Wednesday, December 26, 2012
The Decline of Evangelical America
[E]vangelicals, 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 percent 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.
Evangelicals have not adapted well to rapid shifts in the culture — including, notably, the move toward support for same-sex marriage. 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 percent held “unfavorable feelings” toward Jews, 22 percent toward Muslims and 53 percent toward evangelical Christians.
To be sure, college professors are not representative of the population, and, despite national trends of decline, evangelicals have many exceptional ministries. Most metropolitan areas in the United States have at least one thriving megachurch. In New York City, Redeemer Presbyterian and the Brooklyn Tabernacle pack multiple services every weekend. A handful of other churches, like North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., and Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., see more than 20,000 worshipers each weekend. Savvy ministers like the Rev. Craig Groeschel, founder of LifeChurch.tv, are using new technologies to deliver the “good news.”
The pulse of evangelicalism is also shifting, in many ways for the good, from American politics to aid for the global poor, as evidenced in books by the Rev. David Platt, the Rev. Max Lucado and the Rev. Timothy Keller. Evangelicals are still a sophisticated lot, with billions in assets, millions of adherents and a constellation of congregations, radio stations, universities and international aid groups. But all this machinery distracts from the historical vital signs of evangelicalism: to make converts and point to Jesus Christ. By those measures this former juggernaut is coasting, at best, if not stalled or in reverse.
How can evangelicalism right itself? I don’t believe it can — at least, not back to the politically muscular force it was as recently as 2004, when white evangelicals gave President George W. Bush his narrow re-election. Evangelicals can, however, use the economic, social and spiritual crises facing America to refashion themselves into a more sensitive, spiritual and humble movement.