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Over at Tony Campolo’s “Red Letter Christians” blog, Jimmy Spencer sees the release of Love Wins as signalling an imminent split in Protestant evangelicalism. It’s the old people, who tend to be reformed, along with their young recruits, against the rest of us young folks, as Spencer sees it. And though he rightly identifies the opposing factions, I think he may have missed something.

The “huge shift” he is waiting for is already happening.

But, I can see why he might have missed it; it’s not a split at all. It is more like an erosion. Those of us along the edges are simply sliding off the side into, well, all kinds of things. Some of us turn to Catholicism, others to mainline denominations. Some tumble into Episcopal or Anglican churches, others stay at their evangelical churches but choose not to identify as such. And, sadly, some slide off the edge into nothing at all.

I don’t think there will be any more of a marked change than this. A loosely gathered group of people who have never been able to agree on a name let alone the particulars of theology don’t split, they erode. And erosion doesn’t happen once and then it’s over, it’s an ongoing process.

We are in the midst of the erosion. Enjoy the slide.

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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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0 Responses to Evangelicalism Won’t Split, It’s Eroding

  1. Joe Carter says:

    The empirical evidence shows just the opposite is occurring (http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/01/the-good-news-about-evangelicalism). But why ruin a good anecdotal-based theory with facts, right?

    • You’re so fast!

      I’ve read all of this, but it misses two important points. First, I agree that young evangelicals aren’t becoming more liberal. What they are becoming is not evangelicals.

      Second, these studies identify evangelicals by church attendance and as I briefly mentioned in the post, even people at evangelical churches don’t always identify as evangelicals. In fact, because the title itself is so amorphous, many individuals find other ways to identify themselves anyway.

      I’m not contradicting the Baylor survey, so much as attempting to fill in the holes. Evangelicalism may be growing on one side, but it is eroding on the other. In light of this, it is obviously not becoming more liberal, because those of us who lean left are leaving.

      • Joe Carter says:

        I’ve got nothing better to do than to troll blogs, seeking out areas of disagreement. ; )

      • Joe Carter says:

        ***In fact, because the title itself is so amorphous, many individuals find other ways to identify themselves anyway.***

        If you mean that some people go to evangelical churches and hold beliefs that are consonant with historical evangelical theology and yet they don’t identify themselves as “evangelical,” then I certainly agree.

        I used to know people in Texas who would say, “I’m not an evangelical, I’m a Southern Baptist.” It’s like Molière’s Bourgeois Gentleman who was shocked to find that he had been speaking prose all his life. Many people who could clearly be identified as evangelicals would be surprised to find the label applied to them.

        ***Evangelicalism may be growing on one side, but it is eroding on the other.***

        But that’s always been the case. Evangelicals have always been becoming mainline Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, non-believers, etc. That’s not a new trend. Of course if you were a mainline Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or non-believer, you’d also notice people becoming evangelicals.

        Fortunately for evangelicalism, the numbers that leave are made up by the people who come into the tradition. That is why the net effect is that the numbers of evangelicals hasn’t declined in decades while other groups (mainly mainline Protestants) are continuing to shrink.

        After reading your post again, I see that you could simply be saying that evangelicalism won’t split (a point I agree with) but that the differences will lead to the same erosion that has always occurred. I had initially read your post to imply that evangelicalism would shrink due to the erosion.

        You didn’t say that directly, of course, so my knee-jerk disagreement might have been unwarranted. If you are simply saying, “There’s nothing really new going on, this happens all the time. Nothing to see here. Move along.” then I certainly agree.

        One of the more interesting questions that arises from this discussion is why some people who really aren’t evangelicals choose to stay within the movement.

        For example, it doesn’t bother me that David S. no longer considers himself to be an evangelical. If his conscience tells him that the doctrinal foundation of the tradition is wrong, then he is doing the right thing by leaving the movement. What bothers me is that when he says, as he did here on Patrol, that “he no longer identifies as an evangelical” and yet writes for the Evangelical portal at Patheos. (I disagree with you too sometimes (okay, often) but you still seem to be in line with orthodox evangelicalism on most issues.)

        If there really are so many young people that don’t feel they fit in with evangelicalism, why don’t we see more of them leaving?

        • Well, I won’t speak for Sessions, but I don’t consider myself evangelical either. I do have doctrinal problems with what you consider orthodox evangelicalism (I find it hard to believe that there really is such a thing…whose orthodoxy, is a question I’ve been asking a lot lately) and I attend an episcopal church. I write on the Evangelical portal at Patheos because I have come out of that tradition and I find I often write about it. Not necessarily, because I am it. But, of course, the thing about a label like evangelical is that I can say I’m not, but someone else who reads what I write or talks to me can simply say I am.

          • Joe Carter says:

            ***I write on the Evangelical portal at Patheos because I have come out of that tradition and I find I often write about it.***

            But isn’t that a bit misleading for the readers? (Not to mention Mr. Dalrymple, the portal’s editor.) I mean, Sessions (and now you) have admitted here on Patrol that you are not consider yourself evangelicals. Shouldn’t that be something that is clarified? After all, anything you write is going to be assumed to be an evangelical perspective coming from an evangelical.

            ***I write on the Evangelical portal at Patheos because I have come out of that tradition and I find I often write about it.***

            Maybe I’m confused about how it works at Patheos, but I don’t think they have Baptists who used to be Catholics writing on the Catholic portal (Note to self: Ask Scalia about that.) The assumption is that the people who are writing under those sections are people who would identify themselves as belonging to those traditions.

        • David Sessions says:

          You’ll have to take up the portal issue with Patheos; I told them I’m not an evangelical and don’t fit there, and that’s where they decided to put me. I’m fine with it, but I didn’t choose it.

    • Jeff says:

      Scrolling the comments I found I wasn’t the only one struck by this. Here’s the comment in full:

      “Nondenominational churches, almost exclusively evangelical, now represent the second-largest group of Protestant churches in America, and the fastest growing section of the American religious market.”

      The last four words of this sentence are a haunting indictment of evangelicalism. Where is Jesus in all this?

      • Joe Carter says:

        While I’m not crazy about that language either, Dr. Johnson was writing as a social scientist and using the jargon related to the field of study.

        I’m sure that if you asked him his opinion as a believer, he would say that those churches are growing because they are doing a better job of proclaiming Jesus.

  2. Jim Krill says:

    Eroding!

  3. […] Fitz argued that evangelicalism won’t split because it’s eroding instead. I agree, and I would add that […]

  4. Jeffrey says:

    Here’s my question: if there is no consensus about what our presuppositions should be, what our hermeneutic should be, what our beliefs should be (and my apologies to those who believe that evangelicals do have this consensus, but I really think that last twenty to thirty years refutes the idea that there is, even if there was more of one at some point in the past) then who’s to say who’s eroding, splitting, evolving or whatever? Splitting or eroding from what is the obvious question. Well, from the evangelical consensus, some might answer. And what is that, another asks. And perhaps the answer is that if people as different as Rob Bell and Al Mohler and institutions as different as Fuller seminary and Westminster seminary are all “evangelical,” then no one is evangelical.

  5. […] Fitz argued that evangelicalism won’t split because it’s eroding instead. I agree, and I would add that […]

  6. […] Love Wins has contributed to a renewed interest in theories regarding the break-up / end / split / erosion / crack-up of evangelicalism. The links I just provided are merely the latest examples of a […]

  7. […] then it’s over, it’s an ongoing process. We are in the midst of the erosion. Enjoy the slide From Here By Alisa Harris On March 18, 2011 • Yesterday, Fitz argued that evangelicalism won’t split […]

  8. […] I saw Evangelicalism Won’t Split, It’s Erroding–a response to Jimmy. (I’d sum up, but you can get the basics from the title.) Then I […]

  9. […] As examples, check out these recent opinion pieces by Patrol‘s John D. Fitzgerald (“Evangelicalism Won’t Split, It’s Eroding”) and author/blogger Rachel Held Evan (“The Future of Evangelicalism: A Twenty […]

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