Is evangelicalism losing influence in the United States? Yes, answer a majority of Global North evangelical leaders surveyed at the recent Lausanne conference on evangelism.
The suggestion is not a shocking one to anyone familiar with the ebb and flow of the movement in its contemporary forms. But the gloomy outlook of evangelical leaders provokes a good bit of reflection (in particular when you compare the pessimism of Northern hemisphere evangelicals to the optimism of their Southern hemisphere counterparts).
A majority of global North evangelicals (54%) believe that in five years the situation for evangelicals will be either worse than now (33%) or about the same as now (21%). By comparison, 71 percent of leaders in the Global South believe the state of evangelicalism will improve. Yet the finding that most fascinates me relates to perceptions of evangelicalism's influence. In the North, only 31 percent of leaders expect to see evangelical influence grow, compared to 66 percent who expect evangelical influence to diminish. In the South, 58 percent expect an increase while 39 percent expect a decrease in influence.
What shall we say to this?
As Samuel Johnson noted, "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." A perception of impending doom or coming decline forces those invested in that declining movement to gather their thoughts, re-focus their vision, and change course as necessary. When the picture is accepted for what it is, rather than explained away as a series of anomalies or misinterpretations of data, then people can begin to shape creative solutions and re-imagine their future.
The question cannot simply be: How can evangelicalism recover its social influence? For one thing, the definition of the term evangelical is no longer stable. What counts as evangelical, on what basis, and who decides? The increasing ethnic diversity of American evangelicalism is complicating the picture. New studies show increasing diversity in how evangelicals, particularly younger ones, approach social issues, with homosexual marriage being the obvious current example. With such diversity underlying the movement, how can its social influence be measured?
But a deeper question remains. Could a decline of evangelical influence be a good thing for the gospel?
What is the task of the followers of Jesus? What is our vocation? Jesus said it is to be "the salt of the earth," the "light of the world," and a "city on a hill" (Mt. 5:13-14). Evangelicals have often brought to these images the assumption that saltiness and brightness = power as a voting block and a lobbying force. But those assumptions misconstrue the nature of the ecclesia, the gathering of disciples that seeks to follow Christ in the world and that understands its calling to suffering on behalf of and for the church (Col. 1:24) for the sake of the world (Mt. 28).
We too often measure the role and influence of the church with the barometers of the modern corporation or political program, barometers that are foreign to Jesus and the gospels. We too often gauge "success" by the extent to which our collective voice reinforces a particular, homogenous vision of life and minimizes our discomfort with difference and otherness. Evangelicals have too often seen ourselves as purveyors of a product or an ideology. Perhaps the better way to conceive of the church's identity and mission is as a diaspora: a scattered faithful remnant who seek to be servants of the gospel through the loving, gracious, non-coercive acts of witness. We are called to live out the implications of the gospel with humility and hospitality, pointing to the source of hope in Jesus.
Perhaps the evangelical church in the United States should embrace a decline of social influence in order to be God's elect who suffer in and for a broken world. When the church as an institution is perceived as powerful, it is often prone to triumphalism, exclusion, and self-preservation. As Karl Barth reminded us, the vocation of Christians and of the church is simply to serve the world by witnessing to the gospel. Since Pentecost, there has always been a historical church (in whatever form) to serve in this way. God uses the Church (including evangelical churches), but he doesn't require it. As Barth put it, "God does not belong to the Church" (The Epistle to the Romans [Oxford 1933, trans. Hoskyns], p. 339).