Will Progressive Christianity Be More Evangelical?

Will Progressive Christianity Be More Evangelical? July 29, 2015

These are interesting days for American Christianity.

Photo by Ricardo Camacho
Photo by Ricardo Camacho

We appear to be in the midst of some major shifts in the American religious landscape.

The recent Pew Research study showed that, between 2007-2014, Evangelical Christianity saw a slight decrease in its share of the religious population (from 26.3% to 25.4%); however, it was the only segment of American Christianity that experienced overall growth in numbers.

The wild and crazy unaffiliated (the infamous”nones”) grew in leaps and bounds, and non-Christian religions ticked up, too.

Mainline Protestants continued their slide to the bottom, dropping 3.4 percentage points, from 18.1% to 14.7.

So, if mainline Protestants are what we typically think of as representing “progressive Christianity” (of course there are plenty of progressive Catholics, too), how should we feel about its future? Pretty bleak, right? One one accounting, evangelical Christianity still seems rather alive and well, while progressive (mainline) Christianity is digging its own grave.

But there are problems with this interpretation.

First off, it seems pretty clear that evangelicalism has a millennial problem. Young people are leaving the evangelical church and have been for some time. That trend is not letting up. They are, by and large, rejecting the conservative politics, conservative morality, and the biblical literalism of older generations.

Now, they aren’t flooding into the mainline Protestant churches, to be sure. But young evangelicals are leaving their churches at a greater rate than young mainliners (if I’m reading the data correctly). Of course, there were more of them to begin with, but the trend seems significant nonetheless. Several years ago, I was struck by a Pew graph that showed a steep decline in Evangelical millennials with the inversely steep rise of the young “nones.” You can find that graph here (scroll to the bottom of the interview).

Where are they going? Most aren’t rushing into the mainline Protestant churches. Most aren’t joining Catholicism.

While some are becoming dones (done with both religion and faith), many are becoming nones. Nones are not necessarily atheists or even agnostists, and they aren’t necessarily irreligious, either.

As Robert Putnam’s landmark study, American Grace, showed, they are occasional church-attenders, can be very spiritual, and are often rather eclectic in the practice of their faith. They can’t be herded into a single stall. And yet, the majority of nones would identify–much more easily with progressive theology and with progressive views of morality than they would with their conservative counterparts.

The recent supreme court decision to inscribe equality for LGBTQ persons has created a watershed moment for the future of Christianity.

I’ve heard appeals from evangelicals to the effect that they need to regroup, regather, and set up camp outside the city, so as to engage culture differently than they did before. This is understandable. To be fair, they aren’t calling for retreat or separatist withdrawal; yet, these Evangelicals are not about to rethinking their fundamentalist stances on issues that will increasingly divide their institutions and lead more and more younger people to the exit doors.

This fundamentalist stance, this biblical literalism, this preoccupation with inerrancy, this insistence on the impurity of LGBTQ expressions of love, will continue to drive millennials away from these conservative evangelical institutions.

Where will they go?

This is why I think the future of progressive Christianity may be destined to become, perhaps ironically enough, more evangelical. These progressive-minded and openhanded Christians–those who do not reject their faith altogether–will need to practice it and will want to practice it in communities of faith–but communities that share their openness and inclusivity. But, they will carry much of their evangelical impulses with them, too.

If mainline Protestant churches can embrace these disaffected exiles, so much the better. This is anecdotal, but I have observed this happening as progressive evangelical seminary graduates have found themselves outside the evangelical “camp,” and have sought refuge (or better: community) in mainline liberal churches. A number of them are women who realized that Evangelical churches were/are not safe or welcoming to them.

But those mainline churches (many of which are “conservative”–i.e. traditional–in their own ways) will need to be open to change, in order to capitalize on the migration of disaffected evangelicals into their ranks.

We’re are seeing more experiments of faith, which might involve not only ecumenical Christian communities and initiatives, but inter-religious ones as well. And we’ll see more progressive evangelicals and former evangelicals (post-evangelicals)  joining up with mainline Protestants, progressive/liberal Catholics, and people of other faiths (or no particular institutional faith at all) in bringing a little more hope, peace, and gospel to their neighborhoods.  These progressive/post evangelicals are bringing with them a heart for the gospel, a deep respect for the Bible, and a “missionary” (or better: missional) view of the vocation of the Christian.

So when we think about the future of   “progressive Christianity,” we’ll need to start thinking beyond the norm, to the “new normal” that is being shaped in this very moment. Progressive Christianity is no longer just mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics. Progresssive Christianity will be Evangelical, too.

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