The Future of Evangelicalism
I’ve always been interesting in future trends, and I’ve found that when it comes to religion, the future can be surprisingly predictable, thanks to the fantastic records kept not only by various denominations, but also by research think-tanks (like the PEW Research Forum for example). I’ve also found that even real estate companies do a surprising amount of detailed research on demographic trends for the purpose of selling homes. Sometimes, that research is posted on the Internet, and it’s some of the best trend-monitoring information out there. These recorded trends of the past allow us to project into the future, because more often than not, unless something radical changes, the past is just a reflection of what is to come.
So what have I learned? Basically, I’ve learned that the future of Western Christianity has been mapped out for us decades in advance, and based on current trends we can easily project the future of religion in North America. In summary, the future of Christianity in the North America is a reduction of the faith into two main branches (or expressions). These two branches will be overwhelmingly Catholic and Evangelical. However, neither of these will remain in their current form.
In short, what’s dying is liberalism, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Catholic liberalism or Protestant liberalism. It is liberalism itself that’s dying, insofar as it’s connected to Christianity, because what so many people have refused to accept is that liberalism is the antitheses of Christianity in general. There comes a point in the development of liberal Christianity when liberal Christians no longer see the need to continue going to church, or even maintaining an active Christian identity. This is why liberal Protestant denominations are dying, and will continue to die in the years ahead, with relentless and unmerciful decline. The “biological collapse,” as it’s been called, wherein parishioners continue to age while failing to be replaced by younger parishioners, has gutted liberal Protestant denominations. Before the 2020s are over, this collapse will leave Mainline Protestantism in a state of complete implosion, at under 10% membership and less than 3% attendance. Here’s a chart showing the decline of Mainline Protestantism in the United States…
The rise of Evangelicalism, in the latter half of the 20th century, is a phenomenon driven almost exclusively by the collapse of liberal Protestantism. As mainstream Protestantism took on a more liberal character, a fairly large number of conservative Protestants (from every denomination) bolted from their mainstream denominations. Where did they go? They didn’t just disappear. While most of them stopped going to church entirely, and I have the statistics to back that, a small percentage of these Protestants simply moved across town (so to speak) and filled the pews of conservative Evangelical denominations. This trend, over the last 50 years, has caused the membership of these Evangelical denominations to swell, and now their children populate the Evangelical (Baptist, Pentecostal and Nondenominational) megachurches of today.
Catholicism is going through something similar right now. The dynamics are a little different, but the trend is exactly the same. Mainstream Catholicism, which is overwhelmingly liberal, is dying. All across North America, mainstream Catholic parishes are struggling. As their membership rolls dwindle, and parishioners increasingly turn grey, a growing number of Catholic parishes are being shut down and merged with other Catholic parishes. What’s happening? Two reasons are in play.
The first reason is backsliding. A lot of Catholics aren’t really “leaving” the Church at all, at least, not in a formal sense. Rather, they just stopped going to Mass. Many of them continue to identify as “Catholics” for decades, but haven’t darkened the door of a Catholic Church in equally as long. Why? As I said above, liberalism is incompatible with Christianity. As liberalism works its way into these parishes, a percentage of the Catholic members therein no longer see the need of going to Mass anymore. These people live functionally as nonreligious persons, although they identify as “Catholics” as if it were an ethnic or racial identity.
The second reason is an exodus, if you will, wherein faithful and conservative Catholics can no longer tolerate the liberal trajectory of their mainstream parishes and dioceses. So they bolt straight for traditional options within the Catholic Church, which for years have existed on the periphery, but are slowly coming of age as the new mainstream of Catholicism. Within another decade, they will be the most noticeable feature of the Catholic Church in North America. These are the Traditional Latin Mass churches, and churches of the Ordinariate of English Patrimony. These churches are growing within the Catholic Church, and as mainstream Catholic churches continue to shrink, close and merge, these growing communities will begin to stand out in the not-too-distant future. It is likely that some of today’s mainstream parishes will begin imitating these growing traditional parishes in the future, with their own traditional celebration of the standard Novus Ordo Mass, and when they do, they too can expect to reverse their fortune and experience some growth again. The point here is that the future of Catholicism is both collapse and growth at the same time. Liberal Catholicism will continue to collapse, while traditional and conservative Catholicism will continue to grow and gradually take center stage. What we’ll end up with in another decade or so is a much smaller Catholic Church, because the collapse of liberalism will be so big, but this smaller Catholic Church will be far more conservative and traditional than what we see today.
What about Evangelicalism though? While the face of Protestantism has already changed from Mainline denominations to Evangelical, will Evangelicalism change too? I assert that it already has changed, and it is changing right now. In order to survive more than a couple generations, it must change again, and it will. Speaking as a former Evangelical, I believe I can tell you where it must go and how it must adapt.
You see, Evangelicalism has become a victim of its own success. It’s rapid growth in the latter half of the 20th century has defined its existence for nearly two generations. Evangelicals now have difficulty defining their church experience outside of growth, and yet, some of these megachurches can’t grow anymore because they’ve already reached maximum capacity. When your church building gets to nearly the size of a sports stadium, you can’t make the structure much bigger. Here in Springfield, Missouri, one Evangelical megachurch is trying something rather novel to increase its growth beyond the limitations of building structures. It’s branched out into separate locations throughout the city, but rather than putting a new main pastor over each location, the whole operation is still shepherded by one pastor in the original megachurch location. This is how it works. Each location begins their worship service at about the same time on Sunday morning. They each do about 20 minutes of prayer and praise music. Then, as that portion of the service ends, a large screen drops down at the satellite locations for a closed-circuit broadcast by the main pastor in the original location. He delivers the sermon (homily) to his own location and all the satellite locations at the same time. This goes on for about 30 to 40 minutes. When done, the screens go back up at the satellite locations all around town, and each satellite location then finishes with it’s own prayer and praise session. Welcome to the end of the Evangelical growth explosion. This is the last phase of stagnation before implosion.
The problem that Evangelicalism is beginning to experience is that since everything has been so growth-oriented for so long, the entire Evangelical spirituality runs a mile wide but only about an inch deep. How many Bible studies can one do to produce an authentically Christian experience? How much rock music, drums, fog machines and laser beams are needed to draw one into a closer relationship with God? There’s a tendency in modern Evangelicalism to reach out into the world so much, that it ends up becoming a lot like the world in the process, and each Evangelical church becomes a personality cult of the pastor. This is not to disparage Evangelicals. No! I won’t do that. I was one! Many in my family are still Evangelicals. I have tons of respect for them. They’re good people, who are very sincere in their intentions, and truly want what they say they want, which is a deeper relationship with God. On the contrary, all of these things are a sign. They’re a sign that Evangelicalism needs to evolve, grow, change and adapt. That day has finally arrived. As you can see by the chart below, Evangelical growth peaked between 1990 and 1993. It’s plateaued since then, and is now starting to see a slight decline. It’s current numbers are about equal to 1982 levels. While the graph will likely have peaks and troughs in the years ahead, Evangelicalism is on the downward trend now.
This trend is reflected on a local level as well. Thanks to the demographic research of real estate companies, the local religious trends of various locations around the country are starting to be charted. Here in my own neck of the woods, I’ve pulled up some statistics for Greene County, Missouri. As you can see, the local trends mirror the national trends.
What’s happening? Where are the people going? Well, they’re not going back to Mainline Protestantism, that’s for sure! They’re not heading over to Catholicism in large numbers either, I can promise you that. Yes, a good number of Mainline Protestants and Evangelicals convert to Catholicism every year, especially traditional Catholicism, but that number isn’t large enough to register on the graphs above. No. Where are they going? I’ll tell you exactly where they’re going. They’re going home. By that I mean, they’re literally going to their own houses and staying there on Sunday mornings. They just stopped going to church entirely.
The most noticeable trend in Green County, Missouri, mirrors the national trend but in a much more dramatic way, which is the complete and total collapse of Mainline Protestant denominations. Prior to 1980, the largest and most influential denomination in the county was Methodism. By 1990, all Mainline denominations together, including Methodism, were dwarfed by the Southern Baptists and a growing number of Evangelical megachurches. It wasn’t because Evangelicalism had radically grown in size either. Actually, quite the opposite was true. The number of Evangelicals in Greene County was actually shrinking. A small percentage of Mainline Protestants went Evangelical, but the vast majority just walked out of their Mainline churches, went home, and stayed there. They are the “unclaimed” or “nones” on religion surveys today. These are the cultural or ethnic Protestants of today. They have a Protestant family history, and may still identify as “Christian” in a nominal sense (or maybe not), but they no longer attend church or show any signs of Christian community or devotion.
As for the Evangelicals, as I noted above, they’re not growing. They’re actually shrinking in size, even in Greene County, Missouri, which is a deeply religious part of the state. A tiny percentage of them have started house churches, where they maintain small congregations of just a few families, but this is the exception to the norm. The vast majority of these people are simply staying home from church on Sunday mornings entirely. They don’t go to any church, and they don’t do any formal type of worship. Some of them go fishing. Some of them go hunting. Some of them watch football. Like the “ethnic Catholics” I described above, these people have become something totally new — “ethnic Evangelicals.” They still identify as Evangelicals (Baptists, Pentecostals or “Born-Again Christians,” etc.) but they don’t practice the faith anymore. They don’t go to church. They don’t read their Bible all that often. They don’t even do a whole lot of praise and worship anymore. They’ve become “spiritually homeless” in a sense, no longer anchored to any rhythm of Christian life or fellowship.
Why is this? If liberalism is killing Protestantism, and crippling Catholicism, why are Evangelicals (predominately conservative) declining too, albeit at a much slower pace? The answer is that Evangelicalism is a victim of it’s own success. Evangelicalism isn’t really growing anymore. Rather, it’s just been consolidating. The churches look bigger, because, for the last two decades, the old country churches have been closing their doors while the majority of their members flood into the big megachurch across town. Now, one megachurch takes the place of nine or ten small country churches. It gives the appearance of “growth” but that’s not what’s really happening. It’s been this way since the middle of the 1990s. It looks like Evangelicalism continues to grow, and that’s true for megachurches, but overall the religious tradition of Evangelicalism (itself) is starting to decline. It’s an illusion. Evangelicalism is no longer growing. It’s just consolidating into bigger churches with larger congregations and fewer clergy. Why is this happening?
For generations, Evangelicals have been taught that it doesn’t matter how you worship, or where you worship, just so long as you have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Of course, that message is always accompanied by explaining why you should come to church and tithe, but sooner or later, some people follow this teaching through to its logical conclusion. If Christian religion is nothing more than a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” then there really is no need to go to church at all. Bible studies can be done at home. Christian worship music can be played on MP3 players, both in the home and in the car, or even with a portable stereo outdoors. Anybody can pray anywhere. So why go to church? What’s the point? For some, it’s become little more than a social gathering. So when people get tired of it, or for whatever reason become anti-social, they just go home and stay there. Right now, just off the top of my head, I can think of over a dozen fervent and devout Evangelicals I personally know who have done just that. I bet you might know some too. Maybe you are one?
So what went wrong? Evangelicalism can no longer grow. It’s reached the end of its growth cycle. Evangelicals now have to refocus on how to last, and sadly, they’re not doing a very good job of that right now.
Rod Dreher, in his bestselling book “The Benedict Option” explains why American Christianity (particularly Evangelicalism) has got to either change or face collapse. He advocates maintaining the strong moral and theologically conservative foundation that has made Evangelicalism great. (After all, liberalism kills churches, right? So stay conservative!) But at the same time, he asserts that what Evangelicals need is a good dose of history and culture to survive the ages. He doesn’t propose making up something entirely new, such as what the “Messianic synagogues” (Evangelical-Jewish churches) have done, but rather reaching back to what has worked in the past, and will work again for those willing to try it. He’s a strong advocate for liturgical renewal, which will in turn produce a more introspective Christian faith in believers, which will not only strengthen them personally, but also give them the spiritual tools they need to take on a post-Christian society…
Religion didn’t kill Mainline Protestantism, liberalism did. Look back at the history of Mainline Protestant denominations, and one will see that most of them were doing quite well before liberalism took over after the 1960s. Dreher suggests the way for these Evangelical churches to re-energize themselves is with a hefty dose of good ol’ fashioned liturgy and sacraments. Dreher uses both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as examples of this.
This is where I’ll jump in with my own observations. If Dreher is right, and I believe he is, then the majority of Evangelicalism is doomed to implosion, because most Evangelicals will never adopt a liturgical or sacramental expression of faith. It all looks “too Catholic” to them. These are the Evangelical denominations destined to join the ash heap of history. It’s over for them. They just don’t realize it yet. As a faithful and conservative Catholic myself, I certainly would like to see Evangelicals convert to Catholicism entirely. Come on in! The water’s fine! But as a former Evangelical, I recognize that is simply not going to happen for the overwhelming vast majority of Evangelicals. Many of them would rather die before converting to Catholicism. It’s an unfortunate but sad truth that we all must face concerning American Evangelicalism. Only a small percentage will ever convert to Catholicism (or Orthodoxy) in the near future, but the overwhelming vast majority never will. A mass exodus from Evangelicalism to Catholicism is simply not going to happen in this generation.
So what’s left? Dreher hinted at a few options in his book, but I’m going to make my own suggestion.
This has all been done before, and there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Americans have a strong connection to English Christianity as it developed in the British Isles both before, during and after the colonial period. Any English-speaking Evangelical has a strong connection to it, which is why so many Evangelicals still prefer the King James Version (KJV) and New King James Version (NKJV) of the Bible. There is a natural attachment to the history and culture of English Christianity, which is expressed most profoundly in those particular English versions of the Bible.
The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is the Bible arranged for a liturgical worship service, and alongside the KJV and NKJV Bible, stands as a depository of English Christianity. In other words, it’s a way of praying the Bible together in a community. The best example of where the BCP is being used right now is in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). The ACNA is a more Evangelical wing of Anglicanism, that’s not officially recognized as a province by the Archbishop of Canterbury, but is still nevertheless connected to Anglicanism in the global south (Africa, Asia and Latin America). It’s a bit of a hybrid between old Mainline Protestantism and Charismatic Evangelicalism: a healthy blend of high-church and broad-church. Because of this it’s fairly conservative, at least as conservative as most Evangelical churches, if not more so in some cases. This is what Evangelicalism needs to survive the generations to come. A strong liturgical element, based on English Protestant tradition, will give Evangelicals the tools they need to deepen their spiritual life, strengthen their communities, and fortify them for the long haul. Evangelical churches could begin reworking their worship services modeled after the Book of Common Prayer (see here) as published by the theologically and morally conservative ACNA. In time, after such changes have taken place, Evangelicals can work on establishing ecumenical relations with the ACNA, or work together with the ACNA simultaneously as the changes are underway. This kind of connection is necessary, as Christians will need to stick together in the challenging “post-Christian” times to come.
The following is a video of an ACNA Eucharist service, which shows what Evangelical churches could look like in the years to come, provided they survive the coming demographic collapse. This particular service was the opening service for a conference, so it’s a bit longer than usual, with more announcements than usual. The average Eucharistic service typically runs shorter than this one at 60 to 75 minutes, depending on the length of the sermon…
It is possible that individuals and families within various Evangelical churches may not be willing to wait for such necessary adaptations to take place in the Evangelical world. So, keeping the spiritual welfare of themselves and their families in mind, they may wish to join an ACNA parish now (find them here) if there happens to be one nearby.
Here in Springfield, Missouri, one of America’s most densely populated Evangelical centers, and home of the worldwide Assemblies of God headquarters and seminary, the ACNA has seen phenomenal growth, which is highly unusual for what would normally be considered a Mainline Denomination parish, but it is just one parish. Springfield is a strongly Baptist/Pentecostal city, and yet All Saints Anglican Church (ACNA) is thriving. The same cannot be said of the local Episcopal (liberal Anglican) churches, which haven’t seen any significant growth in decades. This is a test case, in my opinion, for how well conservative Anglicanism plays among Evangelicals, and the results are in. It plays well. Evangelicals like it. They like it because it’s a hybrid of the Evangelicalism they’re familiar with, combined with the ‘old school’ liturgy and sacraments they need for the long haul formation of Christian identity, community and culture. Similar results have been seen in other densely populated Evangelical areas throughout the US.
To survive, Evangelicalism must change, and to change effectively, it must turn to what has been proved to work throughout the centuries. English-speaking Evangelicals have a strong attachment to English Christianity, particularly the Book of Common Prayer (see here), whether they realize it or not. The future of Christianity in North America will be Catholic and Evangelical, but both will change in the years ahead. Catholicism will become smaller and more traditional in character as the liberal wing of the Catholic Church slowly dies off. While Evangelicalism must become more conservatively “Anglican” in character if it wants to survive in the decades to come. Evangelicals don’t have to use the word “Anglican,” or identify themselves as such, but they must adopt many of the liturgical and sacramental aspects of English Christianity if they want to last beyond another generation or two.
Written on September 24, 2019, the Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham.