I don’t remember which year of college it was when a little lightbulb went off in my brain about the future of American Christianity. Just as the middle class is evaporating in the American economy, so is the ‘middle class’ of nominal Christianity—in the words of Jesus, people are becoming either ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ rather than ‘lukewarm.’
Evangelicalism has served a good purpose for many people in recent centuries, but just like all manmade movements, it has run its course and the good it promises for the future may be dim. You can Google ‘evangelicalism is dying’ and find a plethora of articles defending that claim as well as rebutting it using statistics and surveys, but what I want to do here is present more of a personal reflection than an analytical prediction.
One thing I have discovered as someone who grew up in the evangelical circle is that there is a lot of good to be gleaned from it. There is a lot of good to come from encouraging people to be born again, read their Bibles, pray often, and maintain a loving relationship with the man Jesus Christ. However, over the past several decades, the word has slid into a season of upheaval, and it is more of a weaponized put-down than a descriptor of people doing those things.
I recently talked with someone who also grew up in evangelical circles but had a vastly different experience than my own. I grew up the son of a ‘non-denominational’ pastor and had a wonderful experience of grace, love, acceptance, and seeking the truth of God’s Word. Turns out this is not the story for everyone, which has morphed the word ‘evangelical’ into a slight against a certain group of people. This person pointed out that in pursuit of truth, his pastors and other leaders neglected Christ’s teachings of love and grace in favor of theological dogmas. He was treated badly in the name of evangelical doctrines—not because the doctrines themselves were corrupt, but because the humans who applied them were sinful.
Pain causes all of us to think irrationally and twist our vision of truth or reason, and that’s a very valid reason to leave a relationship or abusive local church. But more often than not, I have seen people use pain or abuse as a reason for Christianity to be an awful, terrible system.
I work at a school which had to fire its English teacher last year because he was flirting with the middle schoolers. Does this episode mean that the entire school was founded on principles encouraging pedophilia back when it opened in the 60’s? Of course not! Yet this is the logic often applied by people (millennials especially, in my experience) leaving the church in favor of a more accepting theology. Someone mistreated them, and rather than acknowledging that it was an individual, or a small pocket of people, acting harmfully, they throw the baby out with the bathwater and assume that the entire system was corrupt from the beginning.
In the same conversation with the progressive person, I brought up Islam, and how from its inception, it is a religion predicated on violence and therefore, (to put it lightly) a bad system, period. What was his response? “Yah, well Christians have also done violence in the name of religion like the crusades…” This is the exact same logical fallacy as assuming my whole school is abusive merely because one teacher was. It’s a logic which assumes that back in the 1960’s, the founder created it in the hopes that the teachers would hit on the students. Sounds ridiculous, right?
When we talk about Islam vs. Christianity, we can’t judge them by how the practitioners live, but by their founding principles. Look no further than their founders: Muhammad led 86 battles in his lifetime to expand his Muslim empire by bloodshed. Jesus led 0 battles in His lifetime and the only blood He ever shed was His own on behalf of His persecutors. The differences seem obvious.
But back to my point.
Several years ago, I was talking with a friend who told me I’ll have to lower my standards for a spouse because—in her words—no one was ‘as Christian’ as me. It grosses me out to type that, because there is nothing special about me as some sort of super-Christian. I read the Bible, I pray, go to church, and I sin a LOT. The fault in my friend’s thinking is that there is some sort of spiritual hierarchy which we participate in based on our merits.
In other words, the majority of people in America who call themselves Christians are less ‘Christian’ than they are ‘moralistic therapeutic deists.’ It sounds complicated, but it’s pretty simple when you break down those three words:
moralistic: There is some sense of morality associated with your behaviors. You need to do good and avoid doing bad. The more good you do, the better your chances of reaping rewards, either now or in the eschaton (next life).
therapeutic: It feels good to do the right thing, and you can pat yourself on the back when you do something good. Your conscience is clean and you can look around (or down) at your fellow man, happy that you are a doer of good.
deism: You associate all of this with some sort of transcendent entity (but most of the effort to better yourself is done by you).
Sound like the majority of ‘Christians’ you know? When evangelicalism began in the 1800’s, its goal was to love people, especially the poor, promote biblical literacy, and genuinely point people toward deeper relationship with Christ. Now, however, the term has been wed to political platforms and become an umbrella for any group of Christians seeking the comfort of a denomination without the restriction of oversight.
When my friend said I’d have a hard time finding a spouse if I didn’t lower my standards, she may have inadvertently revealed the truth about a lot of people in America calling themselves Christian: That they don’t even adhere to the basic tenets and practices of Christianity. According to one study, the number of self-proclaimed Christians who do the basic practices (Bible, prayer, church, adhere to creeds, etc.) can be whittled down to 3.7% of the American population.
The word ‘evangelicalism’ is not found in the Bible, so I don’t feel remorse over its decline. The New Testament uses two words primarily to describe genuine followers of Christ: Christians and ‘followers of the way.’ I like these because they are generally vague and demand definition from outsiders. In other words, they invite conversation, whereas ‘evangelical’ automatically boxes you in, aligning you with a now-dogmatic string of beliefs. Not to mention, evangelicals put Trump in office which assumes the elevation of his political party to that of the kingdom of God. If the kingdom of God is truly transcendent and not of this world, no political party can hope to so widely align with it.
For instance, republicans tend to hold fast to the pro-life platform. I’m heavily pro-life and believe humanity begins at conception, but find that often, republicans ignore basic facts, like how outlawing them will not reduce the number of abortions performed, it will only make them more risky. There are also studies which reveal that legalizing abortions actually reduces the number performed each year. As a category, evangelicals seem to resist ideas like these and (ironically) cling to their version of safe spaces, which are pro-life candidates, the political right, and so on. (The sad bottom line is, many people don’t like to think too much on either side of the aisle…).
I see the decline of evangelicalism as a system to generally be a good thing, and here’s why. It eliminates the middle class, so to speak, therefore forcing people to choose a side. Either you are a Christian who knows God’s Word, wrestles with it, and tries your best to live it out; or you are not. You are secular or you are Christian. There soon will not be the gray, amorphous umbrella term of ‘evangelicalism’ to hide under, forcing people to think more dynamically, define their beliefs, and either live out their faith or abandon it.
Christianity thrives in the counter-culture, and the coming years may press it back into that form, likening it more closely to the Christianity witnessed in the Bible. A Christianity which stands up to oppressive power and gets people killed; a Christianity people are actually willing to die for.