The Institutional Crisis of Evangelicalism

In moments of institutional crisis, it is easy to respond in such a way as to make matters worse. Panic does not lead to wise decisions. Many evangelical organizations are facing this situation.

Hubris sank the Titanic. Warnings were received and largely ignored. Inconceivably, when Captain Edwards received notification of icebergs ahead, he shifted his course slightly to the south and put a watch on the bow. He remained at flank speed, and went to bed.

A direct hit would not have sunk the Titanic. There would have been massive damage and probably loss of life, but the ship itself would have sustained the damage. It was the response to the pending crisis that doomed the ship. The helm was put hard over, causing the iceberg to rip through five separate bulkheads. At that point the ship was unrecoverable.

Panic does not lead to wise decisions.

Evangelical organizations are facing similar warnings of impending crisis. The loss of one million currently churched young people per year for the next thirty years will, among other things, choke admissions prospects for Christian colleges and universities. The cultural response to the #MeToo movement is just beginning to affect the church thus far, and few expect that it will avoid a rolling cascade of church-based scandals. In my opinion, the Southern Baptist Church is the bellwether for this coming crisis, as in young people’s minds, complementarity is being uniformly cast as institutional misogyny. On the LGBTQ front, the Nashville Statement of 2017 did not serve to further the church’s winsome response to a community greatly in need of God’s grace and embrace. Finally, the alignment of evangelical church with the Trump administration has created a systemic crisis of identity that is only pouring gasoline on the other latent cultural stigmas around orthodox belief.

Few secular organizations or consumer brands think it is possible to survive without taking into consideration the largest generational cohort in American society—the millennials—that is now assuming cultural ascendancy. It is unlikely that the evangelical church will fair any better. Some may hope that millennials are only a function of delayed maturation. In time, they hope against hope, that they will come to their senses and start acting more like their parents. But evidence does not support this optimism. In fact, the $30 trillion dollar wealth transfer from boomers to millennials expected in the next twenty years will only serve to further solidify their shifting values in society.

We are living through one of the most significant demographic shifts in religious affiliation in American history. The survival of institutional evangelicalism is now in question. Responses differ: evangelicals in the Pacific Northwest have anticipated these trends; others in the mid-west and south are temporarily cushioned by large numbers of traditional believers. But the cultural and demographic trends do not bode well for institutional evangelicals. Fear and panic is setting in, and too many boards of evangelical organizations are scrambling to stop the anticipated hemorrhaging.

Cultural and demographic trends do not bode well for institutional evangelicals.

As a consequence, we are seeing visionary leaders begin the process of tightening their belts and clarifying their theological boundaries. As the evangelical church is significantly accommodated to the mindset of the Enlightenment, the knee-jerk response is to double-down on propositional theological distinctives. Under pressure, evangelicals and neo-evangelicals are acting more and more like fundamentalists in tone and policy.

Social scientists should be wary of making cultural predictions, but I’ll go out on a limb to say that these responses are only going to make matters worse, swelling the ranks of post-evangelicals or non-evangelicals particularly among the coming generation. The church is the greatest cause of the exponential rise of the “religious nones”—with 78% of “nones” having grown up in the church.

Visionary leadership requires understanding the “signs of the times” and thereby directing wisely the “way Israel should go.” Doubling down on a bounded-set logic when a compelling centered-set logic is required is going to doom the American institutional evangelical church. When a cultural frame shift has occurred, doubling down on an older frame, is an abdication of leadership. There is a better way.

We are living in the shrinking moments between the warning and the impact. The church’s intercom crackles, “Brace! Brace! Brace!” How will we respond?

John Seel is a consultant, writer, cultural analyst, and cultural renewal entrepreneur. He is the founder of John Seel Consulting LLC, a social impact consulting firm working with people and projects that foster human flourishing and the common good. The former director of cultural engagement at the John Templeton Foundation, he is a national expert on millennials and the New Copernicans. He has an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Maryland (College Park). He and his wife, Kathryn, live in Lafayette Hill, PA. He directs the New Copernican Empowerment Dialogues at The Sider Center at Eastern University. This post originally appeared on his blog, New Copernican Conversations.

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