Future of Evangelicalism
Are Evangelicals the New Mainline?
There's also an irony in the technology issue. There's a notion amongst intellectuals that conservative religious people are hostile and uncomfortable with technology, while liberals are comfortable with it. But consider this. If you led me blindfolded into a church, and I didn't know whether it was a liberal or conservative church, then you ripped off my blindfold, I could tell you instantly whether it was a liberal or evangelical church.
Are there hymnbooks in racks on the back of the pews? If there are, it's a liberal church. Conservatives got rid of that stuff long ago, because they know we don't sing real well with our chins on our chests, and we spend too much time leafing through the hymn book. Better to project it up on a screen so that we can lift our chins and sing. It's true almost one hundred percent of the time. The notion that conservatives are Luddites is nonsense.
I pointed out twenty or thirty years ago that if you looked in conservative Christian magazines and liberal Christian magazines, there was a huge difference in the amount of technology being advertised for sale. In the conservative Christian magazines, all kinds of software and technology are being advertised. Software to do budgets, for example. In places like Christian Century, there was none. I always thought that was a little ironic.
Second, why has American evangelicalism grown so much in recent decades, while churches in Europe are largely empty? Will American evangelicalism eventually go the way of Europe?
People want to talk about the low levels of religion in Europe, but it was always thus. There were almost no rural churches in the 14th and 15th centuries, at a time when almost everybody was rural. So the question is: How could they have gone to church? The answer is: They didn't. And they faced lazy state churches the whole time.
The clergy in Germany have a labor contract that says that if fewer than five people show up, they don't have to hold services. If I were a preacher in Germany, and I got a check even if I didn't hold church, I'd hold such terrible sermons that no one would come. It's a very effective incentive system for having the church close.
Europeans have always marveled at how religious Americans are, but the reason Americans are so religious is because, in an unregulated situation, all kinds of different churches and denominations will appear, with each one appealing for support. The marketplace will shake these out, so that you will slowly evolve a bunch of pretty effective organizations. The net effect of their efforts will be a relatively high level of public religiousness. Most people will get found and get recruited.
So, no, American religion is not on its way out. It's as strong as ever. Maybe stronger.
Rodney Stark lives and writes in New Mexico, and serves as co-director for the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
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.