling. I can't wait to read the followup articles.

Response from : Merryl Vaughan  

May 4, 2009 7:18 PM

I have been reading (some) of your emailed articles with interest.
I agree- to know God's Word is our foundational strength.
"You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free."
"Your Word is truth." and

Response from : Valarie  

May 4, 2009 9:06 PM

I think that it is no surprise that evangelicalism is collapsing. Christian believers, in general, are not seeking God with all their heart, all their mind, all their soul, and all their strength. Additionally, many (most?) children of believing Christians are receiving a godless education. It is critical to passing the faith to the next generation that every child of believing parents receive a Christ-centered education - not possible in the public schools. God's children should not be in pharoah's schools, for as God says in His word, we become like our teachers.

Response from : Kenneth Tremble  

May 5, 2009 2:34 AM

Dear Michael, I hope that the Pastors of the Remaining Faithful Remnant are preparing them for the Persecutions & Tribulations that are coming upon them before Yeshua comes for HIS Bride.

Response from : Travis Vaad  

May 5, 2009 6:38 AM

I felt like something I believe the Holy Spirit showed me goes along with your article and insight. One day I heard the Lord say "Lazarus Church." I believe the church today is like Lazarus. Lazarus was a friend of Jesus. Jesus loved Lazarus. When Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick I am sure he wanted to go to Lazarus and heal him, but he felt like the Father was saying to wait. The end outcome would bring God more glory in the long run. Lazarus being raised from the dead was going to shake things up and the one true God would be glorified.

Today I believe the church is like Lazarus. We are sick in many ways, infected with self-centeredness, pride and many other things. Jesus has had to step back and let it run it's course. The Lazarus church is going to have to die but then Jesus will show up on the scene and resurrect his bride. It will be glorious and the real Bride of Christ will arise more alive than ever.

Travis Vaad/Strait Arrow Ministries

Response from : alice J. Gonsalves  

May 29, 2009 1:39 PM

This is amazing truth. Sometimes I have been shocked by the militancy of Christians when it comes to political issues, moral issues in the world, etc. But they can't seem to tell me of their faith and their love for Jesus. They can't tell me of their heartbreak over persecution in China. They can't tell me that they are neglecting things because they are compelled to study God's Word so they can be equipped to be Christ followers to those who are lost in sin and ignorance. I want to make those around me curious about this Jesus I love so much; curious about how I came to this faith that has so impacted my life and the life of my family. I am fortunate. I attend a church that teaches the Bible and only the Bible. I am asked to pray for God's perfect plan in this world that is in so much pain. Loving Jesus has made me want to know Him intimately and please Him in everything I do. I fail often, but I continue on this journey and growing, growing, growing in faith and obedience. Bless you.


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