The Great Evangelical Recession

I spend a fair amount of time in the car for my work, so I like to listen to the radio to make the time go by.  And I  listen to Christian radio, so you don’t have to.  I tend to ignore worship type services and call in prayer shows as they don’t interest me much and I don’t really want to make fun of individual believers.  Preachers you betcha, but not the flock.

Yesterday there was actually a discussion that gladdened my heart.  They were discussing the book, The Great Evangelical Recession by John S. Dickerson.  Mr. Dickerson is a pastor on the radio and also identifies as a journalist on his website. I can, for the moment ignore Mr. Dickerson’s credentials and use the Jesus Seminars criterion of “embarrassment.”  The criteria says that if the gospels have Jesus saying something “embarrassing,” then the saying is likely to be true.  Since this was an evangelical station, I assume this information is embarrassing to them, so must have some truth in it for them to be discussing it.

The book basically says that the evangelical church is dying.  As an example, he says that it is expected that financial support for such churches and ministries will drop by 70% over the next 30 years.  Sounds like the buggy whip industry that it is.

He gives six reasons for this decline, which I will have to read a bit between the lines as I have not actually read the book, only the first two chapters that are online.  The reasons are: Inflated, Hated, Dividing, Bankrupt, Bleeding and Sputtering.

Inflated, he says, is that the current estimates of the numbers of evangelicals are inflated, over estimating their numbers and influence.  As they shrink, the over estimate becomes a liability as their shrinkage looks even more severe than it is to those on the outside, and to those on the inside the trends don’t look as bad, putting off action.  One example he gives is the growth of megachurches, which seem to be simply pulling members from smaller churches, not gaining true new members from outside the faith, which makes people feel like the churches are growing when, overall, they are not.

For “Hated” he shows recent poll data that indicates the public holds evangelical Christians in lower esteem than Muslims.   Considering they often share attitudes towards science and modernity on par with the Islamists in the news, this is understandable.

His own rhetoric in the book illustrates “Dividing.”  Like many other religionists he seems to dismiss others who don’t believe what his church believes as not “true” Christians.  On the political front, much more than other groups evangelicals seem to have more of a black and white view of politicians and parties.

Bankrupt, we have already touched on, apparently bleeding money, by his own stats.  Bleeding, he talks especially about young people abandoning the faith, especially biblical literalism.  And sputtering, I am not sure of, but I think I have an example (that I will fully discuss in another post).  On the same station Ken Ham was going on about how if he didn’t get a tax break from Kentucky for his Ark Exhibit, this impinged on his and everyone’s “religious freedom.”   So he is suing Kentucky for religious discrimination.  They didn’t say he couldn’t build it, only that he wouldn’t get a tax break.  So his lawsuit is misguided and probably a futile waste of money.  Having “leadership” like this would make any group “sputter.”

Now, I would like to take solace from Mr. Dickerson’s work, but I am not ready to declare that the end of Christianity will follow on the heels of the end of evangelicalism.  This round of fundamentalism is doomed to failure because it is, first, based on an untruth and second it forces people to actually read the bible.

Fundamentalism is fundamentally (pun intended) untrue because it presumes that it is getting back to some ancient form of Christianity, and nothing could be further from the truth.  Fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity in Christianity just as surely as it is in Islam.  But the church it reaches back to never existed.  Much in the same way that the family life they harken back to only existed in “Leave it to Beaver” land.  Jesus didn’t preach about abortion or homosexuality.  Early Christians met in tiny familial groups, not huge megachurches.  Early Christians were communal, not Republican.  And so on.  People at first join thinking they are getting some “pure” form of religion only to find out it is pick and choose, just like any other church.

The second problem is that when people start actually reading the bible they find that it is not some great work of uplifting literature.  It is full of violence and contradictions, and the “moral clarity” promised from the pulpit fades when reading the Bronze Age ethics laid out there.  So, people drift away, looking for, well, a more modern reading of the faith.

But the biggest flaw of the Fundies is that they deny what might be Christianity’s greatest strength.  Flexibility.  Yes, you heard me right.

For example, in the Middle Ages, the church was quite happy to kill heretics and burn “witches” at the stake.  The Enlightenment comes along, says that is a bad idea, and eventually the church stops this immoral practice.  Now, to hear the church types tell it, it is the church’s innate regard for the sacredness of human life that makes us different from Islamists.  They not only adopted the idea, even if late,  but now have the gall to now say it was their idea!  And that this view of “sacred life” is the root of Western civilization, which is why we are better than Islam.  Such Chutzpah!

This has been done over and over again and it is the reason that Christianity is almost everywhere.  Because they are pretty good at taking almost any religious idea, adding Jesus and Heaven to it,  and bingo, you have a winner in the local marketplace of ideas.

Fundamentalism doesn’t work in the long wrong because most of modernism, people like.  They may not like tolerance of gays, but they surely like science and technology and they don’t want to go back to burning witches at the stake.

People may be intolerant, but they are not Bronze Age intolerant.

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2 thoughts on “The Great Evangelical Recession

  1. It is really interesting to know why they think their popularity is decreasing. I agree that it has more to do with their unbending beliefs than anything else. How often do you listen to such programs? It’s a special kind of torture I’d imagine.

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    • Actually there are quite a few different surveys that indicate that religious beliefs and behaviors are down a bit, with the biggest erosion at the more conservative end of the spectrum. Europe seems to be much further along in this trend than the US.
      Listening to religious radio can be hilarious at times, for example, yesterday a preacher with a straight face told us that Solomon wrote (or was at least behind) the book of Proverbs — and then went on to say that proverbs warns us against sexual immorality. WTF?? A guy with 700 wives and 300 concubines warns us against sexual immorality? People pay for comedy like that!

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