Prominent figures in the evangelical establishment have already begun sounding alarms. In particular, the Barna Group, an evangelical market research organization, has been issuing a steady stream of books and white papers documenting the erosion of support for evangelicalism, especially among young people. Contributions from worshippers 55 and older now account for almost two-thirds of evangelical churches’ income in the United States. A mere three percent of non-Christian Americans under 30 have a positive impression of evangelical Christianity, according to David Kinnaman, the Barna Group’s president. That’s down from 25 percent of baby boomers at a similar age. At present rates of attrition, two-thirds of evangelicals in their 20s will abandon church before they turn 30. “It’s the melting of the icebergs,” Kinnaman told me. Young people’s most common complaint, he said, is that churches are too focused on sexual issues and preoccupied with their own institutional development—in other words, he explained, “Christianity no longer looks like Jesus.”
Stop right there and ask yourself: "Why, again, is Pope Francis so popular? What is it so many people are saying about him?" But going a bit further, and on another topic altogether, this is an excellent summation of the recent history of churches in America:
Schuller, like Billy Graham and other name-brand evangelical ministers, led a mid-20th-century spiritual resurgence that corresponded with the birth and subsequent coming of age of America’s baby-boom generation. Even as older, inner-city mainline Protestant congregations withered in postwar America, suburban evangelical churches gained members when boomers, now having children of their own, began showing up in the late 1970s. A decade later, evangelical megachurches—some of the largest of which were in Orange County—were the dominant trend in American Christianity, growing in lockstep with the suburbs that gave them birth and set their spiritual tone.I've seen the churches in my neighborhood, and indeed in every area of the country before I left Texas to go to seminary, affected this way. Born by a new growth in the neighborhood, new churches would spring up or old ones would be revived. A few decades later (one or two is all that's needed), the neighborhood has changed, especially in rapidly growing areas (or rapidly declining ones), and the old churches are empty or nearly so, everyone gone to newer churches in newer, or at least younger, neighborhoods. And there's also this:
The Christianity practiced in these suburban churches was not of the fire-and-brimstone variety. Evangelicals are far looser and more theologically diverse than Christian fundamentalists, who emerged in the late 19th century in reaction to the destabilizing effects of industrialization, the Civil War, and advances in science. Fundamentalism, especially the view that the Bible is inerrant in all of its teachings, has been steadily declining as a force in American Christianity for decades. Recent Barna Group research shows that just 38 percent of Christians—down from close to half two decades ago—regard the Bible as “totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches.” Evangelicals, by contrast, while acknowledging the authority of scripture, place greater emphasis on the believer’s personal relationship with Christ. They trace their roots in America to Jonathan Edwards, an 18th-century Massachusetts divine who paired Calvinistic theology with scholarship, evangelism, and spiritual conversion. The preeminence of conversion has produced huge variety and creativity in their outreach to nonbelievers. For nearly a century, evangelicals have been at the forefront of innovations in church music, worship style, architecture, and use of media to engage the non-Christian world.
Despite the fact Sam Harris insisted only a few years ago that all real Christians are fundamentalists, and the fact that, on the internet at least, all believers are Christian fundamentalists (and therefore lunatics), only 38% of Christians identify with those claims. The reference to John Edwards there is ironic, since his most famous sermon is "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Not the kind of thing Robert Schuller would ever preach.
And this description sounds like the town I live in (which, according to the U.S. Census, is the most ethnically diverse city in America; and my neighborhood the most ethnically diverse in the city):
Young people in Orange County, no matter their ethnic or economic background, no longer view themselves as living in a suburban appendage of urban Los Angeles. The county is dense with Vietnamese pho joints, boba tea shops, Asian shopping malls, halal markets, Mexican swap meets, punk-rock nightclubs, and art galleries.
There is a non-denominational "commnity church" within walking distance of where I sit, a new occupant of a building used by a Mexican Pentecostal church until it got big enough to purchase the emptied out Baptist church (it died mostly of old age) across the street from the church I came here to pastor over a decade ago. There are Thai and Mexican and Korean and Vietnamese diners a stone's throw from me, as well as national chains, barbecue joints, Spanish speaking psychics, herablists, juice joints catering to cultures from south of the border, within two miles of where I sit. Oh, and a huge and growing retail center catering mostly to upscale and middle class buyers, just across the freeway. Rick Warren might find a receptive audience at the biggest Baptist church in Houston, which is about 15 minutes away from me just now; but he'd never try to open Saddleback in my neighborhood: too many of his followers would be afraid to drive over here (the grocery store I use still courts the upper class shoppers by putting security guards in the parking lot, to reassure them).
This is equally fascinating:
“The megachurch was a baby-boomer suburban phenomenon that folks under 45 typically aren’t perpetuating,” says Ryan Bolger, who teaches contemporary Christianity at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. Young evangelicals “want to start communities in cafés, and this isn’t just whites. We’re starting to see with Koreans and Latinos a desire to move away from the churchiness of church, to be multicultural and in an urban context, church in the profane areas of life.”One of my professors in seminary (this was, mind, circa 1995) wondered if mega-churches weren't the sign of yet another "Great Awakening" in America. Well, maybe, but if it was, it's worth pointing out those "Awakenings" were never really fundamental shifts in American religious life (the first one, led by Edwards, was; the rest? Not so much.). And again: this explains the appeal of a Pope Francis.
This, in fact, very much appeals to me; and I say that as a pastor, as someone who dedicated four years of his life to being educated so he could be ordained as a minister in a denomination, and seek a pulpit in a church where he could earn a full-time salary. I soon realized that such salaries were a drain on most churches, which needed to raise a six figure budget every year just to open the doors and pay the pastor to minister to them, and effort that put a tremendous strain on the real reason a church should gather: to be the people of God. This place seems to have figured that out:
At Epic Church, a 200-member, decade-old congregation in a northern part of Orange County populated mostly by Koreans and Hispanics, members gather for weekly worship in a rented office building but spend much of their time together working as tutors to low-income students at a nearby neighborhood center. “We haven’t been a church that understands ourselves as goods and services,” said Kevin Doi, Epic’s founder and pastor. The church welcomes gays, makes no overt effort to raise money from members, and regularly invites residents at a neighboring homeless shelter to its services. Doi said he has no long-range plan for his church and wouldn’t mind if it ceased functioning as an institution altogether. “We didn’t feel like our goal was to get people to come to our church,” he said. “We wanted to be present in the neighborhood, where we’re the guests.”That last line, especially, puts me in mind of Dorothy Day:
I am reading (Simone Weil's) essays as a part of my Lenten reading...She says that we "...must experience every day, both in the spirit and the flesh, the pains and humiliations of poverty...and further we must do something which is harder than enduring in poverty, we must renounce all compensations: in our contacts with the people around us we must sincerely practice the humility of a naturalized citizen in the country which has received us."Dorothy Day, from The Dorothy Day Book, p. 11.
I keep reminding the young people who come to work with us that they are not naturalized citizens...They are not really poor. We are always foreigners to the poor. So we have to make up for it by "renouncing all compensations..."
“Evangelicals are good at whipping people up into a frenzy, and then you’re like, ‘What was that?’ ” Bell told me. “I was the pastor of a megachurch, and lots of people came, and I did book tours and interviews and films. That’s fine. But I’ll take seeing God every day, which is washing dishes with my kids and walking my dog and interacting with someone I just met.”Or what Kathleen Norris called the "quotidian mysteries," the presence of God in daily life. Frankly, this is a guy I resonate with. And the article ends with this startling observation:
Robert Schuller’s brand of worship might just turn out to be nothing more than a spiritual fad.That, in the context of this earlier statement:
America will not become like Europe, where ossified state churches proved unable to compete against the inherently secularizing forces of market capitalism—and where immigrants’ faith expressions are often met with hostility. America will remain exceptionally religious. But traditional evangelical Christianity will no longer be a dominant presence in that religiosity.Gives me something to think about, even to feel hopeful about.