The Great Evangelical Decline

Evangelical leaders defend their stance by claiming that God doesn't change and that neither does sin. But sin does change. And God - or our understanding of what God is, which is all we actually have - changes, too.
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What Baptist leaders have known for years is finally public: The Southern Baptist Convention is a denomination in decline. Half of the SBC's 43,000 churches will have shut their doors by 2030 if current trends continue.

And unless God provides a miracle, the trends will continue. The denomination's growth rate has been declining since the 1950s. The conservative/fundamentalist takeover 30 years ago was supposed to turn the trend around; it didn't make a bit of difference.

Leaders said it did. Reporters and politicians believed it did. But the numbers kept going down until, finally, they have become obvious to everyone.

Evangelical faith has been dropping since 1900, when 42 percent of the U.S. claimed that distinction. Every year, Religious Right evangelicals, such as those who lead the Southern Baptists, are a smaller proportion of the country. Every year, their core values are violated more flagrantly by the media, scientific discovery and mainstream behavior. Every election, politicians promise to serve them and then don't because evangelicals lack the power to make them.

What all this means is that we were duped.

All the hype proclaiming an evangelical resurgence was merely that - hype, a furious shout from a faith losing its grip, manipulation by a relatively small group of dedicated, focused, political power-seekers.

The long decline of Southern Baptist faith is critical to the entire evangelical movement because the Southern Baptist Convention, which claims 16 million members, is the biggest evangelical denomination in the country, almost six times as large as the next biggest predominately white evangelical denomination.

The second-largest evangelical group, the National Association of Evangelicals, has claimed 30 million members. Their churches actually have 7.6 million, tops. Most of those are having the same problems the Baptists are having.

As the true picture of evangelicals' problems has developed, panicked leaders are splitting into camps. Some say that the church is lax, soft, sold out. That what's needed is an even bigger dose of the medicine that the SBC fundamentalist takeover delivered. More authority, more strict interpretations of the Bible, more sermons about sin and suffering and sacrifice, more rigor about who is and who isn't getting to go to heaven.

Others say the problem is image. Evangelicals have been seen as mean-spirited and narrow. Caring about the environment and giving more attention to the poor and needy will turn it around. Get out of politics, they say. Play down abortion and gay rights. That will fix the problem.

But these responses won't halt the increasing irrelevance of evangelical faith to the great majority of the U.S. population. Here are just three of the many reasons.

One is Alcoholics Anonymous and all its 12-step offspring - the creation of two Christian men who wanted to help alcoholics. They modeled AA on the teachings of Jesus and the ideas of philosopher William James. Instead of asking alcoholics to be saved, they asked them to call on a god of their own understanding.

They eschewed guilt and any talk of sinfulness. Repentance was directed at specific people who had been harmed. There was no doctrine, no institution, no demand for monetary support.

Tens of millions of addicts and other troubled people learned that they didn't have to read the Bible, attend church or follow a preacher's rules to engage a divine power that could heal them.

Such open-ended faith had never been experienced before. And so the role of the church as interpreter of God's truth and the Bible as its sole repository lost power with millions.

The second attack came within the church as American evangelicals themselves became less willing to proclaim that they are the only ones saved. That idea had seemed reasonable when people lived in fairly homogeneous groups. Since few people had much to do with foreigners - except in times of war, when they were trying to kill them, or from behind a tourist's camera, when they were making souvenirs of them - "our way is the only way" seemed reasonable.

But international travel, business and communication have changed that. So have huge waves of immigration. Now "the other" is likely to be your son-in-law or grandchild.

The idea that only one little part of one kind of religion has the only way to God has begun to seem more and more unlikely, rude, un-Christian, even. And evangelicals, who don't like being boorish any more than anyone else, have become less and less willing to relegate their neighbors to hell.

So we have a completely formless god of great power and instant accessibility romping around, rescuing millions whom everyone else had given up on. Then we have more Christians getting squeamish about proclaiming hegemony over heaven.

And along comes The Pill. Nothing in history has changed human relations as much as that little white pill.

The curse God laid on Eve wasn't quite so ironclad anymore. Skip forward a few decades, and couples started delaying marriage until their late 20s, 30s or even 40s. But that pill meant there was less pressure to abstain from sex until the wedding.

So hardly anyone did. Evangelical leaders resolutely hewed to the abstinence standard at least formally, resulting in little more than extra hypocrisy.

That didn't matter much. Hypocrisy has always flourished, and it hasn't killed the church yet. But evangelicals' failure to grapple with change meant the church was no help in a world where people were expected to sleep together long before marriage and desperately sought guidance about when and with whom.

Evangelical leaders defend their stance by claiming that God doesn't change and that neither does sin. But sin does change. Slavery wasn't sin once. Now it is. Taking a wife and a concubine wasn't sin once. Now it is.

And God - or our understanding of what God is, which is all we actually have - changes, too. Human understandings are remolded so that faith can remain vital and effective during new times.

Whether evangelical intransigence is pleasing to God isn't anything that humans can ever be absolutely sure of. If it is pleasing to him, God may send a great revival that will sweep the country and restore them to their place of predominance.

Such revivals have happened before. They could happen again.

But I've named only three of the ways that evangelical faith has come to seem less useful, necessary and vital to those who might benefit from its teachings. Evangelical faith is failing in so many other ways that a growing number of Christians believe a New Reformation is needed.

If they are correct, the Southern Baptist Convention is unlikely to lead that reformation. Let's hope it is at least around to participate.

Christine Wicker is the author of "The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church." Her e-mail address is and her web address is

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