Rodney Stark has summarized why mainline Protestant denominations in America have gone into decline and spoken with passion about what is going well within evangelical churches.
When reading Stark’s interview, for the most part, I can only nod, say he’s right and look forward. If we accept as a given the formulation that bigger is better (that is, larger or growing churches and denominations are more successful and presumably more faithful than smaller or declining ones), then the numbers and the history certainly bear him out: Evangelicals 1; Mainline Protestants, 0.
Evangelicals now hold the same sort of cultural and political power that mainline Protestantism once monopolized. When people identify themselves as churchgoers, they are much more likely to be evangelical. Most of the nation’s largest churches are evangelical. When people today think of Christians, most think of the active and vocal evangelical Christians demanding their say in the public square.
However, there are cracks in this facade.
Several studies have shown that Americans aged 18-49 are disconnected from Christianity in ways earlier generations have not been. They are largely turned off by their perceptions of the legalistic and political dimensions of conservative Christianity. Evangelical Christianity will not appeal to them unless one or the other changes.
Evangelicals are the American mainstream these days, but I fear that evangelicals may join Catholics and mainline Protestants in decline unless they pay attention to the points that Stark makes about the history of the mainline.
Spirituality – not just church attendance – matters. Evangelical faith is often wide but not very deep; a nonspiritual Christianity does not sustain. As Stark says, there is little reason to worship or believe in a God who does not exist in one’s daily life.
The evangelical Barna Group discovered that many evangelical churchgoers do not have a sustaining faith and practice in their everyday lives; they are religious, George Barna tells us, but not spiritual. This is a recipe for impending disaster.
If my evangelical brothers and sisters become political at the expense of their faith in the reconciling and transforming love of Jesus Christ, then we might be speaking of them 50 years hence as a part of the great Christian decline.
I hope not. There is much we can learn from each other.
Mainline churches need to learn (and are learning) to be evangelical, in the best sense of the word. They need to speak of the power of community in Christ, to speak of (not just demonstrate through charity or good works) the love of God to a world needing healing and wholeness. When churches feature leaders who don’t speak the name of Jesus from the pulpit, when church members don’t speak about their churches or their faith to others, and when churches become merely union halls or political action centers, then the passion and the Spirit depart.
The evangelical tradition can teach mainline Protestants how to be a lighthouse in a darkened sky – and those methods can be adapted to things with which we’re comfortable. I would not leave a Chick tract in a public restroom or ask my seatmate on a plane if they “know the Lord,” but I would invite people to experience a U2charist at my church, and I should. Good things happen when love and God are made manifest in people’s lives.
The mainline traditions, on the other hand, can help evangelicals with two things.
1. Although justice and works do not save (whatever that means to you), they are actions that we perform in imitation of the Jesus who loved all human beings. Feeding the poor, advocating for a living wage and trying to improve environmental conditions are actions that – if they grow out of our authentic faith – are a logical expression of that faith. I cannot simply rest happy in the fate of my saved eternal soul while my brother and sister starve – or choke – next to me.
2. In the liturgy, wisdom traditions and fixed-hour prayer found in the mainline traditions (and, of course, in Catholicism and Orthodoxy), evangelicals might find an antidote to shallow spirituality, emotionalism or church-only practice. The mainline churches making themselves over for the 21st century are creating communities of faithful people on a faith journey, not just saved people waiting for the Second Coming.
I pray for my brothers and sisters who are American evangelicals, just as I pray for all of God’s holy universal Church. All of us make up that marketplace Stark describes. That marketplace exists not just because of human failure to reconcile, but perhaps because God is speaking in different ways to different people.
However we wind up defining success or failure – and, in the words of the old evangelical hymn, success is rescuing the perishing and caring for the dying even if it is only one at a time – God has moved, is moving and will move through faithful churches and people.
Or, at least, that has been, is and will be my prayer.
Greg Garrett is professor of English at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He blogs at The Other Jesus, where a version of this column first appeared.