Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Vanishing Evangelical by Calvin Miller

Evangelicalism is a term defined various ways so Miller starts there. He includes those who have a personal faith in Jesus Christ and believe in His atoning sacrifice, miracles, virgin birth, resurrection, second coming, and the doctrine of redemption.

He is clear that this book is about American evangelicalism. He writes that it is in decline, lethargic and with insipid faith. The constants are gone, he says. “The problem is that the Bible is no longer the agreed-upon centerpiece of evangelical thought.” (25)

He analyzes the demise: He explores the effect of the mega-church and major ideologies on the church. We have dropped the way of life that valued devout worship. We have lost our influence on the arts. He writes, “That loss of power to influence is the force behind the decline [of worship].” (56) He comments on missions and postdenominationalism. He explains the dilution of core beliefs and reflects on the effect of computers on the church. He looks at copycat worship and sermons and computer driven faith. “The evangelical world is flat, and we are vanishing partly because its flatness is universally dull and uninteresting.” (104) He comments on anti-intellectualism and the dumbing down of evangelicals: “Evangelicals are dumbing down at twice the rate of non-Christians.” (132) He notes a similar attitude toward the arts. He calls for a marriage of mind and heart, of knowledge and passion. He shows where the secular age has triumphed over the Christian world and the growth of the secular culture, such as our addiction to materialism. He reveals how we have whitewashed secular movements and Christianized them, thinking we are creative.

If our way of life is to remain on the earth, there must be a renaissance of biblical values, and a re-education of Christian youth that will stabilize the covenant faith of their parents. This is not a renaissance that we can muddle through, slowing the preservation of our way of life. The day is late. The time to begin is now.” (161)

In the final chapters of the book, Miller sketches a plan for individual survival. He writes, “I say individual because I hold not the slightest hope for the triumph of the entire faith.” (191) To try to preserve the evangelical movement is pointless, Miller argues. “Each of us – one by one – must seek our own individual vitality.” (196) The way to save the whole is to focus on the parts. Yet we are not to give up hope. Don't forget, God made the dry bones live.

As a retired Christian bookseller who has watched the evangelical church since the mid 70s, I agree with Miller. The evangelical demise is real and observable. I also agree with Miller in that the hope for the future rests with each individual Christian. He has great suggestions as how we can restore vitality to our own faith. Yes, we need revival and, yes, it must start with each of us.

Calvin Miller died in August of 2012 at the age of 75. He had been a research professor of divinity and distinguished writer in residence at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama since 2007. He had written more than 40 books. He was a graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Midwestern Theological Seminary. For 25 years he was pastor of Westside Church in Omaha, Nebraska. From 1991 to 1998 he was professor of communication and ministry studies and writer-in-residence at Southwestern Baptist theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

Baker Books, 240 pages. Publisher's product page.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.

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