If you live in Dallas and picked up the Star-Telgram you may have read Christine Wicker’s story in the Editorial sction of the paper on Sunday, August 17th, titled: Religion: American evangelicals, once considered monolithic, are fragmenting. Her article syntheses the research we have all been reading from the Pew Foundation, Willow Creek and George Barna. She paints a pretty negative image of evangelicalism and her style is pretty cutting – but the reality is her assessment aligns with the data that all the major indicators (conversions, baptisms, membership, retention, participation, giving, attendance, religious literacy and impact on culture) are on the decline.
What I find encouraging and energizing about her article, however, is her conclusion about what these negatives may be indicators of – that “American Christianity is entering the most exciting era in our lifetime,” a “new awakening” or even another reformation. The challenge is that such a preferable future will require much change – and change is rarely a friend of comfort which we have come to love so dearly:
“That loud crack heard throughout the evangelical world when national research showed that more than half of American evangelicals believe people of other religions can go to heaven wasn’t thunder from an angry God.
This crack came from the rock upon which the modern American evangelical movement sits. It was splitting right down the middle.
There is both rejoicing and lamentation.
I am among those rejoicing.
The universalist/evangelical finding, which came from the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, was one more sign that American Christianity is entering the most exciting era in our lifetime. Some people believe a new awakening is at hand. Others believe a reformation is in the making. No one knows how long it will take or how far it will go.
What’s clear is that people in the pews are taking back their faith, wresting it from leaders who helped sell the idea that only the most fundamentalist brands of Christian belief could succeed and that their words alone represented that belief.”
Skipping a few paragraphs she continues:
“They’re admitting what their own studies show – that evangelicals almost never convert a native-born American who wasn’t raised in a church. That most evangelical growth comes from stealing the sheep from other denominations. And that they’ve stolen about all they can.
They’re also admitting that most evangelicals won’t evangelize. And if they did, it wouldn’t get them anywhere because the usual methods don’t work. They don’t work first because they usually rest on the idea that Christians are the only ones saved. In today’s religiously equalitarian culture, that assertion causes evangelicals to seem distastefully holier-than-thou.
Conversion tactics also focus on telling people the Good News as though no one else knows it. But most everyone has heard it. Again and again. The trouble is that they aren’t convinced. They aren’t scared of hell. They aren’t hoping for heaven. And Christians haven’t been good at giving anyone better reasons than that for following Jesus. They have reasons. They just aren’t telling them. They need to.“
Christine Wicker has also recently published a book titled The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church that expands on her editorial.