This is yet another article claiming that we stand at a unique crossroads, and now face choices unlike those in the recent past. Here are my six predictions for evangelicalism in America in the next five years:
1. Evangelicals will lose little ground as a percentage of the American population.
Proclamations of significant evangelical decline often seize on headlines (“Christians Decline Sharply,” Pew, May 12) that don’t distinguish between evangelicals and other kinds of Christians. The significant declines are among mainline and progressive Catholic congregations. Others extrapolate major trends from individual bits of data, such as surveys of young evangelicals, that may not mean much. I predict only a very small decline in the next five years – probably too little to matter, almost certainly too little to matter much. Over a longer period of time, I anticipate the growing category of “Nones” will be a fruitful mission field for evangelicals, not in the next five years but probably in the following five.
2. Evangelicals will hold steady on core beliefs, but will often sound like we aren’t.
As the dominant culture demands more and more sternly that we sacrifice our core beliefs upon pain of becoming pariahs, anxiety about evangelical identity and anxiety about reaching out to our neighbors are already in conflict. Evangelicals do not want to abandon what we know to be true, but we also do not want to accept a cultural isolation that would leave us without opportunities to demonstrate God’s love for a lost world. I’m not concerned evangelicals will move away from our core beliefs; too many key leaders – and not just the usual doctrine police – have made it clear they won’t bend. Also, outsiders tend to forget that American evangelical leaders are very deeply connected with our brothers and sisters in the Global South, who urge us to faithfulness.
At the same time, we will often sound like we’re moving away from our beliefs. Unfortunately, most of our neighbors don’t understand our worldview enough to understand that our struggle not to be put in a position of enmity toward our neighbors isn’t a shift in our core commitments. And of course there are a lot of people who have a vested interest in portraying any conciliatory rhetoric from evangelical leaders as a sign of their capitulation. Expect a lot of trumped-up claims about evangelicals abandoning their beliefs that don’t pan out.
3. Evangelical cultural influence will decline in the short term as we are persecuted and excluded.
We are being stripped of our religious freedom, and will also be subject to formal and informal exclusion from positions of cultural influence. This is the result of a process over a century in the making, and partly our fault. Evangelicals have acquiesced, for a long time, in the rise of a secularizing ideology that says economic activity has little to do with moral or religious commitments. Hence our neighbors are quite genuinely baffled when we refuse to subsidize abortion and bake cakes for gay “weddings.” I expect this period of persecution to begin passing away when the cruelty and injustice of the present direction becomes palpable; I trust our neighbors will come to their senses. But there will be dark and terrible times before we come out the other end of this tunnel.
Evangelicals are activist and highly adaptive. Persecution and exclusion will be met – are already being met – with large-scale responses. One is a new Religious Right that seeks to mobilize evangelicals for political activism in defense of religious freedom. The other is a so-called Benedict Option movement that renounces our responsibilities in the larger culture. Both these movements will decline as rapidly as they are now rising, and will have disappeared from the evangelical world within the next five years. Too many evangelical leaders understand why the original Religious Right was always doomed to fail and thus will not support the new one. And the leaders of the Benedict Option movement are so vague and incoherent that no one knows what the Benedict Option is, other than a generalized contempt for anything that smells like “cultural influence.” As a result, anything and everything can now be described as part of the Benedict Option – the sure sign of an ephemeral fad.
5. Evangelicals will cultivate local, holistic responses to economic and sexual destruction.
Young evangelicals are demanding, and getting, a commitment from their leaders to reconnect the church to public justice for the poor and the oppressed. As American culture embraces narcissistic and irresponsible ways of life, poverty and exploitation will only grow. Where the impersonal, one-size-fits-all approaches of big government and libertarian individualism have both failed to serve those in need, local churches are building holistic and contextualized solutions to poverty and sexual exploitation. Unlike the Benedict Option, these efforts are not undertaken as a rejection of the church having responsibilities in the dominant culture, but precisely as a service to the flourishing of our communities. We will see a lot more of this in the next five years; ministry to the poor, in particular, is a field where revolutionary new approaches are percolating not far below the surface.
6. Evangelicals will embrace a “hopeful realism” about America, and end up in a position of strength.
Instead of the inadequate approaches whose weaknesses I have outlined, I expect evangelicals to embrace a “hopeful realism” (the phrase is Tom Nelson’s). We will roll up our sleeves and get to work accomplishing cultural tasks that prove our value to American culture. “We must earn the right to be heard” is a phrase I’m hearing more and more often.
We will do a better job of highlighting the role our faith has played in so many business successes, and build new companies that create jobs. (Entrepreneurship being one activity you don’t need elite permission to engage in.) The Christian underground in Hollywood will continue to make progress learning how to make movies and shows that achieve mainstream success. Above all, we will bring flourishing to the poor and exploited.
These activities will “earn the right to be heard.” But we will have no illusions, as we did in 1980, that the right to be heard within the culture involves the right to dictate to it. That, combined with what I trust will be a general awakening among non-Christians to the cruelty of the persecution that is now beginning, will position us to once again participate in American culture and reenter positions of influence.
In short, I predict a dark five years followed by a new dawn.