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The future of the evangelical movement

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Is the evangelical movement in the U.S. about to collapse?

In a much-discussed and much-debated article in the Christian Science Monitor, Michael Spencer says yes.

In the article, Spencer -- who bills himself as "a post-evangelical reformation Christian in search of a Jesus-shaped spirituality" -- offered up a number of reasons why evangelicalism in that country is doomed.

One reason is the way American evangelicals identified with the culture war and with political conservatism. This, he says, has proved to be "a very costly mistake... the evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses... we fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith."

Another reason is that, despite investing heavily in Christian colleges and spending billions "on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media," evangelicals have failed to pass faith on to their youth.

The evangelical movement, Spencer says, has "produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it... coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures."

But even though he predicts the collapse of his church, Spencer doesn't see it as a bad thing.

"Evangelicalism doesn't need a bailout," he writes, using the language of the current economic crisis. "Much of it needs a funeral."

In particular, he believes that the loss of "marginal" Christians could be a good thing if it forces churches to "begin and continue the work of renewing serious church membership."

It would also be good if the crisis changes the conversation "from the maintenance of traditional churches to developing new and culturally appropriate ones," he says.

The loss of political clout may also cause many American evangelicals to "reconsider the wisdom of trying to create a 'godly society,' " he adds, and instead focus on being a "counter-cultural movement with a message of 'empire-subversion' " that will increasingly replace a message of cultural and political entitlement.

"We can rejoice that, in the ruins, new forms of Christian vitality and ministry will be born," he concludes. "I expect to see a vital and growing house church movement. This cannot help but be good for an evangelicalism that has made buildings, numbers, and paid staff its drugs for half a century... we need a new evangelicalism that learns from the past and listens more carefully to what God says about being His people in the midst of a powerful, idolatrous culture."

Whether you agree with Spencer or not, something serious does seems to be happening to the evangelical church in the U.S. What's the situation like in Canada?

Some of his concerns apply north of the border -- things like passing faith on to youth, meaningful membership and the temptation to identify with one political party. But just as the recession here isn't as deep as in the U.S., the situation facing Canadian evangelicals isn't as dire, according to Brian Stiller, president of Tyndale University College in Toronto and the former executive director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

"American evangelicalism is going through a cleansing process," says Stiller. But "evangelicals in Canada are in their ascendancy. We're moving from the back of the street to Main Street."

Canadian evangelicals, who now number between eight and 12 per cent of the population, are the "new mainline churches," he adds, noting that the traditional mainline Protestant denominations are declining in membership.

"I'm very hopeful about the future of the evangelical church in Canada," he adds. "I'm very bullish on it."

He does express some cautions, though.

"Evangelicals in Canada have to learn from the American experience, and not align themselves with a political party," he says. At the same time, he adds, evangelicals need to overcome impulses "to be insular and inward-looking" when it comes to interacting with the broader culture and society.

"Do we have the vision and instinct to serve our culture in a way we haven't done in the past?" he asks, noting that this might be difficult since evangelicals have "been on the margins until recently."

Rick Hiemstra, director of the Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, also believes something new and exciting is occurring in Canada.

"There are lots of different currents and renewals as evangelicals re-engage their neighbourhoods and communities," he says. "There are some really dynamic church plants happening. It's a very fruitful time of experimentation."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2009 A9

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