I’m confused. I’ve just finished Tanya Lurhmann’s When God Talks Back, an anthropological study of the practices of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, an evangelical sect comprisingly mostly well-off and intelligent people. (The review of the book by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker is right on the mark.) In her penultimate chapter, Luhrmann talks about the explosion of evangelical Christianity in America:
In 2005, Newsweek found that nearly 40 percent of Americans said that “the main reason” they practiced religion was “to forge a personal relationship with God.” There are still theologically conservative Christians who do not believe that God will speak back; they still hold, as they put it, that revelation is “closed.” But probably half of the conservative Christians in America are experientially oriented. Membership in charistmatic congregations has exploded since the 1960s.” (p. 311).
She goes on to suggest that supernaturalism is increasing because the faithful want to talk to God—they want a personal relationship that includes miracles, in which God intercedes in their lives and answers prayers. They don’t want Sophisticated Theology™.
In contrast, an opinion piece in Sunday’s New York Time, “The decline of evangelical America,” suggests otherwise. It’s by John Dickerson, an evangelical minister, and he bemoans the emptying of evangelical pews. The times identifies the author:
John S. Dickerson is the senior pastor of Cornerstone Church and author of the forthcoming book “The Great Evangelical Recession: Six Factors That Will Crash the American Church … and How to Prepare.”
And he reaches precisely the opposite conclusion as Luhrmann (whose book was published this year). Dickerson:
In 2011 the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life polled church leaders from around the world. Evangelical ministers from the United States reported a greater loss of influence than church leaders from any other country — with some 82 percent indicating that their movement was losing ground. . .
. . . evangelicals, while still perceived as a majority, have become a shrinking minority in the United States. In the 1980s heyday of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, some estimates accounted evangelicals as a third or even close to half of the population, but research by the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith recently found that Christians who call themselves evangelicals account for just 7 percent of Americans. (Other research has reported that some 25 percent of Americans belong to evangelical denominations, though they may not, in fact, consider themselves evangelicals.) Dr. Smith’s findings are derived from a three-year national study of evangelical identity and influence, financed by the Pew Research Center. They suggest that American evangelicals now number around 20 million, about the population of New York State. The global outlook is more optimistic, as evangelical congregations flourish in places like China, Brazil and sub-Saharan Africa.
But while America’s population grows by roughly two million a year, attendance across evangelical churches — from the Southern Baptists to Assembles of God and nondenominational churches — has gradually declined, according to surveys of more than 200,000 congregations by the American Church Research Project.
And so on. What is Dickerson’s theory for the decline? That “evangelicals have not adapted well to rapid shifts in the culture,” and by that he means the secular trends of supporting same-sex marriage, abortion rights, etc. But Dickerson lays the greatest blame at the door of evangelical hubris—the tendency of evangelicals to chastise and proselytize rather than just comport themselves according to the dictates of Jebus:
I believe the cultural backlash against evangelical Christianity has less to do with our views — many observant Muslims and Jews, for example, also view homosexual sex as wrong, while Catholics have been at the vanguard of the movement to protect the lives of the unborn — and more to do with our posture. The Scripture calls us “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), but American evangelicals have not acted with the humility and homesickness of aliens. The proper response to our sexualized and hedonistic culture is not to chastise, but to “conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12).
But such humility is impossible for evangelical Christians—at least as long as they ground their faith on the claim that salvation comes only through accepting Jesus as one’s savior. The other side of that coin is that those who don’t will go to hell (70% of Americans believe in hell, by the way). And the idea that those who aren’t with you will fry forever is deeply repugnant to non-evangelicals. It goes against the arc of increasing morality that Pinker so clearly demonstrates in The Better Angels of our Nature. The proper response to a faith that says, “Believe as we do or boil in molten sulphur” is “you’re insane.”
And so Dickerson’s prescription is impossible, for evangelical Christianity demands a stance that alienates more liberal believers, and the alienation will only increase.
Now I’m not sure who is right about the spread of evangelical Christianity—Dickerson or Luhrmann—as I lack the time to do the research. But it’s telling that Dickerson sees the waning faith as an opportunity:
Some evangelical leaders are embarrassed by our movement’s present paralysis. I am not. Weakness is a potent purifier. As Paul wrote, “I am content with weaknesses … for the sake of Christ” (2 Corinthians 12:10). For me, the deterioration and disarray of the movement is a source of hope: hope that churches will stop angling for human power and start proclaiming the power of Christ.
Well, I applaud his call for a withdrawal from politics (the Vineyard Fellowship, after all, does virtually no political or social work: that’s one of Acocella’s criticisms of Luhrmann’s “neutrality” about the sect). But the power of Christ cannot withstand the inexorable tide of secular advance. I f believe with all my heart that some day America will end up like Scandinavia: virtually godless. I won’t live to see it, but I’m confident it will happen, and the trend is in that direction.
h/t: Greg Mayer