Monday 12 February 2024

Why the Fire won't be caught any time soon

I first posted this some time ago on my Patreon page. I've had a revamp of the Patreon recently; it's where all my writing is posted, although occasionally I'll put something here eventually. It's one American dollar for pretty much the full archive; there's options of higher tiers, including one that'll allow you to commission work from me. 

But for now, this is me in full polemic. 

1 The Church's One Foundation

In 1904, South Wales experienced a revival. At the time, it was a massive shift in the cultural landscape of Wales. From Carmarthen to Newport, with all the cities and the valleys in-between, a flood of evangelical conversions transformed the way that the people of Wales saw themselves. Churches sprang up everywhere. The 1904 revival had consequences for evangelicalism across Asia and Africa, especially in South Korea: Revivals Make Missionaries.

In my home town of Swansea, there are literally dozens. It seems like there are buildings on most of the streets of the town which were built as chapels, churches and gospel halls. But few of them are still actually churches: some of these buildings are derelict, while others are used for other purposes, for example, community centres or secure housing for the elderly. Several are mosques and Islamic community centres[1]. Of the few built after 1904 that are still churches, some have been taken over by Christians from Asia – China, South Korea and Singapore – who have come back to the nation that originally took Christianity to them, treating it as now as a mission field.

The working life of most of these buildings as places of Christian worship was measured in a handful of decades. And the reason is that while the cultural effects of the 1904 Revival remain in the city’s psyche even today, the actual faith of Christian believers, shaken by two world wars and a changing world, largely fizzled out over a couple of generations.

Christianity is a religion practised in community, and the question of what even counts as a practising Christian is further complicated by things like the varying status of Christian denominations, and the cultural status of a country where we’re still considered Christian by a sort of default.

The 2021 Census of England and Wales recorded for the first time that fewer than half of the 94% of people in England and Wales who responded to the optional religion question call themselves Christian. That number has been dropping steadily since the Second World War. The question of how many of them are in fact practising members of the religion is somewhat more complex. In 2015, the Church Statistics Report recorded that 4.8% of people in England and 4.9% of people in Wales actually went to a church, or, to put it another way, only about one tenth of people who consider themselves Christian actually attend a church. It is reasonable to assume that if the numbers have since changed, they have fallen.

Revival didn’t last here. And the evangelical Christians who still cleave to it, who hoped against hope that 2004 would bring a centenary outpouring of the Spirit that would transform Wales once more, are disappointed over and over again. Attempts at revival keep being made. 

Each one, rather counterintuitively, brings the church closer to extinction.

2 At the Cross, At the Cross

The most powerful, vocal and visible Christians in most English-speaking countries – the exception being of course Ireland – are Evangelicals. And you need to understand that outside of the USA, they’re not remotely the majority. It’s also important to understand that evangelicalism is not a denominational group in itself.

Evangelicalism is an approach to Christianity. It is largely characterised by the openly expressed assumption of evangelicals that they have the correct approach to Christianity, and the only correct approach. 

The vast majority of evangelicals belong to Protestant denominations. And in fact while Roman Catholic and Greek/Russian Orthodox evangelicals aren't unknown, it's a lot harder for a Catholic to be an evangelical and remain an orthodox Catholic. The historical practice of the Catholic denominations isn’t, as we’ll see, entirely compatible with an evangelical approach to belief, so evangelical Catholics tend to be pretty bad at being Catholic.

As the most vocal and publicly visible branch of Christianity in the English-speaking world, the evangelical narrative has successfully propagated enough that even enemies of Christianity often assume that evangelical Christianity represents not only the Christian religion in its totality, but religious belief and practice, period. And Evangelicals would have you believe that – if they’re the only ones doing religion properly, it follows that only Evangelicalism represents actual religion. It suits them that New Atheists take them as the baseline.

Often, writers will conflate "fundamentalist" and “evangelical”. This is understandable, since there are two generally accepted understandings of the word “fundamentalist”. Small-F fundamentalism, as you know, is just a generally used term for an extremist, hard-line take on an established religion, and you will hear about Islamic fundamentalists too, for example. It's falling out of fashion a bit: you’re probably more likely to see these people labelled as “radicalised” or “extremists” these days.

Big-F Fundamentalism is the name for a specific movement among evangelical protestants to label themselves as adhering to five “fundamentals” of Christian belief: the divine nature of Jesus Christ, His Virgin Birth, His death and resurrection, His eventual prophesied return, and the inerrancy of the Bible Scriptures. The idea is that you are not doing Christianity right if you don't believe those. 

Now the first four of those are frankly no big deal. They've been the go-tos of orthodox Christian belief since the Nicene Creed was codified in 323CE, and departing from any one of those four does in fact separate you from Christian orthodoxy. It literally makes you a heretic, by the most technical definition of the word. 

The last one is a sticking point. If you're Catholic, the Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy is that the Bible is solid and consistent, that it is a holy book and the foundation of Christian belief. If you are a Fundamentalist, it really means that you believe that the Bible is literally, factually true. We’re talking about people who are certain that it is factually, empirically the case that Lot’s wife turned into an actual pillar of salt, Nebuchadnezzar actually went werewolf, Jonah actually survived being eaten by a whale (or a very big fish – this is the subject of controversy), Adam and Eve actually ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and got expelled from the Garden of Eden.

We’re talking about the conditions that gave us Answers in Genesis and that Ken Ham Creation Museum with people sitting on dinosaurs.We are talking about the reason that the evangelicals who ran Hobby Lobby wound up at the centre of a ring smuggling antiquities for their Bible museums.

The idea of fable or metaphor doesn’t sit well with this sort of inerrantist. 

Take the story of Jonah for example. Quite apart from his surviving a Mediterranean voyage in the gullet of a large sea creature, the story of his preaching to Nineveh, causing the evil city to repent of their sins and escaping destruction, in fact postdates the annihilation of Nineveh by two centuries. Suggest that maybe it's, you know, a story about something else, and the Fundamentalist will produce a spurious reason why you're wrong and tell you it's obviously older, because the text says says that Nineveh was saved, and the assumption is that it is trustworthy by a modern definition of trust. The Bible is obviously factually true because it says it is. 2nd Timothy 3:16: (“All Scripture is God-breathed”) will be quoted, and the reasonable objection that it is unlikely that this was ever supposed to mean “factually accurate” will be rejected by the inerrantist as sophistry. Never mind that the Scripture also warns against readings like this as dangerous (2nd Corinthians 3:6: “The letter kills but the Spirit gives life”): this objection will also be rejected as tricksy and dishonest. 

Now this sort of reading of a text isn’t unknown outside of the church – for example, compare any number of internet fans who believe that Marvel movies, for example, are inclusive and progressive because they say they are, and that they are hopeful because they make you feel good, regardless of how they are actually Liberal despair narratives that repeatedly have the moral that working for change is destructive. But that‘s another hobby horse of mine. 

It is useful to make the distinction that not all evangelicals are fundamentalists. But all Fundamentalists (capitalisation intentional) are evangelicals.

The best academic definition of Evangelicalism was coined by the British historian David Bebbington, who in his 1989 book Evangelicalism in Great Britain came up with four characteristics that evangelicals share, namely Conversionism, Biblicism, Crucicentrism, and Activism.

Conversionism is the assumption that you're not a proper Christian unless you've had a conversion experience and made a conscious decision to be a Christian. For the evangelical, it is not enough to be part of a Christian community or to have been raised by a Christian family. You have to have made a decision to be personally invested in believing and practising Christianity. You have to police yourself and work on the basis that in becoming a Christian – and becoming is the only acceptable way to enter the Christian faith – you are living a different life to the life you lived before.

This is important because it creates a clearly defined “in” and “out” group. If you have converted to the evangelical truth, you are a Christian. If you haven’t, you are not, regardless of whether you’re a member of a church community. If you haven't bought in, you’re not welcome (and the only outsiders who aren’t viewed with a sort of suspicion are the ones who are specifically being courted because they might buy in at some future time).

This conversion has to be personal. It has to be individual. It trumps familial bonds, and overrides friendships and life relationships. The relationship between you and God is the one primary relationship in your life. 

On occasion I will say to Christians, “If you don't love other people more than you love Jesus, you don't love Jesus” (as per the words of Jesus Himself, Matthew 25:40-45).

It’s always the evangelicals who balk at this. It's a line you can’t cross and remain evangelical.

Biblicism is about the centrality of the Bible. Biblicism is about using the Bible as the sole central authority for teaching and doctrine. Theologians call this doctrine Sola Scriptura (which is just Latin for “Bible only”, but it’s worth mentioning the term).

Now this is the bit that causes clashes with the more hierarchical, established Christian groups. Churches that have hierarchical structures tend to base their teachings on a trifecta, which they give as either Scripture, Tradition and Reason, or (in the case of Roman Catholics) Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium. 

Here, Scripture is the Bible, Tradition is how the church has evolved in the way that it has done its thing over hundreds of years, as expressed in things like liturgies and sacraments; Reason is plain common sense; and Magisterium is the authority of the church to expect people to take what it says respectfully and humbly because it knows what it’s talking about, on account of having been instituted by God (this is the basis of things like the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility).

Evangelicals often reject tradition because it’s not in the Bible, and they eschew nuanced readings of Scripture because they’re not, to the evangelical mind, literally true. If only God has the authority to make pronouncements about morals, ethics and theology, then the claims of the Catholic Church to authority are nonsensical.

It boils down to this: if it’s in the Bible, it’s good. If it’s not in the Bible, it’s suspect. This often winds up going hand in hand with the doctrine of Inerrancy, but evangelical Biblicism is about how you use the Bible; Fundamentalist Inerrancy is about how you interpret it.

Crucicentrism is a focus on the importance of the Cross (and Jesus’s death on it) as the central point in Christian faith. Now, this isn’t to say evangelicals don’t believe in the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection – they absolutely do – it’s simply that the death of the Divinely Natured Jesus on the Cross is more important to them than any of it.

Honestly any idiot could get himself killed by the police and coming back from that might reasonably be seen as the actual trick. But nevertheless, and I speak from personal experience of several evangelical churches here, it is quite possible to go to an evangelical church for several weeks and never once hear about the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection. The Cross matters more to an evangelical much more than any of these.

This is because evangelicals almost wholly subscribe to the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.   

Strap in: this is where it gets technical. In short, Christian theologians have spent centuries trying to find reason in what a modern reader of the Gospels might interpret as “death by cop”, let alone the bit 48 hours later where he got better. The explanation of this favoured by evangelical Christians is that people are fundamentally bad (sinful) by nature. No matter how good a person tries to be, they are tainted by the stain of sin and are by default punished with eternal damnation. Because Jesus is the Son of God, and one of the three Persons of God, in dying on the Cross, Jesus took on Himself the punishment that every human was due to receive on dying. He spent those two days between dying and rising in Hell. And at the end, the sins of the human race were written off.

To someone not brought up in evangelical Christianity (or, in my case, an abusive home) the idea that people might be condemned to eternal pain, or loneliness, or suffering, for literally nothing that they are responsible for seems monstrously unfair. The idea that God might then impose this punishment for a condition that He dictated in the first place on His own Son seems even more unfair, or as the evangelical writer Steve Chalke would put it in The Lost Message of Jesus in 2004, “cosmic child abuse”. 

Steve Chalke is actually a good example here to show how important this is, because although he was once the number one celebrity in British evangelical circles, he got so comprehensively cancelled by the evangelical world back then that he even tried to blame his ghostwriter for the idea for a bit. He is still active, and has gotten more progressive as time has gone on, but twenty years later, he is still an evangelical persona non grata. 

Now tie this in with the idea of Conversionism: Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross only works for the people who buy into it. The people who don’t capital-B Believe are still damned. If you've prayed the Sinner’s Prayer and made a decision to follow Jesus, you get to be in the in-group. If you have not, you go to Hell when you die.

And this is an important, but little-commented on point: the death of Jesus on the Cross, one of the three persons of an infinite triune deity, is finite. It only serves for the people who buy in. In the intersection of Conversionism and Crucicentrism, Salvation becomes a resource given an artificial scarcity.

This feeds into the final point: Activism, which, in evangelical terms really only means one thing: evangelism. Proselytising. Evangelical Christians are told with no small amount of urgency that they have to tell people about Jesus and the Cross.

It’s not hard to see in evangelicalism a very capitalist way of doing a religion. Like the capitalist conception of the nuclear family, it works to erode relationships outside the group and pushes a kind of brand loyalty, where the more you put in, the better your experience is. The scarcity of salvation is a thing to be given the hard sell; it is marketed so its buyers are sold the belief that they are an elite.

This is a manifestation of what Mark Fisher called Capitalist Realism: the idea that the basic assumptions of capitalism about material resources are in fact how reality works, even in terms of abstract things like love, rights and spirituality. You see it in the way that we assume that you can only love one person. We see it in the way that we think that if you give someone more human rights someone else has to lose some. And we see it in the way that the supposedly infinite love of God is a limited thing that needs to be marketed.

3 Here is Love, Vast as the Ocean 

Christianity is dwindling in the United Kingdom. Evangelicals are falling in numbers more slowly, but they are still diminishing.

Ironically, the way in which evangelicals attempt to initiate growth – which they frame as the movement of the church towards the elusive Revival – is hastening that decline. And here in Wales, it is still all about recapturing that 1904 energy. But it won't ever happen again. And they're sort of in denial about that.

What evangelicals in Wales don’t like to admit is that back in 1904, when folks were flocking to the chapels and singing hymns like “Dyma Gariad” with gusto, there wasn't a single person there who hadn't had a Christian education. Maybe they were Anglicans, maybe they had grown up with Sunday School. Every one was, in most reasonable non-evangelical terms, a Christian. But they weren’t evangelicals, and because evangelicals don’t think you count as a Christian if you’ve not had an evangelical awakening, these newly enthused people counted as converts. And this is important, because it skews how these things are seen, and explains why these things don’t work now.

In a culture where people have always had some experience of going to church and some basic background in Christian morals and the Bible, you can skip all that stuff and go straight to imbuing people with the importance of believing and acting on that belief. In the modern day, this has important consequences.

First, the bar for a “Revival” is lower, and often churches will tacitly acknowledge this by referring to events like these as “Moves of the Spirit” or “Outpourings” or the like.

Second: they reduce the evangelical population. Always.

This may seem to be a controversial statement.

I am going to lay out my thinking here. Stay with me.

In the evangelical scene in the UK (and also in the US), Revivals, Moves of the Spirit or whatever tend to be concentrated in certain church communities. When these revivals happen, these church communities explode. People come from far and wide. The church sees the expansion of its congregation as proof of God’s goodness.

But they do not look too closely as to where these people come from. And of course if they were to ask, they would find that nearly all of them come from the same place. Other evangelical churches.

The nature of evangelicalism as the Perfect Capitalist Religion inevitably filters down to congregations. We’ve talked about the top end, the artificial scarcity of salvation and the way churches market, but the effect works from the bottom up as well.

In church terms, this means that the nature of the evangelical approach to churches encourages shopping around.

Many of the most successful evangelical ministers either belong to non-conformist denominations (the various sorts of Baptists, for example) make their living from congregational donations. It's why they're always banging on about the practice of tithing, which is where you give 10 per cent of your income to your church. As a young evangelical, I would forego meals for the sake of giving my 10%. Many still do.

A church that depends on the pockets of its congregation markets aggressively. And I understand that the word “marketing” is going to be an offensive term, but that is what it is. Marketing. When you treat your congregants as consumers, they start to behave like consumers.

So when a Move of the Spirit happens in a church, a big chunk of evangelicals hears about it. These people jump ship from their current congregations and move to where the fun is.

And that happens over and over. The thing about church shoppers is that they're not tied to churches, and not in the communities that reinforce and control their church attendance. It has been recognised as a problem for many years, and I recall many conversations back in the 90s where “church hopping” (without the s) was condemned, mostly held in a church that at the time benefitted greatly from the phenomenon – it was important that having gained the congregation, they didn’t go anywhere else, after all. Which, of course, they did.

Because it fizzled. These migrations happen when the current Move of the Spirit fizzles out. It always does. It might take three years, two years, or ten years, but it will. 

And this is the crucially important bit: whenever these migrations happen, people always slough off the edges. Because the Revival didn’t happen and the Move of the Spirit didn’t change anything. It didn't include these people. Disillusionment and disappointment occurs and these people, who never really had roots here, drift away.

In the USA, this is still entirely sustainable. But then the numbers of evangelicals there dwarf the UK. A “modest” Southern US congregation of about 1000 members would be one of the 20 biggest in the whole UK. Here in the UK, if your congregation has over 200 members, you’re likely one of the two biggest churches in a radius measured in tens of miles, if not the biggest.[2]

The result of all this is that the endless thirst for revivals is actually accelerating the death of Christianity in the UK. The illusion of growth is leached from other congregations, and ignores the attrition of people unmoored from these things.

4 I'm not ashamed to own my Lord

The biggest objection to this whole “there's actually no such thing as a Revival in the way that people seem to think there is” thesis is that people do in fact convert to evangelical Christianity from non-Christian backgrounds.

On October 5th 1994, I became one, in fact. Never mind that although I was brought up as a member of what is technically a sect I went to a church youth group for five years as a teenager. I did that specifically to upset my parents, which probably explains a lot about me if you think about it. 

When they do get a Real Convert, evangelicals don't just do everything they can to keep their claws in that person, but they make them prominent, and they wheel them out whenever they can. Again, this was my experience. For a solid three years I was the one they put up onto the pulpit and made to tell my story. And honestly, I loved the attention. But it wasn’t out of any admiration for my talents as a speaker. It was because I was the only one they had.

Because the reason that Real Converts get put front and centre is that even if it’s a convert like me, with several years of priming, converts of my kind are statistically insignificant.

I remember the CU missions at university where One Guy Came to Christ and every time he was treated like a trophy, a medal. But it was one guy, at most.

I remember being a student at one of those Christian Union meetings, and hearing a speaker tell us to imagine that everyone we know is blindly running headlong to a cliff edge and only we can catch them. It’s that level of urgency. We weren’t supposed to make friends unless we were going to tell them about Jesus. We would invite people to dinner parties to tell them about Jesus. We’d have board game nights with Gospel talks. We’d have pizza nights with Gospel talks. We’d have beach barbecues with Gospel talks. If you couldn’t tell people about the Cross, there was no point doing anything.

And here is why evangelical Christians find the idea that if you don’t love other people more than you love Jesus, you don’t love Jesus so very baffling: because this is how evangelicals understand their duty to love the world. For many evangelicals, the only love the world deserves is the love expressed in the Gospel of Jesus. You love people by proselytising to them, and while it is a long time since I have heard suspicious rumblings about how a “social gospel” of public good works is a compromise of the Good News (and indeed, most – not all, but most – of the prominent evangelical churches in the region are involved with the food bank), it is still strongly held by evangelicals that the act of proselytisation is the tail that wags the dog of Christian practice.

Occasionally people in those student circles would put forward that existing in people’s lives as principled, kind and decent Christians was evangelism enough. A favourite quote from St Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words,” would be quoted. Suffice to say that the CU, and especially their staff workers from the monolithic and ultraconservative cross-university governing body UCCF, looked upon this ”friendship evangelism” with suspicion, because they knew it was really just a way to avoid calling it “actually having friends”. I remember expressing old Frankie's axiom to a UCCF employee once, and he just dismissed it out of hand, mocking it as a platitude from “the Christian Dr Doolittle”. 

He wouldn’t be led to spell it out, but he clearly believed that actually having friends you weren’t planning to preach to – and God forbid a girlfriend or boyfriend outside of the church – was a no-no. And he imposed that on his charges. 

Obviously, making everything about chances to proselytise alienates the fuck out of people. If you’re only friends with someone because you want to convert them, they’re going to notice, and then they won’t be your friends for long. And then when they’re not your friends, you can fall back on the church.

But cold call evangelism, street evangelism, hard sell evangelism Just Doesn't Work and OK, there are always exceptions – exceptions like a young person, new at university, away from an abusive home and an institutionally abusive school setting for the first time, and desperate to people who seemed to present real, warm, friendship. But people like that traumatised 19 year old are vanishingly rare.

Hard sell evangelism is so horrible because it objectifies people. It makes them a scalp, a sale, a statistic. A target.

And that “sale” point goes back to how evangelicalism is now the Faith of the Market. Consider how little you need to change the infamous Let's Go Whaling seminar to make it basically about evangelical methods of control.

Hard Sell Evangelism repels anyone who wasn't looking to buy in to begin with. It objectifies its targets, who might even be people you love. It assumes that the people you're proselytising to are less than people. And so, it's all right when they tell you no because they're not really Fully Realised People, just Marketing Targets, and you can just ignore their feelings, and go back to the Real People at Church, who are your Real Friends, your Real Family.

"Do not be yoked with unbelievers" wrote St Paul (2nd Corinthians 6:14). He knew why.

Big Evangelical Revival Events demonstrably don't work, but evangelicals do them anyway as much as they possibly can. Because getting new people in are not really what they are for. They’re for selling your community to other, outside evangelicals who might be dissatisfied with their own church, and they are about retention, and once again the more you think about it the more capitalist it is, and just like capitalism it happily discards the edge cases. It treats people as resources and dispenses with the low spenders. They are whaling. 

The church folk migrate, and every year as each migration happens, migrations inspired by marketing efforts that evangelicalism needs to happen in order to be evangelicalism, the market shrinks. 

And the death spiral continues. Capitalism is a worldview that feasts on itself. Evangelicalism is its perfect religion. 


[1] Swansea's largest stable minority community is Bangladeshi and Muslim.

[2] Evangelical culture, like any strongly ideologically bound group, is factional, and evangelicals in the UK often like to have a church they don’t go to, a model that very often supports two congregations that work as friendly rivals when they are not outright enemies: see for example St. Aldate’s and St. Ebbe’s in Oxford, who express two very distinct versions of evangelicalism.