Over the years, many conservative Christians have adopted a triumphalist posture regarding the strength of the evangelical movement in comparison with the collapse of mainline Protestantism. They’re dying, and we’re thriving! some say.
I don’t think this optimism is warranted.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been rereading Christian Smith and Michael Emerson’s book American Evangelicalism. Released in 1998, the data upon which the authors build their sociological analysis is dated, but the description of a movement “embattled and thriving” still rings true. There’s also a lot to glean from Smith and Emerson’s contrast between evangelical churches and mainline / liberal denominations (which were by the end of the last century already experiencing steep decline). Many of the signs of strength they saw then are still showing up in statistics today, especially in non-denominational churches.
But as I peruse the quotes in this book from mainline Protestant churchgoers nearly twenty-five years ago, what strikes me are the similarities—not the differences—among evangelical churchgoers across the country today.
The Strength of a Faith Tradition
Before we look at some of these troubling tendencies, we should consider what for these authors constitutes spiritual vibrancy for a religious group. They offer six characteristics of a faith tradition’s strength:
- when members faithfully adhere to essential Christian religious beliefs
- when members consider their faith a highly salient aspect of their lives
- when members reflect great confidence and assurance in their religious beliefs
- when members participate regularly in a variety of church activities and programs
- when members are committed in both belief and action to accomplishing the mission of the church
- when members sustain high rates of membership retention by maintaining members’ association with the tradition over long periods of time, effectively socializing new members into that tradition, and winning new converts to that tradition.
Among the evangelicals surveyed and interviewed, Emerson and Smith found remarkable strength. Among the mainline and liberal Protestants, however, they found weakness in many of these areas.
But here’s what stands out to me. Much of the mainline mentality on display here a quarter century ago resembles what you frequently hear from evangelical churchgoers today.
Does this portend significant decline for historically evangelical denominations in the future? It certainly doesn’t look like this is the case yet, but what if the trends among mainline Protestants begin to show up among evangelicals today? Let’s take a look at some of their observations.
1. A lack of commitment to Christian theology and ethics.
What do you believe and why? When a church or denomination is drifting, the answers become cloudy. A fog surrounding Christian belief and practice sets in.
In some cases, the truth of Christianity becomes subjective, just one religious option among many. In other cases, distinctions between Christianity and other religions are downplayed or erased. Most often, the churchgoer identifies as Christian, but this label is emptied of any substantive content or commitment. Traditional Christian beliefs and morals get reinterpreted in ways that do not correspond with the historic Christian tradition.
Twenty-five years ago, evangelical Protestants did well in expressing commitment to key Christian beliefs and practices. Today, the picture isn’t as encouraging. “The State of Theology” report from Ligonier and Lifeway Research shows widespread doctrinal confusion among evangelicals and rampant biblical illiteracy. Not surprisingly, many key components of Christian theology and ethics have undergone revision or are no longer seen as vital.
2. American views of happiness prevalent among churchgoers.
Do evangelical churchgoers differ from non-Christian neighbors in any significant way when it comes to the purpose of life or the pursuit of happiness?
Of mainline Protestants in 1998, Emerson and Smith described an “overriding moral authority of American cultural pragmatism and individually defined happiness.” It’s not that Christian doctrines and ethical stances are outright denied in most cases, but that they’ve been superseded by more common American perspectives on purpose and freedom.
Emerson and Smith noted how mainline Protestants described their faith as providing “personal contentment and enjoyment” so that “the overarching moral authority here is not a sovereign God’s claim on one’s life or a call to committed discipleship but one’s own personal comfort. Faith is important because it helps people get along and feel good.” Does this not describe the mentality of many evangelical churchgoers a generation later?
There’s a reason I’ve been pounding this drum now for several years, writing on expressive individualism and pointing to the eye-popping stats from Good Faith that show how American churchgoers’ understanding of the purpose of life corresponds to Americans at large. (The majority of practicing Christians in America believe the purpose of life is to look inside to define yourself and then pursue your deepest desires.) It is far too easy to think that numerical strength is an indication of deep Christian commitment, when in reality, it’s possible for many (or most) churchgoers to attend church precisely because they believe it’s a spiritual practice that helps them achieve the American Dream. Thus commences the colonization of Christianity by moralistic therapeutic deism, while churches remain comfortably full (for a time).
3. Faith as just one part of life, not the central aspect.
One of the major distinctions between evangelicals and mainline Protestants in the last generation was the centrality of faith in the life of the believer. While evangelicals spoke of their faith in ways that indicated how one’s life revolves around God and His people, mainliners “described their faith as merely part of the ordinary furniture of their lives, simply one of many important facets of their existence.”
- “Faith was often conceived of as a rather taken-for-granted aspect of a general lifestyle, not as an intense personal commitment that provided indispensable order and meaning to their lives.”
- “Mainliners and liberals spoke of church participation as something they worked around other priorities in their schedules rather than as a baseline commitment in their lives.”
- “A number of mainline and liberal Protestants tended to speak more of church attendance as a weekly routine than as the center of their social lives or as vital to their spiritual lives.”
Evangelicals today attend church with less frequency than those who responded to Emerson and Smith’s survey two decades ago. Pastors and church leaders have been talking about this trend for years now, decrying the mentality that would push the church to the periphery of one’s life, and wondering how to challenge families who prioritize other social activities over the church (travel ball, extracurricular activities for kids, recreation and leisure) without being legalistic or guilt-driven. It’s troubling to see that for many evangelicals today the church (and one’s personal faith) has been pushed the periphery in ways that resemble the answers of mainline Protestants a generation ago.
4. A lack of enthusiasm for evangelism.
When you don’t know the content of the gospel well and when you don’t have confidence in the truth of the gospel, it’s no surprise when you don’t share the gospel. If Christianity is more about your personal taste than objective truth, why be enthusiastic in seeking to persuade others to follow Jesus? If eternity doesn’t hang in the balance, and if people are saved because of their sincerity rather than by faith in the one and only Savior, why try to convince people to become Christians?
Smith and Emerson noted the lack of enthusiasm for evangelism among mainliners in the late 1990’s, to the point that many parents didn’t consider it a priority to ensure that their own children would embrace Christianity. I wonder what might be said of evangelicals today on this front. Are we are following the same trajectory from a generation ago?
The evidence of spiritual decline was on display in mainline denominations by the end of last century, even as the sharp decline in numbers had yet to show up.
If evangelicals want to retain spiritual vitality in the generations to come, we’d better take care not to rest too comfortably in our past successes, or even some of the present signs of growth and health, so that we do not fall prey to the same troubling tendencies that lead toward future collapse.
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