Evangelical collapse?

(BUMPED; UPDATES BELOW) I linked this in the headlines after seeing it in Hot Air Headlines, but wanted also to discuss Michael Spencer’s Christian Science Monitor article, which includes this point:

We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.

Spencer does not mention Julia Duin’s important new book, Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do about It, but it seems clear to me — if to no one else — that he’s read it. So I’ll begin by putting a mark against Spencer for failure to acknowledge his source.

There are many sources of the problems that Spencer (and Julia Duin) discuss, and the failure of churches to rigorously teach the Bible to kids is the nut of the whole thing. When I was a kid growing up in the Baptist church, “Sword Drill” was a big event.

“Sword Drill” took its name from Ephesians 6:17, where Christians are commanded to employ “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” So us kids were literally drilled in Bible memorization. I was by no means a good student, but some of it took, and the constant repetition of Bible study engrained in my mind — as I am sure it did with others — a solid core of biblical knowledge. It also developed a mindset that the Bible was an authoritative source.

This was reinforced during the sermons preached by Pastor Marion Beavers. If there are any others out there who grew up in Lithia Springs (Ga.) First Baptist Church back in the ’60s and ’70s, you know that “Preacher Beavers” (which was how he was addressed) was a first-class Bible preacher.

By the term “Bible preacher,” I refer to a sermon style that seems to have faded in the past three decades. The preacher kept the Bible in his hand, or open on the lectern, throughout the sermon. However he organized his sermon, it began with a reference to a specific biblical passage — the Verse of the Day, which was listed in the program — and was further elaborated with references to other verses.

“Turn with me now . . .” was a phrase repeated endlessly during the sermon. The people in the pews were expected to have their own Bibles and, as the preacher proceeded to cite “chapter and verse,” the people would turn the pages to follow his references and read for themselves. So, whatever the preacher’s eloquence contributed to the sermon, the people in the pews could see directly that his preaching was built firmly on a scriptural foundation.

He wasn’t just telling you his opinion, he was preaching the Word of God. The reliance was not on the preacher, but on the Bible, so if you subtracted the preacher from the equation, you still had the Bible to guide you. Bible preaching encouraged an autodidactic attitude in the congregation, so that the believer had a proprietary sensibility toward the Word: “This is my Bible, this is my God, this is my faith.”

The loss of that covenantal idea of mutual belonging — you belonged to God, and God belonged to you, and the Bible was an ironclad contract between you — is at the core of the evangelical decline that Julia Duin describes and which Michael Spencer sees turning into a “collapse” of American evangelicism.

We could talk about many other factors — e.g., the abandonment of the hymnal in favor of pop-rock “praise music” — but the shift away from old-fashioned Bible preaching seems to me the key factor in the waning of vital faith in many churches.

UPDATE: Linked at Memeorandum and Outside the Beltway.

UPDATE II: Linked by Donald Douglas, who notes:

Andrew Sullivan, in particular, has a number of posts up cheering all of this, for example, “The Young and the Godless,” and “A Coming Evangelical Collapse?
Sullivan blames these trends on … wait for it! … “Christianism,” of course.

I’m just waiting for Ace of Spades to take notice of this. Ace has never struck me as a particularly religious man, but if Sully is smiling, Ace is the man to wipe that smile off his face.

UPDATE III: Let me say a word or two in response to the anonymous commenter — the good ones are always anonymous, eh? — who said:

Good idea, get rid of contemporary music and bring in madrassa-style Bible drilling. That will bring in the young folk.

The anonymous idiot is not a parent, and has never studied developmental psychology. Four words: Children flourish under discipline.

If you know nothing else about dealing with children, you should try to understand this. My good teachers, my effective Boy Scout leaders, my winning football coaches, the choir, band and drama directors who knew best how to elicit superior performance — all of these worked with the understanding that discipline has positive value with children.

The failure of “seek-friendly” mega-churches is not an inability to “bring in the young folk,” but their unwillingness to apply discipline. After all, “discipline” and “disciple” are words of more than etymological affinity. You cannot build disciples without discipline. “Seeker-friendly” churches indeed attract youth, but they cannot retain them. They’re dealing Wonder Bread and Velveeta, when what the kids really need is whole wheat and red meat.

(Note: Anyone accusing me of going “crunchy” will be at risk of a punk-smacking.)

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