If you are having a slow day in the senior adult Sunday school class throw out the question: are things better or worse than they used to be for the Christian faith in America? This usually generates a lively discussion (at least in the churches where I have tried this) generally concluding that things are worse. They refer to promiscuous sex, drugs, family break-up, closing churches, lower church attendance, and no prayer in schools. According to polls 66% of Americans believe religion is losing influence in American society.
The naysayers will have more ammunition for their case from the latest Pew Research Poll which reports that Protestants now represent fewer than 50% of the American population (in 1970, 62% of the population identified themselves as Protestant). In addition, 13 million persons (or 6% of the population) identify themselves as atheists or agnostics. Another 33 million, or 14%, indicate they have no religious affiliation. Thus 20% of the population are either agnostic, atheist, or have no religious affiliation. This is up from 15% as recently as five years ago. Even more discouraging, among millennials (ages 18-21) 34% are now religiously unaffiliated.
In many ways this appears to confirm the mainline Protestant experience - for example in the United Methodist. The UMC has lost members in America for 40 straight years. They are lacking young people, and even, for that matter, middle-aged people. Projections indicate we will soon face a funding crisis.
Time for a counter-view. While denominational decline is to be lamented, the case can be made that these are the best times ever for Christian faith. Whether good or bad, major shifts in religion and culture are taking place in America. These include a decline of mainline churches, an evangelical resurgence, a growing secularism, an erosion of public faith, the rise of "spirituality" apart from organized religion, a more militant hostility on the part of some against Christianity in general and what is perceived as right-wing Christianity in particular, and increasing polarization within religion and culture.
Charles Clayton Morrison would be full of despair. In 1948 Charles Clayton Morrison, long-time editor of Christian Century and a leading religious observer of his times, wrote a significant book: Can Protestantism Win America? According to Morrison three major forces were contending for ascendancy in the cultural and spiritual life of America: Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Secularism. Until recent times, Protestantism had had virtually no competitors. America was a Protestant land. Protestantism was a civilizing and Christianizing force for good. It sought to make the kingdoms of this world the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. Its goal was to penetrate the political, economic, intellectual and artistic areas of life and mold the laws and customs of its culture into an ethos marked by its own spirit and ethic and ideology.
Morrison was alarmed at the increasing power and influence of Roman Catholicism. He was alarmed at the inroads of secularism and the weakening of Protestantism, in part, because of Protestant liberalism and its interest in critiquing Protestantism in the light of modern culture rather than the other way around. Morrison saw hope in the ecumenical movement, in the joining together of Protestant churches in order to exert influence in the centers of learning. Morrison's Protestantism was the Protestantism of what we today would call the mainline churches. The conservative churches, according to Morrison, were not a factor since they had withdrawn from culture. Morrison identified the forces working against the influence of Protestantism as localism, individualism, and sectarianism.
Morrison was right about a number of things but he was not a good prognosticator. The answer to his question: can Protestantism Win America, is a simple no. But is it the primary goal of Christian faith to make the nation Protestant? Christianizing the world by influencing politics, the arts, education, and science worked marvelously in the forming of a Western civilization. Whether or not America should be considered a Christian nation, the truth is that Christianity, specifically Protestantism, has been linked with democracy and progress and the American way of life.
But the world is changing. The cultural and religious scene is shifting so rapidly that even the so-called experts cannot keep abreast of the trends. Now the very forces which Morrison feared: localism, sectarianism, and individualism, are the forces which have kept Christianity in America from going the way of Europe. Religion is still very important to 57% of Americans, compared to 17% of the British and 13% of the French.
Most church people (at least the ones in adult Sunday school classes) think of the golden era as the 1950s and early 1960s. The churches appeared to be full. College-age youth seemed not to be in rebellion. Families were intact. Within Methodism the small town and country churches were vital.
But those days were really not as golden as we may remember them. The Pew Study comments that fewer young adults today are interested in organized religion. That may be true but organized religion is not the same as vital Christianity. Perhaps more students are interested in Jesus Christ than ever before. Some of these would be those who would declare themselves on the Pew survey as religiously unaffiliated. That is because their affiliation is not with an organization but with the person of Jesus Christ.
I remember the summer I spent at a major university in the 1950s. I searched in vain all summer for Christian fellowship or for any signs of vital Christianity. The students, as I remember them, were not hostile to Christianity, but it seemed irrelevant to them. In evangelical language, students were cultural Protestants, not born-again Christians. About that time I represented my Christian college at a National Students Association (NSA) conference. Academic freedom was the issue, especially in regard to political speech, but also in regard to religious speech. Strident voices argued there were to be no restraints or requirements on what professors wished to say. What about religious schools which expected the professors to speak from a Christian perspective? Hostility against Christianity raised its ugly head: no ideological boundaries of any kind. This was a harbinger of what was to come. The student rebellions of the 1960s were rebellions against the religious establishment as well as the political and cultural establishment, and that religious establishment was what we today would call mainline Protestantism.
An evangelical subculture was also arising in reaction to cultural Protestantism. The Jesus People, para-church ministries, charismatic renewal movements, and new missionary initiatives began to multiply. Youth for Christ, Campus Crusade, Young Life, and Inter-Varsity were among the earliest. In 1955 I attended the Inter-Varsity Missionary Conference in Urbana with 5,000 other students. I remember the remarks: "I never realized there were this many college student Christians in America." Hundreds committed themselves to missions. Within 15 years the Urbana conferences had to turn away students because they could handle only 17,000. About that same time Campus Crusade gathered 120,000 Christian students in Dallas stadium. Today Christian student conferences regularly draw more than 20,000 persons. Some time ago I asked the director of the Wesley Foundation on a major university campus how things were going. He said, "Pretty well, but you know we are competing against eighty-four other Christian groups?" Nothing like that was happening in the 1950s.
Today 400,000 career missionaries are at work in the world proclaiming Christ. About 150,000 of these are from the United States, more than at any time in our history. Many of these are supported by local churches and para-church ministries. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) now counts about 1,600 para-church groups working in America who have pledged themselves to the highest standards in finances. Our local Rescue Mission has a budget of over 2 million dollars, almost none from government funds, supported by over 100 churches. This is a different kind of ecumenism. Sixty years ago the small Indiana town where I was raised had five churches. Today the town hasn't grown that much but counts twelve churches, several of which are full. In the town where I presently live three churches have passed the 1,000 mark in attendance in the last ten years.
Sixty years ago, in the 1950s, there were almost no Christian radio stations. Now there are hundreds. Evangelical seminaries were almost non-existent. Now they enroll most of the seminarians in the country. When Protestantism lost its influence over public school education, religious schools, charter schools, and home schools rose up to fill the vacuum.
At the time of the organization of the Methodist Episcopal Church (1784), America was in a spiritual slump. It was a time of deism and rationalism and Unitarianism. The colonial churches were struggling. One person had a vision. Francis Asbury had seen a great work of God in England through the Wesleys and the Methodists. Asbury saw America as a clean slate waiting for a great work of God. He saw the Spirit-filled enthusiasm of his preachers. He wrote in his diary: "O America, America, God will make it the glory of the world for religion."
And so it is.
When Asbury spoke those words only 10% of Americans were church members. By 1850, after the Second Great Awakening, 33% of Americans were church members. In 1926 55% of Americans were church members. In 1950 60% of Americans were church members. In 2010, after factoring in the megachurches and independent churches, 65% of Americans are church members. There never has been a more exciting time to be a Christian.
-By Dr. Riley Case (Originally entitled "America! The Glory of the World for Religion," from the Confessing Movement)
Countless AmericanChristians change churches every year. Most of them experience pain, struggle, and grief as a result of such changes. These people are sometimes dubbed “church switchers,” a negative title, even though a Lifeway study found that 76 percent of those who change churches are mature Christians.
Dottie Parish is a professional counselor. She and her husband are two-time “church switchers” due to church changes. In her book “Changing Churches (WinePressPublishing: 2012),” she tells their story in the hopes that it will give pastors and leaders “a view from the pew” that will help them minister to Christians coming and going.
A lengthy conflict in your church remains unresolved.
Changes accommodating the culture are adopted.
You believe you won’t grow spiritually at your present church.
Dottie Parish and her husband Mike are church leaders. Their two church changes were done carefully and prayerfully, with many tears. They love the church dearly, calling it “the most successful experiment in community the world has known.”
Much of their advice to Christians who are unhappy in their current churches is summarized near the end of their book: “Some churches are not change-agents for Christ. Some churches are dysfunctional, disobedient, disheveled, or dead. Many people have been seriously harmed by church. This is a sad fact. I hope those hurt by church will not give up on it, but will seek another church and will seek help and healing for the harm done. Though many have been hurt by the church, many more have been healed and transformed by it. The local church is the only place on this earth where Truth reigns, where Christ is worshipped, and where men and women bow their knees to him.”
Her final word is this: “Readers who are struggling about leaving a church or
finding another church should seek God’s will. He has a plan for you, too. Listen and follow him. Stay where you are unless he clearly leads you elsewhere.”
How is it that most (if not all ) mainline denominations have lost members for four decades and the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), has a record of four decades of continual growth? What are they doing?
The Evangelical Covenant Church was originally a Swedish immigrants' church, founded in 1888. Like Methodism it was first a movement growing out of a revival (in Sweden during the mid-1800s), then a denomination. It was influenced by Pietism.
Growing out of a state church (the Swedish Lutheran Church), the ECC believes in infant baptism. It ordains women (about 20% of its clergy are women).
Because it was basically an ethnic and immigrants' church the ECC was not caught up in the religious wars of the early 1900s. In other words it escaped the attempt to re-construct the nature of Christian faith in the name of modernism. By the same token it escaped the fundamentalist reaction by those resisting modernism. This helps to explain what is labeled on its website as the Evangelical Covenant's understanding of itself: Evangelical, but not exclusive; Biblical, but not doctrinaire; traditional, but not rigid; congregational, but not independent.
The ECC's theology is generic evangelicalism with an emphasis on the authority of Scripture and other Reformation truths such as the full atonement of Christ and Justification by Faith. This is combined with an emphasis on missions and reaching out to a needy world. An article in Faith and Leadership (Duke Seminary) of July 28, 2010 featured the ECC church under the title "Covenant Influence Larger Than Its Size."
In the mid-1950s the church changed its name from the Swedish Covenant Church to the Evangelical Covenant Church and sought to rebrand itself. It had been mono-racial (white), regional (wherever there had been Swedish immigrants, mainly in Minnesota, Washington state, and the Chicago area) and not very visible on the American Protestant scene. Aware of its lack of diversity and aware of the tremendous social upheaval taking place in the nation at the time, The ECC set out deliberately to become multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. The strategy was simple: start ministries and churches in inner cities, immigrant communities, and areas where people are hurting and the gospel needed to be proclaimed.
The results have been dramatic. From having almost no churches that were ethnic or multi-ethnic, the ECC reports that 22.8% of its churches are now ethnic or multi-ethnic. Ethnic and multi-ethnic churches are growing three times as fast as the denomination as a whole. In 40 years ECC membership has doubled, from 66,000 to over 130,000 with weekly attendance higher than the membership (during the same period the UM Church has decreased from 11 million to 7.7 million).
In the past two years 31 churches with an average attendance of 4,953 have become part of the ECC (during the same period 16 churches were closed or lost). Six of the 31 were church plants or multi-site or spin-offs from other ECC churches. Two are Asian (one "English-speaking for 2nd generation Asians"); one is an African immigrant church; two are Hispanic; two are inner city churches growing out of inner city ministries; four are African-American or "multi-racial"); one is "non-traditional;" one is for "post-moderns:" two left other denominations drawn by ECC evangelicalism and inclusivism. Very few of the 31 are meeting in their own buildings. Almost none of the churches are in the South, or America's Bible belt. They tend to be in places like California, Washington state, Chicago, the plains states, and New England, which are not the easiest places to grow churches. At the same time the ECC has an overseas missionary force of about 150. In 2010 the ECC general church funds reported a surplus.
Is there anything to be learned by other mainline denominations from the ECC? Yes!
1) When the ECC was talking about making new Christians the mainline denominations were talking about empowerment and justice. It is time to question the mainline strategy, past and present. For example, the United Methodist Church, a denomination that in the early 1820s could claim that 20% of its membership was African-American, now reports less than 6% are African-American and only about 8% are ethnic of any kind. After four decades of diversity talk, the United Methodist Church is less diverse.
2) Theology does matter. The ECC is hardly a fundamentalist church. It has a social ministry to rival that of any denomination. But it does emphasize that it is committed to the authority of Scripture and the essentials of the faith. It supports one denominational seminary, North Park in Chicago, but accepts graduates from other seminaries and especially welcomes those from places like Fuller and Gordon-Conwell that are training pastors to be church planters.
3) Denominations can grow, even in America. A lot is said about the church growth in America coming from mega-churches and independent churches. The ECC is evidence that moderate, socially-aware, rather traditional denominations still have a place in American church life.
4) A key to ECC growth is the sense of denominational unity around core beliefs and values and its leaders are committed to those values. At the same time the ECC emphasizes that it allows its pastors and churches tremendous freedom. Its last three presidents have be involved in some way with new church starts. In contrast most mainline denominational leaders have excelled in administration and manipulating the bureaucracy, but few have been involved in new church development.
ECC leaders today admit (somewhat sheepishly) that some of the best and most effective pastors in their denomination come from mainline denominations. They were either too evangelical or too independent of the "system" for their denominations; or they wanted a kind of ministry not available to them as United Methodists, and found a home in the ECCs.