The Spiritual Landscape
What Do Evangelicals Have That We Don't?
Evangelicals own that connection and insist on it. As a result, they tend to give more per capita and they tend to spend more time engaged in one-on-one projects designed to help others. John Stott was a pastor, evangelist, and theologian, but his obituary focused, as much as anywhere, on the way in which his faith shaped his lifestyle.
Evangelicals also think that thinking about what they believe is important. Stott and, before him, C.S. Lewis, gave their lives to the effort to be clear about what they believed and they engaged others in the effort. Being clear opened both of them to criticisms, of course, but nearly fifty years after his death Lewis is still widely read and continues to engage his readers in that conversation.
It is fashionable to argue that spiritual notions are best left cloudy and indeterminate. "Vague is good," some argue. But is it? In the absence of precision, we either live in agnosticism, or we become vulnerable to unnamed convictions about God and life. Those convictions are no less influential because we refuse to name them. Nor does taking refuge in vagueness mean that we don't have convictions. Often, it simply means that we don't want to make a choice—or that we don't want to own our convictions publicly.
These three things alone make a powerful and attractive package. But they are not unique to Evangelicalism. One could argue that they are as old Christianity itself—and present when and where it thrives. That's worth contemplating given the Barna Group's recent report whose findings suggest that the church's influence is trending downward in the United States:
- Bible reading undertaken during the course of a typical week, other than passages read while attending church events, has declined by five percentage points. Currently an estimated 40% of adults read the Bible during a typical week.
- Church volunteerism has dropped by eight percentage points since 1991. Presently, slightly less than one out of every five adults (19%) donates some of their time in a typical week to serving at a church.
- Adult Sunday school attendance has also diminished by eight percentage points over the past two decades. On any given Sunday, about 15% of adults can be expected to show up in a Sunday school class.
- The most carefully watched church-related statistic is adult attendance. Since 1991, attendance has receded by nine percentage points, dropping from 49% in 1991 to 40% in 2011.
- The most prolific change in religious behavior among those measured has been the increase in the percentage of adults categorized as unchurched. The Barna Group definition includes all adults who have not attended any religious events at a church, other than special ceremonies such as a wedding or funeral, during the prior six-month period. In 1991, just one-quarter of adults (24%) were unchurched. That figure has ballooned by more than 50%, to 37% today.
With trends of that kind, perhaps it isn't relevance and up-dating that Christianity needs as much as evangelical clarity, passion, and conviction.
Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: http://frederickwschmidt.com/