Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Evangelical collapse?

(BUMPED; UPDATES BELOW) I linked this in the headlines after seeing it in Hot Air Headlines, but wanted also to discuss Michael Spencer's Christian Science Monitor article, which includes this point:
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. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.
Spencer does not mention Julia Duin's important new book, Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do about It, but it seems clear to me -- if to no one else -- that he's read it. So I'll begin by putting a mark against Spencer for failure to acknowledge his source.

There are many sources of the problems that Spencer (and Julia Duin) discuss, and the failure of churches to rigorously teach the Bible to kids is the nut of the whole thing. When I was a kid growing up in the Baptist church, "Sword Drill" was a big event.

"Sword Drill" took its name from Ephesians 6:17, where Christians are commanded to employ "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." So us kids were literally drilled in Bible memorization. I was by no means a good student, but some of it took, and the constant repetition of Bible study engrained in my mind -- as I am sure it did with others -- a solid core of biblical knowledge. It also developed a mindset that the Bible was an authoritative source.

This was reinforced during the sermons preached by Pastor Marion Beavers. If there are any others out there who grew up in Lithia Springs (Ga.) First Baptist Church back in the '60s and '70s, you know that "Preacher Beavers" (which was how he was addressed) was a first-class Bible preacher.

By the term "Bible preacher," I refer to a sermon style that seems to have faded in the past three decades. The preacher kept the Bible in his hand, or open on the lectern, throughout the sermon. However he organized his sermon, it began with a reference to a specific biblical passage -- the Verse of the Day, which was listed in the program -- and was further elaborated with references to other verses.

"Turn with me now . . ." was a phrase repeated endlessly during the sermon. The people in the pews were expected to have their own Bibles and, as the preacher proceeded to cite "chapter and verse," the people would turn the pages to follow his references and read for themselves. So, whatever the preacher's eloquence contributed to the sermon, the people in the pews could see directly that his preaching was built firmly on a scriptural foundation.

He wasn't just telling you his opinion, he was preaching the Word of God. The reliance was not on the preacher, but on the Bible, so if you subtracted the preacher from the equation, you still had the Bible to guide you. Bible preaching encouraged an autodidactic attitude in the congregation, so that the believer had a proprietary sensibility toward the Word: "This is my Bible, this is my God, this is my faith."

The loss of that covenantal idea of mutual belonging -- you belonged to God, and God belonged to you, and the Bible was an ironclad contract between you -- is at the core of the evangelical decline that Julia Duin describes and which Michael Spencer sees turning into a "collapse" of American evangelicism.

We could talk about many other factors -- e.g., the abandonment of the hymnal in favor of pop-rock "praise music" -- but the shift away from old-fashioned Bible preaching seems to me the key factor in the waning of vital faith in many churches.

UPDATE: Linked at Memeorandum and Outside the Beltway.

UPDATE II: Linked by Donald Douglas, who notes:
Andrew Sullivan, in particular, has a number of posts up cheering all of this, for example, "The Young and the Godless," and "A Coming Evangelical Collapse?"
Sullivan blames these trends on ... wait for it! ... "Christianism," of course.
I'm just waiting for Ace of Spades to take notice of this. Ace has never struck me as a particularly religious man, but if Sully is smiling, Ace is the man to wipe that smile off his face.

UPDATE III: Let me say a word or two in response to the anonymous commenter -- the good ones are always anonymous, eh? -- who said:
Good idea, get rid of contemporary music and bring in madrassa-style Bible drilling. That will bring in the young folk.
The anonymous idiot is not a parent, and has never studied developmental psychology. Four words: Children flourish under discipline.

If you know nothing else about dealing with children, you should try to understand this. My good teachers, my effective Boy Scout leaders, my winning football coaches, the choir, band and drama directors who knew best how to elicit superior performance -- all of these worked with the understanding that discipline has positive value with children.

The failure of "seek-friendly" mega-churches is not an inability to "bring in the young folk," but their unwillingness to apply discipline. After all, "discipline" and "disciple" are words of more than etymological affinity. You cannot build disciples without discipline. "Seeker-friendly" churches indeed attract youth, but they cannot retain them. They're dealing Wonder Bread and Velveeta, when what the kids really need is whole wheat and red meat.

(Note: Anyone accusing me of going "crunchy" will be at risk of a punk-smacking.)


  1. If it makes you feel any better, this style of preaching continues on in a lot of immigrant-heavy churches. I noticed this every Sunday when I was in Korea--plenty of couples, families and individuals walking (in their Sunday Best, of course) to church, carrying their own Bible with them.
    Not sure what this means for the long-term survival of Western Civilization, but I'm optimistic.

  2. Good idea, get rid of contemporary music and bring in madrassa-style Bible drilling. That will bring in the young folk.

  3. Does that include bringing back slavery, halting usury, bringing back Blue Laws, stoning people for working on Saturdays, and allowing men to have multiple wives? I mean, if y'all are gonna bring back the Bible, then I say bring back the Bible without all your pansy compromises with modernity.

  4. I think using the actual passages in the Bible is probably smart for Christian churches. They should also operate classes on Aquinas and Augustine, so people can see how to reason based on principles consonant with those scriptures. I never saw any of that in churches I've been in. It's one reason I rarely bother with church.

    Study of religion in context with philosophy builds better tolerance. It's because philosophy is a discipline that requires both rigor in your own thinking, as well as the ability to read and listen to others without letting rancor and hostility cloud your judgement.

    Contemptuous bullshit like that posted by "Anonymous," above, is what you get when you don't practice making your neurons connect. Studying the basis for your religion, even if it's Global Warming, helps cure that problem.

    You can still be wrong, but you won't sound like a moron.

  5. As the son of a traditional, "holiness" preacher, I found a lot of empathy with your description of church life.

    I almost wrote an essay in response entitled "Easy Spirituality" but became too despondent over my own failings in this regard.

    When I began thinking of those I know who still congregate when the church doors are open I can not think of very many who are not within 10 years of my age. Our generation just does not go to church. It is too easy to get "spirituality" from media sources, which is to say, we do without real religion.

    The mores taught by belonging to a church community, especially regarding family life, are one significant casualty on the path of our trek to an easier spiritual existence. Young families no longer see how older families cope with the travails of life and the counsel of mature parents are lost to emerging couples. Children no longer have their ideas of normal family life reinforced with examples of their church community beyond their own or what they see "in the world."

    As you say, the sense of belonging that church communities bring to families are lost to our culture with the disappearance of traditional Christian churches from our experience.

  6. What an obnoxious ass ... where did you cut-and-paste that atheist liturgy from?

    Does that include bringing back slavery,

    Slavery long predates the Bible and the modern abolition of it was almost entirely the work of Christians and Christendom.

    halting usury,

    Usury is still condemned by the Church.

    bringing back Blue Laws,

    A subject not specifically addressed in the Bible.

    stoning people for working on Saturdays,

    Capital punishment for profanation of Holy Days or Sacred Spaces is also not exactly a concept that Christianity invented. And inconveniently for your prejudiced little mind, your italic words have never been taught by Christianity or practiced by Christendom, for more reasons than I guess you'd even realize if you weren't just copying-and-pasting proof texts.

    Scratch an atheist, find a fundamentalist.

    allowing men to have multiple wives?

    A practice that long predates the Bible, the contemporary abolition of which was almost entirely the work of Christians and Christendom.

    I mean, if y'all are gonna bring back the Bible, then I say bring back the Bible without all your pansy compromises with modernity.

    Oh, my sweet country mouse ... are you under some impression that "modernity" were somehow the property and invention of secularists, as if Christianity had ever a-temporal and a-historic (hint ... it was adaptive LONG LONG LONG before "modernity" ... what an ignorant maroon you are).

  7. Poor catechesis is at the root of idiocy like that of our anonymous posters here, who don't know enough Christianity to even insult it properly. It is partly responsible for the fads for odd religions and Eastern philosophies as people find themselves living in an adult's world but with only a child's understanding of Christianity. As a result they end up comparing, for example, a grown-up's Buddhism with a second grader's Christianity.

    There's no point in attending a church where thousands of years of scholarship and divine revelation are ignored in favor of whatever self-help book the preacher last read, or wrote. That is not going to stand up to the evils of this world.

  8. As I understand it, the modern Evangelical Christian movement revitalized when the Carter Administration attempted to take away the tax exempt status of what the media called "southern white Christian Academies" or Private Christian Schools. If so, even if it's over, that was quite a run. Christianity has a constant history of reinventing itself. As Martin Luther said, first comes despair, which is then overcome through faith.

  9. Someone else blogged about this today, and I thought you might like what he has to say about it:


  10. OOOOMMMMyyyyEverLovinGawdInHeaven.

    Never once in our CPAC chats, did you bring up Marion Beavers and/or Lithia Springs. LaGrange, yes, and other spots in the Peach State, but not Lithia Springs.

    I LIVE IN LITHIA SPRINGS (and attended that church for a while). Raised my babies here.

    Evidently we did not talk ENOUGH - if that is even a possibility for you.

  11. Not only do Yout' flourish under discipline--but so did the Green Bay Packers during Lombardi's era.

  12. The #1 reason evangelicals aren't successful in passing on their beliefs to their children is that their beliefs are wrong. Good riddance.