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The New (Evangelical) Mainline

American evangelicalism is displacing the old mainline. How do we keep from suffering the same fate?
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The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), recently released by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar at Trinity College, has captured some bold headlines. And no wonder: The share of people classified as "Nones" (who claim atheism, agnosticism, or have no stated religious preference) has nearly doubled since the survey began, from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. Mainline churches continue their precipitous decline; for example, Methodists have fallen from 8 percent to 5 percent over that same span. Even the share of Americans who call themselves Baptist is down.

Such trends prompted Newsweek magazine to proclaim on its cover, Edward Gibbon-like, "The Decline and Fall of Christian America." In the April 13 issue, available right before Easter, editor Jon Meacham opined, "While we remain a nation decisively shaped by religious faith, our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character than they were even five years ago."

But is it possible that Newsweek missed the real story? According to the survey, rather than being headed for a crash, the American church, while shrinking slightly relative to the overall population, is becoming more conservative and evangelical, though somewhat less denominational.

Meacham saw this trend but missed its significance. "A third of Americans say they are born again," he noted; "this figure, along with the decline of politically moderate-to liberal mainline Protestants, led the ARIS authors to note that 'these trends … suggest a movement towards more conservative beliefs and particularly to a more "evangelical" outlook among Christians.' "

The real story here, for good and for ill, is that evangelicals nationwide are becoming the new mainline. And, there is a new reality that evangelicals are becoming a vital force for biblical renewal within the old mainline.

For good: We enjoy a significant position of authority — contra Meacham — in moral and political issues. Pastors Rick Warren and Joel Hunter, both of whom have had access to President Obama, exemplify this kind of standing in the culture. Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family notes that the existence of laws or constitutional amendments opposing the redefinition of marriage in 43 states would be hard to explain absent the massive presence of pro-family evangelicals. Facing little competition from the old mainline, growing and dynamic megachurches, Pentecostals, and immigrant churches also have a great opportunity to appeal to the spiritually curious and open.

For ill: The ARIS survey indicates less commitment to denominations and a declining commitment to religion in general. But Christian nominalism, and the spiritually shallow lives it produces in churchgoers, also remains a huge problem for all churches, old and new.

The increasing numbers of Nones may be a blessing in disguise. Author and apologist Lee Strobel tells this magazine, "What an important step for people to take off the Christian label that doesn't really apply to them. Now maybe they'll be more open to someone who presents an authentic faith."

So how do we, the new mainline, avoid becoming like the old mainline and present an authentic faith to our American neighbors? While the factors in the decline of the old mainline (what some now call the sideline) are many, certainly theological compromise in a misguided pursuit of relevance at all costs played a major role.

A rigorous and public recommitment to the unchanging truth of the gospel is essential if we are going to continue in bringing more people to the foot of the Cross and assist them in becoming fully devoted followers of Christ.

Spreading the gospel, not seeking social or political relevance, is the heartbeat of evangelicalism. More often than not, cozying up to the culture has been a ticket to later embarrassment.

To be sure, we also must remain engaged in the larger culture. We cannot afford to become consumed by our own theological distinctives and subculture. That too would be a compromise. We are not called to identify with any culture or subculture, whether that be America or evangelicalism. Our future as a movement depends on that which is in our name, the evangel, the good news of Jesus Christ. If we keep that focus, we never have to worry about becoming the new sideline.



Related Elsewhere:

The American Religious Identification Survey has more results on its website.

More Christianity Today articles on evangelicalism include:

Soulwork: On the Lasting Evangelical Survival | What will and will not survive of this movement. (March 11, 2009)
The Evangelical Elite | Michael Lindsay says adherents of the movement can now be found in powerful positions in every niche of American life. (November 16, 2007)
The Rise of the Evangelicals | Evangelicalism was once a tiny reform movement, one that was amazingly successful, says Mark Noll. (June 9, 2005)
Why Evangelicalism Is the Future of Protestantism | Part 1, Part 2 (June 19, 1995)

More editorials are available on our site.

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