I first came to know Michael Spencer following his posts on the Coming Collapse of Evangelicalism, brilliant pieces that stirred no end of controversy. (Not that Michael ever let a bit of controversy bother him.) I want to start off these thoughts of mine by quoting Michael from his post:
That goes for what I am about to write. These are my thoughts, opinions and observations. Don't hold my feet to the fire if I'm wrong. Don't ask me when these things might happen. And please don't ask me for statistics. I don't understand statistics other than they can be used to argue both sides of a debate. I am not debating with you. I am writing what is stirring in my heart. I may be totally wrong, but who knows? Even a blind pig can stumble on an acorn now and then.
We often write about the "evangelical circus" we see in America today, and some are not pleased with us equating evangelicalism with clowns and dancing bears wearing tutus. So perhaps, just for today, we'll change the nomenclature to "excessive evangelicalism." The excess can be in the size of the church building, the number of satellite churches, and the number of programs offered by the church to the leader's preaching style, content of the messages, or personal lifestyle. Just because a church is large does not make it excessive, just as a small church is not necessarily free of excess. Yet I don't think it will take you too long to spot the excessive evangelicals in your neighborhood or in the nation. Sure, I could kick around some names, but that is not what I want to focus on here.
I just don't believe excesses like those we see today in evangelicalism can be sustained over the long haul. Thus my prediction that a collapse in churches, parachurch ministries and individuals who practice excessive evangelicalism is inevitable. And I think this is a very, very good thing, as well as a very dangerous thing.
Now, don't think I'm saying all of the clowns and bears will go away and we will be left with the early church in 21st century garb. (The early church had its fair share of clowns and dancing bears as well; but that is a story for another day.) No, they will not go away, only hibernate for a short time and reemerge in a different fashion. Just as the Catholic Church could not bear up under the weight of its excesses, its collapse did not do away with Catholicism or religious excess, it just spread it after a period of "reform" under different banners. We have had from the time of St. Paul those preaching Christ for personal gain. We still have them today, and if the "collapse" I am predicting occurs, we will still have them tomorrow.
Let me give an example of what kind of collapse I see coming. Eddie Long leads New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, a congregation with north of 25,000 people calling it their home at one time. Long took over the church in 1987 when it had 300 members, growing it to its present size. He was given the title "Bishop" by a breakaway Baptist group of other "bishops," a group that is considered heretics by many. Before Long was a pastor, he was a sales rep for Ford. He was reportedly fired for turning in expense accounts with personal items listed as expenses. As he grew his church, he grew his lifestyle, so much so that Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa made him one of the six televangelists he investigated for misuse of non-profit monies. (Long refused to cooperate with the investigation.)
In 2010, several young men accused Long of sexually abusing them while they worked for Long's church. Those claims were settled out-of-court. Then in December Long's wife (his second) filed for divorce. And that all led to the circus-like crowning of Long as a "king" by a self-styled Messianic rabbi from Colorado. Yes, Long issued an apology for offending the Jewish community with that ceremony, but the weight of all of these excesses is bound to take its toll. The school he founded that was associated with his church closed in December, causing hundreds of students to scramble to find another school to attend. Donations have been falling since the Grassley investigation. How many of the 25,000 still attend services at New Birth? No one is saying. My guess is that it is fewer than 25,000—a lot fewer. The collapse has started for Long.
The excesses of this one church leader are not uncommon. I am not gossipping or telling you confidential information. This is readily available from many news sources. I was able to gather it quickly via the magic of the internet. And that is one of the reasons I say a collapse is coming. Nothing is hidden for very long any more thanks to Al Gore's invention. If a church leader is amassing wealth or buying homes in exotic locations or having a fling or six on the side, it is going to come out and spread quickly. And there are plenty of crooked church leaders. Excesses cause collapse. And collapses are coming.
So what will that mean? Let me touch on three areas I see will suffer massive changes because of excessive evangelicalism.
The Christian publishing industry is its own example of excess. The advance against unearned royalties (or simply, "advance") used to be for starving writers who needed something to tide them over while they were writing their book. It was simply a token of what the author and publisher both hoped would be a lot more income once the book was published. Today, authors angle for as large of an advance as they can possibly get to boost their egos. I know pastors who brag to one another about the size of their advance. I know pastors who whine and complain their advance is not big enough, even though they will not actually write one word in their book. One literary agent I know says that if one of her authors earns a royalty check over and above the advance, then she didn't do her job. Publishing houses have been giving increasingly large advances to authors whom they know will never get close to earning back that money. And no business can last spending more money than it takes in.
The top five Christian publishers are owned by New York houses with stockholders demanding more more more. So these houses spend spend spend on advances hoping to get the next Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer. But when a big-name author collapses under the weight of his excesses, his books are good only for the recycle bin. The collapse of big ministries is going to cause a chain reaction in publishing. New York houses want positive results for their money. When they see authors they have sunk a lot of money into in the news, and not in a positive way, how long will it be before they pull the plug on their forays into religious publishing? Or at least cut back drastically. This will mean less money going after big-name preachers, and thus less money for all authors. It will mean fewer sales for retail stores. The snowball will be rolling and taking a lot of stuff with it as it builds.
Publishers who focus on books they think will be continual sellers—houses like IVP, Baker, and Crossway—rather than big names will still do what they do, but it will be harder for them to get placement in stores as retailers will carry fewer Christian books in general. Authors will have to find ways to get their books before consumers in more creative ways. Again, please hear me clearly. I am not saying Christian publishing will cease to exist. But it will be forced to change drastically. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Beyond publishing, other Christian media will also be forced to change. Take the Christian music industry, for example. The excess in the evangelical praise and worship genre is (mercifully) going to collapse. Yes, there will still be plenty of poppy happy-clappy bands covering covers of cover songs. But sooner or later (and I say sooner), consumers are going to say, "Haven't I heard this five different ways already?" They are going to stop buying albums that have one or two power-ballad praise songs that are sung in big churches. Why? Because these big churches—the excessive evangelical churches—are going to collapse. Circular reasoning? Maybe. But we'll see.
Christian TV and radio is already on life support. Why does a ministry—say Joyce Meyer or Kenneth Copeland—want to continue paying stations to carry their programs when the vast majority of Americans have instant access to the internet? And the ministries all have web sites where viewers can stream the programs at very little cost to the ministry. Do you want to be bound by the time your local Christian station carries Back To The Bible, or do you want to be able to go to their web site and listen to it at your convenience? (In the late 90s I told Dave and Joyce Meyer that it would not be long before listeners could download Joyce's radio broadcast to a portable device and listen to it when they wanted. Dave said he thought the internet was just a fad and not worth pursuing. Like I said, every once in a while I, the blind pig, stumbles on that acorn.)
These radio and TV stations rely on their income primarily from evangelical ministries, the same ministries that are now groaning under their excesses. When donations start to dry up at these ministries, something will have to be cut. Radio and TV time will be right there at the top. What will your local Christian radio or TV station do to replace this income? I have been involved in media for going on 40 years now, and I honestly have no idea.
Fish Out Of Water
The excessive evangelicals are like an aquarium that has a crack in it. As water starts to dribble out through the crack, the crack gets bigger and more water flows making the crack bigger and … soon you have water all over the floor, and a lot of fish dying in the dry aquarium. When, say, an Ed Young Jr. collapses (and who can't see that one coming?) from his excesses, what will happen to all those who attend his church now? Will another excessive evangelical step in to keep the circus show going? Or will the fish be left flopping in a dry aquarium? To think that these big-name preachers are pastors is a joke. They have no interest in their sheep. They are not shepherds who would lay down their lives for their flock. That is what the flock is there for— to lay down their lives for the hireling who will run for the hills at the first sign of real trouble.
I am truly concerned for those who are attending the excessive evangelical churches. When the collapse comes—when, not if—what will happen with those who have been enjoying the circus show? Let's not say, "Oh, many of them aren't even Christians." One, that is not ours to know. Two, if they aren't, isn't all the more important that they have someone speaking Jesus into their lives?
When a megachurch collapses, there are sharks in the water immediately. If you don't think church CEOs are not constantly plotting how they can lure sheep from one pen into theirs, you are going through life with your eyes closed. That is the reason most churches add program upon program and then advertise these programs. They are not fishing in the ocean. They're trying to steal fish from someone else's aquarium.
Many will simply go find another circus act to follow. But those genuinely seeking the Lord will be left high and dry. Will they know how to look for another church? Or will they be too wounded to want to go through the whole process again, with the risk of once again being left dry? I'm afraid many will simply give up on church and, yes, on Jesus.
We here at this site spend a lot of time poking holes in the balloons marked excessive evangelicalism. We don't do it out of an air of superiority or thinking we are better than anyone. We do it because we care. We care for those who are going to be crushed in one way or another when the stage collapses. It's a given that it will collapse, and it will bring many needed changes to American Christianity. But many people are going to be hurt in the process. Many teachers and preachers will be held responsible for the hurt they cause.
Would it not be better now for the excessive evangelicals to repent and spare perhaps some from the pain that is to come?