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Religion Library: Protestantism

Modern Age

Written by: Ted Vial

As the 20th century proceeded, many conservative Christians rejected the increasing isolationism of some fundamentalist approaches and felt they could welcome scientific advances and engage contemporary culture while simultaneously advocating historic Christian belief and doctrine. World War II, the public evangelistic campaigns of Billy Graham, the development of specifically conservative but not fundamentalist organizations, and the rise of key conservative journals all contributed to a new wave of evangelicalism that largely abandoned the narrower and more confrontational ethos of fundamentalism while retaining the same basic theological core. By the mid-20th century and the end of World War II, these evangelicals began to emerge as conservative Christians who accommodated science, entered into politics, worked across denominational lines, and influenced culture. More than 30,000,000 Protestant Christians today identify as Evangelicals. They exist within a wide variety of mainline Protestant denominations and as non-denominational churches.

The mainline Protestant churches in America are experiencing both membership loss and new areas of growth. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the largest North American Presbyterian denomination, began losing members in 1966, and has lost at least 1 percent of its membership every year since then. In 2005 it lost over 2 percent, the largest drop since 1975, leaving it with 2,313,662 members. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America dropped from 5.2 million members in 1990 to 4.8 million in 2005. At the same time, denominations that had earlier experienced schism have experienced ecumenical cooperation and sometimes merger. They are finding renewal in areas of social justice, sexual equality, and political activism.

The "emerging church," a late 20th-century movement, has roots in both mainline and evangelical circles. While the movement is not well defined, it tends to refer to churches begun by young pastors in urban settings; these churches may be fairly traditional in terms of theology, but progressive in style of ministry and on social issues. Emerging churches are comfortable experimenting with a wide variety of Christian traditions and practices, and attempt to engage the larger context of progressive Christianity with creative reform, reconstructing the faith in ways that they hope will appeal to changing expectations of the 21st century. Many emerging churches may reside within a denomination, but freely work with other denominations.

This ecumenical attitude stems from a post-World War II willingness to cooperate in common endeavors. In 1950 the National Council of Churches was founded. Made up of thirty-five Christian denominations, they sponsored the revised the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. They also provide money for development and disaster relief around the world. A similar organization, the World Council of Churches, operates on the international level. Also founded in the wake of World War II in Amsterdam, it is now headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.




Study Questions:
1.     Have Protestant churches experienced growth or decline in contemporary society? Explain.
2.     What American movements resisted the rise of liberal theology?
3.     What is the emerging church and how is it revitalizing mainline Protestantism?


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