Is American Evangelicalism on the Verge of Collapse?


A recent, ongoing conversation occurring around the blogosphere concerns what to make of some study numbers showing declines in stalwart Evangelical denominations. Below is a series of links that pertain to the issue:

The American Religious Identification Survey study that kicked off part of the conversation. (An excerpt is here.)

Michael Spencer’s Christian Science Monitor article that propounded the idea that the survey figures signaled a collapse of Evangelicalism within ten years. (Spencer blogs at

Michael Bell posted an intriguing statistical portent that hints at which churches will decline, plus two articles at that unpack those numbers (Post 1, Post 2).

Leith Anderson, the current head of the National Association of Evangelicals, responds to Spencer’s CSM article.

And finally, Spencer rebuts Anderson.

Today, I’d like to ask what you think of this debate. Is Evangelicalism on the downward slide? And if so, why?

(I wade in with my thoughts in this follow-up post: “Is American Evangelicalism on the Verge of Collapse?†“A Response“)

45 thoughts on “Is American Evangelicalism on the Verge of Collapse?

  1. Peter P

    To be honest, I don’t care. I just want people to get saved. If that means that people are getting saved in places which don’t hold the moniker of ‘Emerican Evangelical’ then that’s fine with me!

    The figures are all nonsensical anyway. Just because x-number of people call themselves evangelical Christians, that doesn’t mean that they are actually saved.

    Maybe all that will happen is that the numbers will become more accurate and we’ll finally actually see how many people are saved in the US.

    • Peter,

      Self-identified or not, deluded or not, the figures still matter—at least I think they do. I think they are especially valuable as a way to see what is replacing them. If people are no longer calling themselves Evangelicals, then why, and what do they consider themselves to be now?

  2. I think evangelicalism as it has come to be is on the decline. That’s a good thing imo, because evangelicalism has become something far removed from what the Church was meant to be, and even from what the original evangelical movement in this country was. The church has gone away from making disciples and been making converts and church members. I agree with Michael Spencer’s 3rd post on the subject, where he states his hope that what will come out of the collapse will be a better church.

    • Fred,

      I think it’s a tragedy that Evangelicalism is on the decline. Death to the ridiculous subculture it created, but to lose the core of what it stood for is a disaster. Unfortunately, I think the subculture is pretty much all that remains in some Evangelical churches.

  3. Honestly, yes. I don’t think we can keep this hype machine running much longer. People are tired of the dog and pony show. I think we’re about to see a precipitous decline in attendance that somewhat mirrors what happened to mainline Protestant denominations since the 60s.

    Hopefully what will come of that is a church that is more united, more real, less driven to producing 2nd rate copies of the latest cultural fads and more committed to being Christlike.

    • Ragamuffin,

      The “dog and pony show” is what too much of modern Evangelicalism rests on. That the show was exposed for what it is may be the best thing to happen to Christians in America—unless disillusionment drives people away altogether.

  4. I think what many Christians in this debate may not want to admit is that America is heading towards European-style post-Christianity, when only a small percentage of the population professes real conviction, and they will be persecuted.

  5. Diane R

    I definitely agree with Spencer. The evangelical church made a wrong turn somewhere in the 1980’s and has been on the “downgrade” ever since. The main problem is doctrinal, although some churches also have organizational structural errors too.

    • Diane,

      I’ll go back even further. I think the downgrade happened right after WWII. People got pumped up spiritually by the war, but what came afterwards was a time of complacency (in much the same way that people filled churches around 9/11, then vanished). The United States emerged from WWII as a superpower, and with it came the false sense that we had arrived. Evangelicalism went into a sort of cocoon that put “good people” in the Church and left everyone else outside. Evangelism began to erode in the face of the nascent culture wars, and the Church lost its reason to be. When church people stopped reaching out to those in need, politically liberal organizations stepped in to take their place. (The government-teat reality fostered by FDR had already taken hold in the culture, too, and the church abandoned social services to let the feds take over.) In addition, “The We’re All In This Together” mentality of the war gave way to materialism and career climbing, a sort of “every man for himself” way of thinking. However, at this same time, the company man was born, the white collar worker who lived and died in the office. But even as he ascended, we see the first hints of the women’s movement, as women disillusioned by the sterility of the suburbs (and without much to do except tend house) sought new ways to channel their discontent.

      Vatican II in the 60s erased the idea of “high church” in many people’s minds, both Protestant and RCC, which is not necessarily a bad thing as it opened up a few opportunities for laity that had not existed previously. However, with a little freedom came the pendulum swing, and things got out of hand quickly at the end of the frenzied ’60s.

      That’s how I see it. Anything that came afterward was simply built upon the foundation that came long before the 1980s.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        The United States emerged from WWII as a superpower, and with it came the false sense that we had arrived. Evangelicalism went into a sort of cocoon that put “good people in the Church and left everyone else outside.

        The 1950s (the REAL Nifty Fifties, not the mythical Godly Golden Age) was basically a time of extreme decompression and “kicking back” after the hardships of the Great Depression and WW2. Since the USA was the only Western industrialized nation to come through the war with its industrial base and economy not only untouched but strengthened, we ended up with an influx of money postwar-reconstructing the world, leading to an unprecedented period of prosperity. Even the much-maligned conformity of Fifties culture was a natural response to the “Interesting Times” that preceded it.

        So why do so many Evangelicals hold up the 1950s as some sort of Perfect Godly Golden Age? Not even the REAL 1950s, but a mythic 1950s according to Ozzie, Harriet, and Donna Reed?

        But even as he ascended, we see the first hints of the women’s movement, as women disillusioned by the sterility of the suburbs (and without much to do except tend house) sought new ways to channel their discontent.

        Again, postwar prosperity. A man could provide for his family without his wife having to work (which had become a point of pride during the Great Depression). Previously, the wife would have had a full-time job managing the household, but higher-tech labor-saving devices meant that could be done with much less woman-hours. (And postwar male employment and the legacy of the Depression gave much prestige to women not having to work.) So the women sat idle at home, without their previous full-time jobs running the household. My mother threw herself into overprotective smother-mothering, soap operas, and bowling leagues; others took a lower road with alcohol and/or pills.

        And when the explosion came (when the First 1960s transitioned into The Sixties (TM)), it took out a lot of the good points of that flawed culture. Pleasantville told only half the story; the full story should have been “Here’s what we gained; here’s what we lost in the process. Could some of what had been lost been better retained, and some of what we gained not been worth it?”

    • Diane,

      One last point. A lot of European thought, especially higher criticism, reached its full flower right after WWII. A lot of intellectuals who had contempt for the Scriptures left their countries and emigrated to the U.S. That only sped up the decay.

  6. Hi Dan,

    Nice to find your blog. Although I have written a number of posts showing statistical support for evangelical decline, I am an optimist at heart.

    I would sincerely echo most of Ragamuffin’s comments: “Hopefully what will come of that is a church that is more united, more real… and more committed to being Christlike.”

    Like the Apostle Paul, I do believe in being culturally relevant, while not sacrificing the good news of Jesus Christ.

    I would caution everyone that although I am a big “numbers” guy, numbers only tell part of the story, and in fact can be misleading. For example, my Pastor was recently discouraged that in our church of about 170 attendance, numbers were down, membership was down, and baptisms were down.

    I pointed out to him that numbers were down because numbers a very dependent upon what church the students of the nearby university happen to gravitate to during a particular year. Membership was down because older people were dying, and newer people had not yet become members, and baptisms were down because we had had a significant blip up in our number of baptisms the previous year. I also noted that in the past two years that we had 9 new families start attending our church, and even with outflows we were up 7 families consisting of 26 people from where we were 2 years ago.

    We are a caring community, people who come sense it and stay. We just have a lot to do with being intentional about getting people to come.

    Attendance at many Evangelical denominations (including the Southern Baptists) in the U.S.A. and Canada is still growing. I am hopeful, that despite some of the generational horizons that we face, that this trend will continue.

    • Lies, damn lies, and statistics, right Michael?

      Thanks for stopping by.

      I think the most compelling numbers are not those that show Evangelicalism’s points on the graph dropping, but those that depict the rise of replacements for Evangelical options. People who do not identify with any religion are a force to be reckoned with. These are not atheists, but people who have weighed the options on the scale and found every last one wanting—and that goes for Evangelicalism.

  7. Dan,

    I believe there are several factors driving the decline.

    First, the destruction of the family is probably at the core of it. If children are growing up outside of that traditional structure, I fear it’s a very easy step for them to simply abandon anything their parents taught them: “They said they were Christian, but they still got divorced,” etc.

    I heard Mark Gungor–on his weekly show “Love, Marriage and Stinking Thinking”–talk about something that has really changed my perspective. I used to think that it’s better to wait to get married until late 20’s or early 30’s. His theory is that as we are telling our young people to wait to get married, we are setting up a ticking-time bomb. When you do the math, grandparents will have zero influence in their grandkids’ lives within a generation. It hit home for me because my parents got married in their late 30’s. I was born early in their marriage, but I didn’t get married until I was just shy of 31. My wife and I just had our first son when I was 37. Praise God that all of my son’s grandparents are still around and healthy. But they are all in their 70’s. I now see what Mark was trying to say.

    An off-shoot of this is that we are telling our kids to delay adulthood, in essence. That’s the message we are sending by telling them to wait to get married. This is a travesty because we’re telling them: wait to get married, but also wait to have sex! We all now how high hormones are ranging between 18-20. What do we expect them to do?

    We are diluting ourselves as Christians on many fronts: we are becoming irrelevant and lukewarm in some instances and in others, downright apostates. When the largest church in the US is being shepherded by a pastor who repeatedly tells Larry King “I don’t know” about basic Biblical doctrine, you can help but understand why Jesus said that He will “vomit [us] out of His mouth” Revelation 3:16.

    Lastly, I had posted a question that Chuck Missler had raise recently on his weekly radio broadcast. His conjecture is that we are possibly past the point of no return for 2 Chronicles 7:14 and reminds us that the verse is speaking to the church. If you have iTunes and some times, I recommend downloading his podcasts for this presentation. It was very sobering because he demonstrates what is going on governmentally and financially in our country.

    Depressing? Maybe. I think it depends on your viewpoint. I do believe we are seeing Biblical prophecy being fulfilled in our times. It also reminds me of Luke 18:8:

    “…when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”

  8. I did not read the articles mentioned and I may not be using the right terms in what follows.
    After reading the gospels, I have been struggling with the difference between evangelizing and discipling. What are we really commanded to do? Get converts or disciples? If getting converts is a part of the plan, shouldn’t we be sure to talk about ‘dying daily’ before getting them to ‘say the prayer’? How many people are encouraged to really count the cost before saying they’ll follow Christ? When witnessing to some one, who mentions the rich young ruler? Or reads Luke 9:57-62 or Luke 14:25-35 to them?
    I guess I’m disturbed that there are people out there that ‘prayed the prayer’ and think they’re all set but are nowhere near set. So, anyhow, just something I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around.

    • Mark,

      Three years ago I was part of a church in which their was an obvious split in the elders’ group and Pastoral church committee. Half of the elders and half of the search committee wanted to focus on discipleship. Half of them wanted to focus on outreach. They could not agree on any Pastoral candidate. Eventually the denomination’s District Superintendent stepped in, dissolved the Board of Elders, and six months later closed the church.

      My own personal opinion. You can’t have one without the other. Jesus’ process with his own disciples was a three year process. Some people will be ready for an intense commitment from day 1, others will need time to grow. Others may never arrive. I tend to focus on outreach first, because if you don’t, you won’t have anyone to disciple.

      • Michael,

        If you read here long enough, you’ll know that one of the themes of this blog is that Christianity is not always an either/or proposition. Yet that is what we often make it because either/or allows us to make judgment calls about what is worthy of our time. And we make those judgments because we are not willing to devote the amount of time and energy that the upward call of Christ demands. We think, “I can have evangelism and the corner office, and that leaves no room for outreach. And I really have got to have that corner office.” They used to call that worldliness; now they call it a career path.

        Christianity, with its easy yoke and light burden, is more often both/and. When we get this, perhaps we’ll make the right changes and actually start living what we belleve, even if it costs us the world’s acclaim and our two-car garage.

        • Dan,

          Forgive me, because I am new to your blog. (Though I do look forward to getting into it more.) However, I must say that I didn’t quite follow what you were trying to say in your last comment, especially the first half on the second paragraph. Perhaps you could elaborate a little more for me? 🙂 Could you give an example of “both/and”?

          • Michael,

            No apologies needed!

            One of the big problems with Christian discipleship in the U.S. is that too many churches have an either/or mentality. A good example: We can be diligent in maintaining the integrity of the Gospel or we can pursue social justice. That’s a very common one. “Gospel-preaching” churches will look down on those churches that spend less of their time (in the eyes of he Gospel-preaching church) focused on Bible study and fighting forces that bring higher criticism to the Scriptures and instead spend more of their time on feeding the poor and fighting for justice for the oppressed. That’s a false dichotomy, though. There’s no reason why a church cannot do both.

            Another perfect example would be We can have the charismata or we can have order in our churches. You end up with some churches so afraid of “losing control” that they shut the door on the charismata entirely. But it’s not an either/or proposition. You don’t have to forsake one to keep the other.

            What we need is a “both/and” approach. That takes some effort, though.

            Oftentimes, the reason an either/or approach is taken is sheer laziness or a negative response to the cost involved. We can’t spend time in Bible study and learning if we’re spending it trying to defend the homes of the poor against the greed of land developers who want to kick them out to gentrify the neighborhood and bring in shopping malls. So we choose the former and not the latter. Besides, the latter doesn’t really count as doing the Gospel. Why can’t we do both?

            Well, that takes a serious commitment. And too many people don’t want a serious commitment to the Gospel. They want what they want and forget whatever seems less needful. Besides, doing the “less needful” stuff might mean that we have to change the way we make money and the choices we make in living so we can free up more time to actually do the work we’re supposed to do. And we have the Joneses to keep up with, you know.

            So what we’ll do is either/or the situation. It is a chronic disease in the American Church and it needs to be eliminated if we’re to live as Christians.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy

            One of the big problems with Christian discipleship in the U.S. is that too many churches have an either/or mentality. A good example: We can be diligent in maintaining the integrity of the Gospel or we can pursue social justice.


            The Social Gospel results in a Gospel without personal salvation, only social-justice works.

            The reaction to this — “Born-again, Bible-believing (TM)” — results in a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation.

            Both are badly out of balance, just in opposite directions. Neither is complete, and each hates the other’s guts.

  9. TruthBeTold

    How about this?

    God is the one closing down the church AGE….ever think about that?

    Notice I said AGE and did not say ‘church’…(although I prefer to call it eklessia).

    It is the AGE that is ending. It has been God that has brought the collapse of ‘churches’ all throughout Russia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East…and yes it is now America’s turn. The ‘church’ of America will collapse too. This is why we are called ‘to come out of her’ so that we will not partake of her plagues.
    Jesus wants His BODY back…for it has been taken over by ‘little popes’ called Laity….and He is the one that is bringing the destruction….oh Yes! He is doing it!

    The Lord fullfilled the Spring feasts literally….and will come and fullfill the Fall feasts too.

    The Feast of Pentecost is now coming to a close….for it is a Feast of MIXTURE (as the leavened bread of this feast represents)….and the TABERNACLES AGE is fast approaching.

    The ‘church’ AGE is full of MIXTURE and this will not continue…
    God is doing a NEW THING….no need to prop up what He is pulling down.


  10. ccinnova

    To be honest, I’m not sure if evangelicalism is on the verge of collapse, but it’s definitely not in the best of health. Otherwise, I don’t think we’d be having this debate.

    Last fall I read “Quitting Church,” the latest book by Julia Duin. While I don’t agree with all of her arguments, she makes a number of good points that evangelical leaders should ponder. Some of the reasons Ms. Duin gave as to why evangelicals are departing their churches include irrelevance, lack of community, the church’s poor treatment of singles over 35, lack of solid teaching, and the spiritual dryness seen in many churches today. Ms. Duin’s book is certainly worth reading.

    Regarding Joe Chavez’s remarks about singleness, I understand the point he’s trying to make. But like it or not, many Christians, including yours truly, have moved past young adulthood without ever having married and are tired of being treated like third-class believers due to our marital status. And like it or not, about half the American adult population is now single. If the family-centric church’s fails to take this into account, how can it expect to have a credible evangelistic outreach to single nonbelievers?

    • ccinova,

      Sounds like many of Duin’s touchpoints are the same as those you’ll read on this blog!

      Regarding singleness, I was single until age 33. Sadly, I was shut out of ministry jobs by fearful Christian people simply because I was a single man. So I have very strong opinions on what the Church in this country is doing wrong concerning the way it treats singles. I’m on your side, in other words.

      On the other hand, I also believe there are too many singles because we are delaying marriage for too long. The major reason for this is that the priorities of the average American, and the society we have built around those priorities, is vastly screwed up. Our lives center around our careers instead of Christ. And this is true even for the vast majority of Christians.

      What this means is that we send our young people to college (to start a career track, and for little else), then when they graduate, we encourage them not to get married right away so they can develop their careers (this is a huge message to young women). This is a major factor in inflating the number of singles out there. And I believe that doing this is one of the reasons that people fall into sexual temptation, which would be less likely to occur if they were married.

      Frankly, as the old post I shared with Joe says, I believe we Christians need a truly countercultural answer to this problem. I think we need to rethink how we prepare our young people for the adult world, we need alternatives to the standard college/career track, and we need to stop making our careers our God, which is what most people in this country have done, to the detriment of their souls.

      • @ccinova and Dan,

        I apologize if my comments made it sound like there is a problem with singleness. That was not my intention. Jesus didn’t have a problem with singles and neither did Paul. So how could I?

        And I am totally with you both: it is completely unacceptable for the church to treat our singles as third class Christians. Paul would personally rebuke churches who do so as he himself said:

        Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that…. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

        The latter was the point Mark Gungor was making when speaking of singleness. Unfortunately, I must have done a poor job of communicating that. My apologies to you both.

          • ccinnova


            I agree with Dan. There’s nothing for which you need to apologize. I was simply pointing out the reality that many of today’s single Christians face.

            A few years ago, Dr. Albert Mohler gave a talk at the New Attitude singles’ conference in which he equated adulthood with marriage and implied that singleness is a sin. He subsequently backed down from the latter following an outcry from single Christians.

            In addition, Focus on the Family’s singles website, Boundless, has published a number of articles and blog posts criticizing singles, especially single men, who don’t marry by a certain age.

            While I understand a few single Christian men may have acted irresponsibly, I expect most single Christian men are like me and remain unmarried because all their pursuits got shot down.

            Face it, folks: evangelical Christians aren’t the only ones reading evangelical websites. Such attacks on single Christians will only hurt outreach toward single nonbelievers, especially single men. This is bad news at a time when there is already a shortage of men in many evangelical churches.

  11. Spencer has gotten it backwards. Things already collapsed years ago. For example, a community that engages in constant self-loathing and acerbic self-criticism has already collapsed from within.

    It all reminds me of Salvador Dali’s painting Premonition of Civil War. We are tearing ourselves limb from limb.

    Pardon me, I think I’ll go find a catacomb to hide in.

    • Oengus,

      I think Spencer’s talking more about numbers, but you’re right in that the spiritual collapse began earlier. I noted some of this in my response to Diane.

      You get extra bonus points for tying in Salvador Dali. Bravo!

      I’m not hiding. In fact, I think I will respond just the opposite.

  12. Kenith Laird


    4 Sundays ago I went to a local church here in Houston. The pastor was allowing a gentleman from Oklahoma to speak, someone the pastor spoke of as a prophet. He proceeded to tell a very interesting story of Moses and the children of Israel in the wilderness. They buried their dead for 40 years until it was time for them to enter in to the promise. The analogy was to the Church in the USA. We have had the gospel on the radio for almost 80 years (longer?), on tv for at least 50 years. Literally 1,000’s of churches across the land. Multiple moves of the Holy Spirit that I have been apart of since the late 1960’s until now. And yet, we still see the nation slipping away from the Lord God to do what they deem best. We have been burying our dead for 40 years, but now it is time to enter into what God has promised. He spoke of many different ministries by name, godly men and women who have gone before, and some who are still with us, but the result is the same. New disciples, new converts, but the foundations are swaying and crumbling. This gentleman believes we are about to see everything we hold up as the way to be a Christian, to run a church, to be a pastor or elder, are all about to be turned on their head. He believes the next move of the Holy Spirit will be one that not only brings a great harvest of believers in the Lord Jesus, but such a dramatic change in the church, that we will see real and lasting effects on our nation in a very godly manner. The type of change that occurred when the nation was founded. Dramatic and real. It was very encouraging to hear and something I personally pray happens. The Holy Spirit God can do anything He wants, include change our nation, and remove the stiff necked from church leadership, both at the same time. Many of your discussions focus on how everyone sees the church in the USA being less than it can be. Possibly the Lord God is about to make us be what we are supposed to be. It may hurt. I hope I am ready.

    • Ken,

      I will be upfront and say that I am skeptical of any prophetic word that predicts a great End Times Revival. Such a revival requires fertile soil, and we simply do not have it here in this country. This is not to say that we will never have it, only that it is not there and shows no signs of getting there.

      The Lord questions whether He will find faith on earth when He returns. The Scriptures also note that if the days were not shortened no one would last. This does not seem to bolster the great End Times Revival predictions I keep hearing. If anything, we are seeing the opposite, at least in America.

      Elsewhere, we are seeing revival. The Gospel is still getting out to people. But we also seeing increased persecution all over the globe. The optimist sees this as a means to build the Church. A pessimist sees this as a way to skim the dross. I’m not exactly sure which will triumph, but the great End Times Revival talk has never rung true, at least in my ears. YMMV.

      • Kenith Laird

        Dan, who said anything about an End Times Revival? I believe what this gentleman was saying is long term. Decades or longer. That may not fit your interpretation of where we are in prophetic end times, or even with mine, but His return is still in the future and we do not know when. I prefer to believe that the same Holy Spirit that swept through our nation from 1967 to 1975, in what became called the Jesus Movement, can do the same thing again. It was wholly unlooked for by every single church in north east Texas where I was living. Pastors during that time were floored when they looked up and had anywhere from 20 to 120 hippies, drug addicts and flower children sitting in their congregation on a Sunday morning. It was wonderful. In the fall of 2005 I met the pastor of the SBC church I first attended when I was saved in 1971. He admitted that the churches were indeed caught flat footed. Christians that had prayed for years for the Lord to bring revival, and save those drug filled hippies, had not a clue what to do when we showed up. I fear that is what may happen again. We will not be ready and we will lose an opportunity to reach who knows how many people. Why cannot the same thing occur again? I certainly do not see any reason that the same God that did that then cannot do the same thing now. Again, who said anything about an End Times Revival. Not me.

  13. ccinnova

    There’s another point I’d like to make that has nothing to do with singleness in the church. I can’t help but wonder how much damage questionable teaching and scandals have done to the American evangelical church.

    In the roughly 30 years I’ve been a Christian, we’ve seen the prosperity doctrine; the last gasps of the shepherding movement; the televangelist scandals of the late 1980’s; the so-called “Toronto Blessing” and “Brownsville Revival;” the scandals that rocked contemporary Christian music in the mid and late 1990’s; and, more recently, the so-called “Lakeland Revival” and the scandals that brought down Ted Haggard and Todd Bentley. And I seriously doubt this is a complete listing.

    How many people have left evangelical churches in response to the events I mentioned in the previous paragraph? I suspect it’s not an insignificant number.

  14. royal

    “American” Evangelicalism is an extra-Biblical construct and therefore not worth sweating over.

    God has always worked with a remnant.

    Don’t hold your breath for any large “end-times” revival, it isn’t going to happen.

    Be faithful in your personal life, obey God, and leave the consequences – whether personal, local, national, or global – to Him.

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