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)
“I don’t know what a “quasi-intentional spiritual community” is, but it doesn’t much sound like a church”
If you don’t know what it is how can you conclude that it doesn’t sound much like church?
Because it’s not intentional.
That “quasi-intentional spiritual community” sounds a lot like the NT church. Wonder if the author knows about those.
Walking your dog and doing dishes doesn’t sound so much like daily meeting together for prayer, worship, and the Word.
Frank Turk (@Frank_Turk)
It’s not a church. It lacks Scripture and the Sacraments. If they have discipline, you could have fooled me.
I could take you to a lot of evangelical churches that have lost their intentionality : )
I relate with Rob Bell’s quotation. Me: Evangelical, graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary, dedicated to do ministry, “BURNT” BY THE EVANGELICAL LEADERSHIP.
I’m so sorry you have been burnt by evangelical leadership. We (my husband is a pastor) have several friends who have experienced the same. One thing that seminaries are sorely lacking, though, is preparing their students and future pastors for that kind of suffering. After all, Jesus said we would suffer. If even He suffered at the hands of His “friends”, how much more will we? Seminaries have a real opportunity on this subject to teach us how it will help us identify with Christ and make us more like Him so that we are more effective in ministry. They also have the opportunity to teach us that because of His suffering He sympathizes with us in these attacks. This is clearly Scriptural, yet most seminaries neglect this vital aspect of the ministry.
Reinaldo:Who is “the evangelical leadership?”
We are the church. The church is good people and okay people and some pretty bad people. In glory it will be different, but we’re not there yet. We have to keep being intentional and not give up meeting together or encouraging one another. If leaders have burned you, Brother Reinaldo, I encourage you to go out and be the kind of leader you would have liked to have over you.
I got burnt by “evangelical leaders” in a church, but thankfully my life, my purpose and the surety of my status as a child of the Living God does not depend upon the frail and sometimes deeply flawed workings of man, even those who are also called by His name. Thankfully, my foundation rests upon Christ and my security is found in the fortress of my Lord and my God who loved me and gave His life for me. The life I live is not determined by frail and flawed men, but in Christ who works all things for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. I now have the privilege to serve Him in another church where the bonds of love and unity among His people are rooted is something far bigger than ourselves because we serve an awesome and gracious God!
Thats awesome Scott. I think there are many young evangelicals who after having their first conflict with church leadership, immediately claim to have been “burned” and then proceed to use that as a excuse to sin. Way to hang in their and realize not all Christians are like the ones who failed you.
Did Bell take that Piper tweet literally?
I know I’m not the brightest bulb on the christmas tree but this little quote just made me think a bit:
“Bell told me. “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.”
It’s so curious to me about how our celebrities are and I have no idea of how Rob Bell started out but popularity has got to be just a blank sometimes. People start out perhaps being rather humble. They get popular for their messages and/or delivery. People lift them up, publishers get involved, adoration follows, book tours, appearances, films, interviews. But what follows is that you get disconnected from the very people you started to serve. You get insulated, your circle tightens as those same book, film, and followers demand more and more of you and then every word and action gets judged. Mercilessly at times by the same people who lifted you up in the first place. I think, personally, what’s sad is that Rob Bell may have had what he was looking for in the first place. I can’t imagine there was someone with a gun to his head making him write books, do videos, appearances, or whatever else he did. Those simple things he’s doing now were always available to him during his heyday of popularity. Whether it was the people demanding of him or the adulation he enjoyed or pride that prevented him from finding them is unknown but it is sad to me I guess that the judgement of him won’t be stopping anytime soon.
All of the in and out of the church talk misses the point that a person is either part of the Church, that is the Body of Christ, or they are not. Very few who are part of the Church reject participation in the local church. In cases like Bell’s I think 1 John 2:19 should come to mind before the questions “What is wrong with the church” & “Why did he leave the church”.
I agree on both points that evangelicalism is in decline and that Schuller and Bell are not the most representative examples of evangelicalism. At the same time, the Church, not just evangelicalism, is facing a crisis. Is this exodus from the Church because the Church has failed to answer another call for another reformation, one that separates the Church from an American political conservatism. It’s not that the Church should join liberals or even leftists; it is that the Church should not allow itself to be conflated with a view that is quick to just personal sins and slow, if at all, to judge tribal sins.
Maybe Christians would be less partisan if the Democrats weren’t so intolerant of pro-lifers within their party.
Which “Christians”? Democrats would not win many federal elections without the sizeable number of Christians that vote for their candidates. Republicans would not win as many elections without a good number of economic conservatives who could care less about Christ let alone the cause of abortion.
Republicans are nearly equally one-sided. Democrats for Life claims 3 Senators and 4 Reps. Republicans for Choice claims 3 Senators and 7 Reps.
Yes, as the parties became more polarized around abortion, its only natural that most Evangelicals and conservative Catholics would embrace the GOP. What I don’t believe is that many non-religious people would all the sudden flock to Evangelical churches if more Evangelicals started supporting Democrats. The Christian denominations that are more liberal such as Episcopalians, PCUSA, UCC, and ECLA have experienced an even more rapid decline than Evangelicalism.
Actually, I think many Christians would be less partisan if the considered more than two parties to vote for. Both nonconservatives and conservatives have 3rd parties to vote for. I do, however, agree with your assessment of the Democrats
2 Timothy 4:3 says that “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching”
I think Paul uses the word “endure” very intentionally here. In almost all of the cases like Rob Bell, it isn’t that they come to see Scripture directing them in a certain way, it’s that they become fatigued with defending the truth. Sound teaching must be endured because it is, by default, anti-man. Those who do not endure will simply seek easier more pleasing beliefs (ie: teachers to suit their own passions).
I can’t say that Mr. Bell knew exactly what was going to happen to him, but let’s be completely honest. He started preaching a message (whether on Sundays or in his books) that was attractional in methodology. It was not Biblical preaching. His messages/books were written in a manner to attract people. It was a message that people wanted to hear. He and the company he keeps knows very well what his/their goals are. He had every right to decline any and all book offers/media offers he received. I can’t exactly feel sorry for him because of his popularity. I do feel sorry for him due to the message that he preaches and it is my prayer that he and all those that hold it as Truth will have their eyes opened to it.
Or has Mr. Bell left the “church” because with no “church” or affiliation, he cannot be held accountable by any boards/groups (in the traditional church sense) that could call him to task when he teaches soemthing that is not Biblical?
“Yet, like so many younger evangelicals, Bell grew disenchanted with church.”
The church is the bride of Chirst. That’s like saying to your friend, “hey, I really like you, but your wife is terrible.” Would you really walk up to Christ and tell him that his bride sucks?
Going thru David Platt’s ‘Follow Me’ in our life group at our church right now (week 5 in the workbook). Last night’s video he laid out every possible answer to anyone who says they don’t need to go to church (or seek membership) to be a believer. It was very eye opening to hear it all. I would highly recommend it.
Without dsputing Bebbington, the hallmarks of Evangelicalism for me have been fewer and simpler: Emphasis on 1) Jesus as Lord, and 2) the Bible as the word of God.
You are right that Bell and Schuller are atypical Evangelical leaders in that they have paid less lip service to these two values, but they are typical in having given little actual service to them – especially the former. For what practically all Evangelical leaders have in common is the seeking of followers for themselves rather than for the Lord they proclaim to serve.
Like Onan, we are refusing to raise up offspring to Er and are focused on raising up offspring to ourselves.
To return to Bebbington, the conversionism should be to Jesus Christ – not to our respective churches.
Evangelicalism is on the decline because evangelicals like Mohler and Piper keep kicking everybody out if they don’t believe exactly the same as the reformed police.
Most people who call themselves Evangelical don’t even know who Piper and Mohler are. Furthermore, Evangelicalism arose and has always been sustained by carefully affirming distinctive emphases that have by the nature of the case excluded those who rejected those emphases. Jesus himself said that many will come in his name seeking entrance to His kingdom and he cast them out saying he never knew them. I suppose that is not very tolerant of Him, but then again truth is not concerned about tolerance but with the boundaries that define what is in fact true.
Donn LeVie Jr.
Matt: it seems you accuse Mohler and Piper for being intolerant of other “truths” yet you yourself are intolerant of Mohler and Piper. I taught a class at my church on worldviews and how they stack up against the Christian worldview, and one person opined: “Many of us in this class think you aren’t very tolerant of other worldviews.” I replied, “So you are intolerant of my biblical Christian worldview?” Never seen the blood drain from someone’s fact so quickly when he realized he caught himself in a relativistic trap. Folks can’t have it all ways…definition of tolerance is “putting up with error.” See D.A. Carson’s book, “The Intolerance of Tolerance” for a great perspective.
You can’t claim that evangelicals are on the decline because of specific people (you mentioned Mohler and Piper) if the true reason is that they don’t like solid Biblical theology and hermenuetics. Scripture is good for teaching and reproof. It cuts to one’s heart. A more true statement on why there’s a decline of evangelicalism would be due to the rise of post-modernism and it’s push within society as a whole. Why do you think churches like Bell’s former and other grow so fast? You preach a message people ‘want’ to hear and they will come in droves. Nowhere in the NT will you find Christianity apart from the local church. In the 114 mentions of ‘church’ in the NT (ecclesia-spelling’s probably off) 90 of those occurances it was in the context of the local church body and not the “global church body of Christ”.
With no church membership, there is no grounds for church discipline, accountability and growth. Paul is clear about that many times over in the NT.
Bell claiming that he can see/experience God in washing the dishes, taking the dog for a walk, is bordering very dangerously on pantheism and has a very close related cousin in relativism, which Bell already dabbles in. Wanting to worship with people in houses isn’t inherently bad, but “talking about faith” cannot be equitable with hearing the word of God spoke/preached in a message/sermon for life application. Claiming that he wants to have a quasi-intentional, spiritual commune is just a high-browed way of saying he’s having a coffee-clatch with his college buddies to wax prophetically on some theological concepts. Church, that is not.
Platt has an intersting perspective (paraphrase)-‘It’s dangerous to claim to be in the body of Christ and yet not needing to be in a local church. You’re either in the church (His bride) or you’re not.’
“For what practically all Evangelical leaders have in common is the seeking of followers for themselves rather than for the Lord they proclaim to serve.”
Mike, that’a a very harsh criticism to paint with a large broad-brush. You might be able to make that claim/assumption about megachurches (which Bell and Schuller participated fully in), but to make that claim about the heart’s intent for the majority of pastors in this country is foolish/ignorant at best.
I’ve known many pastors in my life, and used to be one myself. All of us sought to grow our churches – and that’s true whether or not it was a small church or a megachurch.
If we truly put the Lord first, we will be content when people turn to Him – and not insist that they turn to one of us, too.
There are just as many, if not more pastors that recognize their purpose (just like the rest of us believers) is to execute the great commision and to grow the body of Christ, not just to fill seats . . Pastors are to equip their flock to fulfill what Christ has asked for us to do. Pastors have a limited reach compared to how many people their local church body can reach if they are equipped to do the job we are all called to do.
There was a time when I embraced, and taught, such a way of thinking. It seems so right, and it seems so biblical.
I promise you this, however, that if a pastor will put away all his other books and lock himself away with nothing but his BIble and seek God for how to build a local church, he will not find a way. That’s when he’ll realize that the kingdom has come and it’s time to preach Christ so that people join His church and not ours.
In other words, it’s time to stop preaching Christ and the local church and time instead to preach Christ and His kingdom.
Mike, you misunderstood me. I meant that there are many churches where pastors heart’s are in the right place regarding whether the view from the pulpiut looks full on sundays. A pastors job is to equip his flock to share Christ with others and not worry about how full his building is. There’s many pastors how have that kind of heart.
I’m not saying that most pastors aren’t trying to the right thing. I’m saying they are laboring under a misconception of what the right thing is.