Don’t believe what you hear about the decline of the evangelicals.
There isn’t a more potent force in American life and society than active, believing evangelical Christians, marked by their vibrant faith, clear expression of their beliefs, biblically informed habits, and selfless and life-altering ministries. Where can you find these believers? They’re everywhere–in every town; nearly on every block. Their numbers are increasing and their involvement in all aspects of national life and policy is growing and morphing and infiltrating like a viral storm.
Are evangelicals in decline, as posited by Rodney Clapp in Christian Century? He writes:
[Evangelicalism is in] deep trouble because it faces a significant cultural and generational shift. Identifying itself with the wedge tactics of the political right, which is now falling (at least for a time) out of power, the movement cannot easily shake the image of being primarily negative and destructive. Indicators show that it is losing attractiveness not only among unconverted fellow Americans, but among its own young.
More significantly, evangelicalism is in deep trouble because the gospel really is good news, and reactionaries are animated by bad news, by that which they stand against. Undoubtedly Jesus Christ faced and even provoked conflict. But he embraced conflict as a path or means to the health and liberation—the salvation—of the world. And he hoped for salvation even, perhaps especially, for his enemies. If evangelicalism is innately reactionary, then it can follow Christ only by being born again.
Clapp pretends that the evangelical church is the same as the vocal evangelical politic whose public voice has been dominated by its most conservative leaders. As a former senior writer at Christianity Today, he knows better; but the feigned confusion serves his purposes here.
The faithful and vibrant American Christian church that is evangelical in its beliefs, either as defined by Barna or by Gallup is very different from the evangelical politic. While the two configurations align theologically and indeed in some key areas of public concern [Clapp calls them wedge issues], they are very different and the thriving church at worship, at life, and in service transcends and routinely ignores the residents in the White House and on Capitol Hill.
I have learned in 31 years consulting with Christian ministries and causes that while many activists wish that local evangelical churches and their members would be politically active, the vast majority of them are not. Although they vote in high numbers, evangelical Christians are not particularly political and their churches rarely use facilities and services to advance any political positions.
I know this is extremely difficult to believe for people whose understanding of evangelicals comes only from mainstream media, which portray evangelicals as heavily involved in partisan and issue politics.
There are evangelicals who are very active in politics. My wife, Debbie, and I have been quite active in partisan and cause-related political action. But we are the exception, and friends and family often turn to us for readings on the political environment. Our level of political involvement is extremely rare among our church friends and our strongly evangelical families.
The levers of institutional power and notably the microphones and gateways of communication of the evangelical politic have been controlled by politically oriented conservative evangelicals for some time (often to good effect, in my opinion, but certainly not always).
The power of these leaders is waning as they age—many are in the 70s and 80s–and as the next two generations begin to be heard. These new generations are open to many new areas of public concern, and yes they are generally more open to at least a new tone on issues such as gay rights. I agree that if the NAE board was dominated by one generation removed from the present leadership, Rich Cizik would still be working the halls of power for the association.
But to suggest that young evangelicals are politically and socially to the left of their forebears on most issues is wishful thinking by those who would benefit from that shift. It’s much more complex than that, and on abortion, polls show that young evangelicals are more pro-life than their parents.
While young evangelicals are more concerned about the environment than the previous generation, this is hardly a swing to the left. As I have said previously, a green evangelical does not a liberal make.
For a number of years the public relations firm I was with represented Jerry Falwell as public relations counsel. We saw over and over how Falwell was featured and interviewed by mainstream media about topics on which he clearly was not the most qualified evangelical spokesman. Jerry never met a microphone he didn’t love, and media loved to portray him as the face and voice of American evangelicals.
Of course he wasn’t, nor are many of the current common voices of the evangelical politic. But they are presented as such, even as writers such as Clapp portray their declining influence as evangelical decline.
In the recent national survey that found a decline in the number of people who call themselves Christian, the reach of evangelical belief spread. One in three people in the country now consider themselves to be evangelical Christians. But note the following from the study itself (I couldn’t find this in any media reports)–
[The study] “reveals the dimensions of a significant trend in “belief” among the 76 percent of contemporary Americans who identify as Christians. These respondents were specifically asked “Do you identify as a Born Again or Evangelical Christian?” No definition was offered of the terms, which are usually associated with a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ together with a certain view of salvation, scripture, and missionary work. As the table shows, 45 percent of all American Christians now self-identify in this manner and they account for 34 percent of the total national adult population. What is significant is the recent spread of Evangelicalism well beyond Christians affiliated with those groups that are members of the National Evangelical Association so that millions of Mainliners and Catholics now identify with this trend.”
The CNN story on the study said:
The survey also found that “born-again” or “evangelical” Christianity is on the rise, while the percentage who belong to “mainline” congregations such as the Episcopal or Lutheran churches has fallen. One in three Americans consider themselves evangelical, and the number of people associated with mega-churches has skyrocketed from less than 200,000 in 1990 to more than 8 million in the latest survey.
If there is national evangelical leadership, it has shifted to the megachurches, but it is largely pastoral, not political
Certainly, all is not well. There is work to do on the image of evangelical Christians, as explored by Gabe Lyons and Dave Kinnamen in UnChristian. Their introduction:
Christians are supposed to represent Christ to the world. But according to the latest report card, something has gone terribly wrong. Using descriptions like “hypocritical,” “insensitive,” and “judgmental,” young Americans share an impression of Christians that’s nothing short of . . . unChristian.
Groundbreaking research into the perceptions of sixteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds reveals that Christians have taken several giant steps backward in one of their most important assignments. The surprising details of the study, commissioned by Fermi Project and conducted by The Barna Group, are presented with uncompromising honesty in unChristian.
But those who follow Christianity closely know that the true heartbeat of evangelicalism isn’t behind microphones or plying the halls of Congress. If you pay attention, you hear the heartbeat of evangelicalism:
In the villages of Angola, where Christians involved with Living Waters International have provided clean water to thousands of people in recent years in a country where 56 percent of the people don’t have clear water.
In an abandoned building that now serves as a school and clinic for rescued child soldier girls just north of Gulu, northern Africa, where young woman and their babies born in captivity are given the basic building blocks of new lives they never thought they’d see by a group of Christians operating under the name ChildVoice International.
In a series of gers—round teepee-like structures—in northern Mongolia, where Christians in a group called LifeQwest houses hundreds of orphans that they swept off the brutally frigid streets of Mongolian cities to literally save their lives and give a future vision to children of an ancient people.
In the homes of staggering Atlanta neighborhoods, where Christians in the Charis Community Housing group help families purchase and care for homes in ways that will help them recover from the foreclosure crisis that has hit the inner cities far worse than the cushy suburbs.
In a large churchyard garden in Boise, Idaho, where a retired Christian farmer helps dozens of church volunteers grow fruits and vegetables, “producing and giving away over 20,000 lbs. of produce, feeding approximately 1281 families, representing around 4108 individuals.”
At an unimpressive building on New York Avenue in Washington, D.C., Christians at The Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center take in down-and-out drug addicts and rather than just getting them off drugs, they get them into a new relationship with Jesus Christ—and the recidivism rates are dramatically better than run of the mill recovery centers.
The heart of American evangelicalism beats in places and ministries such as these, and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of other places in this country and around the world.
We see faithfulness in small group meetings in the homes of millions of Americans that are opening their Bibles and searching together for the way God wants them to live their lives. Yes, the heart beats in worship in churches blanketing the country—most small, 75-200 members, and in some very large. People eschewing an extra hours sleep on Sunday morning to point to their Creator and give praise and to listen to a minister trying to help them in their walk with God.
Don’t believe that evangelicalism is fading. It’s changing to be more relevant to the problems of a new time, just as it has for millennia. And its political power rises and falls and stagnates. But bellicose commentators and lobbyists are not the church, and they never have been. Prescient observers know that. Many just won’t tell you.