Gracy Olmstead has written the latest edition of an article that is in danger of becoming a meme amongst traditionalist conservatives: Millennial Christians are, apparently, converting to high church traditions en masse. Rebecca Van Doodewaard, Jeremy Tate, and Scot McKnight have also discussed this issue recently so it’s hardly a new story. There’s two things that need to be raised every time this article is written and, as best I can tell, none of them are discussed at any length in any of the pieces I’ve found.
First, there isn’t a ton of data showing how many people actually are converting to Catholicism or Orthodoxy or Anglicanism out of more evangelical backgrounds. (And we probably shouldn’t be including Anglicanism with Orthodoxy or Catholicism anyway, but that’s an entirely separate discussion.) Here’s the data we do have: Data from February of 2011 from the Pew Forum found that 9% of all Americans are former Catholics whereas only 7% of Americans are ex-Protestants. Of that 9% that have left Catholicism, 5% converted to Protestantism.
While it’s fair for members of high church traditions to point out that many of the converts to Protestantism are less engaged to begin with, while converts to Catholicism tend to be more noteworthy (Scott Hahn, Francis Beckwith, Jason Stellman, etc.), that doesn’t change the fact that more people convert from Catholicism to Protestantism than vice versa—a fact that most of these stories ignore completely.
The point here isn’t to get into a fight about who has more converts, but simply to highlight the fact that the trickle of noteworthy evangelicals going to Rome tends to get a fair amount of coverage while the stream of young people leaving Catholicism for Protestantism seems to receive far less. (The pieces that do discuss Catholics leaving the church are typically more focused on the general decline in numbers experienced by most churches in the contemporary west. Few articles mention that slightly more than half of the former Catholics in the USA are now Protestant.)
That said, there is still an interesting discussion to be had about millennial Christians who aren’t happy with the state of evangelicalism and who are looking for something different. There’s a type of younger evangelical who is a conscientious, thoroughly orthodox believer who feels frustrated with the triviality and faddishness of popular evangelicalism. They long for a more historically informed liturgy, a greater emphasis on the sacraments, and a more integrated understanding of Christian faith. These types of younger evangelicals are the ones who often, though not always, end up converting to Catholicism or Orthodoxy.
The frustrating thing is that most of them make the decision to convert because they think there are only two options: the historically ignorant, sacramentally impoverished evangelicalism they grew up in and more high church traditions such as Catholicism or Orthodoxy. But between those two views there is an entire western Christian tradition that is largely ignored in the United States because it has been largely marginalized or co-opted by American culture. I am speaking of the magisterial Protestant tradition that includes Reformed and Lutheran Christians and, depending on who you talk to, also includes Anglicanism (which is why Anglicanism is notoriously difficult to categorize in terms of its relationship to magisterial Protestantism and Catholicism).
The magisterial protestant tradition broke from Rome (or, more accurately, was kicked out by Rome–they were not the ones to choose schism) over issues of ecclesial authority, justification, and sacramentology. But these protestants still understood themselves as existing in continuity with the church that came before them. (And their claim seems fairly well-grounded when one considers some of the reform-minded folks from previous generations of the late medieval church.) If you read the writings of Luther or Calvin, you’ll find them peppered with quotes from the church fathers. If you read the opening to the Augsburg Confession, you’ll find Melanchthon writing on behalf of the Lutherans and insisting that they are part of the only holy Catholic church.
This group of protestants stood in contrast (and opposition) to the radical protestants whose critiques of Rome tended to be much more extreme. Due to the sheer diversity of the radicals, it’s hard to pin them down theologically. They had everything from bizarre leaders predicting that the end of the world was imminent (Melchior Hoffman) and claiming that polygamy is biblical (the Munster radicals) to far more mild types who tended to share much with Reformed Christians but rejected the Reformed understanding of church-state issues and infant baptism (Michael Sattler).
If you can reduce the radicals to a few traits, then it’d be that they tended to be pacifistic and to reject infant baptism while not being terribly concerned with the question of continuity with previous generations of the church. Their number included some of the first restorationists—people who claim that the true Christian faith was lost for a time but was recovered by a small group at a later date. (Restorationists these days include everything from Mormons to the Church of Christ.) With their tacit individualism and apathy toward history (amongst many other things), radical protestant traditions have always tended to play better in the United States, a nation founded on the idea of being a “new world” that rejected old world traditions and beliefs.
There have always been magisterial Protestants in the United States as well, but there is a perpetual tendency for these traditions to slide toward radicalism as they adopt more characteristically American tendencies toward individualism and separating oneself from the past. As a result, traditions that ought to embrace the more liturgical, sacramental spirituality of the high church tradition will struggle to do so consistently. This is how, to take the most extreme example, an ostensibly Reformed pastor like Robert Schuller ends up creating the Crystal Cathedral and the Hour of Power. For magisterial Protestants there is a constant tug of war between certain hallmark attributes of the American political identity and the guiding principles of the magisterial tradition.
That said, one of the consistent themes of millennial evangelical social criticism tends to be a more skeptical attitude toward American materialism, or at least certain types of American materialism. Alongside that trend, the emergence of churches like Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan as well as the somewhat surprising resilience of many orthodox Anglican congregations suggest that the future of American Christianity likely is a more high church, liturgically informed type of Christianity–but such a Christianity is not essentially incompatible with Protestantism.