Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Mainline Protestant Baby Boomers, by Dean R. Hoge, Benton Johnson, and Donald A. Luidens (Westminster/John Knox, 272 pp.; $17.99, paper). Reviewed by Lyman A. Kellstedt, professor of political science, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

Vanishing Boundaries is an important piece of contemporary social-science research that should be read by anyone interested in the future of Christianity in American society. If you have ever asked yourself why some churches and denominations prosper while others do not, this book provides some answers.

The subjects for the study were confirmands of a particular segment of mainline Protestantism, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (pcusa). Churches were selected randomly to represent all regions of the country and all sizes of church. Confirmand lists from the 1950s and 1960s were obtained from the selected churches, limiting the study to the baby-boom generation and its immediate predecessor, and individuals to be interviewed were randomly selected from these lists. Sherlock Holmes-style investigations tracked down the people selected, who were then interviewed by phone, 500 in all. Forty in-depth interviews were conducted in person. Cooperation on the part of the people selected for interviewing was high. The authors talk about their methods of research in an open and frank manner, and in the process increase confidence in their conclusions.

Hoge, Johnson, and Luidens find that the Presbyterian confirmands have scattered into eight groups-four distinct "churched" groups: "fundamentalist," pcusa, other mainline Protestant, and churches from all other denominations; in addition, there are four distinct "unchurched" groups: attenders but not members, members but not attenders, uninvolved but "religious," and the nonreligious.

Much of the book examines these eight groups in an effort to explain their involvement or lack of it. With the exception of the so-called fundamentalists, the reader is struck by the tangential connections to the faith on the part of the respondents. Only about half of the original confirmands are members of a church, and many of them lack strong commitments.

The number-one factor in explaining strong religious involvement is the existence of orthodox beliefs, especially the belief that Christ is the only way to salvation. These beliefs may be taken for granted in evangelical churches, but they are not shared by many of the Presbyterian confirmands interviewed.

Building on their research, Hoge, Johnson, and Luidens attempt to explain the precipitous decline of mainline Protestantism. After considering a variety of explanations, they conclude: "We believe the dominant explanation for mainline decline is a combination of the gradual weakening of mainline churches, changes in American culture, and the churches' policy of openness to change."

Article continues below

They argue that churches can do something, but not a lot, about changes in the culture. Churches can, however, work hard to instill a system of core beliefs in their congregants-beliefs that are not abstract and impersonal but provide answers to essential questions concerning the existence and nature of God, life after death, and prescriptions for leading the good life in relationships here on earth.

For the vast majority of Presbyterian confirmands interviewed for this study, the church failed to provide satisfactory answers to these questions. And the authors are not optimistic that local mainline church bodies will magically find a solution to their decline in numbers in the near future.

One major annoyance in this otherwise admirable research effort is the use of the term fundamentalist to describe churches more conservative than the pcusa. This choice of terminology may reflect a failure to distinguish between religious traditions (groups of denominations and local churches that share common beliefs and practices, such as evangelical Protestant and mainline Protestant) and religious movements (which are efforts to alter existing denominational structures and local churches; examples include fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, and ecumenism).

Vanishing Boundaries is about what works in contemporary American religion, or, conversely, what does not work. The authors' findings strongly suggest that any local church body or denomination that takes its eye off the ultimate questions of the faith and places few demands on its congregants will find itself on the sidelines.

Hoge, Johnson, and Luidens do us a great service by attempting to explain the decline of mainline Protestantism in a form that should encourage discussion and debate. Evangelicals need to participate in these discussions. We, too, need to be clear about what brought people to our churches and so avoid being pushed to the sideline. Vanishing Boundaries can assist us in this process.


The intrinsic winsomeness of Jesus' way.

Systematic Theology, Volume II: Doctrine, by James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (Abingdon, 536 pp.; $24.95, paper). Reviewed by Rodney Clapp, academic and general books editor, InterVarsity Press, and author of Families at the Crossroads (IVP).

Article continues below

Of the writing of systematic theologies there seems to be no end. One theologian has in fact counted more than 40 commenced in the last decade. Even passionate readers of theology may be forgiven, then, if they wonder whether they need take up another volume of contemporary systematics. If you are among the number who have decided to give the genre a rest (or perhaps have rarely sampled it at all), I am here to persuade you to add one more book to the list before you abandon the field.

James Wm. McClendon, Jr., most recently scholar in residence at Fuller Theological Seminary, and before that for many years a distinguished teacher at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union, has recently published the second volume of his systematic theology. Doctrine follows Ethics in McClendon's project, and it in turn will be followed by a concluding volume on fundamental or philosophical questions. McClendon's beginning with ethics and ending with what is usually called prolegomena is itself an indication of one thing that sets his systematics apart from a plethora of competitors. This Southern Baptist thinker is determined to do theology in service of the church and therefore careful to avoid tacking on the "applied" angle of his work as a comparatively scanty afterthought.

So the first reason for including Doctrine on your reading list is that it offers theology done for the work of the church-and for the work of the church now. "Without Christian life," McClendon says, "the doctrine is dead; without Christian doctrine, the life is formless." And doctrine, like church practice, must continually be renewed in the light of changing history. For our times, much of the value of McClendon's work springs from his heritage as an Anabaptist. The Radical Reformers never had the luxury of leaning on state or surrounding culture to do the work of the church. Today, after centuries of outright and then quasi-Christendom, all Western churches are essentially free churches-free churches in the sense that they must depend solely on themselves for the attraction and maintenance of members.

So we all, whether Episcopalians, Presbyterians, or Mennonites, must now appeal to what McClendon calls the "intrinsic winsomeness of Jesus' way displayed in Scripture and history, rather than some external inducement." McClendon is also worth reading on this count because, unlike some heirs of Christian traditions that once held widespread cultural power and can now only lament its loss, he is not depressed and nostalgically paralyzed by the passing of Christendom. Whatever the real dangers of the day (and McClendon is not blind to them), it is energizing to read a theologian who recognizes that this era of profound cultural transition presents fresh opportunities. After all, it is not merely Christendom that has passed, but much of the Enlightenment legacy with it. As McClendon observes, large cultural-philosophical obstacles "that have impeded Christian thinking for two hundred years or so are now dissolving or dissolved: Christian theology is in a new way free to be itself."

Article continues below

A second reason for putting Doctrine on your reading list is that while it does theology for the church today, it does so in vigorous continuity with the church yesterday. On the way to learning how a late-twentieth-century free church theologian might parse the doctrines of sin, salvation, God, and the kingdom of God, you will need to work your way through many pages reviewing and respecting Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, and a good many other luminaries of the faith. I am sure McClendon would agree with philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre's definition of tradition as a communal argument carried on over time. Accordingly, McClendon is no modern progressive who thinks the past was wholly inferior and can be summarily dismissed. But neither does he consider it sufficient to parrot the arguments of an earlier day (just as Augustine did not parrot the arguments of Irenaeus, or Calvin the arguments of Augustine).

Different readers will favor different aspects of McClendon's cultivation of the tradition, but I especially like his treatment of the Trinity. Worship of the Trinity has long been a Christian hallmark, one that sets the faith apart not only from atheistic philosophies but also from other monotheistic faiths. For that very reason, this doctrine is likely to suffer increasing pressure over the coming decades-not least from a growing Islamic witness. McClendon honors the Greek and Latin creedal formulations that saw each member of the Trinity as hypostasis and persona, but is rightly concerned that the usual modern understanding of these terms as "person" is misleading. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not "persons" in the modern sense of discrete individuals. As an alternative, McClendon suggestively turns to the notion of narrative, a category recently receiving much attention in nearly all the humanities and social sciences.

Article continues below

So for McClendon, the Trinitarian doctrine is an "encoding of the biblical narrative of God." To call God Father is to remind us this is the One, according to the Story, who created all things and is the "Father in heaven" to whom Jesus prayed. To call Jesus Christ Son reminds us that the Trinity includes he who lived and died on behalf of a lost creation. And to call a member of the Trinity Holy Spirit is to acknowledge that God remains with and active in the church and the creation.

A third and final reason to read McClendon is that Doctrine, quite simply, is fun. Confident of his substantial learning, McClendon is not afraid of plain speech. He adores biographies, having devoted a goodly portion of his earlier writing to the genre and its possibilities, and so he never tires of fleshing out the person behind a name. And Doctrine is written with the winning elegance of the courtly Southern gentleman that is James McClendon. Indeed, the church would benefit from laypersons reading this book if for no other reason than to show them that serious theology need not be encased in lifeless and forbidding prose. I offer two brief examples. First, on Holy Communion:

In this remembering sign, the Christian company, stragglers as well as pioneers, are gathered, the fit and the footsore shoulder to shoulder, to receive as ration the sign of God's faithfulness in the body of Jesus Christ.

And second, on the Lord's (or Disciples') Prayer:

In sum, the Disciples' Prayer presumes a hearer God deeply involved with the organic and inorganic world, a holy God who blesses the created order with his own presence, a nurturing God who cares about the baking of bread, a healing God who mends the ruptures of social fabric for our good, a guiding God who leads Christians through the narrow passages of time that precede the end. To acknowledge the listening presence of such a God is to acknowledge God's prior presence in creation to feed and heal and guide and bless.

To serve the church in its work, to respect the tradition while keeping it alive, and to show us theology can be enjoyable-Jim McClendon's Doctrine does all this, as did his earlier Ethics. Augustine once prayed to be released from lust, but not quite yet. Perhaps we should pray for a moratorium on systematic theologies, but not until Jim McClendon finishes his volume three.

Finding God in Unexpected Places, by Philip Yancey (Moorings, 240 pp.; $17.99, hardcover).

Article continues below

Attentiveness to the presence of God is the unifying theme of the 44 wide-ranging chapters in this new book from CT's editor at large. "I do not ask you to believe all that I believe," Yancey writes, "or walk the same path I have walked. All I ask is that you keep an open mind as you look at the world through my eyes." Most of the contents of the book first appeared in Christianity Today.


* Christians who are committed to environmental stewardship will celebrate the appearance of Green Cross. Mission statement: "To serve as an interdisciplinary Christian quarterly which helps readers care for creation in a way that is faithful to Jesus Christ, biblical revelation and scientific analysis." Vol. 1, No. 2 (Winter 1995) offers a mix of features and departments, including "Christian Ecological News"; $25; 10 E. Lancaster Ave., Wynnewood, PA 19096; (800) 650-6600.

* Launched in Spring 1995, Regeneration Quarterly is "offered by Christians of the rising generation for thoughtful Christians of every age." The magazine seeks to provide "a forum for robust yet graceful conversation among Christians who might otherwise be separated by conviction, circumstance, or geography." Theme of the charter issue: "The Soul of Generation X"; $19.95; P.O. Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834-9368; (800) 783-4903.

* Christianity and the Arts, a quarterly that made its debut in 1994, is distinctive in the breadth of its coverage of the arts. Vol. 2, No. 1 (Winter 1995), for example, includes pieces on the visual arts, dance, music, poetry, and fiction. Reproduction of artwork is high quality; see the stunning lead article, featuring the work of painter Linda Ruth Dickinson; $15; P.O. Box 118088, Chicago, IL 60611; (312) 642-8606.

* After a hiatus, the annual literary review Seven resumed publication in 1993 with Vol. 10, a Dorothy Sayers centenary issue. Don't miss Vol. 11 (1994), which includes "Shadowlands Observed": Ten people-widely different in background and outlook, yet all possessing relevant expertise-offer their responses to the film Shadowlands. Among the contributors to this fascinating Rashomon-like feature are Peter Schakel, George Sayer, Lyle Dorsett, Douglas Gresham, Walter Hooper, Claude Rawson, and Debra Winger; $12.50; The Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL 60187-5593.

* For a state-of-the-art example of integration of psychology and theology, see Vol. 22, No. 4 (Winter 1994) of the Journal of Psychology and Theology, a special issue focusing on "Psychotherapy with Religiously Committed Patients," guest edited by Randall Lehmann Sorenson (one of next month's reviewers in ct); $12 (single issue); Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University, 13800 Biola Ave., La Mirada, CA 90639-0001; fax (310) 906-4500.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.