Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Toward a Renewed Public Protestantism: The Beginnings of a Manifesto

February 13th, 2023 | 12 min read

By Jake Meador

In his book Bad Religion, Ross Douthat suggests that the 1950s were the high water mark for Christianity in America. Amongst other things, church attendance was at its peak and each of America’s four defining ecclesial traditions were relatively strong. The Protestant Mainline was still vital, providing a kind of moral conscience to accompany the dynamism of American markets and might of American political power, as Joseph Bottum has argued. The Mainline provided a way for Christian Americans to self-consciously recognize the ways in which their faith equipped them for virtuous citizenship and participation in the institutions of American public life. Meanwhile, American Evangelicalism supplied an energy, entrepreneurialism, and spirit of outreach that paired well with the Mainline’s more stolid sensibility. Where evangelicalism was deficient — aiming the energy it excelled at gathering up — the mainline was strong and vice versa. The combination allowed for the publicly conscious, institutionally rooted realism of Niebuhr to exist alongside the energy and zeal of Graham.

Alongside these two white Protestant movements existed the Roman Catholic Church and the Black church. The Roman church supplied an anchor institution and community that rooted predominantly working class, immigrant communities across America’s emerging industrial urban hubs. Even as these communities assimilated into mainstream American life, the Roman church provided, for a time, a certain historical and cultural rootedness that resisted the atomizing tendencies of America. The Black church served a similar function as the Roman church for the nation’s African American citizens while also offering a vision of Christian faith that contained elements of the Mainline and of the Evangelical. Like the Mainline, the Black church was publicly engaged in mainstream American life and was concerned with problems of justice and social crisis. Like the Evangelicals, the Black church tended to be more reliably committed to historic Christian doctrines concerning the resurrection, the supernatural, and so on as well as a robust individual practice of Christian piety. In this respect, the Black church has been the lone American ecclesial tradition that has sustained this dual concern throughout her history—a testimony which perhaps makes her uniquely equipped to help us understand the shape of Christian faithfulness in our own moment. Taken as a whole, these four movements made up “American Christianity.”

The Failure of the Christian Movement in America

That world, however, has long since collapsed. The Protestant Mainline, which was long plagued by theological modernism has today been overtaken by a kind of progressive audience capture, and is now a shadow of its former self in terms of intellectual credibility, demographic might, and institutional clout. Evangelicalism, meanwhile, has become more and more amorphous and often only superficially Christian, the fruit of 50 years of seeker-sensitive ideology and political capture that abandoned catechesis and many staples of Protestant liturgy in favor of market-based innovation and a quest for relevance and power. Recent studies have found that American evangelicals mostly don’t know what Christianity teaches: They are divided in their views on matters of basic Christian moral teaching and even endorse basic heresies in large numbers.

America’s Catholic population has shifted dramatically with the European enclaves almost entirely disappearing as distinctly Catholic groups and with a corresponding demographic collapse and massive reduction in sacramental life in the Roman church. (Compare how frequently Mass is said and confession is offered in many church’s today as compared to 60 years ago.) The Roman church today still has a large number of immigrants, though today they mostly come from Mexico and central America rather than Italy, Ireland, and Poland. But these communities too seem to be following the same demographic pattern as the earlier European immigrant communities, becoming gradually more secular or more Protestant with each successive generation.

The remaining portion of the American Catholic church tends to be the closest thing we have to the old Protestant Mainline—mostly white cultural and intellectual elites who, incidentally, are often converts out of the Mainline or Evangelicalism. (To cite only one example, the two most successful editors of First Things are both Catholic converts out of the Mainline with Richard Neuhaus coming out of the ELCA and Rusty Reno out of TEC.) Yet this bloc is demographically far smaller than the old Mainline and, because of the nature of Roman theology, it has a far harder time fulfilling the public-facing role that the old Mainline did, as the recent disputes over integralism amply demonstrate. (Integralism is an inherently anti-American position, which is perhaps why virtually none of the American Catholics touting its virtues three or four years ago are still doing so now.)

Finally, the Black church has, at times, persisted in its public facing ministry which exists alongside a faithful adherence to traditional Christian orthodoxy. Yet it has also fallen prey to a certain sort of political capture, even if for more sympathetic reasons than those of the Mainline or Evangelical movements, and has experienced its own kind of demographic decline in the past several decades.

The result is an American church that is mostly nowhere, at least relative to the form it took in the 1950s. The full reckoning with this decline has not yet come, as the Baby Boomer generation’s capital has managed to mostly preserve the legacy institutions and churches of this era. Their ongoing financial investment in certain institutions has masked much of this decline, giving the appearance of persistent health and vitality, even as the soul of the movement has long since departed. As the Boomers retire and die, their money and volunteer resources will disappear and the underlying realities facing the American church will no longer be “underlying” and will become quite visible indeed. All four streams of the American church are likely to look extremely different 10-15 years from now with the Catholics and Evangelicals perhaps being set up for the most seismic and shocking diminishment. Colleges will close, as will seminaries. Churches will shut their doors. Other ecclesial institutions will likewise fail due to a lack of financial resources.

The Task Before Us

The task before us, then, is to imagine what the American church will be in the aftermath of this collapse. The things we cannot do should be apparent. If we follow the theological path of the Mainline, we will soon have nothing at all to say to America and our churches will empty out as the Mainline’s churches already have. The rising generation can enjoy blue politics and activism without the bother of going to church, after all. If evangelicals adopt our own version of this error by foregrounding the therapeutic, then the same problem holds: You can get mental health support and counseling and sleep in on Sunday mornings too.

On the other hand, if we follow the sociological and theological path of the evangelicals we will, likewise, collapse: a movement that is losing its understanding of marriage and in which nearly half of its members are de facto Arians will not survive as a meaningfully Christian movement. It will, instead, simply become a socio-political entity defined more by its political and commercial patterns and lifestyle choices than by any properly theological convictions.

The challenge before us, then, is to essentially re-plant the Christian movement in the United States. This work will require the legacy institutions of the departing world to fundamentally reimagine their work while other new institutions come into existence in order to serve and support the church in her work as it must be done today.

The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission

We might put the matter this way: Christian movements always thrive on two distinct types of institutions, as Richard Winter explains in his classic paper, “The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission.” Put simply, you could refer to the two structures as “parish and religious orders,” if you’re thinking in Catholic terms or, in more Protestant terms, “local churches” and “parachurch organizations.” We can see this pattern throughout church history—the former institution anchors the sacramental life of the church and is the primary venue where the Word of God is proclaimed and Christian discipline is practiced. But then existing alongside these churches, we find religious orders or parachurch movements that seek to pursue some more specific form of Christian work or life that is good and in keeping with God’s purposes, but is not strictly speaking the task of the parish. Winter, of course, was a missionary and one of the primary “orders” or “parachurch organizations” he had in view as he wrote is the missions organization.

The problem we are dealing with today in evangelicalism is two-fold: First, the churches have become commoditized, as it were, driven to see themselves as a kind lifestyle purveyor. This is partly the consequence of the attractional movement, which gave birth to the notion that churches existed chiefly to provide a certain kind of experience to attendees, rather than to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments to parishioners. But it is also a function of the wide-scale adoption of the car, which has destroyed the neighborhood parish church model and created the structure in which churches had plausible reason to see themselves as an experience dispenser in competition with other churches dispensing other experiences on Sunday morning. Second, the parachurch organizations have not adapted to new realities and have often operated in a free-floating, undefined relationship to those local churches that have remained recognizably Christian communities.

We can see Winter’s structure everywhere in the post-war Christian movement in America. The 1950s and 60s saw the birth, reorganization, or rapid expansion of many such organizations, such as InterVarsity Fellowship, the Navigators, Campus Crusade for Christ, Christianity Today, Fuller Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. During that time, none of these groups needed to be terribly self-conscious about their relationship to the church. They could simply assume the presence of faithful local churches and assume that of course the people involved in their ministries would be rooted in local Christian communities. They could fill a support role, reaching people that churches weren’t reaching (and then sending those people to church) and both training and shoring up the emerging intellect of the evangelical movement. (Skimming some of the Lexham Press volumes of essays that appeared in the early days of Christianity Today would be a worthwhile exercise.)

In the intervening decades, those assumptions have ceased to be true. The outcome is that campus ministries have often come to serve as de facto churches for their students, only to have their students abandon the faith in the years after graduating due, in part, to the absence of any Christian community in their life or even any understanding of why the church would be an essential part of Christian discipleship. Other institutions have become free-floating, writing about the church more than for the church or serving as a kind of standalone academic institution with only a tenuous tie to the vital practice of the faith as lived out within local churches. In other words, the evangelical center has collapsed as leaders have passed on and socio-cultural conditions have evolved, leaving virtually none of the aforementioned institutions unscathed.

To give only one specific example of the broader phenomenon I am trying to name, it is striking to note that the last two long-serving editors of the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today both left evangelicalism after retiring, with David Neff adopting a revisionist position on sexuality while Mark Galli converted to Catholicism. The center position that Christianity Today once occupied has become incoherent due to the collapse of both the Mainline and Evangelicalism. It’s possible to treat Niebuhr and, say, McIntire as poles and moderate between the two. But there is no centrist position to take up between Nadia Bolz-Weber and Jerry Falwell Jr., between a movement that has ceased to be Christian in its theology and a movement that has ceased to be theological at all.

In the absence of stable, presupposed relationships to local churches, these institutions have floundered. Some university campus ministry chapters are now drifting more and more toward the progressive ideologies of the university students they seek to reach. Other chapters and ministries, meanwhile, struggle to imagine Christian faithfulness outside the highly quixotic experience of Christian fellowship in non-denominational campus ministry. Their graduates pay the price for this failure, often apostatizing after college when they find that the faith of their evangelical campus ministry has not equipped them for life after college and when they discover that they simply do not know how to live as an ordinary parishioner within a local Christian congregation. In short, many of the legacy institutions of previous generations have struggled to adapt to a secularizing America and have in various ways been colonized by the country they were designed to reach.

What We Need

What is needed today is two-fold:

First, we need churches that understand their chief function as being the plain preaching of the Gospel, administration of the sacramental life of the church, and the aiding of her members in ordinary Christian discipleship, by which the church witnesses in its life together to the world that God has been drawing into life ever since the Resurrection of Christ, the first fruits of the new creation. In such churches, it will be simply taken for granted that the chief responsibility of pastors is the preaching of the Gospel and ordinary shepherding of individual believers, not the various executive-like functions and responsibilities that have invaded the pastoral calling in the seeker-sensitive era.

Second, we need a network of institutions and informal communities of friends that create a robust ecosystem of organizations and networks that support the church in her worship and work. In other words, we need to rebuild an ecosystem of Winter’s “orders” or “missions organizations.”

We need media institutions that participate in public discourse, presenting a serious and grounded account of Christian orthodoxy. These institutions can assist churches in evangelization, catechesis, and discipleship by being present in the digital and media spaces where people increasingly live much of their lives, offering an alternative to the noise, anger, and distraction that pervades American media and digital life. Given the ubiquity of the internet and internet-enabled devices in contemporary life, it is hard to foresee a renewed American church without the presence of these institutions to help provide a disruptive witness to the truth within digital and media spaces and to offer alternative accounts of our life together that push back against the radicalizing and secularizing tendencies of digital technology.

We need what might be thought of as digital outreach organizations which help churches and other Christian institutions understand how digital technology actually functions as a formative presence in a person’s life and how media actually reaches people, how media entities build audiences, and so on. These organizations should not simply mimic the most recent marketing hacks favored by America’s large businesses, but should rather see their work as existing to aid churches in preaching the Gospel and discipling their congregants. The need is, in this sense, less about marketing expertise and more about technological competence.

We need institutions focused on reaching America’s young people, introducing them to the basic elements of Christian belief, and helping them to become connected to Christian churches and begin their practices of Christian discipleship. This work will chiefly fall to two types of institutions. The task of broad Christian evangelism and discipleship amongst young Americans must be taken up campus ministries explicitly affiliated with local churches or denominations. The task of Christian intellectual formation and equipping those Christians called to such things for virtuous participation in America’s public and elite institutions must fall to broadly ecumenical study centers and think tanks. These centers exist primarily to resource university students, faculty, young professionals, and civic leaders in distinctly Christian ways as part of their broader intellectual and institutional life and formation. This particular form of ministry can be deeply effective, even in our current waning season of the church. Consider the boom of study centers now dotting America’s universities as well as the success of Reformed University Fellowship at arresting the PCA’s demographic decline that threatened the denomination’s future in the 1990s.

We also need seminaries training pastors who will lead the kinds of churches we need to plant. This will almost certainly require a dramatic reevaluation of how many institutions go about their work. Due to declining enrollments, many evangelical seminaries are facing severe financial hardships. In some cases, they have sought to resolve this problem by becoming doctoral mills while others have sought to expand their counseling programs to make up for the lost divinity students.

Either way, the core mission of the seminary is compromised as the financial needs of the institution rather than the institution’s core purpose come to define the work. Such “solutions” therefore cannot be permanent without fundamentally redesigning the seminary, either toward a kind of half-way academic institution in which overworked faculty hand out relatively weak doctoral degrees or toward an institution that trains therapists who will (hopefully) incorporate Christianity into their therapy.

How can this problem be addressed? It is likely that most of the seminaries of the future will not have their own land and buildings. The expense these assets create is too high relative to the resources that seminaries will be able to draw upon in a leaner, smaller American church. Rather, seminaries will follow the lead of many RTS campuses as well as Bethlehem College and Seminary and Indianapolis Theological Seminary, amongst others: They will meet in classroom space furnished by local churches and work in far closer partnership with a small number of local churches who are vested partners with the seminary in its work. This will allow them to keep costs down as well as potentially ease recruiting struggles, and establish more explicit links between seminaries as institutions and local churches as institutions.

Finally, as America’s civil life unwinds, we need a variety of contextually defined and determined institutions that seek to repair the rends in America’s social fabric. These institutions could be businesses led by Christian executives who understand their responsibility to customers and employees in distinctly Christian ways and behave accordingly. This category would also include altruistic non-profit ventures intended to address problems of poverty, literacy, addiction, mental health support, and so on. Finally, it also includes institutions dedicated to providing third places for neighborhood members to meet and come together, places like laundromats, coffee shops, bookstores, rec centers, and so on.

In short, what is needed is a rebuilt American Protestantism that can reckon with and accommodate America as she actually exists while also restoring the vital public life that has been lost with the failure of the American church and accomplishing this work through a renewal of actual local congregations dedicated to the preaching of the Gospel, the sacramental life of the church, and the practices of Christian discipleship.

Mere Orthodoxy is a reader-supported publication. Support our work by subscribing to our print edition.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).