Evangelicalism in America Is Doing Just Fine

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Faith in America: Evangelicalism. Read other perspectives here.

What is the future of evangelicalism in America? To answer tough questions like this I usually turn to my trusty magic 8-ball.

Me: "Magic 8-ball, so what's up with the future of evangelicalism in America?"

[Shakes 8-ball and flips it]

Magic 8-ball: "Outlook not so good."

The most recent survey published by the Pew Research Center reports a similar answer. Though the figures themselves are not alarming, the numbers are a sobering indication that "American Evangelicalism" is in steady decline. But maybe that is not a bad thing because Pew also reports that Evangelicalism in America is doing just fine.

Let's look at the bare numbers of the evangelical church. Between 2007-2014, 1) their share of U.S. population dropped slightly from 26.3 percent to 25.4 percent, but 2) the number of evangelicals grew from 59.8 million to 62.2 million, and 3) the share of non-whites grew from 19 percent to 24 percent.

One and Three are indicative of Christianity in general. During the same time, the Christian share percentage of the U.S. population dropped from 78.4 to 70.6, and the percent of non-whites grew from 29 to 34. However among all Christian sects, the evangelical camp is the only group that has shown any substantial increase in members. The outlook so far: Christianity not so good, Evangelicalism not bad.

Let's further break down the numbers. If the number of card-carrying evangelicals increased from 59.8 million to 62.2 (a difference of +2.4 million), and the percent of non-white evangelicals increased from 19 to 24, simple math tells us the number of non-white evangelicals increased by 3.6 million people. But Pew reports the total increase of evangelicals was only 2.4 million. That's because the number of white evangelicals has decreased in that same period. Luckily the increase of non-white evangelicals was greater than the decrease of white evangelicals.

Here is the bottom line. The growth of the evangelical church from 2007-2014 is due solely to a group we call "minorities."

This is what I mean by "'American evangelicalism' is in decline but evangelicalism in America is doing just fine." And this is what my magic 8-ball should have told me. The future of Evangelicalism in America: Ethnic Diversity.

The name of the game is diversity and there are no signs that indicate this is going to change. As the evangelical church in America attempts to embrace its inevitable future, there are two initial and inevitable steps.

1: Acknowledge publicly and repent of the deep-seated racism at the organizational level; e.g., denomination, convention, diocese, synod, presbytery, congregation. Some denominations have attempted this (PCA?), some have delayed this (PCA again?). Others believed they offered up the right apology, yet there was very little change in behavior. (So I guess John Wesley wouldn't classify this as real repentance.) But we'll be seeing more attempts at repentance and reconciliation for racism. Fifty years late is never too late. It begins here.

2: Then, very naturally, allow leadership to reflect this diversity. So far this is starting to happen at the local level. (See Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC as a good example.) But this needs to reach higher levels.

Take for example the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Christian denomination not beholden to the pope. The SBC reports an increase of 116 percent in membership among mostly non-white congregations from 1998 to 2013. Now over 20 percent of the congregations in "America's denomination" are non-white. But this is "non-apparent" on the leadership side. Dating back to 1996, among all who served on the SBC's Executive Committee, only 3 percent were non-white.

This also includes the academy — the embryo where future church leaders are bred. In seminaries, divinity schools, and Bible colleges the ethnic diversity of the student body is poorly reflected in the faculty and staff. And I say this understanding the main concern of almost all evangelical theological institutions; they want to remain faithful to their theological heritage and keep it pure. However ethnic diversity does not equal theological diversity, that is unless their theology/tradition is ethnically bound/dependent. But if their theology is, as they say, biblical and gospel-driven, they need not worry. Ethnic diversity will not defile it. In fact, it can enhance it.

7/22/2015 4:00:00 AM
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