Review: Vanishing Evangelical, The: Saving the Church from Its Own Success by Restoring What Really Matters

Vanishing Evangelical, The: Saving the Church from Its Own Success by Restoring What Really Matters
Vanishing Evangelical, The: Saving the Church from Its Own Success by Restoring What Really Matters by Calvin Miller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Calvin Miller first came to my attention as a student when The Singer Trilogy was published and captured our imaginations as a wonderful retelling of the story of the New Testament. Miller was not only a prolific author (over 40 books) but a pastor who took a church plant in Omaha from 10 to 2500 in 25 years. In Andy Unedited-Remembering Calvin Miller InterVarsity Press editor Andy LePeau described Miller in this way:

What I loved about Calvin and about these times together was his joyful love of words. Of course, he was a voluble character with a ready smile. He always had something to say about what he was up to, his family, what he’d been reading or writing, or where he’d traveled.

This book was Miller’s last, completed shortly before his death in 2012. In some ways, I wonder if there was time to edit this before his death. The love of words, the volubility, and the sharing of his thoughts, reading and writing run through this book. It is both a somewhat rambling and yet trenchant final testament to the “evangelical church”. One senses Miller writing quickly, passionately, perhaps sensing that his own time is short. That’s only speculation on my part but the book has that feel.

Miller’s basic theme is that evangelicalism is in what he sees as an irreversible decline in North America. Throughout the book, he states that there will be no pendulum swing back. Why such a pessimistic assessment?

He contends that we have exchanged truth for relevance in our proclamation of the gospel and made significant compromises with the culture. He sees us infatuated with growth and technology when real transformation occurs person by person in intimate encounters. He believes preaching has divorced mind and heart. Denominations have lost any confessional distinctiveness and are simply communities of common interest and demographics that are rapidly hemorrhaging members.

He has little hope for evangelical institutions. His advice and concluding encouragements are to personal spiritual renewal and a recovery of personal one to one gospel ministry. He does see vitality in the church in other parts of the world but says little about the significance of this for the North American church.

I was torn in many ways in reading this book. Having been impressed elsewhere with Miller’s use of language, I was surprised by the infelicities of language and grammar. While sharing many of the concerns Miller articulates, I felt he made sweeping generalizations that often lacked good supporting argument or acknowledged counter-trends. Reading this through the eyes of the younger believers I work with who challenge me with the vibrancy of their faith, I fear they would see this as the venting of an old curmudgeon, out of touch with the ways God is at work in their generation.

What I think this book actually chronicles are the ways that the boomer generation lost its way from the days of the Jesus movement and the “year of the evangelical” (1976) to the present. The value for younger readers is to avoid repeating or amplifying these errors. For all who read this book, I think it should be read as a passionate plea and a compelling “last testament” to return to Christ as our first love and a life of devotion, holiness and gospel faithfulness.

This review is based on an e-galley provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

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