Is There A Place For Progressive Evangelicals?

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Pew Research just published the results of an exhaustive survey that details the continued decline of the church in America, triggering an avalanche of responses from every corner of the Christian blogosphere. It seems as if there was a race this week to be the first to publish a reaction, the first to interpret the details, the first to sift through the numbers and spin them. 

Here’s what (nearly) all the responses had in common. It seems they could all have started with, “It’s just like I’ve been saying for years now….” Check out this tweet from Diana Butler Bass to Jonathan Merritt saying, in essence, “Nice article, but welcome to the party, you should have read the book I published three years ago.” Burn? 

Here’s the truth. The church as a percentage of the American population is declining across the board. Liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, progressive, mainline, Protestant, Catholic…it doesn’t matter. But some Christian traditions have fared better than others.

As a share of the overall population, mainline Protestantism has experienced an 18.8% decline in the last seven years (from 18.1% to 14.7%). More people in America today claim to be nothing in particular than claim to be mainline Protestant, and more than 1 in 3 Americans born after 1980 claim no religious affiliation at all.

At the same time, the number of evangelical Christians in America has grown since 2007, albeit more slowly than the overall population.

Americans are increasingly less connected to church and younger generations are growing up in a culture less influenced by Christian faith--if they feel influenced by Christian faith at all.

"America's Changing REligious landscape," from Pew research center

"America's Changing REligious landscape," from Pew research center

Some are interpreting the results to mean that  “cool” isn't cutting it anymore.

They’re saying that what young people really want is something grounded in tradition, so embrace the liturgy, sacraments and ancient practices of the church instead of the “cool” factor of fancy lights and hip music and skinny jeans.

But numbers don’t lie. As new generations start to make independent decisions about church, the church is becoming increasingly evangelical, and evangelical churches  are increasingly non-denominational and increasingly feature modern worship. The church of today wears skinny jeans and it’s got a cup of designer coffee in its hand.  

Modern, evangelical churches are reaching more people for Christ than churches that feature robes and sacraments.That’s a fact. You’d be hard-pressed to find a community in America where a quick glance around the local church scene wouldn’t prove that to be true. This trend isn’t new, it’s not going away, and it shouldn’t be surprising. 

The Pew Study is still being sifted through. We're just at the beginning of understanding it's implications.  But it does raise some initial questions for the church at large and for Heritage in particular.

1. What does this newly defined and shifting landscape mean for CBF (Cooperative Baptist Fellowship)? Is CBF Global primarily an evangelical or mainline fellowship? With whom will we choose to partner? In what direction will our leadership choose to lead? If we choose to continue veering toward aligning ourselves with mainline Protestantism, will someone at least acknowledge the HUGE departure this represents from the history and theological heritage of most moderate Baptist churches?

2. What can Heritage Baptist Fellowship learn as we seek to position ourselves for long-term effectiveness in our community? As we make strategic planning decisions together, will we do so with eyes open to long-term trends and the likely ramifications of our decisions?  Will we prioritize growth and effectiveness in reaching our community as we chart our future together? Will we do the things necessary to get "younger" as a church? Will we do the hard work required to transition toward the future with integrity and a clear identity?  Or will integrity and identity keep us firmly rooted where we are?

3. Evangelical conservatism and mainline progressivism are clearly defined categories in American religious life. But what about progressive evangelicals? Is there a place for them? Is there a place for us? Should CBF seek to be a home and voice for young, modern, progressive evangelicals? Can Heritage carve out a niche as a progressive, modern, evangelical church? Is there pent-up demand for progressive evangelical expressions of Christianity in America? Can some of the growth of the "nones"--i.e. the religiously unaffiliated--be attributed to the fact that there are few safe places for progressive evangelicals today?

As with most things, I find myself with more questions than answers.  But sometimes half the battle is just asking the questions out loud.

See you Sunday.