The evangelical future

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The new ARIS strongly suggests that a kind of generic evangelicalism is fast becoming the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in America. By far the fastest growing segment of American Christendom are the “non-denominationals,” who were only .1 percent of the adult population in 1990 and are 3.5 percent now. Combine them with those who insist they are just “Christians” or just “born again/evangelical” and you’ve got about as many of these generics as you do those who identify with the mainline denominations. Or looked at another way, there’s the 34 percent who say yes when you ask if they identify as born again or evangelical–including 18 percent of Catholics and 39 percent of mainliners. Whatever exactly they mean by that, most seem to be taking on the coloration.

Being the default mode means, of course, that you tend to lose your edge, and within the evangelical world there’s been a certain amount of hand-wringing about this evangelical regression to the mean. It means that lukewarmness is taking over and, yup, we better have revival. This gene is part of American Protestant DNA. In 1958, Union Seminary’s Henry Pitney Van Dusen wrote an article about the Pentecostals he’d discovered in the Caribbean (identified as the “third force” in world Christianity) that was as much as anything else a critique of the allegedly plump, bland, suburbanized Protestantism of the postwar Eisenhower era.

It is in the spirit of Van Dusen that Michael Spencer’s article in yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor, “The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” should be seen. Just as in all American jeremiads, it not only denounces the backsliding but also holds out hope for the future, if we would just get back to the original program. Pay no attention to the reaction of Andrew Sullivan, whose grasp of American evangelicalism is, as usual, very weak. Sullivan charges it with failing to “engage modernity.” Spencer and company’s critique is just the opposite–that evangelicalism has embraced modernity only too thoroughly, losing the gospel in the process.

American evangelicalism today may be a big fat blob. But on the verge of collapse? Don’t kid yourself.