Future of Evangelicalism
Are Evangelicals the New Mainline?
Was it really so dramatic as that?
Nobody realizes the extent of the radicalism in that period. Somehow Reinhold Niebuhr is considered a reaffirmation of traditional Protestantism, but he was a complete Tillichian theologically, except that he believed in sin. All of the other liberals believed you could overcome sin, that human beings were perfectible. Niebuhr wouldn't buy that, but that's the only difference he had from them theologically.
The other thing that people seem to have forgotten about Niebuhr is that he ran for Congress on the socialist party ticket in 1932. He was a very radical guy. Granted, after World War II, he wasn't one of these fellow travelers who couldn't see that Russian communism was perverse. He took his stand against that, and we should be thankful, because many people in the National Council of Churches did nothing of the sort. So you can't forget that Niebuhr basically was a Tillichian theologically, and he remained a man of the Left. He was one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action.
Jeffrey Hadden published a book in 1968 called The Gathering Storm in the Churches. He understood what was happening. He said that a big gap has opened up between the pulpit and the pews. It has two dimensions. One is religious -- the people in the pulpit are no longer really men of God. And the other is political -- the people behind the pulpit are very much men of the Left, and most of the people in the pews are not.
The upshot of this, he anticipated, was going to be the continuing decline of the so-called mainline denominations. And what he said was true. The decline has continued. I believe the Episcopalians lost another 3 percent last year. These have become small, not very important denominations.
So it's not as though you see these trends halting or reversing? Some scholars who belong to mainline congregations have pointed to signs of vitality and particular mainline churches that are thriving.
Yes, let's talk about that. There are congregations within these denominations that are growing very impressively, very quickly, very strongly. Guess what? They have evangelical clergy.
Ten years ago I did a little study that I'm repeating now. There are various evangelical associations, like the Willow Creek Association. People all over the country belong to these associations. They're non-denominational ministerial associations of evangelical orientation. If you look at their membership lists, you will find that there are Congregationalists and Episcopalians and Methodists and so on. So I took out the names of the so-called "mainline" clergy who belonged to these ministerial associations; these were ministers who belonged to "mainline" denominations but had studied at evangelical seminaries and were generally evangelical in their convictions. When I traced them back to their congregations, guess what? In these rapidly declining denominations, the rapidly growing congregations belong to these guys.
I've had people tell me: "I quit that mainline church because, in the whole year, the minister didn't say the words Jesus Christ." One of the reasons you end up with ministers who don't really believe in God is because it was an awfully good job to be a Congregationalist minister. High status, good pay. But as these denominations have declined, it has become a less attractive position. Consequently, people who are going into this profession are more likely to be religiously as opposed to socially or financially motivated. Some of these people are now going into the ministry because they're actually concerned about spreading the gospel. When you find guys like that, it works! It doesn't matter what name is on the front door of the church.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.