Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Assessing The Fall of the Evangelical Nation Part 2

In the last post, we saw that Wicker's book raises troubling questions about the continuing viability of the evangelical church in America.

Read Part 1

She's not the only authority arguing the same case. Professor Alvin Reid shows that at least 41% of Americans are hard-core unchurched (have no clear understanding of the gospel, and have had little or no contact with a Bible teaching church), larger than the number of nominal Christians (30%) or active, participating Christians (29%). Alvin Reid, Radically Unchurched: Who they are and how to reach them, (Grand Rapids, Kregel Academic, 2002) 21. He adds that "Of the 350,000 churches in the U. S… less than 1 percent is growing by conversion growth.” 23 and “Over the past decade, membership in Protestant churches dropped 9.5 percent, while the U.S. population grew 11 percent.” 24 He thinks, "Most evangelistic methods used today are ineffective in making disciples.” 24

Wicker points out that while many believe evangelical are the fastest growing faith group in America, the truth is, "Nonbelievers are the fastest-growing faith group in America in numbers and percentage. From 1990 to 2001, which was the last good count, they more than doubled, from 14 million to 29 million. Their proportion of the population grew from 8 percent to more than 14 percent. That means there are more than twice as many people who claim no religion as there are participating evangelicals" when measured by Barna's stricter method. 53

Her claim is confirmed by the American Religious Identification Survey: "In 2001, more than 29.4 million Americans said they had no religion - more than double the number in 1990, and more than Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians all added up."

She shows that the loss of influence is worst among the young. Using Southern Baptist studies, because they keep good records and make them public, she points out that, "In the eighteen-to-thirty-four age group, Southern Baptist baptisms fell 40 percent from one hundred thousand in 1980 to sixty thousand in 2005.”63 Even worse, "The great majority of people being baptized in evangelical churches are already baptized Christians and children." 93

Whatever growth evangelicalism has enjoyed in recent years is often illusory. Wicker cites a case where "Gallup found 42 percent of Americans calling themselves born again or evangelical in 2003. In 2005, the pollster asked three questions to identify born-agains and evangelicals: 1. Born again experience? 3. Witness for Christ? 3. Bible as literal Word of God? The percentage dropped to 19 percent." 211

In a hilarious, but all too true section, Wicker gives one of the main reasons for the decline: "As we've seen, many churches are training for evangelism. They're preaching evangelism, They're pressuring for evangelism. And members are responding. They're praying. They repenting. They're feeling guilty, cowardly, and shamed before Jesus... There's only one thing they're not doing. They're not evangelizing, and nobody, not even Jesus, seems able to make them do it. Only half of all born-again adults do any witnessing at all in a year, and what they do they don't feel good about. Studies show that spreading the Gospel is one of the areas in which Christians ...'have the least interest in self-improvement.'" 135

As I note in my book on discipleship, guilt trips are completely ineffective at motivating evangelism. Groups that reach out eagerly and effectively do so because they think it's fun. Disciples who are properly motivated learn to care about people, learn to make friends with non-Christians, and learn the joy of seeing others come to Christ.

The more churchy a group gets, the fewer non-Christians they see visiting, and the fewer have any interest in returning. Groups that think accommodation (either to western avarice or postmodernism) works fail to see people meet Christ. Groups where people are ashamed of the gospel or the authority of scripture see few come to Christ. The more political a group gets, the fewer converts they see. The more legalistic and narrow groups get, the more they focus on unimportant rules, the fewer converts they see.

Unfortunately these features describe far too many evangelical churches today.

In our last section, we'll look at one of the most fatal points about the evangelical church in America: their loss of impact on students.

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