Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Is It Bad?

Spencer's conclusion is really a question ... Should we be dreading the supposed collapse or hastening its arrival? Specifically, he wonders ...
Is it a good thing that denominations are going to become largely irrelevant? Only if the networks that replace them are able to marshal resources, training, and vision to the mission field and into the planting and equipping of churches.

Is it a good thing that many marginal believers will depart? Possibly, if churches begin and continue the work of renewing serious church membership. We must change the conversation from the maintenance of traditional churches to developing new and culturally appropriate ones.

Will the coming collapse get Evangelicals past the pragmatism and shallowness that has brought about the loss of substance and power? Probably not. The purveyors of the evangelical circus will be in fine form, selling their wares as the promised solution to every church's problems. I expect the landscape of megachurch vacuity to be around for a very long time.
Here he kind of loses me again ... because again he offers a thinly-veiled chastisement of the "culturally inappropriate" church. Spencer wants us to become more relevant to the culture. Then, in the next sentence quoted above, derides our pragmatism and shallowness. Which is it, Mr. Spencer? You can't have it both ways. Indeed, I would contend that it is the shallowness and pragmatism of the culture that has infiltrated the church and made it irrelevant!

If the collapse comes, I envision the solid core of the church remaining -- a contemporary "remnant" that may retreat into the shadows but will do so with a renewed motivation to "contend for the faith," even if the task seems overwhelming. I see a kind of "engaged monasticism" in our future. History has shown that, from its inception, the church has become strongest when it is under attack.

Perhaps the coming collapse -- no matter how dramatic it actually turns out to be -- will force us to re-evaluate not only that we believe, but why we believe it. Perhaps it will force us to do what the apostle Paul challenged us to do in Romans 12:1-2 -- involve our entire being in the practice of our faith and thereby be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Perhaps then, the church, though smaller, will become the kind of thing it was meant to be in the first place.

And I don't see that as a bad thing at all ... I see it as an opportunity.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Some Daunting Numbers: 75, and 9

Here are a couple of statistics that serve to buttress the case for Michael Spencer's The Coming Evangelical Collapse ...

SEVENTY FIVE ...
... is the percentage of young adults who, after they leave high school and the comparative safety of their parents home to go off to college or into the workforce, also leave the church.

NINE ...
... is the percentage of self-proclaimed born-again, evangelical Christians who actually hold to what can be considered a Biblical Worldview.

It doesn't take much of an imagination to see where those kinds of trends will take us. But, it seems to me, it does take quite a high level of denial in the face of these statistics, to disagree with the "internet monk." How does the church sustain itself when less than 10% of its members can defend their own alleged view of the world? Obviously they can't -- which is why their kids are all walking away from the faith. Other surveys show that the percentage of self-identified Christians has dropped from 86% to 76% since 1990. At the same time, those who report no religious affiliation has more than doubled, from 8% to 15% (USA Today, April 27, 2009, p. 11A).

That same report shows some more positive news within the negative. For instance, almost the entire jump in "no affiliation" came by 2001, where it reached 14.1%. In other words, there has only been a 0.9% increase in the "no affiliation" crowd over the last 8 years -- basically a flatline. It also shows that much of the exodus from mainline Christian churches has been toward non-denominational churches.

OK but this, I think, is wishful thinking. While those who are attempting to spin the results to be less daunting, it seems to be a stretch. Once again, look at Europe. Mainline Christian churches on the Continent have either disappeared or been gutted. That is nothing new. And while those non-denominational churches in America may have grown over the last few years, what have they grown into? These are the spiritualized dens of a "Christless Christianity" that have brought us the 75% and 9% statistics discussed above.

I don't see how we can avoid some form of a collapse. Maybe Spencer has exaggerated the size of it but it seems to me his prognostication can't be all that far off.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Final Thought on Economics, Faith and "The Pillars of Prosperity"

A couple of months ago, a fellow pilot I was flying with raved about a fascinating book he had just read and which he recommended highly. I asked him to give me a Cliff's Notes version of the book on a flight from Cincinnati to San Francisco (It was to allow conversations like this, by the way, that God invented the autopilot on the 8th Day).

My co-pilot was right. The book did sound fascinating. But as he described the threads of history the book wove together, it occurred to me that each of the threads sounded awfully familiar. I took it upon myself to find the book and skimmed it over the last few days. The title of the book is The Birth of Plenty, by William Bernstein, and its premise is that history has proven there are four sources required for economic growth and prosperity. From the introduction ...

The prerequisites for economic growth ...
  1. Secure property rights, not only for physical property, but also for intellectual property and one's own person -- civil liberties
  2. A systematic procedure for examining and interpreting the world -- the scientific method
  3. A widely available and open source of funding for the development and production of new inventions -- the modern capital marketplace
  4. The ability to rapidly communicate vital information and transport people and goods.
Now it seems to me that number 4) is a direct result of number 2). The scientific method logically leads to the technological advances that have brought us efficient and capable transportation and communication systems. So, what we are left with is three vital prerequisites to economic growth: secure property rights, the scientific method, and capital markets. What interested me about this list comes from another book I've read by Rodney Stark, a PhD Professor of Social Sciences at Baylor University. Mr. Stark's book, The Victory of Reason specifically addresses the genesis of each of these (and is the source for much of what follows).

Oh yes, and the subtitle of his book is: "How Christianity Led To Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success."

Stark begins by addressing the following observations:
When European first began to explore the globe, their greatest surprise was not the existence of the Western Hemisphere, but the extent of their own technological superiority over the rest of the world. Not only were the proud Mayan, Aztec, and Inca nations helpless in the face of European intruders; so were the fabled civilizations of the East: China, India, an even Islam were backward by comparison with sixteenth-century Europe. How had this happened? Why was it that although many civilizations had pursued alchemy, it led to chemistry only in Europe? Why was it that, for centuries, Europeans were the only ones possessed of eyeglasses, chimneys, reliable clocks, heavy cavalry, or a system of music notation? How had the nations that had arisen from barbarism and the rubble of fallen Rome so greatly surpassed the rest of the world?
The answer to each of these questions is the same -- Europe was Christian, and Christianity's belief that God is a rational, reasonable Being provided the impetus for Christians to believe that the world -- His creation -- should reflect that reason and rationality. They sought to know the world better, discover all they could about it, and apply that knowledge with a hope for the future and a motivation to improve it. This trait was utterly unique in the world and history shows that its impact was explosive.

The Scientific Method was born from the Bible's charge to "test everything" and hold on to what is good. The list of those who made the most impacting discoveries and inventions in history is a Who's Who list of Christian thinkers and scientists. It was Christians who developed the scientific method and used it to stoke the scientific revolution that led to our technology-driven modern world and the economic prosperity it generated.

Secure Property Rights and freedom were concepts for which most non-European cultures did not even have a word! It was Christian thinking that led to individualism, freedom and human rights, and Christian leaders who led the charge to abolish not only Medieval slavery, but the more modern slave-trade in England

Capital Markets first emerged in the great monastic estates of Europe. There, innovations in production, farming technology and transportation set the stage for free markets, property rights and uncoerced labor. This is where Capitalism was born, and within it: specialized product development, a cash economy, credit and mortgages, interest and profits, and the motivation for promoting the virtues of work and frugality.

Each of these are things we seem to have forgotten at best, or that we deliberately ignore at worst. We have interventionist government policies being implemented that directly challenge the very foundation of a capitalist society and we are seeing the corrosion of our economy as a result. We are encouraging national indebtedness, punishing those who have been frugal, undermining the trust of credit markets, rewarding mortgage irresponsibility, and confiscating profits. Because each of these began as a result of Christian thinking, we should not be surprised if the public is also being duped into an economy that is antithetical to Christian ideals -- the two are inextricably linked.

Like I said last time, if you want to see the future toward which we seem to be headed, look at Europe. It has abandoned both.

So, to wrap up the discussion of the economic collapse that will help precipitate the Evangelical collapse Michael Spencer predicts, my contention is that his prediction only touches the surface. I have no reason to doubt his thoughts about Evangelicalism. I just happen to believe that our abandonment of capitalism will be far more destructive than a simple problem for the church ... and that is because it reflects a more foundational abandonment of the Christian principles that have worked so well precisely because they are rooted in the nature of God himself.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Where Economics and Faith Meet (2)

In my previous post, I began to address Spencer's prediction that the Collapse of Evangelicalism will occur to great degree because "money will not be flowing towards Evangelicalism in the same way as before." While I disagreed with what seemed to be the thrust of Spencer's argument -- that the cause of this drying up of funds will be mainly due to a generational shift from the "greatest generation" to the more selfish contemporary churchgoers -- I do not disagree with his conclusion.

The money will dry up, but not because evangelicals will be less giving. The real reason the money going into evangelical coffers will dry up is because American wealth in general is evaporating. And the reason I am discussing it here is because the cause of that evaporation is directly related to faith issues -- specifically to a proper view of the nature of man and how that human nature serves as the foundation of liberty and capitalism.

Want proof? Look across the Atlantic.

Mark Steyn has become well-known for his analysis of sociological and demographic trends by which Islam is in the process of swallowing Europe whole. Recently, he made the case that America has chosen to follow suit, if not in its capitulation to Islam (yet), at least in its acceptance of socialist policies that will accelerate our financial decline. Europe has a head start but we're doing our best to catch up. Here are a few facts that buttress his case ("Prime Minister Obama," National Review, March 23, 2009):
  • In Sweden, state spending accounts for 54% of GDP
  • In Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, state spending accounts for 72 -78% of the economy
  • In 1999, U.S. government spending was 34% of GDp ... Today, the U.S. spends about 40% of GDP
Key word: "today."

If you've been watching the news at all since ... say, January 20, 2009, you may have noticed that we will soon look back on the 40% of GDP we're spending now as a time of governmental spending restraint. Being that we are accelerating in the European direction, it is instructive to see what these economic policies have brought to Europe.

Germany was an economic powerhouse in the 1960s and 70s. At that time its workers and American workers put in almost identical hours on the job. Today the average American works 1,800 work hours per year, while the average German works about 1,350 (25% less!). As a result, Germany now sports an anemic economic growth rate of 1.1%. This, we are told, is due to more "family friendly" policies that include 35-hour work weeks and lots of vacation time. But, as only Steyn could put it, "for a continent of 'family friendly' policies, Europe is remarkably short of families."

Steyn goes on to tie economic reality with a far more daunting, but related, development. While the U.S. fertility rate (so far) remains at replacement level, "seventeen European countries are at the 'lowest low' fertility rate of below 1.3 -- a rate from which no society in human history has ever recovered!" Where countries of the European Union used to have 4 workers for every retiree a century ago, by 2050 Germany will only have 1.1.

I'll spare you the rest of the statistics and numbers. The point is this: Europe is in a decline that stems from the notion that the "caring hand" of the government is the utopian answer to all our wants and needs, and that it is our right to drink from its bottomless source of plenty. As Steyn has pointed out elsewhere, the Continent will be unrecognizable within a couple of generations from lack of an ability to sustain itself either demographically or economically. Islam is on the march there and the Christian church has declined to the point of a farce. Some of the most beautiful cathedrals on Earth have become echo chambers for a faith as vacuous as the economy that has followed them into the abyss.

As Steyn quotes Charles Murray writing in his book In Our Hands:
Give people plenty and security, and they will fall into spiritual torpor ... When life becomes an extended picnic, with nothing of importance to do, ideas of greatness become an irritant. Such is the nature of the Europe syndrome.
Is this the way we want to go? I hope not. But we are going there because we have forgotten, or don't want to admit, that the foundation of our wealth, prosperity, and liberty is grounded in the Christian faith that has evaporated from Europe much as Michael Spencer believes Evangelicalism will implode here.

More on that next time ...

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Where Faith And Economics Meet (1)

One of Spencer's predictions in his piece, "The Coming Evangelical Collapse," is this one:
7) A major aspect of this collapse will happen because money will not be flowing towards evangelicalism in the same way as before. The passing of the denominationally loyal, very generous “greatest generation” and the arrival of the Boomers as the backbone of evangelicalism will signal a major shift in evangelical finances, and that shift will continue into a steep drop and the inevitable results for schools, churches, missions, ministries and salaries.
Though Spencer only mentions this in passing, I believe that this practical problem, combined with educational problem I discussed in my last post, will be violently destructive, not only to Evangelicalism, but to America in general. Let's face it, much of what we call "Evangelicalism" is comprised of a business and marketing strategy that works just like the rest of the world. That is a problem in itself. We have churches that employ marketing schemes and refer to their visitors as "prospects." Our churches do their best to not "turn people off," or make them feel "uncomfortable." These type of strategies (and much, much more) fall under the seeker sensitive umbrella that is best left for another discussion. This is an unfortunate but unavoidable reality. But it seems to me that within this link between faith and economics there exists the seeds not only for the Evangelical collapse Spencer envisions, but for an national economic calamity that will make our current crop of crises look tame by comparison.

For starters, I do not necessarily accept the premise on which this prediction of Spencer is based. It has become paradigmatic to cite the differences between the selfless heroes of the "greatest generation" and the self-centered, narcissists from us Boomers to Gen X. I can't say I completely disagree with that assertion but I do not accept it without condition. I have seen our current crop of young men and women sign up, in the wake of 9/11, to defend this nation with full knowledge that they would be fighting a faceless enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan within months. These may be the aberrant minority but they also represent at least one exception that renders the paradigm inaccurate. There is a spark of selflessness and service in our twenty-somethings that I hope and pray will help to mitigate the effects we are talking about here.

That said, there is no doubt that the simple demographics of the Boomer generation will be financially harmful to the Evangelical movement. Add to that the economic climate that has recently been foisted upon us all and the outlook is grim. No doubt the depth of commitment to sacrificial giving and charity will be tested as the unemployment rate climbs, wages deteriorate, and investment portfolios fade before our eyes. It seems that these are the reasons Spencer bases his forecast on, and I have no reason to argue to the contrary. But I believe there is a more foundational issue at work here -- an issue that will not just be harmful to Evangelicalism, but also to the broader economic philosophy on which the idea of America is based. For that reason, the economic pain felt by our churches and ministries will be just a part of a more substantial and long-term disease that will infect us all.

More on that next time ...