On the ‘coming Evangelical collapse’ and the Welsh experience

By , 1 January 2010 8:12 pm

First of all happy New Year to you and I hope you were blessed by the Christmas season. I did a lot of college work, got some plot ideas together and read a lot.

Following through a mention on the Christianity Today review of the year I came across some much discussed blogs by Michael Spencer  on the ‘coming Evangelical collapse’.  There is a similar sort of treatment on this website as well and I gather the matter has been discussed widely elsewhere. The basic thesis of these authors is that Christianity in the United States (and it is distressing that a number of authors fail to distinguish between the United States and the rest of the world) is, for all its apparent strength, in deep trouble and a massive decline or even collapse looms in the next few decades. Now being on the other side of the Atlantic I do not feel able to make any serious comment on this thesis as it applies to the United States. Ignorance is not a good basis for opinion. However, I do think it is worthwhile pointing out the experience of Wales in the last hundred years and suggesting that anybody who is interested might find it very profitable to do a detailed sociological and theological comparison.

The basic situation is thus. One hundred years ago, buoyed by the 1904 revival (itself the last of a number of great revival events) Welsh nonconformity of an essentially evangelical hue was the dominant cultural feature of Wales. Chapels of every size and shape dominated the landscape and in any sort of urban area you would often find chapels every few hundred yards. On my five-mile drive to work I pass seven buildings that were chapels 100 years ago and I could easily adjust my route to pass nine. Welsh culture was dominated by the hymn singing and choral tradition of the Church: hymns were sung at rugby matches; they still are but no one knows what the words mean. The Welsh churches were sufficiently powerful that they were regularly consulted by administrative authorities at every level. Chapel culture dominated the moral, cultural and spiritual landscape. Deacons ruled the world.

And then slowly at first but soon at an appalling rate the tide went out. Chapel culture was still lingering on in the 70s when I came to South Wales and was converted. There were still parts of Wales where you could not buy alcohol on the Sunday, the Saturday evening paper had a full page advertisement for church services for the following day and on Sunday itself people (true, mostly by now old women) could be seen regularly filing to church from 10 o’clock onwards. Every year began in Swansea with a civic ceremony in which some chapel or other hosted civic leaders. But these were the twilight years and all these phenomena  have now gone. Indeed my own church is held to be one of the largest in Swansea (population 250,000 ) and we barely get 150 people on a Sunday morning. The percentage of people attending church regularly in Wales is now less than 3%, which means that you can put every churchgoer in Wales in the great Millennium stadium in Cardiff and still have space.

There are certainly some striking parallels between Welsh nonconformity a hundred years ago and American evangelicalism today. There was an emphasis on controlling culture and setting the moral tone, there was a glorification of big-name preachers, an encouragement of peripheral activities such as male voice choirs which, although church sponsored, were somehow not really Christian.  There was the often sycophantic wooing of politicians which was heartily reciprocated by the vote-hungry politicians themselves. There was an emphasis on music and events and on novelty and status. There were weighty rulings on such vital matters as what one wore and what one said. There were the massive building programs which saw chapels rise up like mushrooms.

Now don’t get me wrong – there were giants in those days; great missionaries, great preachers and great scholars. Yet seemingly, all that they laboured for vanished within a few decades.  Many of the bright young men were lured into liberalism or ecclesiastical showmanship; others perished in the trenches of the First World War. Many others found the heady politics of the 1920s far more attractive than churchgoing. Nevertheless the scale and speed of the collapse is extraordinary. I think I remember reading that Martyn Lloyd-Jones found himself the only evangelical minister in the sizeable urban sprawl of Port Talbot in the late 1920s.

Quite simply and I’m sorry it is such a sober thought at the start of the year, it is worth bearing in mind that even the most apparently solid church culture can collapse within decades. In one sense that’s a scary thought. On the other it’s an encouragement to put our trust not in denominations or programmes but in the living God.


2 Responses to “On the ‘coming Evangelical collapse’ and the Welsh experience”

  1. GG says:

    Mr. Walley:

    I read with interest your comment on the future “collapse” of
    evangelicalism in the United States. I can tell you for a fact that, here in the States, “evangelicanism” here believes whole-heartedly that it is under attack by the “evil forces of liberalism” and as a result is entrenching and becoming even more demanding. There is also the firm belief in many circles that this is truly the “Last Days” (although the Bible makes it clear NO ONE knows when the Last Days will be) thanks in large (but hardly complete) part to the astronomical success of the LEFT BEHIND book series over here.

    (Never read it myself; I couldn’t get past the first two pages of horrid writing.)

    Anyway, what is happening is evangelicalism in the States is
    becoming, quite pointedly, more and more political in nature–and a neo-conservative political animal, at that. I am a Christian and no fan of the American Civil Liberties Union, but what I’m seeing in many “religious” circles is not so much a desire to share Christ with the world, but to share the Republic Party. Not that the Republic Party hasn’t some good points–it does–but I think people are getting sick of being told that unless you vote for Bush/McCain/Palin you are a
    horrible sinner and God’s going to send you to Hell.

    At any rate, there is a definite feeling of “Last Days” and an attack by a “Culture War” here. And I think the desire, not to alter it through love and prayer, but through political pressure and finger-pointing is ultimately what is driving people away.

    I hope that all made sense. I was attempting to define what I was trying to say even as I wrote it.

  2. Bill D. says:

    Hi Chris,

    I’ve been a longtime reader of Michael Spencer’s blog, and knowing something of the journey he’s been on himself, the context of his comments about “the” evangelical church in the USA are even more troubling.

    GG is right about the constant harping on the culture war here – at least in one segment of the evangelical church. Sadly, such concentration offers a short-sighted view of history and misses the point (in my opinion) of what the Church’s goal ought to be. There have been such “attacks” in almost every epoch of the church. They just take different forms in different ages. Truth be told, they’re not attacks on Christianity per se, just a louder trumpeting of secularism than we’ve experienced before and seem ill-equipped to confront.

    As I’ve read Michael’s article’s I’ve come to the conclusion that his challenge to the evangelical church is that it needs to get a sense of itself, and of what really matters. He’s focused on worship for a long time now, so I’d assume that his underlying theme in “collapse..” has to do with the church renewing its relationship with God before it can claim to be properly equipped to have an impact on the surrounding culture. One preacher I heard years ago put it this way: “If it’s not working at home, why try to export it?”

    GG is spot on about the problem of some American churches, either subtly or overtly playing political games from the pulpit. I’ve often wondered if this is done more to seek the approval of the congregation – creating a larger “amen corner,” than out of a real scriptural conviction that such rhetoric might affect some change.

    Since in my work, I circulate among a large number of evangelical churches, I’ve observed generally that those churches with the highest percentage of culture war and political commentary masquerading as Biblical content seem to be static in their growth and of comparatively minimal impact in the wider community.

    The biggest threat to the church here these days seems to be Biblical ignorance and personal apathy toward spiritual things. The likelihood that a real revival might ever occur here seems slim, as long as we’re as comfortable as we are. God help all of us!

    Bill D.

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