Jim Hinch argues in The American Scholar that evangelicalism is on the decline in America. This thesis is not new. He’s accessing trends in polling data that evangelicals have been aware of for years. The article focuses on the demise of Robert Schuller and his Crystal Cathedral as a parable of what’s happening in evangelicalism writ large. Hinch then argues that Rob Bell’s flight from the pastorate and from his own megachurch is a leading indicator of where younger evangelicals are trending. In short, they’re leaving the movement. And in Bell’s case in particular, they’re leaving the church altogether. Hinch writes:
Yet, like so many younger evangelicals, Bell grew disenchanted with church. By the time he wrote Love Wins, he was already fantasizing about Southern California, where he had attended graduate school. Bell doesn’t go to church in Laguna Beach. He and some friends from college have formed a quasi-intentional spiritual community, gathering in one anothers’ homes to worship and talk about faith.
…”I was the pastor of a megachurch, and lots of people came, and I did book tours and interviews and films. That’s fine. But I’ll take seeing God every day, which is washing dishes with my kids and walking my dog and interacting with someone I just met.”
I don’t know what a “quasi-intentional spiritual community” is, but it doesn’t much sound like a church. Apparently, it didn’t sound like one to Hinch either.
The fundamental flaw of Hinch’s article, however, is taking the likes of Schuller and Bell as representatives of evangelical trends. I know that there is great disagreement over the definition of “evangelical,” and the issues here are complex. But if evangelicalism has any theological identity at all (I’m thinking here of the Bebbington quadrilateral), then Schuler and Bell were at best on the margins of the evangelical movement. They were not leading lights. In fact by the time Bell and Schuller were winding up their ministries, they were not recognized as evangelical by many who remain committed to the authority of scripture, the necessity of personal conversion, and the great commission mandate. In short, countless evangelicals did not recognize them as evangelical. Yes, evangelicalism is in a numeric decline, but I question whether Bell and Schuller are truly representative of what is going on in actual evangelical churches.
I’ll let you read the article for yourself and see if you agree with my take. In any case, it seems to me that a profile of bona fide evangelicals might help us to understand what is happening in contemporary evangelicalism. Focusing on those who have left the movement and who no longer attend church is bound to give a skewed portrait.
(HT: Scot McKnight)