Evangelicals have been a powerful political force in U.S. presidential elections. Although evangelicals turned out overwhelmingly for Mitt Romney last November 6, the hitherto unknown and unspoken fact is that their numbers have plummeted in just the last few years because their young are leaving Evangelicalism in droves.
Evangelicals sometimes refer to themselves as “non-denominational” Christians. Who exactly are the evangelicals?
This is how Wikipedia defines and describes evangelical Christians:
Evangelicalism is a Protestant Christian movement that began in the 17th century and became an organized movement with the emergence around 1730 of the Methodists in England and the Pietists among Lutherans in Germany and Scandinavia. The movement became even more significant in the United States during the series of Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries, where it drew far more members than in Europe. [...]
Evangelicalism de-emphasizes ritual and emphasizes the piety of the individual, requiring him or her to meet certain active commitments, including:
- The need for personal conversion, or being “born again”
- A high regard for biblical authority
- An emphasis on teachings that proclaim the saving death and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ
- Actively expressing and sharing the gospel
David Bebbington has termed these four distinctive aspects conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism, noting, “Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.”
John S. Dickerson is an evangelical, the senior pastor of Cornerstone Church, and author of the forthcoming book The Great Evangelical Recession: Six Factors That Will Crash the American Church … and How to Prepare.
Here are excerpts from Dickerson’s op-ed for The New York Times on December 15, 2012:
In 2012 we witnessed a collapse in American evangelicalism. The old religious right largely failed to affect the Republican primaries, much less the presidential election. Last month, Americans voted in favor of same-sex marriage in four states, while Florida voters rejected an amendment to restrict abortion.
[...] Evangelicalism as we knew it in the 20th century is disintegrating.
In 2011 the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life polled church leaders from around the world. Evangelical ministers from the United States reported a greater loss of influence than church leaders from any other country — with some 82% indicating that their movement was losing ground.
[...] Studies from established evangelical polling organizations — LifeWay Research, an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Barna Group — have found that a majority of young people raised as evangelicals are quitting church, and often the faith, entirely.
As a contemporary of this generation (I’m 30), I embarked three years ago on a project to document the health of evangelical Christianity in the United States. I did this research not only as an insider, but also as a former investigative journalist for an alt weekly. [...]
First, evangelicals, while still perceived as a majority, have become a shrinking minority in the United States. In the 1980s heyday of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, some estimates accounted evangelicals as a third or even close to half of the population, but research by the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith recently found that Christians who call themselves evangelicals account for just 7% of Americans. (Other research has reported that some 25 percent of Americans belong to evangelical denominations, though they may not, in fact, consider themselves evangelicals.) Dr. Smith’s findings are derived from a three-year national study of evangelical identity and influence, financed by the Pew Research Center. They suggest that American evangelicals now number around 20 million, about the population of New York State. The global outlook is more optimistic, as evangelical congregations flourish in places like China, Brazil and sub-Saharan Africa.
But while America’s population grows by roughly two million a year, attendance across evangelical churches — from the Southern Baptists to Assembles of God and nondenominational churches — has gradually declined, according to surveys of more than 200,000 congregations by the American Church Research Project.
The movement also faces a donation crisis as older evangelicals, who give a disproportionately large share, age. Unless younger evangelicals radically increase their giving, the movement will be further strained.
Dickerson claims to know why the number and political influence of evangelicals have declined in America. In short, it is because evangelicals are out of step with “ground-shaking changes in American culture,” including, notably, the move toward support for same-sex marriage.
He claims “The result is that evangelicals are increasingly typecast as angry and repressed bigots. In 2007, the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, in a survey of 1,300 college professors, found that 3% held “unfavorable feelings” toward Jews, 22% toward Muslims and 53% toward evangelical Christians.”
So what is Dickerson’s advice to evangelicals?
First, he says evangelicalism will never return “to the politically muscular force it was as recently as 2004, when white evangelicals gave President George W. Bush his narrow re-election.”
Next, Dickerson says Evangelicals must “refashion themselves into a more sensitive, spiritual and humble movement” by abandoning their moralizing “posture” and seemingly superior demeanor:
We evangelicals must accept that our beliefs are now in conflict with the mainstream culture. We cannot change ancient doctrines to adapt to the currents of the day. But we can, and must, adapt the way we hold our beliefs — with grace and humility instead of superior hostility. The core evangelical belief is that love and forgiveness are freely available to all who trust in Jesus Christ. This is the “good news” from which the evangelical name originates (“euangelion” is a Greek word meaning “glad tidings” or “good news”). Instead of offering hope, many evangelicals have claimed the role of moral gatekeeper, judge and jury. If we continue in that posture, we will continue to invite opposition and obscure the “good news” we are called to proclaim.
I believe the cultural backlash against evangelical Christianity has less to do with our views — many observant Muslims and Jews, for example, also view homosexual sex as wrong, while Catholics have been at the vanguard of the movement to protect the lives of the unborn — and more to do with our posture. The Scripture calls us “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), but American evangelicals have not acted with the humility and homesickness of aliens. The proper response to our sexualized and hedonistic culture is not to chastise, but to “conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12).
This does not mean we whitewash unpopular doctrines like the belief that we are all sinners but that we re-emphasize the free forgiveness available to all who believe in Jesus Christ.
Not being an evangelical, I’m very interested in what the evangelicals among FOTM’s readers think about all this.