“The Vanishing Evangelical” by Calvin Miller was the last book this author wrote before passing away August 2012 from heart failure. There are over 40 Calvin Miller Books, beginning with The Singer, which sold over a million copies after its release in 1975. As someone very familiar with the challenges within and without the evangelical church over the past 40 years (and a passionate evangelical himself), he writes with authority and urgency in this his final offering.
Miller begins with a diagnosis: the evangelical church in America is fading fast–and he cites numbers (from Barna and others)to prove it. He says there will not be a recovery. He does not believe in “pendulum” swings. He affirms his conviction that history is linear (extolling the influence of Toynbee in his conclusions), and he states his conviction that the decline of the evangelical church is irreversible. This downward trend, he writes, is due to post modernism and a long list of accommodations by the church to an increasingly decadent culture. The state of evangelicalism is personified in a condition, coined by Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart, called “Sheilaism,” where would-be church goers place personal preference above theological depth.
In the first few chapters Miller focuses on systematically exposing the theological shallowness of the church growth movement, the accommodation of the church to political correctness and a number of other factors that laid the foundation for the downward tilt of evangelical influence. He then proceeds with a thorough analysis of missions as they pertain to the evangelical church, drawing a distinction between “missions” and “missional,” with the latter presenting a broader, diluted meaning geared more toward accommodation than conversion.
The first few pages hinted to me that the book was going to be a disappointing read from a has-been, outdated theologian. But my impressions were wrong. Once professor Miller finished writing on the chalkboard he proceeded to reveal the fire in his belly.
Miller’s passion begins to explode. Here we see him take on a prophetic anointing as he speaks to the very heart and soul of the problems we face today in the evangelical church.
In the middle chapters he unloads with witty and prophetic analyses of the modern suburban man now populates the church. It was this section of the book (chapters 4-7) that I found most compelling. Miller’s passion begins to explode. Here we see him take on a prophetic anointing as he speaks to the very heart and soul of the problem we face today in the evangelical church. He draws blood and seems to give no way out of the dilemma.
But wait! In the final two chapters hope arises as he points the way, advocating revival for each one of us through the recovery of personal passion and discipline. While there will be no corporate turnaround, an individual revival (as described in the valley of the dry bones, Ezekiel 37) is within the grasp of a faithful remnant. (This remnant being, I suppose, those who care enough to read his book and respond to it. And I don’t say this mockingly. I say this with all truthfulness. Few will even bother to read a book like this these days because the subject is not attractive.) Here the author of “The Unchained Soul” speaks with authority, and doesn’t put us on a path he hasn’t trod himself. In the final pages of his final work, Miller leaves us where we should have been in the first place: the green pastures where the Lord is our Shepherd, where that is all we want, and and where He leads us in paths of righteousness for His name sake.
Theological perception, like a good wine, improves with age. In a book that sets out to analyze the problem which is the church, veins of gold exist in every chapter.
This book is full of treasure, which should not be surprising for anyone who has read Miller over the years. Theological perception, like a good wine, improves with age. In a book that sets out to analyze the problem which is the church, veins of gold exist in every chapter. As I pondered these outbursts of incredible wisdom and insight, I was enriched.
Some great quotes from the book:
Dying is the natural result of not really caring about life.
Missionaries are called to pay attention to the world. They are salespeople in a world of consumers who want to buy a different destiny.
A missionary can never be a missionary until he or she learns the art of looking around…The reason evangelicalism is dying is that the churches have made an unvoiced decision to quit looking around. They have agreed to die through the process of being concerned about nobody but themselves.
The sin of the desert is knowing where to find water and not telling others.
It was a joy and privilege to read this book, especially given that fact that it was the last ever written by such a wise and stalwart saint in my generation.