If you’ve been reading our coverage of major voices within the rapidly evolving evangelical realm — people like N.T. Wright, Ken Wilson, Tony Campolo, Rob Bell and Phyllis Tickle — then your first reaction to the title of Christine Wicker’s new book may be: I disagree!
The title dramatically proclaims that we’re witnessing:
“The Fall of the Evangelical Nation.”
Flipping inside Christine’s book, if you’re browsing in a bookstore, you’ll find that the title extends into some fairly strident claims in the opening pages. You’ll find lines like this:
“Evangelical Christianity in America is dying. … Even as evangelical forces trumpet their purported political and social victories, insiders are anguishing about their great losses, fearing what the future holds. Nobody knows what to do about it. A lot of people can’t believe it. No wonder. The idea that evangelicals are taking over America is one of the greatest publicity scams in history, a perfect coup accomplished by savvy politicos and religious leaders, who understand media weaknesses and exploit them brilliantly.
“I’m a religion reporter, which means I should have known long ago. I suspected, but there was so much hubbub, so much fanfare, and the evangelical story was so rich, so full of nuts and cranks and power mongers, scandals, outlandish tales, and heart-felt stories of amazing grace.
“On the surface, their story was rock solid.”
Well, it’s not so rock solid anymore.
And, just as Christine is hitting bookstores with her take on the rapidly changing landscape — a host of evangelical writers are hitting the bookshelves right along with her.
Heck, it’s not just these writers. The Associated Press is reporting on the dramatic change transforming this once fearsomely aggressive religious coalition. If you missed it, here are excerpts from the AP story that broke recently:
“The number of people baptized in Southern Baptist churches fell for the third straight year in 2007 to the denomination’s lowest level since 1987, and membership dipped slightly as well.
“The president of the Southern Baptist Convention blamed the decline in part on a perception that its followers are ‘mean-spirited, hurtful and angry.'”
And, then, skipping down a little further into the AP story, the Rev. Frank Page, the convention’s president, explained the problem this way:
“Our culture is increasingly antagonistic and sometimes adverse to a conversation about a faith in Christ. Sometimes that’s our fault because we have not always presented a winsome Christian life that would engender trust and a desire on the part of many people to engage in a conversation on the Gospel. All Southern Baptists should recommit to a life of loving people and ministering to people without strings attached so people will be more open to hearing the Gospel message.”
I’m not quite sure what Page means by “winsome” — but he is sounding a lot like Ken Wilson, except that Ken and other prophetic evangelical leaders want to pull this whole movement a whole lot further than just “winsome” conversations. It’s time to rebuild the pillars of the movement, many prophets are arguing.
So, Christine’s claims may be a little over the top. When she writes, “Nobody knows what to do about it” — it’s obvious that a whole host of people think they know what to do about it. That’s why we’re seeing this vanguard of prophetic voices flooding the public square.
But here’s where Christine is right on target:
Whatever leaders like Campolo, Wright, Wilson and Bell are proclaiming about their desire to lead people toward a new form of Christianity — the fact is that they’re not necessarily leading. At their best, they’re standing in a moving river of smart men and women who once served as the sturdy army of followers in the evangelical movement. Today, those followers are feeling empowered to talk openly about some things they’ve believed for a long time.
Deep in her book, Christine writes: “Losing young people is an old story, but the dissenters I was meeting were of a different, even more alarming kind. They were not lightweight kids trying out different ways of being, as I had been when I left evangelical faith. These were church stalwarts whose Bibles were so well thumbed that the pages curled, midlife Christians being drawn out of evangelical faith by their own, Bible-inspired, deepest values, sometimes ones they hadn’t realized they had.”
When I telephoned Christine to talk about her book, she said, “This is a major change. People are not looking at authority figures like they used to. And across the board in American faith, people are trusting their experience much more than they were willing to admit before.”
She gave me an example of this trend involving a Southern Baptist pastor in Texas — and members of his church.
“My friend is a Southern Baptist preacher in Texas and he stood up and preached a sermon to his congregation that said the gift Jesus died to give us — he gave to everyone and nobody even has to believe that to get in on it,” Christine said.
The sermon was daring. In an earlier era, it could have led to the pastor’s ouster to proclaim that even non-believers have a place in God’s plan of salvation.
I asked Christine what happened after that sermon.
She was very curious herself, she said. “He sent me a copy of the sermon. I asked him what kind of reaction he got and he wrote back and said: Very positive.
“This preacher is a lifelong Southern Baptist and he preached a sermon like that. I’m just stunned when I hear stuff like that. He’s preaching universalism. And he told me a member of his congregation came up to him and said, ‘I’m so relieved to hear you say this, pastor, because I’ve always believed this, but I was afraid to say it out loud.’
“When I talk about a ‘fall,’ that’s really what I’m talking about,” she said. “People are saying things they never dared to say before — sometimes quietly and sometimes not so quietly, like my friend preaching it from the pulpit. That’s dramatic change. People say to me: ‘Evangelicals will be around for a long time.’
“And I say: ‘Yeah, that’s true. But will they still be doing and saying and believing what we’ve thought evangelicals believed?'”
Now, reading these comments from Christine and these brief snippets from her book, you may still be skeptical. But, here at ReadTheSpirit, we’re seeing many of the same signals on the horizon that Christine is spotting.
Re-read our Conversation With Robert Short, who for decades was a darling among evangelicals and mainliners alike for his gospel lessons taken from “Peanuts.” In his 70s, Short is founding a new movement within Christianity dedicated to proclaiming that there’s no Hell — and no one needs to fear hellfire and brimstone, anymore.
You still may think that’s an eccentric example — but stay tuned to ReadTheSpirit until next week, when our Conversation With J. Philip Newell unveils a startling new voice coming from the neo-Celtic community in the UK. Once again, the neo-Celtic folks have been darlings of both evangelicals and mainliners for what appears to be their celebration of ancient Christian traditions.
Well, some of those ancient traditions will surprise American evangelicals. (The Newell Conversation runs next Wednesday.)
Since she’s a veteran journalist herself, I asked Christine what she sees on the horizon — what she would advise Americans who care about the shape of the Christian church.
“Well, I would start by telling mainline Christians to regroup and stop thinking you’re just second-class citizens,” she said. “Stop believing the myth of the hegemony of the far-right evangelicals — and start realizing that you’ve got important work to do for Christianity.
“I hope and believe that many people are moving past the idea that Christianity is the only way to be saved and that fear is the only way to make people become Christians,” she said.
“What we’re talking about here is a very hard idea for many Christians to accept: that there’s anything left to the faith if we take away those two things — exclusivity and fear. People are afraid that, if we take away those two things, there’s nothing left to offer.
“For years, I was afraid that as Christians we needed fear and exclusivity. Now, I’m realizing we don’t need those things. I’m finally seeing how deep Jesus’ teachings truly go — and how much they animate my life without fear, without anger, without exclusive claims that everyone else is lost.”
Here’s why this is such an exciting conversation!
After reading about Christine Wicker’s book today, Ken Wilson (who we wrote about yesterday) continued the discussion his own blog today.
Tell us what you think, please! Click on the “Comment” link at the end of the online version of our story. Or, you Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly.