Why Evangelicals Are Not the New Mainline (Stephen)

In a recent interview with Timothy Dalrymple (found via Joe Carter), historian Rodney Stark (an interesting fellow, but odd if only in that he has a book called The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success) makes some pretty astonishing claims about American evangelicalism, claiming that it has replaced the old mainline churches in the US.  While the numbers seem on his side, I believe that he is horribly mistaken and blindly triumphalist in his claims (though he is largely right about mainline Protestant denominations).  Unfortunately, many evangelicals are likely to buy his erroneous claims, not only because they sound appealing, but also because they cohere with the experience of an older generation that saw the movement of people from mainline denominations into evangelical churches first-hand.

For one thing, Stark repeatedly claims that people were disenchanted with mainline churches because of far-left politics among clergy and denominational officials.  While such officials were certainly left-leaning at times (though how many thousands of conservative rural pastors did not fit into this category?), they were probably less so in the late 20th century (during the largest numerical shift) than at other points in US history.

For example, the progressive evangelicals of the 19th century brought down slavery and eventually won voting rights for women and the prohibition of alcohol, not to mention their numerous social reform initiatives.  While I could be mistaken, I don’t recall ever hearing about an exodus from their churches as a result of these social and political endeavors.  Similarly, I don’t recall ever hearing anyone say that they left a denomination because of communist sympathizers.  Although it is possible that this happened, Stark gives absolutely no evidence for it, instead letting his personal disdain for left-of-center politics drive his opining.

On another issue that he brings up, the use of technology in church liturgies, Stark first meticulously sets up a straw man: Somewhere out there, people think that evangelicals are technologically backwards.  (If anyone still does believe this, they should read Joel Carpenter’s account of 1920s-40s American fundamentalism to be disabused of this notion.)  As far as I can tell, the New Yorker-reading crowd has gotten more than a few journalistic glimpses of fog-machine-using, head-banging evangelical mega-churches on the Colorado frontier – perhaps too many, given the fact that the vast majority of US evangelicals (and Protestants in general) attend relatively small churches that struggle to keep up with such carnival festivities.

But let’s just suppose that Stark didn’t invent this notion “that conservative religious people are hostile and uncomfortable with technology” out of thin air (let alone attribute such a notion to “intellectuals”).  If we do so, it seems that he has developed a fool-proof method of discerning doctrinal orthodoxy:

If you led me blindfolded into a church, and I didn’t know whether it was a liberal or conservative church, then you ripped off my blindfold, I could tell you instantly whether it was a liberal or evangelical church. Are there hymn books in racks on the back of the pews? If there are, it’s a liberal church.  Conservatives got rid of that stuff long ago, because they know we don’t sing real well with our chins on our chests, and we spend too much time leafing through the hymn book.

By evangelical, he seems to mean everything from Joel Osteen on up.  At the end of the day, Stark is not concerned so much with doctrinal orthodoxy as with beating up on liberals, who are ignorant and wrong about every conceivable thing.  As a result, he even makes the assumption that the use of technology is a nearly unmitigated good – without, again, bothering to even give a reason why that is so.

So these various personal antipathies prevent Stark from focusing on a real story here: As sociologists have argued for some time, more conservative and demanding religious movements (from the LDS to the AG to the newly-conservative SBC) do better numerically simply because they believe in something, whereas more doctrinally and socially loose movements (and congregations) usually end up declining before long, for obvious reasons.  Thus, Stark observes that in Jamestown, North Dakota there is now a large Assemblies of God church and a flourishing Nazarene church while the mainline Methodist and Presbyterian churches are fading into insignificance.

But this by no means points to a continuing evangelical renaissance that will result in mainline status for a loose coalition of free churches, if only because they are just that.  As Stark remarks, non-denominational evangelical churches are, after the SBC, the second largest group of Protestant churches in the US today.  What he fails to note is the fact that the old mainline was the result of frantic ecumenical mergers, as more conservative and revivalist churches (such as the rapidly-growing Baptist and Methodist movements) and immigrant churches (such as Reformed and Lutheran churches) rapidly joined forces.  By the mid-to-late 20th century, virtually the entirety of mainline Protestantism was united within several large denominational structures, usually one for each expression (e.g., the PCUSA as the only significant mainline expression of Presbyterianism).

In contrast, neo-evangelicalism always remained a loose coalition, with the NAE serving as nothing more than an umbrella for now-moderate fundamentalists.  With the rise of non-denominational churches and the decline in influence of para-church Religious Right organizations like Focus on the Family, what cohesion was there is now dissipating.  Perhaps in the wake of overwhelming numerical growth evangelicalism has fallen victim to its own success.

Whereas a previous generation could be fairly confident that a Bible college was virtually the same thing in most contexts (though the Pentecostals could be a bit different from the usual fare); today, evangelical higher education has splintered into a variety of unique offerings: Calvin on the Reformed left, Eastern on the generically-evangelical left, Biola on the center-right, Baylor in an odd Texas mix – and that is only within the realm of liberal arts schools.  Similarly, the Christian music scene is no longer the province of Fanny Crosby or even Keith Green, instead ranging from Over the Rhine to Michael W. Smith to Jason Upton to Paramore.  If you said “who?” when reading the name of any of those major Christian musical artists, then you’ve made my point.

Because American evangelicalism has gotten so numerically large without any institutional unity (unless you really think that the NAE provides such unity), its disintegration into various factions is both inevitable and presently happening.  If you say that the Holy Spirit will provide such unity by bringing a mighty revival, you’re likely a Pentecostal.  If you say that the Gospel is a sure intellectual foundation for men of God who will lead, you’re likely Reformed.  If you say that it doesn’t matter anyhow because we’ve got to be absorbed in the process of reforming our belief and restoring creation, you’re likely emergent.

Although these differences have been latent for some time, the cultural and political demise of the neo-evangelical coalition has made them evident once again, showing the work of Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry, and Edward J. Carnell to be only a temporary truce.  Consequently, there is no new evangelical mainline, and even the numerical success of the movement will likely be fleeting, presaging a devastating decline within one or two generations.

As Stark conveniently fails to mention, while the mainline churches are declining because they are old (to put it bluntly), evangelical churches are not young: They are merely younger.  In the face of rising secularism, Christian America is demographically doomed (on this, see for example Christian Smith’s research on “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”), so evangelicals would do well to not gloat in ephemeral successes while US culture takes the last steps toward secular hegemony.

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  • James  On August 11, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    could you suggest why the numerical success of Evangelicalism will likely be fleeting? and, other than Smith’s work, what trend toward secularism you see in American religious life?

    more importantly, has an overwhelming array of theological and ecclesial/para-church options not been the case in low churches before and throughout the Evangelical era?

    • Stephen  On August 11, 2010 at 10:09 pm

      As I just mentioned to Blake in a comment on his post, the lack of catechesis among evangelicals today (Sunday School is practically dead; Sunday night services are rare) means that the younger generation will have no doctrinal and, likely, no experiential reason to stay in church. For me, the biggest indicator of a trend toward secularism (outside of the fact that I know very few devout evangelicals my age in New England) is the fact that the SBC (according to its own numbers) is now shrinking. Similarly, the Assemblies of God is treading water numerically, with growth in non-white churches barely compensating for huge losses in white churches. If I would expect at least stability anywhere, it would be in the SBC and the AG, but that is not happening. Although there were different ecclesial options before, the erosion of denominational numbers today points toward a lack of cohesion. In the past, some sort of common structure (if only to send missionaries) was viewed as at least ideal; whereas today denominations are almost seen as something that keep people from God. That might or might not be theologically true (though I don’t think it is), but it is practically disastrous if one wants to see any kind of evangelical mainline.

  • James  On August 12, 2010 at 4:58 am

    hm, i’m not sure if “secularization,” loaded term and all that, is the best term for denominational losses.

    also, what of diversity in evangelicalisms–is that anything new? i mean, if you were looking to join an evangelical college group in the 1950’s, you could’ve joined Intervarsity, or Campus Crusade, or the Navigators. not exactly unity there.

    • Stephen  On August 12, 2010 at 11:33 am

      1. By secularization, I mean a shift from only what Charles Taylor calls secularization 3 (a situation in which religious believers in a given society feel a need to prove that their beliefs are not in fact foolish, as opposed to atheists having to prove their beliefs to a skeptical religious majority) to what he calls secularization 2 (a situation in which the majority of people in a society are not actually religious, no matter where they were baptized). It seems that secularization 3 is a dominant reality in our culture (to the point of increasingly being written into law – the Religious Right wasn’t only paranoid about that), while secularization 2 is catching on (first in the mainline, and now, with the SBC in particular, in evangelical denominations).

      2. As for diversity, the situation now is a bigger mix of both theological and institutional diversity than was present before. For half a century, neo-evangelicals had a doctrinal consensus: Outside of Fuller Seminary, they held to biblical inerrancy; Reformed pieces of the coalition weren’t so ostentatious about their distinctive beliefs; and pentecostals were eager to fit in. All of those dynamics are being challenged today. Previously, even independent Bible churches were tied to at least missionary agencies most of the time, but now utterly independent megachurches and coffee shop churches alike are proliferating. What’s really interesting to me is just the fact that hardly anyone in the pews sees that as a bad thing.

      (Don’t worry, I will write more about this in future posts.)


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