Why Evangelicals’ Influence Is Declining

Christine Wicker details the dramatic erosion in the number and social influence of U.S. evangelical Christians.

Wicker, a former religion reporter for The Dallas Morning News, has a new book, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church.

Wicker points out, for example, that the largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, is declining so steadily that, if current trends continue, half its 43,000 churches will be forced to close by 2030.

I agree that evangelical Christianity is losing ground. Wicker offered three explanations, while acknowledging that other factors also have contributed to the trend.

I’d argue for a fourth major reason, one Wicker mentioned but dismissed.

Here are Wicker’s explanations.

First, the rise of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs created a type of contemporary American faith based loosely on Christianity, but without the evangelical demands for a salvation experience, personal guilt or adherence to doctrines.

“Nothing like that kind of open-ended faith had ever been experienced before,” Wicker wrote recently in an op-ed piece.

Americans are moving toward similar faith systems that offer them more freedom.

Second, the ease with which we now travel and communicate across cultures has transformed evangelicals themselves. When people live in small, insular communities, it’s convenient for them to believe they possess God’s only word to humanity, that they alone know the path to salvation and should share it with their neighbors.

As international travel and immigration have become commonplace, as we’ve become accustomed to seeing other cultures daily on TV and the Internet, it’s become difficult for any group to claim they’re the only ones saved.

All those “other people” evangelicals once thought were cut off from God, today are “likely to be your son-in-law or grandchild,” Wicker said.

So evangelicals feel less zealous.

Third, the pill started a moral shift for which evangelicals were totally unprepared. Given the ability to have sex without fear of pregnancy, huge numbers of people postponed marriage and started living together outside wedlock.

Evangelical churches either shrilly condemned this or else, at the other end of the spectrum, ignored it.

“But evangelicals’ failure to grapple with change,” Wicker said, “meant the church was no help in a world where people were expected to sleep together long before marriage and desperately sought guidance about when and with whom.”

Wicker’s theories are thought-provoking. Each contains an element of truth.

However, I think there’s another reason evangelicals find their influence waning. I’d say it might be the primary cause.

Too often, evangelicals have taken their greatest gift–the most liberating and exciting message in the world’s history–and pounded it into a heap of unsightly rubble.

The core of the evangelical message is, or should be, that we’ve all been offered by God an unfathomable mercy, an undeserved grace, an unconditional acceptance.

The person they–or, we (for I am an evangelical)–claim to be our founder, said he came to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord, to assure us God is no longer holding our sins against us, to let us know God profoundly loves this world and everyone in it.

When he met a Samaritan woman who’d been married multiple times and was living with a guy she wasn’t married to, he didn’t point his finger at her. Instead, he turned her into a messenger of grace who touched off a local revival.

When he ran into a dishonest, conniving tax collector, Jesus invited himself to the man’s house for supper. The man was so flabbergasted by this gesture of acceptance that he reformed his ways.

And yet the folks we evangelicals have appointed as our public mouthpieces usually seem to be people who wouldn’t recognize that Jesus if he walked down the center aisle of their church wearing a red derby hat.

They define themselves, and us, by what they’re against, and they’re against just about everything and everybody: abortion, gay marriage, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Hollywood, liberals, feminists. They’re even against other, competing evangelicals.

Oddly, they apparently aren’t against the government’s attempts to legalize torture. I’ve yet to hear a sermon against that.

I remember that one Christian writer said he conducted his own informal survey of non-churchgoers. He asked them what came to their minds when they heard the term “evangelical Christian.”

They invariably described evangelicals as hypocritical, mean and self-righteous.

Not one person, he said, thought evangelicals were kind or forgiving or helpful.

In her op-ed piece, Wicker mentioned this image problem as a reason some evangelicals give for their movement’s decline. But she discounts it.

I don’t discount it.

I can’t say that if evangelical leaders suddenly stepped off their soap boxes and started washing strangers’ dusty feet, the movement would explode with new members.

But at the very least we’d be imparting to the world a more accurate image of the master we claim to serve.

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