In his insightful 2020 book The Decadent Society, Ross Douthat describes the current condition of American social and political culture as one of decadence. Decadence, Douthat argues, is neither dynamic growth nor explosive disintegration. Rather, it’s typified by stagnation, institutional inertia, and a kind of tit-for-tat that’s perpetually looking to settle old scores and define out-group and in-group membership. According to Douthat, decadence is paralytic repetition: moral, economic, and societal atrophy that results from too little success and too much comfort.
Over the past few years, it’s been difficult for me to avoid thinking that decadence accurately describes many elements of contemporary evangelicalism. While evangelical churches are certainly discipling and evangelizing with Spirit-filled power throughout America and the world, the feeling among many major evangelical institutions and groups has been increasing frustration and uncertainty. Pressed in multiple directions by crises unthinkable only a decade ago, a distressing number of evangelical pastors are leaving the ministry or thinking strongly about it.
To be sure, the last two years in particular have been punishing on many evangelicals. An unprecedented global pandemic has permanently reshaped economies and cultures around the world. The intersection of the pandemic with a national presidential election in 2020 created almost indescribable complexities for churches and evangelical groups trying to chart a way forward. And all the while, secular culture continues pressing on the very nature and identity of the church through spiritually malformative technologies, attacks on religious liberty, and rising resentment and distrust in a fractured public square.
These are extraordinarily difficult challenges, but they’re challenges that evangelicals have the resources to answer. And yet it’s difficult to feel energized and hopeful about the evangelical efforts to answer them thus far. In many cases, the evangelical world’s response to a fractured secular age has been to present a likewise fractured church culture. Signs that many unbelievers have become weary of the sexual revolution and dissatisfied with moral relativism should be incredibly exciting for gospel-centered Christians, yet a robust public witness has too often been preempted by internal strife and confusion: elite evangelicals vs. grassroots, woke evangelicals vs anti-woke, nationalist evangelicals vs. cosmopolitan. Combine this dynamic with a horrific string of high-profile evangelical scandals, and you get a troublingly clear picture of an evangelical theological culture that seems too weak, too preoccupied, and too decadent to truly wield a lampstand.
To be clear: God doesn’t need evangelicalism to thrive or even exist. If it’s the hidden will of the Lord that our evangelical institutions, seminaries, and churches languish in decadence in perpetuity until they’re merely a historical footnote in the drama of the kingdom of Christ, then we must simply agree that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether (Ps. 19:9). But our task as Christians is never to discern the hidden will of the Lord, but to remain faithful with the resources we have, in the generation he has placed us. Decadence is not faithfulness. This means we need to think carefully and wisely about what evangelical renewal would look like.
Our task as Christians is never to discern the hidden will of the Lord, but to remain faithful with the resources we have, in the generation he has placed us.
To roll back evangelical decadence will require a spiritual renewal that prayerfully and intentionally targets the major causes and expressions of our malaise. A fractured, identity-less, squabbling evangelicalism will not be able to meaningfully engage the emerging challenges of the post-Christian West. To shake off decadence, evangelicals need to reaffirm their mission and revitalize personal and institutional habits.
Reaffirming Our Mission
Evangelical renewal depends upon a meaningful shoring up of mission. Paradoxically, the kind of mission I’m talking about requires we take our divisions more seriously rather than less.
One major symptom of evangelical decadence is the energetic policing of other theological tribes rather than the confident forward movement in building up one’s own institutions and culture. This is an example of what I’ve referred to as “engaging culture from behind”: constantly reacting to the news cycle, especially controversies and stories that reflect obviously poorly on theological or political opponents. For many evangelicals, engaging culture means little more than keeping up with the nonsense the extreme leftist or “exvangelical” folks publish and knocking it down.
This kind of constant leftward-facing posture from many evangelical sectors is a sign of decadence because it prevents a healthy acceptance of irreconcilable differences and the constructive movement such acceptance can bring. While public theology should and will involve dialogue between groups that aren’t in ecclesiological fellowship, this cannot be the default posture or dominant activity for evangelicals or their institutions. Instead, once evangelicals assert their confessional identity (preferably by receiving the historical parameters of evangelicalism rather than navigating political polls or contemporary demographics), they should cheerfully and respectfully marginalize those movements that clearly reject such identity. The proper response is not perpetual engagement, but holy ambivalence.
If this proposal sounds radical, it’s only because modern technology has so shrunk and flattened our modern world. Imagine a local church that spent 50 percent or more of its time and resources debating and trying to fix churches outside its denomination and even completely outside its local community. In addition to gaining an unsavory reputation, such a church would almost certainly be failing its members by devoting so much time on things that do not properly belong to its mission. Instead, what any reasonable person would expect the church to do is establish a confessional identity and membership standards, then focus on growing, cultivating, and protecting those standards from within. The only reason this is not obvious for evangelicalism at large is that mass media, especially the internet, has collapsed our sense of place. We collide with social media accounts and blog posts and confuse these pixels for our mission field.
Holy ambivalence means engaging culture from ahead rather than behind. It means refusing to dignify the foolish unbelief of the world with undue attention and energy. While intersectionality and social-justice activism certainly pose epistemological and ethical challenges for churches, issues like technological addiction, suicide, and sexual abuse do too. It’s a mistake to assume that the group of problems most likely to be talked about in op-eds and podcasts are automatically the most urgent and relevant for any given church community. A renewed evangelicalism is able to identify which particular threats are truly imminent and which ones are merely on the agenda of American pundit culture.
Habits of Endurance
This shoring up of our mission is not merely an act of psychological will. It’s a decision that’s expressed through particular practices. Careful diagnosis and sincere desire will only get us so far. Practically speaking, the decadent state of evangelicalism is tied not so much to bad faith actors but to bad habits. The solution, as Francis Schaeffer reminded us, is to do the Lord’s work not in the world’s way, but in the Lord’s way.
One of evangelicalism’s craftier enemies is competitive pragmatism. Reformed evangelicals may pat themselves on the back for rejecting seeker-friendly theology or worship, but a numbers-based, results-oriented spirit still tends to find its way inside our institutions and discourse. This is where some recent criticism toward “elite evangelicals” rings true. Articles about the loveliness of small, local churches have been written by authors hoping their writing would unlock a more exciting career or platform than what their own local context could offer. Books on humility and repentance have been written by pastors who were sacrificing integrity and accountability for bigger growth. Evangelicals cannot make these stories go away by pretending they never happened. There must be honest confession of where we’ve simply failed to practice what we preach.
An excruciating string of high-profile evangelical scandals is a violent reminder that character really does matter over charisma. Pragmatism and celebrity culture are decadent trappings that empower well-spoken leaders to escape accountability, hide behind ministry “success,” and set the stage for the gospel to be profaned. Not only that, but as Alan Noble points out in his life-giving book You Are Not Your Own, these trappings put unbearable burdens on our own souls as we constantly compare, compete, and hold onto our turf in order to have a sense of self.
Far better than pragmatism is a commitment to deep discipleship. With the help of a global pandemic, we have seen what life looks like when our conferences and gatherings are closer to 500 than 5,000. Might this be simply better? Might smaller, more local, more tangible expressions of evangelical Christianity be better positioned to equip men and women for the long haul of love and faithfulness?
Might smaller, more local, more tangible expressions of Christianity be better positioned to equip men and women for the long haul of love and faithfulness?
The pandemic has also forced an uncomfortably blunt confrontation between evangelicals and technology. While the internet has made our post-COVID world much more entertaining, many people who turned to the web when they couldn’t physically gather with others are sticking with the web even when they can. But the problem of disembodiment isn’t just a problem for the “kids sports leagues” families in evangelical churches. For the last decade, evangelicals have relied on social media and the blogosphere to facilitate theological discourse in a way these platforms simply cannot do. The rancor, resentment, and exhaustion many of us experience even when engaging with fellow members of our tribe is a red flag signaling the need for change.
While the internet can never be put back inside Pandora’s box, there remains a need for serious interrogation of how algorithms and traffic metrics disfigure our theology and drain our spirit. Efficiency is not the chief end of man. Availability is not our only comfort in life and death. Rest, embodiment, and deep thinking matter more than having access to “everything, all of the time.”
Jesus is the one who makes all things new, including evangelicalism. Ultimately it’s his will, not ours, that matters. But evangelical renewal is possible. Decadence doesn’t need to have the last word.
Throughout American history, as Douthat points out, large-scale crises (like war or economic depression) have often functioned as the darkness right before dawn, fueling a dynamic resurgence of unity and innovation. Social unrest, a global pandemic, and a divided church culture could prove to be a final resting place for our evangelical movement, or it could prove to be the kind of providential trial that triggers revival and renewal. As the problems with the status quo become more inescapable, the desire and willingness for gospel-centered transformation become more compelling.
Evangelical witness matters. Does it matter enough to us?