The current state of American evangelicalism

Is evangelicalism declining, maybe dying, or even dead? You don’t have to look around very long to find posts arguing precisely this. Most famously, Michael Spencer argued that This is the End……of Evangelicalism, my Friend and presaged The Coming Evangelical Collapse in a series of posts that sparked considerable discussion.  Many other authors have presented similar ideas while prophesying the end of evangelicalism.

Before commenting further it’s worth noting that we’re only talking about American evangelicalism here. Our international brethren must find it very frustrating when we critique evangelicalism as though American evangelicalism were its only expressions. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, we need to recognize that evangelicalism is a much broader and more diverse movement than we often recognize.

But, despite these claims of evangelicalism’s untimely demise, others beg to differ. In a recent First Things article, Byron Johnson argues that American evangelicalism is alive and well. His basic argument involves the following two basic claims:

  • American evangelicalism is not declining despite statistical evidence to the contrary. His basic argument here has to do with the failure of recent surveys to account for several key realities: (1) nondenominational church members are largely evangelical but often represent themselves as “unaffiliated” or even as having “no religion” (which raises its own issues); (2) evangelical denominations grew 156% from 1960 to 2000; and (3) self-reported atheists still account for only 4% of the population.
  • American evangelicals are not becoming social liberals. In fact, Johnson argues that younger evangelicals are often more conservatives than previous evangelicals and their non-evangelical counterparts.

Johnson thus concludes:

Leading religious observers claim that evangelicalism is shrinking and the next generation of evangelicals is becoming less religious and more secular, but (as we social scientists like to say) these are empirical questions, and the evidence shows that neither of these claims is true. The number of evangelicals remains high, and their percentage among practicing Christians in America is, if anything, rising. Young evangelicals are not turning to more liberal positions on controversial social issues; in some cases they are becoming more conservative than their parents. Perhaps young evangelicals have become more socially aware and have a longer, broader list of social concerns, but they remain socially conservative.

As with most things, I’m sure the truth lies somewhere in between. The facade of American evangelicalism has developed a number of cracks in recent years, cracks that threaten to widen and permanently scar evangelicalism in years to come. At the same time, American evangelicalism retains a degree of vitality seldom recognized by its critics. I don’t know for sure what the future holds, but it should be interesting.

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About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on February 7, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. If anything I think people caring about the label Evangelical and self identify as that is declining.

    • That certainly seems to be the case with those non-denominational evangelicals self-identifying as “non-religious.” That is fascinating. I’d love to see a study following up with them.

      But, I still stand by my contention that “evangelical” is a term worth fighting for. It’s historic and theological significance makes it one that I won’t give up on easily.

  2. Evangelical, or “Evangel”, etc. is a biblical term, and no doubt needs re-defining theologically. I have seen both Anglicans and E. Orthodox use it, as well as even a few Roman Catholics.

  3. I don’t know anyone in my generation who would care to call themselves an evangelical, but maybe I have all the wrong friends.

    Personally, I suffer from label fatigue in the church. I understand the tradition I come from, but I don’t have much invested in its particular expression.

  4. Marc:
    I guess I just wonder if you go to churches, whether mainline, nondenominational or whatever, whether most of the people in the pews will really even know what you’re talking about when you use labels like Evangelical, liberal, mainline, etc, much less care which label they fit under.

    Are the only people who really care about those kinds of labels those who are into theology and church issues (seminary students, professors, etc) in the more academic sense. If so, then if there is a decline in Evangelicalism is it only among them?

  5. Thanks for posting this.

    re: Johnson – Why would becoming “socially liberal” be an indicator of Evangelicalism weakening or disintegrating? That might be good, depending on the issue(s). But it would be better not to be put under the taxonomy of American politics to get verification of your religious bona fides, i.e. the church as its own narrative and ethic instead of one subsumed under something “bigger.”

    And you are right about the self-identification issue, Marc. What does it mean that they identify as “non-religious?” Is it just a reference to the simplistic old chestnut, “I have a relationship not a religion”? Or is it indicative of a larger shift in which people really don’t even know what it is they believe? Or is it a strategy of wanting to be distanced from other Christians who are an embarrassment because of the way they hold/promote their “flavor” of Evangelicalism.

    At the same time, the harbingers of doom about have been busy for a long time. Frankly, isn’t that a part of Evangelicalism’s DNA, to keep the fire burning by lamenting that it is dying out? If no one was lamenting, then there’d be a real problem.

  6. Again, Evangelical is not just an American movement or Church designation, Anglican’s have been using it since before Wesley and Puritanism.

  7. I’ll share what Dr. John Hannah told me. I sat in his office after reading Michael Spencer’s articles and asked him, “Do you think Evangelicalism is a sinking ship?” His response was gold. He said, “If the sucker sinks, it sinks. What are ya gonna do? We come to work anyway.”

    While I don’t buy in to the gloom and doom, I am discouraged to see many young, bright Evangelical teachers and thinkers bailing out for other traditions that have, not less, but different problems. I can’t say that is indicative of Evangelicals everywhere, but it is a growing trend here in Dallas.

  8. People have proclaimed God dead for a long time, but that doesn’t stop Him. Being told we’re dead won’t stop evangelicals, either. Perhaps the real question is how to define evangelical. And maybe the problem isn’t those who are, but those who pretend to be seeing their own death and juxtaposing it on others.

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