One of the hot topics of the moment seems to be speculation on the ultimate fate of the evangelical movement. Mark Spenser believes, among other things, that evangelicalism “is going to decline quickly to a smaller, more chastened, more diverse, less influential form” and that “Megachurch evangelicalism will survive on size, not fidelity to the Gospel.”
As Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today points out this somewhat depends on what is meant by Evangelicalism. If evangelicalism is seen as a cultural or sociological movement than its ultimate decline is certain. On the other hand if it is seen as a primarily theological movement than “Evangelicalism as such will no more collapse than will the ubiquity of sin and the longing for salvation.”
In all this speculation it is important to keep in mind two things. The first is that change is inevitable. Even a quick glance at the history of the Church will show that it has undergone a great deal of change over the centuries. While with the clarity of our current beliefs, it is easy to look back at the ‘errors’ and ‘follies’ of Christians in the past and ask questions such as: how could they believe that?; or how could they do that? It should be equally sobering to realize that should Christ tarry long enough, there will be Christians in the future who look back on the evangelical movement and ask those very same questions.
The change comes from a number of factors. Galli is right when he points out that “Like any movement, religious or not, evangelicalism has become embedded in certain aspects of its culture.” While we are not of this world we are in it, and try as we might, it does affect us and how we look at things.
For example, I think there can be little doubt that should Christ tarry, the church is on the cusp of a major and significant change the ramifications of which will be huge, but as yet unknown. Why? Very simple: the growth of technology. If you were to take a Christian from just about any period of Church history and drop them into the average modern church, while there would be a lot of things they found strange, there would be many things they found the same, in particular how our primary connection to the faith community is through the local church.
I am not predicting that the local church as an institution will cease to exist, though I would not rule it out. The primary reason for the local church is to give Christians a means of coming together to worship, learn about, and serve the Lord. Until very recently how else would you do it? With the advent of radio and TV, it suddenly became possible for people to participate, at least to some extent, in Church services without having to actually go to church. But the key weakness of radio and TV is that they are passive and one way. This was a huge weakness. But it is not like the local church likewise did not have weaknesses. After all a common meeting point does allow people to fellowship together, but only when they get together, and for most that was only a couple of hours a week.
Now we have new technologies such as cell phones, instant messaging and the internet . There are now so many ways of sharing information and staying connected and few if any have any idea how this will affect the church and the way people worship. There are people who live in other states, to whom I am far closer and have far more contact with than anyone at my church, because church is still a far more a limited style of communication that requires my physical presents.
So how will the church change as it comes to embrace these new technologies? While we do not know all the details a few things are sure. These emerging technologies will bring a lot of change, a lot of benefits, a lot of challenges, and some real dangers.
To give just one example, with the current technologies it would be possible to set up a service that allowed your accountability partner to know where you are and to be notified if you went someplace you shouldn’t. Such information given to a close and trusted friend, one whom you had asked to help you resist the temptations you struggled with could be a tremendous aid and benefit. However the same information given as a requirement of the church would itself be a huge temptation to abuse and thus a source of real danger.
While changes is thus inevitable , the second thing to keep in mind is that God is in control. Again looking at church history we see that the Holy Spirit breathes life into new movements and they grow. But when they calcify and stagnate, sometimes God brings renewed life, sometime he just starts something new. Whether evangelicalism will continue to grow or collapse, will ultimately be determined by how responsive evangelicals themselves are to the leading of the Holy Spirit.