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Whither Evangelicalism?

Those were the days (Anthony Correia/Shutterstock)

This post of mine about driving people away from the church has drawn some really interesting comments from Evangelical readers. I urge you to read the two updates at that link. Rather than add this comment that just came in via e-mail to it, I’m going to set it aside in a new post. The reader who sent this is an Evangelical:

I think in all your discussions of “evangelicalism,” it is important to keep one thing in mind: relative to Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and even Anglican/ Lutheran traditions, “evangelicalism” is a much looser and harder to define thing. We don’t have a doctrinal magisterium in Rome or Canterbury, or a shared liturgy and language of worship, and so It encompasses everything from historic, confessional reformed churches like the PCA/ OPC to pentecostal storefront churches to Southern Baptists to the Black church, and to see how “evangelicalism” is doing in the sea of liquid modernity you really have to look at each of these strands.

You tend to focus–as do I–on the camp that reflects you the most, which is the Tim Keller/Russell Moore/ culture-forward conservative evangelical leadership. The kind of people who would rather go to a new Indian restaurant than to Denny’s. And I agree with your commentator Northland [see original post linked above — RD] that that is a smaller segment of evangelicalism than most of us would like to believe. Where I disagree with him is on the idea that the young welder in Muskogee or nurse in Terre Haute will continue filling the pews. Most sociological data is against that, with the steepest declines in attendance coming in the poor and working class.

Fundamentally, in the more educated/ formally organized area of Evangelicalism (let’s say the SBC, the orthodox reformed churches like the PCA/ OPC/ Ev. Free Church/ ARP, RPCNA), I think you are seeing the same dynamic as in RC churches in Poland that you wrote about the other week. There is a somewhat complacent older class of “neutral world” pastor-leaders that think with sound doctrine and winsomeness we can beat this thing, and because the money keeps coming from older, wealthier Christians in the pews, they are kind of oblivious to the flashing warning lights in the young, both legitimate (nationalism in worship services, uncritical Trumpism) and not (acid bath of liquid modernity is eating up young evangelicals too, and they want their churches to go soft on LGBTQ stuff just as much as anybody else). I would say the conservative reformed church as I have experienced it does a better job than the Catholics at catechesis and making sure pastors/ churches are adhering to doctrine, but the rot is here too, without a doubt: parents who think their kids’ spiritual development is fine because they go to our area Christian school or youth group every week, a sense of self-congratulation because our church is big and lots of people come every Sunday, and just a steadfast refusal to believe that things really are as bad as they are in the broader culture and that their kids are vaping in their cars after youth group.

The storefront church side of evangelicalism–well, that’s a hard nut to crack. A lot of those places don’t have any kind of doctrine, denomination, or accountability, and become MTD for the White working class. There seems to be this implication in lots of quarters that MTD is the religious drug of choice for the educated, the White liberals–it’s just as much, maybe more so, the drug of choice for the working class believer. The notion that we don’t need doctrine, we just know God is real and we’re going to catch the spirit, and he’s going to love you and you can bring anything to him….one of the more damaging romantic mythologies the conservative has, and guys like Chris Arnade (bless him) have with compassion exposed, is that there is some sort of deep well of character and principle in the oppressed common man, the “real American.” The worship in that stratum of the culture in my experience (which is limited but I have some) reflects the negatives as well as positives of that stratum. You may find believers in the pentecostal church in Muskogee, but I don’t know that you will find anything that is really historic Christian doctrine and cosmology. MTD can be authentic without being true.

The Black church is a different deal too. Again, you have all manner of doctrinal issues–you have churches that are quite orthodox, and churches that are not. You have a strong since of ethnic and historical rootedness in those churches–like, say, the Irish Catholics–that may serve them well for a while, and it’s certainly true that the Blackness of those churches will give them cover for a while from secularizing liberals (see the last paragraph of this politico piece https://www.politico.com/story/2019/05/15/pete-buttigieg-black-voters-1322396, where Buttigieg acts really nice towards Black voters who are skeptical of him as a gay man, then imagine how he would treat WWC Christians with the same concern). However, the Black millennial drift is happening too, albeit maybe slower than the White one.

Bottom line is that the evangelicals are going to be winnowed one way or the other just like everybody else. I think they are in a marginally better position, at least in the reformed world, because of general doctrinal consistency and catechesis, but it will still happen. The sliver of the Evangelical world that is home schooling their kids, catechizing –they will maybe make it, but even in conservative denominations that’s a minority report for sure.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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