by Pastor Doug Kings
On the front page of last Sunday’s New York Times’ Opinion section was a LONG piece by David Brooks titled, “The Dissenters Trying to Save Evangelicalism From Itself.” Based on interviews with numerous church leaders, Brooks tells the now familiar story of the fracturing of American evangelicalism.
The dividing and subdividing of evangelical churches have been well-known phenomena throughout the movement’s history. What’s different this time, however, is that the cause is not doctrine and theology as in the past (e.g. Bible inerrancy, baptism, salvation, role of women, etc.), but politics and culture.
Support or opposition to Donald Trump has been one of the most divisive issues. But tensions among evangelicals were rising before his candidacy and issues unrelated to him are also roiling the waters. The result has been congregations and organizations splitting, pastors being hounded from their pulpits, and editors and teachers fired for expressing unacceptable views.
What’s significant to me here is not the specific issues or sources of conflict. Rather, it is that the faith that supposedly underlies these groups is not holding them together. How can that be if that is why these churches and organizations came into being in the first place?
David Brooks is not a theologian but mostly a political commentator. It’s not surprising then that he analyzes the situation primarily from an organizational standpoint. But why is the division in American culture, of which we are all so aware, impacting Christians and their churches as much as—and sometimes more than—everyone else? (And mainline churches, including ELCA congregations, have not been exempt from this experience.) Brooks largely misses what is to me the elephant in the room.
The word “evangelical” used to refer to churches that emphasized the need for people to make a conscious decision to become a follower of Christ. Conversion, followed by adult baptism, were high priorities. This was the objective of the great evangelists like Billy Sunday and Billy Graham and evangelical denominations like the Southern Baptists.
That unifying commitment seems to have weakened considerably. After seeming to resist the downward trend of mainline churches, evangelical churches are also seeing their numbers decline, a trend which has accelerated since the recent upheavals began. As Brooks reports,
In 2006, 23 percent of Americans were white evangelical Protestants, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. By 2020, that share was down to 14.5 percent. In 2020, 22 percent of Americans 65 and older were white evangelical Protestants. Among adults 18 to 29, only 7 percent were.
That the label “evangelical” is becoming increasingly meaningless is evident by the statistic that 40 percent of them say they attend church rarely if at all. There are also Roman Catholics who identify as evangelical and even a small portion of American Muslims! The great “Billy” evangelists surely would have been befuddled by all this.
This dilemma that has been gradually ensnaring all modern Christianity, however. A new global social consciousness has often left the church’s hypocrisy glaringly exposed. As institutions, churches have repeatedly felt it necessary to follow political movements or leaders in supporting policies or actions violating Christian moral standards.
Slavery, apartheid, and racial discrimination have all had church support. With the rise of nationalism, Christians have often found themselves killing other Christians in war with their churches’ endorsement. Even a movement as horrendous as Naziism had church advocates and many others who avoided taking a stance.
These conflicts have raised a basic question for millions: What does it mean to be a Christian? The anguish of that question runs through all of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings, for example. How, he asks, can so many of my fellow Christians (mostly Lutherans and Catholics) react to the Nazi catastrophe with indifference or even support? That question never really gets an answer.
Traditional churches have tried to hide behind identities rooted in their past. Evangelicals cling to their infallible Bible, despite the countless holes poked in it not just by science but even modern Bible scholarship. Catholics rest on papal infallibility and church authority when the fallibility of church leaders has never been more obvious. Lutherans still chant their centuries-old Reformation slogans when the conflicts that produced them ended or stopped having meaning long ago.
The crises of the 20th and now 21st centuries have shown how tissue thin those identities have become. The climate crisis, rising economic disparity, the growing meaninglessness of work and of the material “prosperity” it enables, the search for community and meaningful committed relationships, rampant corruption at all levels of business and government, and the increasing disinterest of the young in all religions are just some of the issues churches struggle to meaningfully respond to.
Recognizing our global challenges, Brooks ends his essay on a hopeful note.
Finally, [Baptist seminary professor] Karen Swallow Prior said something that rings in my ears: “Modernity has peaked.” The age of the autonomous individual, the age of the narcissistic self, the age of consumerism and moral drift has left us with bitterness and division, a surging mental health crisis, and people just being nasty to one another. Millions are looking for something else, some system of belief that is communal, that gives life transcendent meaning. Christianity is a potential answer for that search, and therein lies its hope, and the great possibility of renewing its call.
I agree with Brooks, but that word “potential” is huge. Christianity is now too amorphous to be a serious “answer” to any of our post-modern crises. It needs a new “here I stand” moment. It needs to establish a clear identity, rooted in the teachings of Jesus and responding to the real world in which we live. Such a church, no longer focused on paradise “by-and-by” but with truly human living here-and-now, will likely alienate many of its current members. But with that membership steadily shrinking, what do we really have to lose? And it may be that we have a world to save.
Blessings in your life and ministry.