Contemporary Protestant Christianity in Europe is largely characterized by nominal affiliation. That is, in many nations nearly half of the population never attends any religious services unless they involve a major life event like a wedding or a funeral. While that statistic is largely acknowledged, it is less commonly recognized that even in the most secular countries, there are thriving Protestant communities, and there is a growing number of ethnic minority Protestant congregations. There are large black church communities in the U.K., and great numbers of European Roma have been converting to Pentecostalism.
In the United States, there are some similar trends, though the situation is more complex. In the waning years of the 19th century, biblical criticism began to erode Christian confidence in the authority of the Bible. Many European and American scholars—including, among many others, Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), and Paul Tillich (1886-1965)—abandoned or radically reinterpreted many of the traditional Christian doctrines. The onset of World War I and the Great Depression exacerbated this trend and redirected a great deal of Christian focus to the social and economic needs of people rather than their beliefs. Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) exemplifies this shift of focus and is known as one of the founders of the "Social Gospel" movement.
Liberal theological positions became increasingly embedded in North American mainline seminaries, as they had in many European academic circles. The American Protestant church, however, experienced an organized resistance to this theological trend in the rise of fundamentalism in the early 20th century. The term "fundamentalism" is derived from a 12-volume set of essays published between 1910-1915 called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. Those who advocated for biblical inerrancy, scriptural authority, and the historical veracity of the core Christian dogmas—incarnation, resurrection, miracles, etc.—became known as fundamentalists. They opposed the modernists, who had largely embraced the rational, scientific, and cultural arguments of the day, and had found new ways to interpret Christian doctrine accordingly. The fundamentalists' essential posture of resistance became epitomized in the 1925 Scopes Trial regarding the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Though the fundamentalists won the trial, they lost face in the public arena, and were largely mocked for their anti-scientific views.
Besides the rise of fundamentalism, the American Protestant community witnessed another remarkable movement that also rejected the rationalism of the modernist movement: the rise of Pentecostalism. William Seymour (1870-1922) initiated the Pentecostal renewal movement in his Los Angeles church in 1906. Drawing on earlier holiness traditions, Seymour preached the baptism of the Holy Spirit and a new power in Christian living. This emphasis could also be seen in Charles Parham's (1873-1929) ministry in Topeka, Kansas. The fastest growing Christian denominations in the world today are Pentecostal movements in Latin America, India, Africa, and China.
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.
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?