Douthat, Bass and Christianity’s Culture Wars

Douthat, Bass and Christianity’s Culture Wars August 1, 2012

Ross Douthat, whose book Bad Religion I posted about on this blog, has been given some serious pushback by Diana Butler Bass, whose book Christianity after Religion I may well blog about too. (Here’s a recent post by Douthat linking to the others.) Two claims: Douthat thinks mainline Christianity’s demise is due to its lack of moorings in historic Christian orthodox faith, while Bass is making the counterintuitive claim that mainline liberalism’s theology may be the seedbed for a renewal of Christianity in America.

Put in terms of accommodation, Douthat’s argument is that mainline Christianity has accommodated itself too much to culture, to progressive politics, to the trends of society and so has lots its footings. Bass is arguing that by accommodating itself to the culture, politics and society mainline Christianity might find a new way into a renewal. Douthat says Bass is over-reaching and thinks her hope is unlikely to find its realization.

The numbers tell the story of rapid and frightening decline among mainline denominations; the numbers tell of strength or at least of a sustainable future for the more conservative denominations (like the Southern Baptists) and the numbers are probably even stronger for the non-denominational evangelical.

Yet, there’s a problem at work here that belies simplistic theorizing. I doubt that one can wash away departure from the orthodox faith among mainliners and say it has nothing to do with the decline. At some point many have asked, “If that’s what these leaders believe, what’s the point?” But scholars know this is not the whole story. Some have pointed directly at birth rate among mainliners (amazingly low) compared with more conservatives (much higher), and said if you let these numbers stand for 2-3 generations you will see reversals, and that’s what happened: the conservatives have overtaken the mainliners. Yet, I suspect even this isn’t enough, so I’d like to propose for your consideration another factor to consider:

Both mainliners and conservatives have accommodated themselves to the culture. This isn’t an either/or.

Mainliners have accommodated themselves to the elite, sophisticated, and more upper class society.

Evangelicalism, or the conservative churches, have accommodated themselves to the populist culture.

There are more numbers for the latter than the former. Hence, one element of the demographic changes is “target audience” for accommodation strategies.

I have some ideas, but I’d like to know (1) if you think this thesis can be sustained and (2) what are indications of accommodation to elitist culture among mainliners and to populist culture among evangelicals?

To be sure, this isn’t absolute: there are number of intellectual evangelicals (Mark Noll, for example) and there are a number of more populist appealing mainliners (come to think of it, I can’t think of anyone really doing that, but I’m sure they are there; Marc Borg would not fit this rubric for me).

And, to complicate this picture, many evangelicals today who are more the intellectual types are shifting theologically away from the populist appeal to a more robust theology, and I see two groupings: one group, whom I like to call moderates, find their theology more in folks like Tom Wright, while the intellectual conservatives find their theology in TGC etc. Don’t kid yourself, we are witnessing in these trends — accommodation to populist culture, rejection of populist evangelicalism and moving toward folks like Wright and Piper — the crack up of the evangelical coalition. Billy Graham kept the more populist side happy while John Stott appealed to the intellectual side, but those folks are not the leaders of evangelicalism anymore.

A word now in defense of Diana Butler Bass’ rather large claim that perhaps among these mainliners — Christianity without religion — one will find renewal of the American church. I’m not alone in arguing this, but many think Protestant liberalism won over American culture as a whole, so that its values became so embedded in culture that one can no longer distinguish culture and mainline church culture. This may well lead to the demise of the mainline church because when one goes to church one gets more of what culture already offers. I’m inclined to think this thesis is stable. If this is so, Diana’s thesis/hope that among the mainliners today we are finding a “renewal” of the church may well be right: perhaps what we see now in mainline folks like Diana and her sketch is where American culture and American mainline church will be in two or three decades.

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  • phil_style

    The notion that “accommodation” to culture is more marked among mainline churches seems contrary to me anecdotal observations. It seems to me to be the evangelical church that has, on the whole, embraced many features of consumerism, pop culture and “technology” while the mainlines have generally kept their liturgical services, traditional community projects and historical spatial orientations (i.e. city center/ urban churches).

    It is, perhaps, the accommodation by evangelicals that has fueled their growth, especially among the non-denominational. Just look at movements like the “hill-song” phenomena in Australia for the past 10-15 years, fueled, undoubtedly by their embrace of high-production value pop-music marketing. If that’s not a reflection of pop culture leading the practicalities of the church meeting then I do not what is.

  • Isn’t there an important distinction here between theological accommodation and stylistic accommodation? I agree with Phil Style that in many ways evangelicals have accommodated more obviously than mainliners, but much (though by no means all) of that accommodation has been presentational and stylistic. Mainliners have retained the outward form of the old, while embracing the intellectual and spiritual heart of the new; evangelicals have often reinvented the outward form completely, while trying (not always successfully!) to retain the intellectual and spiritual heart of traditional Protestantism.

  • phil_style

    @Andrew, I think the way you put it is more succinct than mine.

    I also happen to be of the opinion that the “medium” is, in many ways, the message. Style BECOMES substance, over time.

    So, the stylistic embrace of popular culture by the Evangelical church cannot fail to also result in further theological (spirit and heart) changes. I think this kind of change is more “corrosive” (sorry for the employment of such a negative term) because it is generally inadvertent.

  • scotmcknight

    Andrew, if you were right there would never have been the rise of The Gospel Coalition or the turn toward the more ancient in Webber and the many who have turned toward Catholicism and Orthodoxy. I doubt the “faith” of many evangelicals today is comprehensible to classic orthodoxy or to Reformation orthodoxy, nor is their faith one that resonates with evangelicals. There’s more here than form and substance.

  • RJS

    Andrew (#2),

    I am not sure the trend is the same in the UK as in the US, but one aspect I have seen in some streams of evangelicalism is a willingness to downplay doctrine and depth for the sake of numbers, sticking to a simple salvation message accompanied by advice for 21st century life. This isn’t just presentation and style.

    In populist evangelicalism the OT is stories of heroes to inspire. For example, the fear that the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego helps us conquer is the fear of marital and financial stress. (One point in a sermon I heard last Sunday). We are not biblical, we defend the bible as a point of distinction, but we don’t actually know it, read it, and our pastors and leaders take great care not to get too deep.

    Accommodation in populist evangelicalism is an accommodation to radical individualism, and an accommodation that makes every aspect of the gospel story about personal happiness. We have what Christian Smith called Moral Therapeutic Deism, not limited to youth, but invading the entire structure of the church.

    A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
    God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
    The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
    God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
    Good people go to heaven when they die.

    This stream of the church is growing as it wanders away from the gospel. Frankly, I think the path is only slightly better than the path taken by the mainline churches. It doesn’t deny God, but makes sure that God is safely confined.

  • RJS

    I can refine what I am trying to say in my last comment by looking at one of the points: “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” This, I think, is really the key. Every sermon, every piece of scripture, is turned toward this goal. Jesus died to save us from our sins so we can feel good about ourselves and go to heaven when we die. The Bible is a guide book with a primary application to how to be happy and feel good about ourselves. This includes things like financial responsibility, marital fidelity, sexual self-control, sobriety … it isn’t bad stuff, but it also isn’t the meat of the Gospel message.

    There is no “mission of God”, no whole sweep of scripture, no call for radical sacrifice and commitment, no reason to stand up in the face of persecution and insults. No reason for people without “problems” to come to the church. Yes we all have problems, but as a commenter on another post noted, one reason he left the faith was a realization that people love, laugh, and live meaningful lives outside the faith as well as within the faith.

    There is more to our faith – a faith that calls us to take up our cross and follow.

  • phil_style

    WARNING: Unfortunately my experiences have resulted in me taking a somewhat cynical stance in this regard, perhaps one which is unfair.

    In my experience (limited to a couple of churches), the evangelical embrace of pop culture came with it the financial burden of technology, staff and material assets (particularly new church buildings) which the mainline churches had largely overcome historically (by sometimes dubious methods).

    This need to feed the evangelical establishment with finances results also, in the need to ensure that the tithe paying population of the church continues to pursue their own individual financial stability and success. The resulting pulpit-theology is one that has to juggle the fine line between encouraging and motivating the accumulation of personal wealth, whilst at the same time encouraging a faith that abandons all for the “kingdom” (aka the growth of the local church). Usually this approach resulted in the following:
    1. Directing the radical selfless message of Jesus towards youth, in order to inspire them to devote time tot he church
    2. Directing a “stewardship” and “pursuit of happiness” type message at the older, wage earning portion of the church, in order to ensure they maintain their productive economic capacity which can be directed into the church via tithe and offering.

    This is often where I think the stylistic changes associated with the evangelical movement have resulting in subtle shifts in theology, or at least preaching.

    My other observation is that geography has influenced the mainline/ evangelical growth divergence. This is linked to the above, and is more to do with the sub-urbanisation of the population which has taken it away from the historical locations of church mainline buildings – which are generally located in city centers.

  • scotmcknight

    Here’s an interesting one: a pastor called me the other day, we got into a conversation about “gospel” and what churches are preaching, discipleship came up, and he said, “Who preaches the cost of discipleship anymore? I talk to pastors constantly and not one of them can preach that message without getting in trouble.”

    What evangelicalism mostly preaches is the soterian gospel. Some repackage into a robust theology but most don’t.

  • Gary Lyn

    One of the things I like about your posts is that you seem to be identifying some broad, overarching world-views (and subsequent ways of being in the world based on those views) that impact faith regardless of where you are on any theological spectrum. Your example of Moral Therapeutic Deism–I think that is a world-view that both mainline and evangelicals are embracing. One’s place on the theological spectrum–all it does is influence what that embracing looks like.

  • RJS

    Scot (#8),

    There is a substantial “cost of discipleship” in my field, world, life as a professor in a secular University. I’ve just finished “God is Red” describing the persecution of Christians in China and my life is a piece of cake compared to this. Nonetheless there is a real cost. Populist evangelicalism provides no real reason to bear that cost – except fire insurance. (And I can have “fire insurance” without really taking a stand.)

  • Brian

    I think it should be noted in that when “historic Christian orthodox faith” is noted in this context, applied to or not applied to either side in this argument, what is really meant is “historic Protestantism”. Neither the progressive mainliner nor the conservative evangelical is “historic Christian orthodox faith”.

  • Rick

    Brian #11-

    How do you define “historic Christian orthodox faith”?

  • Scot McKnight

    Brian, in general I agree; but there is a clear trend to embrace Nicea/Chalcedon as well as the Reformation.

  • T


    I think your observation that conservative churches have accomodated to populist culture is right on. One place I see it is politics. Views on immigration aren’t set by thoughtful consideration of biblical ideas, but by populist political media. Same with health care, etc. Even patriotism and American exceptionalism are perfect examples. Another example: I have young kids, so I interact with other parents of young kids. Several Christian parents I know from conservative Christian churches teach their boys that if you have to pop a bully in the mouth to stand up for yourself, then that’s what you have to do. Now, I honestly have a hard time seeing how this squares with following Christ’s example and teaching, but it’s common, and I know several conservative pastors who don’t teach this from the pulpit, but still teach and/or support it. In general, our view of individual and corporate violence is more populist American than Christian: “Pray for *our* troops.” Is praying for one’s enemies no longer Jesus’ teaching?

  • Jason Lee

    Fascinating post Scot.

    A few scattered thoughts:

    The Piper/Wright group comparison makes a lot of sense in my experience, although I’d modify it a bit with regard to intellectual composition. The TGC/Piper et al. followers seem to me to be more populist than the moderate NTWright followers. I see quite a few pretty low-brow evangelicals talking about Piper/TGC. The moderate NTWright-followers seem more consistently higher brow. I’ve never met anyone who’s non-intellectual in orientation talking about or reading NTWright. Met plenty of Piper devotees that fit that bill.

    MD Lindsay in “Faith in the Halls of Power” talks about populist evangelicals and cosmopolitan evangelicals, but focuses more on occupation, political orientation, and cultural tastes. He finds that some cosmpolitan evangelicals don’t like to go to church frequently b/c they find what their pastors say to be kind of stupid.

  • CGC

    Excellent points . . . whatever happened to the cruciform church?

    Scot, your observations of moderates with Wright and conservatives with TGC may be more correct from how Evangelicals looking within might see it. But when you talk to mainliners, many of them will say that Wright is conservative and the TGC are fundamentalists. Robin Meyers (a self-described liberal mainliner for example) looks up to people like Borg, Crossan, Philip Gully, and Bishop Spong as representatives for renwal. Meyers is doing some incredible inner city mission work but I for one am amazed sometimes who people are looking up to intellectually to supposedly lead the church today towards renewal. And doesn’t some of the people we look up to intellectually have more to do with who our seminaries revered than anything else? And some of this begs the question that if the academy is going to set the pace for what happens in churches, what will that look like in the end?

  • Jason Lee

    I don’t find anything that Douthat has written on this subject to be the slightest bit original. Stark and many others have been writing about and analyzing the strength of strict churches for decades. There’s a huge research literature on this. There is evidence for theological strictness, behavioral/moral strictness, and fertility … in terms of denominational and/or individual congregational growth.

  • Chuck

    There are always exceptions but the thesis seems to be generally true. In my part of south Texas the mainline churches are definitely concentrated in the parts of town characterized by the higher income, politically powerful folks. The evangelical churches seem to be falling all over themselves still trying to appeal to the pop culture with their music, dress, manner, style, etc. Just my observation in this part of the world.

  • Rick

    Jason Lee #15-

    Could it possibly be that there are more in the Piper/TGC camp, than in the NT Wright camp (at least in the US)? I think there are plenty of “high-brows” in the Piper/TGC camp, they just have a certain theological perspective.

  • Phil Miller

    I think all churches accommodate culture to one degree or another. It’s just a matter of what culture the membership is part of to a large degree. It’s a bit stereotypical, but in my experience, churches that would be identified as Evangelical tend to be more “blue collar” (the term populist is so loaded, I’m not even sure I know what it means anymore) than mainline congregations. This even tends to be more extreme when you look at Charismatic and Pentecostal churches. It’s an odd thing, really. The churches who claim to care the most about the plight of the poor and downcast seem to have trouble speaking the language of the people they claim to care about.

    My wife and I visited one of the larger Episcopalian churches in our area last week, and the congregation seemed to be made up of mostly well-to-do White suburbanites. When we visit Evangelical congregations, there seems to be diversity (although, to honest, those congregations are still mostly White). I think what I appreciate about Mainline congregations is that they tend to place an emphasis on what I’d call Enlightenment values – a focus on education, separation of church and state, equality, etc. But, on the other hand, it seems they can have trouble relating these values to everyone. What I appreciate about my Pentecostal tradition is that we seem to take seriously the idea that God can and will speak and work through anyone, regardless of how many letters they have behinds their name.

  • Jason Lee


    For sure, “there are plenty of “high-brows” in the Piper/TGC camp, they just have a certain theological perspective.” I’m not disputing that at all. I’m just saying there are also lots of populist folk that are Piper-followers. Hardly any populist Wright-followers. And yes, the number of Piper-evangelicals far exceeds Wright-evangelicals in the US. Not sure why. It may be that Piper’s message hooks into populist US culture more (eg, notions of tough masculinity, gender hierarchicalism, etc…).

  • RJS

    Rick (#19)

    Interesting comment – if I am just going to sit in a church as a regular I would rather sit in a Piper/TGC church than in the other kind, and I would willingly sit in one following Keller/TGC. I’d much rather sit in most Southern Baptist churches than in the populist churches (a few of which are loosely SBC I admit). This despite my deep difference with these groups – at least there is meat not a steady diet of pablum.

    But I don’t think many of these churches are more intellectual though, and many are anti-intellectual. If one takes a narrow boundary defined view of truth the default result is anti-intellectualism.

  • Phil Miller

    I think a big reason why Piper is more popular in the US than Wright is simply because, well, he’s easier to read. Even Wright’s non-academic books are written at a higher level than Piper’s books. Wright lays out his arguments in a way that require you to stick with him for a while before he comes to his conclusion. Piper tend to approach theology in a way that lends itself to soundbytes and easily consumed chunks. That’s my experience, anyway. I think if you gave the average churchgoer a copy of Wright’s Justification, it would be too much for them to get through.

  • I’m not so sure it holds. First, leaving out the Roman Catholics seems like a big hole. Second, what is meant by accommodating to elite society? As our President pithily put it, is populist society summed up as: “God, guns and gays (con)”? The flip of that being elite society: Monkeys, mammon and men?

    It seems as if you are trying to pin mainline decline on something not theological. The reason behind that being what? Or to pull the same old equivocation argument – “see we/they are just as bad”. Are the mainline and evangelical accommodations theologically equivalent?

  • Norman

    RJS #5 & 6,

    Very nice analysis: this leaves us with the 64 dollar question that both you and Scot raise concerning his quote of a recent pastor conversation.

    “Who preaches the cost of discipleship anymore? I talk to pastors constantly and not one of them can preach that message without getting in trouble.”

    My question is what would it take to change this present self-satisfaction among believers? Is it even an addressable issue for the church culture at large or is it going to end up always being a minority segment that will heed this call of discipleship. I don’t have an answer nor do I suspect any of us from a comprehensive challenge have it figured out either.

  • Scot,

    I think your observations are basically correct. As a mainline Methodist pastor who was raised in evangelicalism, the accommodation in reference to both are clear. Your last comment about mainline Protestantism becoming so embedded with the culture that people stopped going to church because all it offered was more of the culture, struck a cord with me. I remember reading an article about 25 years ago by a writer (whose name I no longer remember) basically arguing the same thing. In essence he said that the decline of the mainline church was not a sign of their failure, but of their success– that the mainline church had basically convinced the culture at large that their accommodated version of Christianity was true, so there was no longer a need for those so convinced to be regular worshipers.

    I also think the kind of tit-for-tat debate that we get into over arguing whether mainliners or evangelicals are more culturally accommodated is not helpful. We all have our accommodation problems and the back and forth over who is more “compromised” does not move the discussion forward. I think it would be better to have a discussion on where we are accommodated in ways that undermine the truth of the gospel, after all, not all accommodation is a bad thing.

  • Rick

    RJS #23-

    I don’t disagree, but part of my point is that there is diversity in the TGC, especially within those who lean to the Keller/TGC side of things. They seem to hold to certain positions, but also have a healthy dose of essential/non-essential categories. But again, as you point out, some church are more “strict” than others, which can lead to some theological limitations.

  • Tony Springer

    Great post and discussion.
    I think that the thesis is generally correct. I think that it may look more like a Venn diagram where both are accomodating to some of the same thing in American culture (consumerism) as well as some things in conservative/liberal spheres. Also, we still have some regional and ethnic differences that may skew the thesis.

  • T

    Also, to clarify my comment at #14, I agree with the thesis as it applies to both mainline and more conservative churches. I often hear only about mainline/liberal churches accomodating to culture, but I think Scot’s thesis is much more accurate. The evangelical church has its own accomodation problems, but with a different subset of American culture.

  • Robert

    I think you have to accommodate yourself to culture, or you won’t be able to communicate. It’s a question of how far you go. Obviously you can’t proclaim racial segregation as God’s will, or proclaim a Hitler as a national saviour – and both have, of course, happened – but if we react over the wrong issues we’ll find ourselves in a cul-de-sac. Personally I believe in a robust liberalism, which isn’t afraid to tackle political issues, but I might, of course, be wrong. Time will tell.

  • Brian

    Rick (12) and Scot (13) … I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that Evangelical appeals to Nicea, for instance, are understood as evangelical interpretations of one part of the council, namely the resulting creed. In other words, “we accept X number of ecumenical councils” really means “we accept the creed/confession that came from the council, interpreted via evangelicalism, but not the entire council pronouncements and canons”.

    I’m Orthodox, by the way, and I don’t intend these comments to be read in what is all-too-often a polemical manner (unfortunately said sometimes by Orthodox [or Catholic] with a tone of triumphalism) but it seems the state of Protestatism, evangelical or progressive, can’t fit the mark of “historic Christian orthodox faith”. Both sola-scriptura biblicism from conservatives and a more friendly appropriation of modern culture from progressive evangelicalism have left them both with a sort of “make it up as we go along” Christianity without roots.

    These, of course, are just my two cents and I’m not saying it in a nasty tone. Be nice in reply 🙂

  • John

    Seems to me the main issue before us is what counts as “orthodoxy” – at the street level, where people actually live their lives.

    Here is a contrast that helps to highlight the problem – Dr. Francis Collings, Miroslav Volf and Nicholas Wolterstorff, three truly orthodox Christians, are not on the same page as John Piper in many many things.

  • Rick

    John #32-

    Is Piper not “truly orthodox”?

  • John

    Oh yes, my pt here – Collins, Volf and Wolterstorff are not the people that the vast majority of evangelicals turn to in order to define “orthodoxy”.

  • Jason Lee

    Phil #23: Piper makes for breezier reading than Wright. …true that. Wright often makes for tough reading, even in his more popular books. Very true.

  • Rick

    Brian #31-

    I think part of Scot’s point is that many are returning, or encouraging people to return(Webber, Oden, etc…), to those roots.

    In regards to the orthodox question, do you see a difference between the creeds and the canons?

  • Tracy

    Just to mix things up a bit — I’m a mainliner, and find the same complicated picture on the left of the divide as I do on the right. Evangelicals are often desperate to distinguish themselves from fundamentalists, but don’t recognize that the left of the aisle is as diverse as the right. Many of us mainliners are not beholden to Borg or Spong for our theological moorings, but these are the people Douthat thinks speak for us.

  • John

    Tracy, thanks for this comment !!! So very true!! It is a wonder that Douthat has not been called out on that !!

  • Tracy @ #37,

    Thank you! I wish more folks who comment against “liberalism” would recognize this!

  • Culture is not monochorme. There are many elements that blend and make up culture. I think your thesis is correct that Evangelicalism is grounded in a soterian gospel and nearly everything else adaptable. They adapt to popular culture. We Mainliners are wed a justice gospel. Our orientation point is the academy and intellectuals. Whether the elite culture adapted to Mainliners or the other way around (I suspect more the latter) the equivalent for of the soterian fixation for Mainliners is justice advocacy that is grounded in Mid-Twentieth Century Marxian (not Marxist) social theory and liberation theology. Nearly all else is adaptable, with the possible exception of institutional structure … and that is my next point.

    The Evangelical world tends heavily toward congregationalism while Mainliners lean toward the episcopal model (Bishops, hierarchy, stronger sense of connectedness to other congregations, etc.). Mainline churches have become heavily clergified. They are not oriented toward the daily discipleship of parishioners. The ecclessial folks are oriented toward the agendas of the academy and the cultural extensions of the academy. Ministry is less about equipping people for faithful living of their daily lives, pursing love and justice and as they go about the work God gives them, and more about extracting people from the world into programs and initiatives designed by the ecclessial leaders to realize the political aspirations of the ivory-towered academy.

    The answer is not a merger of salvation with justice. These are elemental aspects of doing discipleship. We were baptized to be sent into the world to represent Christ and the Kingdom in our particular contexts. Our discipleship certainly includes evangelism and participating in more communal efforts to address injustices, but both Evangelicals and Mainliners have evolved cultures extract people from mission in the world into pariticpation in their own narrow agendas. My sense is that the communities of faith that crack how to connect daily life with God’s mission in the world are the ones will reshape the coming Christianity.

    As a Mainliner who has just finished eight years of service on the board of the PCUSA Presbyterian Mission Agency that oversees all the denomination’s domestic and international mission, I don’t share Bass’ optimism. I see a denomination abandoning a heritage of being a big-tent community of faith and descending into a clergified narrow sect of Progressive Christians.

  • CGC

    HI Everyone,
    I’ll take Wright over Borg but even Borg makes some telling points at times. The question is can we learn from one another rather than simply landing into certain “camps?” Although I totally agree with Brian’s Orthodox assesements, the EO have their own tribalism and problems as well as we all should be taking Alan’s Bevere’s comments to heart about being self-critical of our own accomodations in unhealty ways rather than simply focusing on somebody else. Maybe judgment should come to the house of God (church) first.

    One forthcoming book I am waiting to read which may shed some light on some of these issues is Ephraim Radner’s “A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church.”

  • Bill McReynolds

    I am surprised, Scot. Nothing about (Neo) Anabaptism as a third way?

  • Sociologists outside the religious realm tend to deliver much better data on what truly is happening within America’s faith community. They don’t have the “economic” bias that comes from making a living as an evangelical or non-evangelical intellectual – and the need to bow to their respective tribes. There is a lot complexity to what is happening across America’s faith communities.

    Take Charles Murray’s recent study, for example, that showed the rise of faith in the upper 20% or 30%. That is based on economics, and his personal opinions, obviously, colored the data. One question, though, that should be asked, “Why does American Christianity seem to thrive in the business class?” (And the answer needs to be something other than, “Because they are stupid business people and easily manipulated by entertaining, simplistic preaching and light worship choruses repeated 20 times!”)

    I like what Diane Butler Bass has written. She is a great thinker, but there is no concrete data to prove her thesis – seedbeds are all under ground and unobservable.

    I’d love to see a large study of growing congregations in America conducted by a dyad – an evangelical and a mainline Protestant researcher. They agree on the research methods prior to the study. They identify 200 thriving congregations. And then let the insights speak for themselves. The study would be one of health, not disease.

  • Dana Ames

    I think your thesis can be sustained, Scot. I see it mirrored in the polarizing of politics in this country, with a “middle” group that is fed up with shenanigans (though more discouraged than the “middle” folks in Protestantism).

    Lots of good, thoughtful comments here. I wouldn’t disagree with anyone. Like Tracy said above about the mainline, the Orthodox do have a spectrum and engage in the “accommodation” discussion too; the spectrum is just much narrower, and the discussion has a bit of a different flavor to it, and there is a very large “middle” who simply want to get on with worship and living a faithful sacramental life – proportionately larger, I would surmise, than what the Catholics have – largely because of the recent influx of non-ethnic/”cradle” folks. I’m sure Brian can add more.

    Personally, I stepped away from Evangelicalism because I needed to ask some pretty deep questions without being shut down and/or handed pat answers, and I wanted to understand how the Christians of the first few centuries interpreted Jesus and scripture. Surprisingly for me, the mainline was a refuge, and I could have stayed there – if it were not for the big differences I found between the Apostolics/Cappadocians and the Reformers/Augustinians.

    We do live in interesting times.


  • AF

    Maybe this distinction is an American culture thing (tendancy towards polarisation)? I don’t know.. not being american, having experience in British evangelicalism (Stott’s church in fact) I don’t think it necessarily splits down the whole Piper vs Wright line (apart from the ‘New perspective’ Wright is a conservative evangelical.. maybe the term is slightly different outside of the US context?) Maybe that’s the established church thing..?
    However, from observing, in London at least, it is the Evangelical Anglican churches which are thriving, and the liberal ones which generally struggle.

    I also wonder if it’s not worth noting the difference between accomodation and contextualisation (something I think the big evangelical London churches do very well).

  • I thought immediately to the wonderful book by Joe Bageant “Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War,” and how it seems like you are on the right track with your thesis. Class often plays a larger role in this country than we give it credit for in helping establish our relationships. Congregations are not immune from its influence.

  • Ben

    As an evangelical who recently migrated to the Episcopal Church, I think Scot’s thesis is sound. You will find in some corners of the mainline church a hesitancy or, in some cases, outright opposition to what many of us consider vital aspects of a distinctively Christian faith (exhibit A: John Shelby Spong). But this neither tells the whole story (there are loads of mainline Christians who are deeply committed to a creedal, orthodox faith), nor can it explain all the decline.

    I do sense that mainline churches have, by and large, accommodated themselves to the elite – which, quite frankly, poses an interesting challenge to our claims of being “inclusive.” We tend to be an insular bunch. We are suspicious (rightly, in my opinion) of what we perceive to be the overly aggressive evangelistic tactics of the evangelical church. But I’m not sure we’ve come up with a good alternative, apart from saying nothing (which isn’t a very good alternative).

  • #47 Ben

    I particularly like your last paragraph (but Scot doesn’t have “like” buttons. 😉 )

  • To All – What would you suggest are 5 major themes or positions such “Liberal” Chrisitans can unite around moving forward that may have strong appeal to the culture at large? What can be announced as, “This is what we are all for! Come join us?”

  • The important thing that Scot is naming here is that the explosively growing segment evangelical church culture isn’t really conservative so much as it is populist. If it were conservative, it would care about church history and nuance and a lot of boring details that busy soccer moms and NASCAR dads don’t have time for. The theology it creates is simple, marketable, and mass-producible. It basically creates the perfect spiritual experience for a frazzled, overextended suburban family. Conservativism in the sense of fidelity to the tougher passages in the Biblical text is not as important as “conservativism” in the sense of using the Bible to affirm middle-class values. If middle-class suburban life ends up looking very different or becomes non-existent in 20 years, then there will be a lot of empty praise stadiums in the suburbs. The megachurch is the triumph of suburbia at its peak.

  • Kristin

    I hate to be critical of other believers, but #50 sums it up nicely about pop-christianity. I’ve always called it “jump on the bandwagon” faith. I’m really bothered by the folks who simply go along with whatever is trendy for christians to do or believe, whether it is holding a particular doctrine, backing a certain political personality, frequenting certain fast food chains, posting viral things on facebook, or whatever. These people also tend to take at face value whatever their preferred celebrity pastor says with little thought into whether it is true and orthodox and are easily offended if you dare to disagree with the popular consensus (sometimes even using the popularity of their beliefs as ‘evidence’ for why they’re right!) . I give them credit for being passionate, but you cannot hold an intellectual conversation with these folks, and if you call them on it they will give you the line about “simple faith like a child.”

    This whole scenario leaves me very frustrated. Is there a way to bring a value of intellectualism to evangelicalism without idolizing it or alienating uneducated people? I understand high order thinking is not for everyone, but why does this have to be so polarizing??

    As for the Piper vs. Wright readability discussion, I have always thought it was Piper who never made sense and Wright was easy to read. Maybe it’s just the way I think. Bonus points to Wright for his “for everyone” series.

  • Phil Miller

    This whole scenario leaves me very frustrated. Is there a way to bring a value of intellectualism to evangelicalism without idolizing it or alienating uneducated people? I understand high order thinking is not for everyone, but why does this have to be so polarizing??

    This is where I think there is great value in narrative theology. It kind of gets back to getting away from a soterian gospel to a more holistic approach. I think if we start presenting Scripture as a story of what God is doing, and not a bunch of propositions that we’re going to endlessly debate, it can get us headed back in the right direction. One thing I appreciated most about attending about being a member of an African American congregation for a little while was that they seemed to have more of an inherent understanding of this. It was very common of them to talk about salvation in terms of a story – their stories interwining with God’s story. This is something that I think can reach people across all education levels.

  • DRT

    Something no one has touched on, I think that the populist culture in the US loves being beat up by the Pastor each week and told how much they are a sinner and how evil and deserving of going to hell they are. The more the pastor whips them the better they feel about themselves because they now feel like they have done something and earned their place.

    The mainline does not beat the people enough.

    (I crashed the site when I posted this..sorry)

  • Frederick Schmidt

    Scott, thanks for this. I became aware of your piece on this through an equally thoughtful post by Tony Jones. Here’s what I said to Tony. I think it’s relevant here as well:

    Tony, thoughtful as always…and the kind of conversation that only Americans can have about the church. The issue here isn’t the survival of progressive or conservative Christianity. The issue is the survival of Protestantism, which — in its American form — has somehow forgotten how much common Christian history contributed to both movements in theology and the possibility of engagement with social issues. Are we really to suppose that evangelicalism is at the vanguard of thoughtful orthodoxy, or liberal protestantism is the architect of the Christian concern for justice? Anybody here remember Augustine or Athanasius — Francis or the Poor Clares? The issue is not will liberal, evangelical, or emerging Christianity survive. The issue is, “Will Protestantism survive” as anything other than as congregational and sectarian projects organized around a handful of affinities. This debate is like an argument over the deck chairs on the Titanic — until someone addresses the problem with the iceberg, it’s immaterial.

  • Joel

    @ phil_style #7

    “1. Directing the radical selfless message of Jesus towards youth, in order to inspire them to devote time tot he church
    2. Directing a “stewardship” and “pursuit of happiness” type message at the older, wage earning portion of the church, in order to ensure they maintain their productive economic capacity which can be directed into the church via tithe and offering. “

    While I’d never thought about that way before, this is a very good point and basically matches my experience growing up in a megachurch. The youth group was taught about how God wants to use our generation to do radical things in our culture and we need to live “extreme for Jesus” (though without much theological depth). Adults, on the other hand, were given endless series of sermons on “how God can fix your problems and make your life better.”

  • Your class-based thesis sounds viable, but I have doubts that you’ll have an easy time convincing people of it.

    For one, I think Americans instinctively avoid class comparisons when they themselves are dragged into it. It’s too uncomfortable to talk about class differences, especially in places (church) where such is not supposed to exist.

    Second, people reach for the simplest explanation, and “simple” is usually that which fits into one’s categories. For conservative Christians, any decline is due to doctrine. Why? Well, of course, there are passages in the Bible which suggest as much but, more importantly, it’s woven into the Protestant narrative. Classical Protestants (of which conservative evangelicals are a part) need a doctrine to defend. The Reformers were Conservatives!

    For progressive Christians, any decline is due to backwards people who refuse to keep with the times. Why? Well, the Bible says so! Just look at all the things Christians left behind as they progressed into the Gentile mission. Yet liberal Christians, too, can claim the Protestant narrative because most liberal Christians (not all) are liberal Protestants, and what was the Reformation but an attempt to progress beyond the off-course teachings of Rome. The Reformers were Progressives!

    What frustrates me is the attempt of so many “experts” to intuit what the future will be (more orthodoxy, or more accommodation) and then attempt to persuade others that their position is correct because “we’re on the right side of history.” And Protestant or not, no American can bear to be on the wrong side of history.

  • Chip

    Scot, I think you’re essentially right. Another factor that I see plays in here is the value and frequency of doubt in the Christian life. The mainline in its approach to theology often enshrines doubt as a good and tells parishioners that what you believe on theological matters isn’t very important in terms of being a faithful Christian because theological beliefs are fallible human attempts to make sense of the divine. (This belief seems to be widespread in the Episcopal Church.) Evangelical churches, meanwhile, mostly affirm it’s okay to have doubts, but also stress that doubts should be replaced by confidence when the Scriptures are clear and/or when essential matters of the faith are under consideration.

    Also for consideration, if a slight detour: About a decade ago, when the Reformed revival (if you will) was still in its early stages, I noted how this was occurring at the same time as many non-Christian coworkers were gaining solace from believing in karma. It struck me then that growing beliefs in Calvinistic predestination and karma pointed to a larger cultural desire to know that everything that happens to a person in life — no matter how bad — has meaning. I’d like to know your thoughts on this, Scot.

  • Scott Gay

    I do like Jeff Cook’s approach and questions.(Definitely reading your book).
    I’m interested in three frontiers that seem universal. (1) The assertion of the dignity and autonomy of free personhood. Ancients could scarcely see any exalted meaning in human freedom, and that philosophical climate encouraged a theology of predestination. But the burden of individual freedom is that it gives nihilism, relativism, and even chaos. “Testimonium Spiritus sancti internum” fulfils the basic requirement of modernity that authority arise out of experience. RJS is correct that the whole message of the cross is that authority in some way stands over and against our experience. Only the paradox of the need for the secular and the religious will suffice in a healthy society. Without one as the conscience of the other, you don’t have community. (2). The awareness of the process and the reality of change. The ancients were aware of this but somehow morphed into believing in the stabilty of an unchanging static model. The “can’t step into the same river twice” analogy is the order of the day.(Leads to a lot of interest about logos and quantum). So the results are you were born to improvise, capitalize, be in the fight battling, having no guarantees of happiness or immunity, cooperate, and create your own life. One must participate in an atmosphere of hope, where the principle of hope is the revolutionary openness to the future to be in community (3). The affirmation of the goodness of life in this world. It was historically an Hebraic insight. Love of neighbor has evolved because concern will not stop with saving of his soul, or feeding his body, but even extends to saving his environment, We cannot love neighbor if we permit his support structure to be harmed. Where this is practiced between people and between people and their ecology is a place of community.

  • So… basically mainliners have worked ourselves right out of a job? Huh. I’ll be thinking about that for a while. Too bad faith is not the same as parenting, where the goal is to kick the baby out of the nest so she can fly away and build her own, but is instead to continue to live together in community, growing stronger and more perfect in love together, while drawing others into the family. Sort of the opposite of working yourself out of a job.

    I am an elder in the UMC who works with broken people every day, and I can assure you that there are plenty of people who don’t “get it” about Jesus. If the goal of mainline Christianity was to get the world to be nicer to each other – to develop socialized systems of care – then, Woo hoo! – we’re finished, I guess. Oh, except that even our systems of care are broken. Where is this world where the mainline’s message has become irrelevant? I would very much like to live there.

    The mainline is dying – at least my little part of it – because we have wandered very far from our roots. We have lost the robustness of our theology and have failed to pass on the meaning of holiness to our children. And I am not talking right-wing don’thavesexbeforemarriageoryou willburninhell theology. I mean the mystery and wildness and crazy love of God theology that adds real meaning to life. The transforming kind of theology that sets fire to your spirit and you can’t help but burn with love of God and neighbor. I’m not saying the conservatives have that, either. Their numbers are declining, too, of a little slower than ours. But they come a lot closer to calling people to something substantial most of the time.

    I don’t think Douthat is right. Conservative theology can hurry as much as it heals; and I say that as a person with experience. But we mainliners have got to find some way to remember the power and awesomeness of God and let the Spirit blow among us again.

  • Thursday

    “Both mainliners and conservatives have accommodated themselves to the culture. This isn’t an either/or.

    Mainliners have accommodated themselves to the elite, sophisticated, and more upper class society.

    Evangelicalism, or the conservative churches, have accommodated themselves to the populist culture.

    There are more numbers for the latter than the former. Hence, one element of the demographic changes is “target audience” for accommodation strategies.
    I have some ideas, but I’d like to know (1) if you think this thesis can be sustained and (2) what are indications of accommodation to elitist culture among mainliners and to populist culture among evangelicals?”

    The answer to number 1 is no. If it were merely a question of mainline churches accommodating themselves to elite culture, one would expect them to have maintained the loyalty of that elite culture. They haven’t. The problem is that Western elite culture is irreligious, so mainliners are trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. The whole project is fundamentally flawed, so it isn’t surprising that no one wants to buy what they are selling. Populist culture has all sorts of problems, but it isn’t as thoroughly irreligious as elite culture, so Christian churches who try to find common ground with it can have at least some success.