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.
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I am very much confused why blue politics is associated with not attending church while the article is silent on the Conservative Church’s support for or silent complicity with Jim Crow, the Vietnam War, and sexism and other social injustices.
Because of that support and/or silent complicity, the only people who could be interested in the Gospel, which is certainly not taught by liberal theology, on any significant scale are those people who are politically conservative. And if that is true, then this rebuilding of Conservative Protestantism is saying to political moderates, independents, liberals, and leftists is that they must become political conservatives to become religiously conservative Christians.
Realize that Trump won in 2016 because the establishment sector of both major parties could not admit failure. If we religiously conservative Christians don’t admit failure, we will have a much more limited outreach than what is proposed above. If we want religiously conservative Christianity to grow, we have to admit our failures, especially on social justice issues, and we have to build a multi-political Church consisting of conservatives, liberals, and leftists.
This comment strikes me as a bit curious. If I were still an evangelical, I would feel no need to apologize for the alleged silence of others during the civil rights and Vietnam era. Those issues had passed out of public discourse more than a decade before I was born.
As for social justice, I suppose that it depends what you mean by the term. That said, if the US is such a socially unjust country, why is it the top destination for people looking to flee the developing world? We must be doing something right here. After all, you don’t find boats full of Marxist professors sailing southward across the Caribbean to take up residence in the socialist paradise of Venezuela.
I’m a big believed in Moynihan’s Law: The amount of social injustice is inversely proportional to the degree that people talk about social injustice.
It’s quite simple, much of the conservative Church in America has supported or even promoted social injustices including those that stem from white supremacy, from patriarchy, and from a fear or even hatred of the LGBT community. Here we should note that opposing slavery did not imply that one did not believe in white supremacy.
Why do people come here? Perhaps one reason is that it is better to be on the side of those holding the whip than on those who are beaten with the whip. American policies in Central and South America are another cause of social injustices as America has replaced or supported the replacing of left-leaning democracies with dictators. The reason for supporting the dictators is that they either were more friendly to or did not threaten the interests of American companies. As a result, countries have become more violent after the dictators take power. And some of our trade policies have caused poverty in sectors of nations that were doing well.
Philippians 3 perhaps gives us, regardless of our national identity, a lesson in how much significance we stand to gain by being proud patriots. Just think of how proud Paul could have been of not just his national and religious identities, but of his standing in those groups. But he traded that pride for the significance gained by belonging to Christ because of God’s mercy and grace.
My point is that there is no such institution as the “conservative Church.” This is just a whipping boy of your own creation.
Further, I’m not suggesting that the US foreign or domestic policies are always good and right. That said, the US is without question a greater force for good in the world than it is a force for evil. For example, racial minorities fare far better in our society than racial minorities do in almost any other nation in the world. We have room for improvement. That’s for sure. But suggesting that America’s sins are somehow unique to it or to the race of people who’ve made up a majority historically is simply dishonest. If you’re going to erect a standard by which to judge the US, apply that standard to every other country.
We need to build Biblically robust, Gospel Centered churches that disciple members on how to engage with politics. Trying to build a “multi-political” church as the goal will not work.
I like conversations rather than monologues, and call-and-response even for preaching (which necessarily has some monologic notes at least in part). So my initial comments are in response only to the introduction, the first two paragraphs.
Jake Meador, you seem to have conflated holiness, pentecostal, charismatic, evangelical, and fundamentalist traditions under the single rubric of “evangelical.” If so (and perhaps it isn’t), that’s notably lacking in nuance, precision, and just plain accuracy.
I’d’ve liked to see, even in the introduction, something about the difference between abolitionist and pro-slavery movements (including acknowledgement that the SBC remains to this day in large part a Jim Crow movement, and will continue to do so until they admit the -S- in SBC stood for “Slavery” even more than for “Southern”). I hope that this key set of issues is addressed in the body of the essay (I’m still reading). Oh, if you are offering thoughts towards a manifesto, I hope that you engage with the theses of Jemar Tisby’s work; if not, I’ll admit that it’ll be more difficult to take your proposal(s) seriously.
 Of course some charismatic groups fall under Roman Catholicism, but not all. More pedantry: some of the mainline denominations, such as the methodists and disciples of Christ, arose from the evangelical revivals; groups like the SBC that are today often classified as “evangelical” are properly fundamentalist and reactionary, and were generally unaffected by the classic evangelical revivals.
Great thought provoking article. I think including the equipping of parents to disciple their kids in an ever changing digital/secular/self-oriented age is worth stating as its own goal within the manifesto (maybe this is implied within parts of it). The failure of Christian parents to disciple their kids is a major reason the American church is where it is today.
Two things come to mind.
First, we should bear in mind that the 1950s were anomalous. The percentage of people who attended church on a weekly basis was about the same in 1940 as it was in 2010, which is remarkable considering that we now have a lot of non-Christian immigrants that we didn’t have in 1940. This sudden spike in church attendance was mainly a function of the Cold War and the emergence of a kind of civic Christianity as a counter to the atheism of the Soviets. We probably can’t achieve something similar without something similar to the Cold War.
Second, James Davison Hunter gave a fairly accurate diagnosis a decade ago as to why evangelicalism can’t and won’t grow. But most evangelicals didn’t like the diagnosis, so they panned the book, doubled down on ressentiment, and pushed themselves further towards the cultural margins.
Something from Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteos Mind, also struck me as I reflected on this piece. Haidt notes that two things about religions that stand the test of time.
First, they prioritize social enmeshment over ideological uniformity. Such religions have a fairly small set of ideological requirements, such as commitment to basic affirmations of the Nicene Creed. But they insist on a high degree of social enmeshment. They tend to look down on those who may exclude others socially who disagree with them on some ideological principle that isn’t part of the core.
Second, they foster a high degree of trust among members of the religious group.
I’d suggest that the Protestant mainline generally succeeded on these two points until the ideological requirements became so few that nothing served to distinguish it from the broader secular culture. But in the first several decades of its existence, evangelicalism failed to fill the void. That’s because evangelicalism got the balance wrong in the other direction: The ideological requirements were too extensive and were made an explicit condition of fellowship. Then, in recent decades, a number of evangelical churches deprioritized Nicene orthodoxy and prioritized adherence to various culture-war flashpoints.
That’s where we stand today. A remnant of the old Carl Henry brand of evangelicalism remains, particularly in certain Reformed denomination. But, by Haidt’s measure, such religions communities have far too many ideological requirements to grow. And, because they prioritize ideological purity over enmeshment, such communities are marked by distrust. Everyone is failing short of ideological purity in some respect, which makes people fearful of social enmeshment.
The Redeemer movement within the PCA seemed to get things about right. But Keller himself seemed reluctant to forge new institutional ground for the movement. This struck me as strange. The movement’s appeal was principally to post-evangelicals and post-mainliners who were mainly looking for something analogous to what the mainline church was in the 1950s. But Keller seemed content to carve out a niche within the existing evangelical world. I think the movement can still be spared. But it will have to take a step out on its own and be willing to walk away from evangelicalism. That’s a bigger risk than it may seem. The evangelical project is going to collapse in a decade anyway.
What it there is only one structure of God’s redemptive mission? What then?