Saturday, May 24, 2008

Wicker's Fall of the Evangelical Nation Part 3

Christine Wicker's book details numerous serious problems facing the evangelical church today, as explained in earlier posts.
Read Part 1
Read Part 2

One of the most ominous facts she refers to comes from Josh McDowell. Wicker quotes McDowell from his book, The Last Christian Generation, saying. "It has been estimated that between 69 and 94 percent of churched youth are leaving the traditional church after high school, and very few are returning. Furthermore, only 33 percent of churched youth have said that the church will pla a part in their lives when they leave home."

This is about as bad as news can get. The church is losing its voice with young people more than any others. Why should we be concerned about that? Look at this chart:

As you can see, most people become Christians during their high school and college years. If the church is losing its voice with these people it means we can expect the anemia of recent years to deepen rapidly. This is perhaps the most critical problem the church faces today--how will we develop effective outreach to students, and how can we form communities that they consider cool, spiritual, and nourishing?

Even though Xenos is know as a leader in this area, we too feel the tension. The reputation of Christians are at an all time low with students, especially in college. You can check out our work with 750 university students here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Assessing The Fall of the Evangelical Nation Part 2

In the last post, we saw that Wicker's book raises troubling questions about the continuing viability of the evangelical church in America.

Read Part 1

She's not the only authority arguing the same case. Professor Alvin Reid shows that at least 41% of Americans are hard-core unchurched (have no clear understanding of the gospel, and have had little or no contact with a Bible teaching church), larger than the number of nominal Christians (30%) or active, participating Christians (29%). Alvin Reid, Radically Unchurched: Who they are and how to reach them, (Grand Rapids, Kregel Academic, 2002) 21. He adds that "Of the 350,000 churches in the U. S… less than 1 percent is growing by conversion growth.” 23 and “Over the past decade, membership in Protestant churches dropped 9.5 percent, while the U.S. population grew 11 percent.” 24 He thinks, "Most evangelistic methods used today are ineffective in making disciples.” 24

Wicker points out that while many believe evangelical are the fastest growing faith group in America, the truth is, "Nonbelievers are the fastest-growing faith group in America in numbers and percentage. From 1990 to 2001, which was the last good count, they more than doubled, from 14 million to 29 million. Their proportion of the population grew from 8 percent to more than 14 percent. That means there are more than twice as many people who claim no religion as there are participating evangelicals" when measured by Barna's stricter method. 53

Her claim is confirmed by the American Religious Identification Survey: "In 2001, more than 29.4 million Americans said they had no religion - more than double the number in 1990, and more than Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians all added up."

She shows that the loss of influence is worst among the young. Using Southern Baptist studies, because they keep good records and make them public, she points out that, "In the eighteen-to-thirty-four age group, Southern Baptist baptisms fell 40 percent from one hundred thousand in 1980 to sixty thousand in 2005.”63 Even worse, "The great majority of people being baptized in evangelical churches are already baptized Christians and children." 93

Whatever growth evangelicalism has enjoyed in recent years is often illusory. Wicker cites a case where "Gallup found 42 percent of Americans calling themselves born again or evangelical in 2003. In 2005, the pollster asked three questions to identify born-agains and evangelicals: 1. Born again experience? 3. Witness for Christ? 3. Bible as literal Word of God? The percentage dropped to 19 percent." 211

In a hilarious, but all too true section, Wicker gives one of the main reasons for the decline: "As we've seen, many churches are training for evangelism. They're preaching evangelism, They're pressuring for evangelism. And members are responding. They're praying. They repenting. They're feeling guilty, cowardly, and shamed before Jesus... There's only one thing they're not doing. They're not evangelizing, and nobody, not even Jesus, seems able to make them do it. Only half of all born-again adults do any witnessing at all in a year, and what they do they don't feel good about. Studies show that spreading the Gospel is one of the areas in which Christians ...'have the least interest in self-improvement.'" 135

As I note in my book on discipleship, guilt trips are completely ineffective at motivating evangelism. Groups that reach out eagerly and effectively do so because they think it's fun. Disciples who are properly motivated learn to care about people, learn to make friends with non-Christians, and learn the joy of seeing others come to Christ.

The more churchy a group gets, the fewer non-Christians they see visiting, and the fewer have any interest in returning. Groups that think accommodation (either to western avarice or postmodernism) works fail to see people meet Christ. Groups where people are ashamed of the gospel or the authority of scripture see few come to Christ. The more political a group gets, the fewer converts they see. The more legalistic and narrow groups get, the more they focus on unimportant rules, the fewer converts they see.

Unfortunately these features describe far too many evangelical churches today.

In our last section, we'll look at one of the most fatal points about the evangelical church in America: their loss of impact on students.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Face the Facts: Assessing Wicker's Fall of the Evangelical Nation, Part 1

As an evangelical leader myself, reading Wicker's book was not an exercise in edification. But it is a cold dose of reality, and although I don't believe all her claims, I think the thrust of what she says must be heard. She begins with her thesis:

Evangelical Christianity in America is dying. The great evangelical movements of today are not a vanguard. They are a remnant, unraveling at every edge. Look at it any way you like: Conversions. Baptisms. Membership. Retention. Participation. Giving. Attendance. Religious literacy. Effect on culture. All are down and dropping. It’s no secret. Even as evangelical forces trumpet their purported political and social victories, insiders are anguishing about their great losses, fearing what the future holds. Nobody knows what to do about it. A lot of people can’t believe it. No wonder. The idea that evangelicals are taking over America is one of the greatest publicity scams in history, a perfect coup accomplished by savvy politicos and religious leaders, who understand media weaknesses and exploit them brilliantly. ix
Could this be true? She lays out studies showing the problem is real, mostly from Christian, evangelical sources--Gordon Conwell, Barna, Josh McDowell, Southern Baptist Mission Board, and from some secular, but neutral sources like Pew and Gallup. She, herself, is not neutral. She is a lapsed Baptist who lost her faith in college, like 90% of evangelical children do, according to McDowell. She tries, but fails to conceal her glee over the situation. But I liked the fact that this was coming from a non-evangelical. Do we dare to read what the world thinks of us?

As a non-believer, Wicker is more interested in the issues raised by the Christian right. She portrays the common perception that evangelical churches are growing in America as sort of a plot, or scam, designed to give the right-wing political people more power at election time. I found this part uninteresting and somewhat implausible.

But while I questioned her interpretations at many points, I did not find her main thesis implausible. Our own studies show the same thing. For instance, "The evidence comes from Southern Baptists’ own studies. Only 7 percent of members who’ve been in a Southern Baptist church five years of less are true converts.” 62 We have done studies that show the same thing, and Baptists are generally better than other evangelical churches. In some of our studies of famous churches, the percent that report they met Christ in that church is as low as 3 percent.

She rolls out numerous studies in an interesting way, interspersed with stories of people from both favorable and hostile perspective. She concludes, "The truth behind all these numbers is that evangelicals are not converting and cannot convert non-Christian Americans, especially native-born white people, in significant numbers." 64 I believe that is as true as any statement in the book.

In a larger view she says, "A small and declining group of people has been portrayed as tremendously powerful and growing so rapidly that they might take over the country—when in fact that number of converts among this group is down and dropping. They are rarely able to convert and , middle-class American. Their share of the population is not 25 percent, but at most 7 percent of the country and falling. All these numbers come from the churches themselves." 67

What about the reports that 30 or even 40% of Americans are evangelicals? She de-bunks that myth using work again from evangelical sources, including Barna who made that figure popular. His real test for actual believers of a simple list of 9 basic truths shows that the real number of those who believe the Bible at a level that could be considered evangelical is only 7% of the population. Even this crew is suspect. The rest of the so-called 'born-again' Christians in America don't even know what it means. Wicker observes, "The other larger group [the rest of the 40%] comprised evangelicals who were born again but didn’t accept the great majority of the most basic religious tenets that evangelicals are “supposed” to live by. 86 I've known this for years. There's no way most of the people Barna refers to as born-again are true Christians.

One of the biggest questions in my mind as a read this book, just released on April 29, 2008, is whether the evangelical church will be willing to read it. I don't think so. I predict this book, which should be read by all evangelicals, is destined for the remainder table. Evangelicals have consistently shown no willingness to read anything that suggests their current path might be wrong.

Next: We'll drill down into some of Wicker's data for the facts.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

My Reaction to Francis Collins' Language of God Part 6

Collins' theory of "Biologos"

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Collins' version of theistic evolution should be called deistic evolution. He only allows God a role at the very beginning, setting up the machine at the time of the big bang. Even the arrival of abstract intelligence, morality, and the desire for God were apparently natural developments.19 God's role is limited to foreknowing that evolution would take this path.20 His position is even more deistic than Darwin's own position, because Darwin said: "Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived upon this earth have descended from one primordial form into which life was first breathed by the Creator."21 Collins won't even allow for God launching the first living cells.

Collins' analysis of why people resist this deistic theory of origins centers on two specious reasons—1) that people don't like theism associated with evolution, and 2) that they prefer controversy to harmony. I can't think of anyone who resists deism for these reasons.

The real reason Christians resist deism is biblical authority and sound exegesis. Here, Collins reveals his method again, in a way consistent with his earlier chapters: Genesis 1 and 2 are figurative. Adam and Eve were not the only humans, because of Cain's wife. Therefore they are probably just a representative story of how people don't obey God. C.S. Lewis and the Pope agree that the passages should not be taken literally or historically. The lyrical character puts them in the same category as Job and Jonah, which do not carry a "historical ring."22

As noted earlier, these verdicts fly in the face of Jesus' clear teaching that "God said" the things recorded in Gen 2 to Adam. Jesus likened his resurrection to Jonah's expulsion by the fish. According to this reasoning, if the Jonah story was mythical, Jesus' resurrection could be mythical also. Paul teaches that just as sin entered through one man, justification entered through one man. Again, if Adam's fall was mythical, wouldn't this mean that Jesus' death and resurrection could be the same? How did the fallen nature pass to other humans? Clearly the Adam and Eve story is impossible if humans evolved in a transitional community of organisms probably comprising thousands of members, as Collins assumes. I hope we all see that viewing humans as the product of evolution alone means the rejection of a literal Adam and Eve. It also offers no adequate explanation for a spiritual nature that would even survive death.

Collins' view of scripture is completely unacceptable.

On page 83, Collins gives us two choices where Genesis interpretation is concerned: hyper-literal young earth hermeneutics, and non-historical poetic license. His coverage in this section demonstrates no understanding of other interpretive positions. Throughout this section, he shows little depth of understanding either of the interpretive issues in Genesis or of the theological issues raised by his low view of scripture.

Collins stands close enough to biblical faith to be very appealing, especially because of his preeminence in the scientific community. But while learning from his advanced scholarship in genetics, people could also easily buy into his poorly informed views on scripture.

For us, the determining limits to which theories may be accepted should be biblical exegesis. I believe we have no reason to declare which theory or combination is the correct one, only which theories are possible within a biblical framework.

19 Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 201. Although he allows that these defy explanation through evolution, he still resists attributing them to God, and maintains that no intervention by God was necessary. He reaffirms this when he describes moral law and desire to know God as gradual, natural developments that could have happened in reptiles if things had gone differently.

20. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 205, 207

21. Cited in Gleason Archer, Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 195.

22. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 209.

Monday, May 5, 2008

My Reaction to Collins' Language of God Part 5

Read earlier comments in
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Collins on Intelligent Design

Collins' assumption that scientists would never ignore or marginalize a new view, just because it's based on theistic assumptions seems quite naïve to me. Why would scientists be any different than other humans? While they may like formulating new theories, adopting a position that would lead to their own marginalization is not likely.

Collins disqualifies ID as science because "A viable scientific theory predicts other findings and suggests approaches for further experimental verification." But "ID's proposal of the intervention of supernatural forces to account for complex multi-component biological entities is a scientific dead end. Outside of the development of a time machine, verification of the ID theory seems profoundly unlikely."13 I think this criticism fails for more than one reason.

First, macroevolution (as I have defined it above) suffers the same criticism as ID. It prescribes no future approach for experimental verification. Experimental verification of natural selection or of genetic mutation is not the same as verification for macroevolution. Faith in macroevolution rests entirely on interpretation of existing data and has never been validated experimentally, or observed.

Second, while we would have to go back in a time machine to verify ID, we would also need one to validate macroevolution. Collins fails to see that believing in a process that has immense gaps in the fossil record, and no explanation for how it began in the first place is no better than believing in a far more plausible explanation, such as intervention by a designer.

I thought his call for ID to give a mechanism for how the intelligence gets into the design was unrealistic.14 This would be nothing but speculation at best. Any number of possibilities could be suggested, but these would probably only be used to ridicule the position. ID is primarily a critique of a pure Darwinian explanation for nature. Collins seems to imply that ID is in the same category as young earthers, but most are in fact Darwinists within limits. The material I have seen is arguing that Darwin's theory is inadequate to explain all transitions. Most do not deny Darwinian principles across the board.

His arguments that current design in humans is imperfect and flawed, thus making it unlikely they come from God, are very familiar arguments found in enlightenment writings – Darwin, Hume, and others advanced these same arguments, and they have been answered satisfactorily.15 I was surprised to see a theist using these well-known atheistic arguments.

I thought his rejection of Behe's flagellum argument was unconvincing and rhetorically loaded. He throws in qualifiers like "presumably" such and so could have happened, and admits "we are far from filling in the whole picture (if we ever can)," but on these bases, he concludes "Recent research has fundamentally undercut this [ID] position."16 The research he mentions did nothing more than suggest a highly speculative possibility without observable backing [that flagella could have been borrowed toxin injectors somehow converted to a completely different function]. How does this fundamentally undercut anything? I thought it highly questionable that an organelle used to inject toxin into other bacteria would spontaneously begin to spin as a means of motility, and thereafter be reproduced for that purpose. I'm sure Behe et al. would point out that this transition would have to happen for all parts of the flagellum in a very short time in order to bestow any enhanced survivability. I can't believe Collins thinks the matter is closed based on this speculation.

I have never felt that the flagellum and related arguments were the most persuasive part of ID (their work on inorganic evolution is far more convincing, since the mechanisms of mutation and selection are not available as an explanation). But I did not feel that mere resemblance to amino acid sequences in a somewhat similar organelle that had a completely different function could be called "fundamentally undercutting" the flagellum argument.

He also characterizes irreducible complexity as the foundation for ID, and that is inaccurate. That is only one argument use by the group, and in my mind, it is one of the least convincing. The recent discovery that bacteria and viruses can adopt and assimilate loose strands of inter-cellular DNA into their own DNA (not mentioned by Collins) could raise problems for this theory as well.17

He completely fails to deal with their much more substantial work in inorganic evolution. This is a critical shortcoming in his critique. He also fails to deal with Dembski's analysis of what constitutes evidence of design in nature.

Collins includes a theological critique centering again on the 'God of the gaps' complaint dealt with earlier, and a specious claim that ID pictures an incompetent God who needs to intervene periodically to "correct" his shortcomings in previous creation. Neither of these was convincing.
The reasons for progressive creation would not need to be correcting errors or deficiencies. Anyone who has added to his garden during successive years understands why the creative work done last year may be supplemented without any suggestion that the previous work was mistaken. The pleasure of creating is reason enough for a creative being to act. For all we know, progressive acts of creation may have been appropriate because conditions were developing on the planet during long intervals that made further advances possible. There could be other reasons. This critique is an interpretation loaded with negative assumptions not based on any evidence. It is also possible that natural selection and mutation are incapable of developing beyond certain inherent limits.

Collins is completely negative about ID. He predicts it is a ship headed for the bottom of the ocean.18 I thought he gave no adequate basis for this caustic assessment. Young people in our church have supplied me with evidence that in recent months, weblogs and other groups discussing science and Christianity have suddenly shifted from favoring ID to declaring it now "disproven," that "it sucks," and "is stupid." I think Collins' very popular book is having a dramatic but unwarranted impact.

Next time: Collins' "Biologos" theory

13. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 187.

14. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 187, 188,

15. Gleason Archer, Survey of Old Testament Introduction, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974) on Genesis.

16. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 192.

17. Laurie Garrett, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases In a World Out of Balance, (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994).

18. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 195.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

My Reaction to Collins' Languag of God Part 4

Collins' work on biblical exegesis

Read Part 1
Read Part 2
Read Part 3

Collins says, "The concern about not accepting liberal interpretations of biblical texts is understandable."8 But he also says, "…parts of the Bible, such as the first few chapters of Genesis, the book of Job, the Song of Solomon, and the Psalms, have a more lyrical and allegorical flavor, and do not seem to carry the marks of pure historical narrative."9 He adds, "to most other interpreters throughout history, until Darwin put believers on the defensive, the first chapters of Genesis had much more the feel of a morality play than an eyewitness report on the evening news."10 His view here only reflects Roman Catholic allegorizing during the medieval period, which was not only applied to these passages but to most historical narrative in the Bible. Allegorical hermeneutics were rejected well before Darwin by evangelical interpreters, and for reasons different than that assumed by Collins.11

These statements clearly signal that Collins has a view of scripture deemed unacceptable to the vast majority of evangelical scholarship and contrary to our own statement of faith. During the 1980's hundreds of the top scholars in the evangelical world came together to clarify what evangelical views on biblical authority should entail. They developed the "Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics," which is the clearest formulation of the evangelical view in this area. Notice these articales that are violated by Collins' statements (key phrases that I think are denied are in bold):

Article VI.

WE AFFIRM that the Bible expresses God's truth in propositional statements, and we declare that biblical truth is both objective and absolute. We further affirm that a statement is true if it represents matters as they actually are, but is an error if it misrepresents the facts. (Collins thinks they are still true even though they make claims that were wrong.)

Article XIII.

WE AFFIRM that awareness of the literary categories, formal and stylistic, of the various parts of Scripture is essential for proper exegesis, and hence we value genre criticism as one of the many disciplines of biblical study.

WE DENY that generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual. (The early chapters of Genesis present themselves as factual, but Collins says they are symbolic.)

Article XV.

WE AFFIRM the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text.

WE DENY the legitimacy of any approach to Scripture that attributes to it meaning which the literal sense does not support. (such as allegory, which Collins likes.)

Article XX.

WE AFFIRM that since God is the author of all truth, all truths, biblical and extrabiblical, are consistent and cohere, and that the Bible speaks truth when it touches on matters pertaining to nature, history, or anything else. We further affirm that in some cases extrabiblical data have value for clarifying what Scripture teaches, and for prompting correction of faulty interpretations.

WE DENY that extrabiblical views ever disprove the teaching of Scripture or hold priority over it.

Article XXII.

WE AFFIRM that Genesis 1-11 is factual, as is the rest of the book.

WE DENY that the teachings of Genesis 1-11 are mythical and that scientific hypotheses about earth history or the origin of humanity may be invoked to overthrow what Scripture teaches about creation.
Also note these statements from the "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy:"
(Collins directly rejected this position.)

4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives.
(Collins directly rejected this position.)

Article XII.

We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.

We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

[Their point here is that we begin with exegesis and determine the limits allowed. THEN we go to science as it stands today to see what is more or less likely within those limits. The wrong approach would be to reach conclusions via science, and then make scripture fit that conclusion—which is exactly the approach Collins takes when he dismisses Gen 1-11 as history. – Dennis]

Article XVI.

We affirm that the doctrine of inerrancy has been integral to the Church's faith throughout its history.

We deny that inerrancy is a doctrine invented by scholastic Protestantism, or is a reactionary position postulated in response to negative higher criticism.
(Collins directly rejected this position.)

Article XVIII.

We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.

We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads or relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims of authorship.
(Collins did exactly this in his argument.)

I think Collins' approach to scripture violates all of these statements, and is completely unacceptable for Bible believers. Such a view could prove a stumbling block to the weak and unlearned.

Jesus and Paul affirmed that the early chapters of Genesis were historical and factual. Remember that our information on Adam and Eve, and the fall of the human race are contained in these "allegorical" and "morality play" chapters. This is why evangelicals believe these chapters are historical, not a defensive reaction to Darwin.

Since Collins' method emanates from a base that is not constrained by a high view of scripture, his method is faulty. Therefore, we must be very careful about accepting his views based on that method.

Contrast his view of scripture with his view of science:

"Science is progressive and self-correcting: no significantly erroneous conclusions or false hypotheses can be sustained for long, as newer observations will ultimately knock down incorrect constructs."12

I think Collins' faith in science is extreme and unwarranted. Critics of scientism like Kuhn have demonstrated multiple cases where exactly what Collins thinks could never happen has happened (see his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). Collins' faith in science contrasts strongly with his lack of confidence in scripture, and calls further in to question his underlying assumptions and methods.

Next time: Collins on Intelligent Design

8. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 175.

9. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 175.

10. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 175.

11. See this author and Gary DeLashmutt's explanation in "Hermeneutical Systems."

12. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 58.