The Common Good

The Collapse of Evangelicalism?

In the March 10 edition of The Christian Science Monitor, Michael Spencer predicts "the coming evangelical collapse." Much of his assessment of the white evangelical church in the United States is spot on. Far too many congregations have become consumers of Christian programming rather than followers of Jesus Christ. Many have been co-opted by the leaders of the so-called "culture wars," forfeiting the power of Jesus' gospel of love and grace for hate-filled attempts to protect and defend Judeo-Christian mores. Churches and Christians that have bought into this direction are withering away. Pruning is necessary.

But in many circles, the evangelical church that I see is sprouting and blossoming. The picture of evangelicals often painted in media assessments is outdated and incomplete. While the critiques offered by Spencer are not wrong, God's spirit continues to allow healthy seeds to take root and grow both on the margins and in some of the largest churches in this nation. As I look at the landscape of the evangelical church, I am more hopeful today than at any point in my adult life.

While I don't have any hard data, I have seen a lot of anecdotal evidence of new fruit-bearing branches of renewal over the past few years:

1. What I witnessed at PAPAFEST 2006 in Tennessee (repeated in 2008 in Illinois). The gathering was filled with young people committed to not being conformed to the pattern of this world, but to being transformed by the renewing of their minds. The festival speaks to a larger renewal movement that includes, but is not limited to, what has been called "New Monasticism." Groups like Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina, the Simple Way in Philadelphia, and Vineyard Central in Cincinnati are committing to personal and social transformation rooted in Christ-inspired love for one another.

2. The emerging Faith & Justice Movements in Boston and New York City. Lisa Sharon Harper (NYC) and Rachel Anderson (Boston) have been overseeing networks of hundreds of Christians (including many evangelicals) in these two cities who are coming together to both grow in Christ and further justice in their communities. These excellent organizations are training and inspiring Christians in their cities to be agents of transformation that will make a difference for the marginalized in their communities and around the world.

3. The so-called "Mega-Church" is getting involved in working for justice. Community Christian Church in the Chicago area announced they were giving away their entire offering last Sunday to support efforts for evangelism and justice in Chicago and around the world. They ended up collecting and giving away over $400,000. The congregation, which began in Naperville, Illinois, is also working in nearby East Aurora, and not primarily through charity. They are investing time, energy, and resources to apply the principles of John Perkins' Christian Community Development model to be a part of this largely immigrant community. They are but one example of a mega-church that is growing rapidly in what it means to "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God."

4. Many evangelicals are being reshaped by the best of the mainline, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions. They are learning from the vibrant justice traditions that have been few and far between for evangelicals over the last 50 years. They are also being reshaped by the rich and deep spirituality of the Orthodox and Catholic traditions. Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton are being read alongside Rick Warren and Brian McLaren.

A few weeks ago, I joined a group of pastors and Christian leaders in Cincinnati who are working to covenant together in our commitment to bring the Good News of Jesus to our city in fresh and powerful ways in the years to come. This diverse gathering of evangelical leaders (Caucasian & African-American) never once talked of culture wars. Instead we talked of prayer, of humility, of confronting our city's history of racism, and of biblical righteousness and justice.

Next month, thousands of Christ-followers, including many evangelicals will come to Washington, D.C., for Sojourners' Mobilization to End Poverty. This faith-based gathering will demonstrate some powerful undercurrents, movements of God's Spirit, to reshape not only the white evangelical church, but also the broader church of Jesus Christ in this country and around the world.

Perhaps Michael Spencer is right-the evangelical church as commonly imagined by pundits is about to collapse, but a church that is more biblically-grounded and Spirit-led is emerging, and I'm excited to see and taste some of its first fruits!

Troy Jackson is senior pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, and earned his Ph.D. in United States history from the University of Kentucky. He is author of Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader (Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century) and a participant in Sojourners' Windchangers grassroots organizing project in Ohio.

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