The Future of American Protestantism Looks Pretty “Evangelical”

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Almost two weeks ago, the Institute of Religion and Democracy released an online article detailing the decline in membership among the so-called “seven sisters” of America’s mainline Protestant churches, a group that includes the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, and my own denomination, the American Baptist Churches (USA).

Practically within the same breath, they issued a report a week later that listed the Top 10 largest seminaries in the U.S. in terms of attendance. 9 of the 10 could rightly be called “evangelical”; 5 of the 10 belong to the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention (SBC); none of them were “mainline.”

By contrast, the Christian twitterverse had a field day when Union Seminary–a bastion for theological liberalism–tweeted an image of seminary students confessing their sins to plants during their weekly chapel. (Spoiler alert: plants can’t offer the Words of Absolution. And with very little context offered in the original tweet, was it ever really a shock that incredulity ensued?) Paul’s words immediately come to mind: ” They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.” (Romans 1:25)

So what’s going on?

Some Background

The “mainline churches” are comprised of those denominations that have historic ties to American cultural history and are usually contrasted with the more theologically conservative “evangelical” churches. Since the early to mid-twentieth century, many of the churches within these denominations have gone with cultural currents and have espoused increasingly progressive and liberal theology over the decades. Though beliefs vary, many within this milieu have an understanding of Scripture that is fallible and man-made (and even uninspired) and depart from traditional views of sexuality.

In contrast, those churches usually marked as “evangelical” have largely retained their membership or have even grown in some instances. These churches have their roots in the mid-20th century in the aftermath of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, when mainline churches began their leftward theological drift. “Neo-evangelicalism” (as headed by the likes of Carl Henry, Harold Ockenga, Kenneth Kantzer, and others) sought to trailblaze a “third way” that did not fall prey to the extremes of rigid/uncritical fundamentalism on the one hand or theological liberalism on the other. It is the churches that descend from this movement that seem to be going strong, all things considered. This contrast has been the topic of many blogs, newsarticles, and online forums.

If you look on the graphs in the original article provided by IRD, you may notice that the two denominations who’s membership declines are not nearly as precipitous (the American Baptists Churches and United Methodist Church) are the two denominations that, perhaps by no coincidence, have retained a relatively prominent evangelical presence. I can’t help but wonder if this is because the Baptists and Methodists have (historically speaking) demonstrated some of the greatest fervor in the area of evangelism. Following the Great Awakenings, it was largely the Baptists and Methodists that linked arms and took to the frontier to plant and establish churches, equipping lay ministers and sending them off on horseback. In the 19th century, Baptists ministers like Andrew Fuller, William Carey, and Adoniram Judson kickstarted the modern missions movement, with Methodists quickly following suit (Methodism is growing rapidly in the majority world). Despite inevitable excesses, at their best they displayed the best of what warm-hearted, evangelical piety had to offer.

With this history in mind, I’m not surprised that it is these two traditions that have churches and members that have weathered the cultural tides, and that in some sense are the last two of the “seven sisters” to remain standing when it comes to historic Christian orthodoxy.

“The Faith Once Delivered”

Though there is often still a large degree of overlap (as evidenced by the ABC and UMC), the divergence in trajectories between “mainline” and “evangelical” has come to a fore in recent decades and can hardly be more apparent. While “evangelicalism” seems to have lost its identity to a certain degree (mired as it is with political overtones in the mind’s eye of constituents), the same cannot be said of its membership, by and large.

Consider the case study of The Falls Church Anglican as a case in point. Around the same time that IRD published its findings, Christianity Today released the story of The Falls Church Anglican, an evangelical Anglican congregation that lost their church property over the 2009 spat with the mainline Episcopal Church it seceded from. By the time of the article’s publication last month, they had erected a new home and continue to be a vibrant, thriving congregation.

Contrast this with a few mainline antics that made headlines around the same time. Apart from the aforementioned “plant-confessional” (above), one mainline church unblinkingly showcased the image of an ancient European, pagan idol. My mind flashes immediately to the image of St. Paul in Athens in Acts 17, dismayed at the number of idols surrounding him at the street market, who cried:

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious…So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”

Acts 17:22-23

Paul had a message to proclaim–a message that seems to have been largely forgotten.

Fleming Rutledge (herself an Episcopal priest/preacher, accomplished author, and one who regularly bridges the gap between the mainline and evangelical worlds) has often suggested that the mainline churches have forgotten about the kerygma–the apostolic “proclamation” that first made the unique Christian gospel explode in the first-century, Mediterranean world. It is the “good news” that led Paul to say, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

Without this earth-shattering message, Christianity is rendered inert. In fact, it ceases to be Christianity at all. Its message becomes that which does not lead one to worship, or to commit their life to discipleship. It is a message that stops at “Neither do I condemn you”, but refuses to continue on with the words “Go now and sin no more” (John 8:11). It is a message that considers the Words of Absolution as a right, and not as a gracious gift (or, worse yet, does not consider absolution necessary at all). It is a message that does not hear the words of the Savior, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24). It is a message that Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have labeled “cheap grace.”

Without this message, our churches will disappear in shadows and dust. In contrast, Jesus promises that upon Peter’s confession of his lordship, that he will build his church “and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

American Christianity at a Crossroads

“Evangelicalism” as an alternative (notwithstanding some of its monstrous, political mutations) is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. I have leveled some of my sharpest criticisms and accusations at the modern evangelical movement, and have shared some of my deepest disillusionments with it as a millennial Christian. But at its best, at its core, “evangelicalism” has always been about the evangel–the “good news” of Christ crucified, the “faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Sure, evangelicalism is at a crossroads, and is in the midst of an identity crisis. But if that’s the case, mainline Protestantism is in full-blown amnesia mode. It has all but forgotten its identity in Christ…because it has forgotten Christ.

One could appropriately draw parallels with the “seven sisters” of the mainline churches to the “seven churches” of Revelation, with one glaring difference–there are no Smyrnas or Philadelphias to commend. Even the ABCUSA and United Methodist Church (with whom my family has strong ties and affinities) is a mixed bag. What is left is St. John’s prophetic rebukes. You could take his words (which are Christ’s words) to the Church in Sardis: ” You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.” (Revelation 3:1-2).

Or perhaps more fitting is John’s message to the Church in Thyatira, who like our mainline churches was known for their works of charity and service, but tolerated sexual immorality (Revelation 2:18-29). “Tolerance” is a catch-word these days that would have Inigo Montoya saying, “I do not think it means what you think it means.” Again, by way of contrast, hear the words of Jesus to the church in Laodicea: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent” (Revelation 3:19). Tolerance is good; but our modern definition of it has no room for words like “rebuke” or “repent”, or even “disagree.”

Some people, such as myself, have decided to stay and “contend for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) in the mainline; to share in the prophetic tradition of John the Apostle or John the Baptist; to be the “voice crying out in the desert.” Rutledge is one such prophetic voice. But if the churches don’t heed the words of Scripture, then John’s warnings still stand.

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