How Churches Break: A Response to Rodney Stark
By Greg Garrett
History matters. It tells us how we got to where we are, and it can predict what will happen if things continue unchanged. But it doesn't necessarily tell us what will happen if the equation is altered, if radical systemic change takes place. In the recent interview with my Baylor University colleague Rodney Stark ("Are Evangelicals the New Mainline?"), Rodney has summarized with his customary verve and intelligence why mainline Protestant denominations in America have gone into decline, and spoken with passion about what is going well within evangelical churches.
I live in both these worlds. I was raised Southern Baptist, I also attended evangelical Methodist and charismatic Assembly of God Churches in my childhood, and I have taught for over twenty years at historically-Baptist Baylor; on the other hand, I am a seminary-trained Episcopal lay preacher in my current life after many years outside Christianity, and I often speak, teach, and preach in Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational settings. When reading Rodney's interview, for the most part, I can only nod, say he's right, and look forward. If we accept as a given the formulation that bigger is better (that is, larger or growing churches and denominations are more successful and presumably more faithful than smaller or declining ones) then the numbers and the history certainly bear him out: Evangelicals, 1. Mainline Protestants, 0.
Evangelicals now hold the same sort of cultural and political power mainline Protestantism once monopolized. When people identify themselves as church-goers, they are much more likely to be evangelical, most of the nation's largest churches are evangelical, and when people today think of Christians, most do not think of the Frozen Chosen in the Presbyterian Church on the corner, but of the active and vocal evangelical Christians demanding their say in the public square. However, there are cracks in this façade, and although I do not wish it, history, as Rodney has presented it, may also predict the decline of evangelical Christianity in America as well unless some things change.
It may, in fact, already be happening. Several studies have shown that Americans aged 18-49 are disconnected from Christianity in ways earlier generations have not been, and that they are largely turned off by their perceptions of the legalistic and political dimensions of conservative Christianity. Evangelical Christianity will not appeal to these unless one or the other changes. Lifeway, the publishing organ of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, released a study in April of this year that found that the denomination had lost tens of thousands of members over the last few years. And some surveys suggest that membership figures in evangelical churches are wildly inflated to begin with (they certainly were in my youth), so we may not know how many people we're talking about in the first place.
Some of these are simply methodological questions. This much is true: evangelicals are the American mainstream these days, but I fear that evangelicals may join Catholics and mainline Protestants in decline unless they pay attention to the points that Rodney makes about the history of the mainline.
Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.