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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.