ARTICLE

Are Evangelicals Repeating The Same Mistakes Of Mainline Liberal Churches?

News Image By John Stonestreet/Breakpoint.org August 10, 2021
Share this article:

Dotting many U.S. main streets are the steeples and towers of beautiful and historic buildings, originally built as houses of worship. From its founding, mainline denominations gave America a kind of Protestant consensus, much of our nation's charity, many of its most prestigious schools, and a significant number of congressional leaders and even presidents. 

Today, many of these buildings, especially those draped with rainbow flags, lie empty. On Sundays, only a small number of worshipers, mostly white and grey-haired, sit in the pews. 

Back in 2017, missiologist Ed Stetzer made a dramatic prediction in the Washington Post. "If it doesn't stem its decline," he wrote, "Mainline Protestantism has just 23 Easters left." Stetzer blamed the Mainline church's impending extinction on abysmally low birth rates, and the fact that many of them long ago "abandoned central doctrines that were deemed 'offensive' to the surrounding culture." 


However, last month a new survey from the Public Religion Institute challenged Stetzer's prediction. Called "The 2020 Census of American Religion," the report claimed that Mainline churches in America have experienced a dramatic recovery. 

According to this survey of 50,000 Americans, Mainline Protestants grew from 13 percent of the population five years ago to over 16 percent in 2020. Meanwhile, evangelicals seem to have entered rapid decline, tumbling from 23 percent of the U.S. population in 2006 to just 14 percent in 2020.

Over at The New Yorker, Bill McKibben celebrated the "unlikely rebound" of Mainline Protestantism, and made conclusions that a political shift had happened in American Christianity. 

Others joined the celebration. Progressive church historian Diana Bass Butler declared, "A really important moment is here. The story of an old religious tradition hasn't ended the way critics once thought." Paraphrasing Monty Python she joked, "We're 'not dead yet,' we've just been awaiting resurrection."

However, as Lyman Stone of the American Enterprise Institute pointed out, the methodology used by the PRRI survey suffers from serious flaws. 

For example, all self-identifying white Christians who did not use the labels "evangelical" or "born again" were categorized as "white mainline Protestants." Stone called this categorization "bonkers," a little like assuming that anyone who doesn't identify as a New York Yankees fan must prefer hockey. 

More importantly, the terms "evangelical" and "born again" are "generationally-coded" as Stone puts it, not reliable indicators of beliefs or denominational affiliation. 

In fact, Stone points out, around 40 percent of members in evangelical churches would not describe themselves as "born again," while 20 percent of those in Mainline bodies would. A conservative resurgence in a handful of the mainline denominations would also be a problem for PRRI's methodology.

A better measure of evangelical affiliation, suggest Stone and Stetzer, is what's known as the Bebbington Quadrilateral. David Bebbington, a British historian, distinguished evangelical identity by four essential beliefs: Biblicism, crucicentrism (a focus on Christ's atoning work on the cross), conversionism (believing that human beings need to be saved at a personal level), and activism.


Any announcement of a resurgence of Mainline liberalism is premature and probably exaggerated. 

These aging, shrinking communions will probably become irrelevant within our lifetimes, but it's not because evangelical Christianity is "winning" in any real sense. 

Liberal churches are shrinking because they are impossible to distinguish from the larger culture. Why get up and go to church on the weekend when the same teaching is available on NPR every day of the week? 

At the same time, evangelicalism is suffering an identity crisis featuring high-profile deconversions, scandals, and theological anemia. How many evangelical churches today could be described by Bebbington's four essentials? 

In some ways evangelicalism may be repeating the mistakes of mainline liberalism.

Originally published at Breakpoint.org - reposted with permission.




Other News

October 25, 2021Perfect Winter Storm - Simultaneous Shortage Of Oil, Natural Gas, Propane & Coal

We are already in the midst of an epic global energy crisis. There have already been significant power outages all over the planet, and p...

October 25, 2021Warning - Port Congestion Could Be Worse Than 'Lehman Crash'

The ports shutting down is worse than Lehman Brothers failing. Both can lead to catastrophic failures of all counterparties depending on t...

October 25, 2021LGBT Civil War As Leftists Go After Feminist Heretics In Their Ranks

As trans activists accrue cultural power and consolidate their territorial gains, their movement has begun the process of doing what all r...

October 25, 2021Inviting God's Judgement - US Looking Deny Israel Sovereignty Over Jerusalem

Former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has warned that the Biden administration's plan to unilaterally open a Palestinian consulate in the hear...

October 22, 2021Food Hoarding Intensifies As Fears Of More Price Spikes Coming Soon

When people hear that something is going to be scarce, it is only human nature to be motivated to stock up while you still can. There are...

October 22, 2021A Spirit Of Lawlessness Has Spread Across The Country

From the very top to the very bottom, we are rapidly becoming a completely lawless nation. A new law that was recently passed prohibits po...

October 22, 2021Israel/Iran Nuclear Issue Will Reach Critical Junction In 2022

With Tehran accelerating its nuclear program, Jerusalem is accelerating its own military strike capability in parallel. These two paths w...

Get Breaking News