Reform or perish. Cultural and ideological liberals have given such advice to conservative churches for years. Sometimes that advice comes from within, sometimes from outside of those communions.
For example, Jonathan Rauch warns conservative Christians that “the First Church of Discrimination will find few adherents in 21st-century America. Polls find that, year by year, Americans are growing more secular. The trend is particularly pronounced among the young, many of whom have come to equate religion with intolerance.” Rauch, who describes himself as a “homosexual atheists,” argues that American society as a whole will suffer should religious conservatives retreat into isolation in the face of accusations of bigotry for their opposition to same-sex marriage and related issues.
Similarly, but from the inside, Cadence Woodland laments what she sees as the true end of the “Mormon moment,” marked by her church’s decision to excommunicate Kate Kelly, the founder of Ordain Women. Woodland identifies herself as a “lifelong Mormon” who stopped attending church seven months ago. Woodland argues that the publicity surrounding the church over the past decade afforded it “the chance that many religious institutions desperately need to stay relevant in the 21st century: the opportunity to open itself to criticism and inquiry. The church has chosen not to.”
At the same time, conservatives frequently point to the now decades-long travail of “mainline” Protestant churches who have opened themselves to criticism, inquiry, and greater cultural liberalism and have hemorrhaged members in the process. One could hardly argue that Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (my denomination) has become more “relevant” in the process.
I once attended North Point Community Church in the Atlanta area and heard its senior pastor, Andy Stanley, announce that North Point – in contrast with most churches – was “relevant.” I found the claim rather hubristic, though I have no doubt that North Point is “relevant” in terms of being very important to its members and within its community.
It’s easy to criticize concerns about relevance from either a conservative or a liberal standpoint. All Christians would agree that the church needs, above all, to be faithful to the good news of Jesus Christ. Of course, Christians bitterly disagree about what that means. None, however, want the church to wither away to an irrelevant rump, failing in its mission to introduce individuals and families and communities to that gospel.
One senses a heightened tension and anxiety within evangelical America today (far more than among most Latter-day Saints, I think). Ten years ago, secularists such as Kevin Phillips were taken seriously when they argued that the Republican Party was a vehicle for evangelical theocrats to orchestrate a “Taliban-like” reversal of women’s rights. [See Alan Brinkley’s review of the book here, which inexplicably takes this argument seriously]. Given the recent reaction to the Hobby Lobby case, I imagine many commentators would still take this argument seriously. It seems indisputable, however, that religious conservatives are far less of a force within the Republican Party than was the case a decade ago. Instead, writers such as Alan Noble ask, “is evangelical morality still acceptable in America?” As Christian Smith explained quite a few years ago, evangelicals have long considered themselves an “embattled minority.” Indeed, they have thrived as an embattled minority, generating a healthy sense of tension with their surrounding culture. The question is whether or not that tension has become far greater than optimal, especially as far as younger Americans are concerned.
This evangelical anxiety is nothing new, and therefore evangelicals should not panic, certainly not about whether their churches will be relevant in ten or twenty or fifty years. Our problems are relatively minor, not existential, as facing many Christian communities around the world today. There is no war on women, and there is no war on Christianity or religion. At least not in the United States.