I was looking over the data from the Pew study on the changing religious landscape in our country. Evangelicals had decreased as a percentage of the population from 26.3 percent of the population in 2007 to 25.4 percent of the population in 2014. Clearly as one who holds to evangelical theology (but not to their current political instincts), that is not good news. It is not such a decrease that it is inevitable that evangelicals are doomed to collapse as a staple of America’s religious society. But it does tell us that we had better think about how to change this troubling trajectory.
But then I looked at the information about mainline Protestants and I felt a little better in comparison. They have gone from 18.1 percent of the society in 2007 to 14.7 percent in 2014. They have lost nearly one fourth of their relative percentage of the society in just seven years. Ouch!!! Now that is a panic pace of loss that those in the mainline denomination had better be worried about. In the movement towards secularization in our society, those in the mainline denominations appear to be the biggest losers.
Now it may be that all of the Christian groups are doomed in the coming secular society. We may be like the Native Americans in that we will eventually lose to the encroaching secularists, just like the Native Americans eventually lost to the encroaching Europeans. Perhaps, we can only delay our demise. Some Native Americans tribes delayed their demise by working with the whites. They wound up in the reservations anyway but they were able to forestall that fate for a few years. Other Native Americans decided to fight the whites to keep their freedom. Eventually all of them wound up in the reservations. There was no ultimate winning strategy given the desire of whites to oppress the Native Americans. Likewise, there may be no winning strategy for Christians.
However, it does appear that the strategy of going along with the culture does not appear to be useful. While generalizations should be made carefully, it is fair to argue that mainline Protestants have been more willing to accommodate modern cultural changes than conservative Protestants. Many of them have marched to the forefront of those cultural changes. Their reward for this support is empty pews.
It is always dangerous for a social scientist to make predictions. We are not fortune tellers and have no special powers to see into the future. But we can see the current dynamics occurring within given social institutions. And if things do not change, then my prediction is that within the next 10 to 15 years we will see the fall, or at least major reorganizing, of several mainline denominations. They simply cannot keep hemorrhaging members like this and survive. Perhaps there will be changes that stop this process, but I am hard pressed to think of what those changes may be. They cannot just change on a dime and develop a traditional mindset. Social organizations are not built for such rapid changes. But their acceptance of a more secularized priority system simply has not worked. The die seems to be cast for them and I say this without the slightest bit of joy as a conservative Protestant.
There is a lesson for us evangelicals in the demise of the mainline Protestant denominations. It will be tough in the coming years to deal with a post-Christian society. We may not be persecuted, but we will face discrimination and stigmatization. There may be temptations to conform to the cultural norms of the larger society in order to avoid this unpleasant reality. My recommendation is to fight that temptation. You may gain some relief from the cultural pressure in the short term, but in the long term I fear that such compromises will plant the seeds of destruction in our organizations.
We should not minimize the costs of going against the grain of our culture. There is a cost to being seen as a deviant religious expression. But that struggle can be useful since making demand on the members of the church can even help them to grow. Dean Kelley made this observation in his assessment forty years ago about why conservative churches were growing. Making demands on the members of our churches should not be avoided as long as those demands are in keeping with our values. This does not mean that we can demand anything from the members in our churches, but it does mean that we should feel the freedom to make demands when necessary.
Being distinct is a blessing. Why would anyone darken the doors of a church if they can receive the same thing elsewhere? We have to be different from the rest of society if we are claiming to live a life that is rooted in the supernatural. But to be different comes at a cost. If we have a community that goes against the values of the larger society, we will pay that cost and there will be those who want to avoid that cost. But there will also be those who see the dysfunctions linked to general societal values. They will want something different. They can be convinced that Christian values are worth embracing. Being different can be attractive.
Let me show this with an example. I just finished reading a book called Cheap Sex by Mark Regnerus. One of his arguments is that we have changed as a society due to the availability of sexual pleasure without the commitment of marriage. Due to these changes, sexuality is less likely to occur in a committed relationship. This change in sexual norms has been embraced more by men than by women who are more likely to want to have their sexual experience tied to relational commitment.
This change has made marriage less likely to occur. If men are able to get their sexual needs met without having to be in a committed relationship, then they are less likely to become marriageable. We are creating a society whereby marriage is being bypassed and a hook-up culture where sex has become “cheap.” (Although Regnerus also argues that sex is cheap due to innovations in pornography as well.)
Now let us be honest. There are some, perhaps many, individuals who like these new social changes. They thrive in the type of hook-up culture we have today. But there are also many who want the type of traditional marriage that is becoming less common. Many women may find it hard to locate men who desire such relationships, and some men also find it difficult to navigate within modern sexual norms to find a traditional relationship. If Regnerus is correct, they will find it harder in the general society that does not prioritize linking sexuality to relationships.
But they may find it in Christian communities if we maintain our values in the area of sexuality.
I know that some will argue that we do not always live up to our stated values of sexual purity until marriage. But, even if not all Christians wait until marriage for sexual consummation, a subculture that prioritizes waiting for marriage is not one where people are going to feel free to engage in the behaviors linked to a hook-up culture. Sex, even when occurring outside of marriage, will not be cheap. It will be consequential which will be what some people will desperately want. Those individuals can be attracted to our Christian community.
These individuals will not be attracted to a mainline denomination that does not differentiate itself from the sexual economy in the rest of the society. This is where the mainline denominations went wrong. They became so much like the larger society that individuals stopped seeing any real reason why they should attend those churches and organizations. Our Christian communities can be a source of refuge for those who lose out in the modern changes we are seeing. We can be that salt that we are called to be if we decide that we are going to embrace our distinctiveness. The mainline denominations forgot about that role. I pray that we conservative Christians do not do the same thing.
Update: There is a claim among some respondents that I provide no evidence of the value of a traditional sexual ethnic. This is neither the time or place for a complete literature review on the subject. But to give just one example, it is clear that religiosity, particularly among regular attenders, acts to depress domestic violence. This is just one example of the potential benefits we can gain in a religious community as there is research of other benefits. And I would submit that if we did not have as much Christianophobia in academia we would also find more benefits. Mainliners have given up these benefits which I think has damaged them greatly.