In 1997 I made a fateful mission trip to Brazil. Though it was only two months, it changed the course of my life. Since my late teens I knew I was going into ministry, but in the year prior to that first mission trip I had begun to drift. What I felt lacking was a personal vision of how my career should unfold. The inequality, crime, corruption, and social injustice I saw in Brazil contributed to what I believed was a calling on my life to help usher in a transformation of that country. I had no grandiose notions of single-handedly ‘saving’ the entire nation, but I did come to see myself as one small part of that greater initiative. Little could I have imagined that the evangelical revolution in Brazil would make matters worse for many people.
Despite its image as a sexually liberated country, Brazil is actually profoundly traditional on the topic. Men are expected to be ‘manly’ and women to be feminine, and anyone who falls outside that norm are subject to discrimination. Gay men in particular have suffered violence simply for being who they are, even just walking down the street or waiting for a bus. Rather than combatting violence against the lgbtq community, evangelicalism in Brazil actually demonizes them. They are treated at best as having an illness, and at worst as being literally demon-possessed. As a result, gay conversion therapy has apparently been given the green light to continue in Brazil, while elsewhere in the world it is being banned as abuse. More on that here: http://bit.ly/2kbOK7j
As a starry-eyed young evangelical I believed that violence and crime would abate as ‘the gospel’ spread through a population. What I didn’t realize was that evangelicalism is still a religion, one subject to the preferences of those who adopt it. It would have shocked me then to learn that now, in 2017, there are entire gangs in Brazil that identify as evangelical and/or Pentecostal, and who continue to commit crimes and perpetuate the drug trade. Worse still, evangelical gangs have carried out campaigns of harassment against practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions who live in neighborhoods they control. Read about that here http://bit.ly/2yqTOLy and here http://bit.ly/2BmkNVB .
Religions are all malleable, existing in the minds of believers and having no objective reality. That is why they change so much, including among groups that claim to have an unchanging faith. A Southern Baptist from 2017, for example, wouldn’t do very well pretty much anywhere in 1617, all else being equal. It doesn’t surprise me as much now as it would have even just a decade ago that evangelicalism in Brazil is taking the shape of the pre-existing prejudices and predilections of the Brazilian people. That’s precisely what it’s done in the United States and elsewhere.
The only real path forward for any nation is through education and a firm commitment to human rights. Ignorance cannot be eliminated with myths any more than adding wood to a fire can be expected to put it out.
On my father’s side, I’m the 4th generation of my family that was born and raised in Missouri. My children, for their part, were born in Brazil and (mostly) raised in New Jersey. So, that chain is broken. In any case, Missouri is known as the ‘Show Me State,’ which is reflects the healthy skepticism that supposedly comes naturally to Missourians. Whether this is generally true or not I can’t say, but in my case there are moments I’m reminded of my roots. One of those times was just last week as I read Reverend Janet Edwards’ piece for Auburn Seminary entitled: “And Ye Shall Be Changed: The Resurrection of the Mainline Church.” I have my doubts about the potential for the mainline church to experience ‘resurrection.’
Rev. Edwards begins well enough with a factual evaluation of how most of the mainline churches stood with the status quo:
These Protestant traditions were ambiguous regarding slavery and they did not stand up against the Jim Crow entrenchment of oppression that followed Reconstruction. Likewise, they did not speak truth to the power of emerging industrial capitalists who exploited their workers during the week then sat in mainline pews on Sunday. The Church happily took their tithe.
In the very next paragraph a giant leap is made, one that I find questionable:
At the same time, those very industrialists understood the threat Jesus posed to them. After World War II, several Presbyterians in Pittsburgh, led by J. Howard Pew of Sunoco, began a long strategic effort to undermine mainline church influence by empowering independent, conservative Christianity. This included support for Billy Graham and the founding of Christianity Today. When Ronald Reagan intentionally included conservative Christians in his successful run for the White House, the eclipse of the mainline by evangelicals was well on its way.
If the mainline church represented the status quo, evidently with a de-fanged Jesus, then why invest in the evangelical movement? It seems to me that neither the mainline nor some version of ‘Jesus’ were the threat. If the political and economic powers that be wanted anything, it was to use religion to defend the status quo against the equalizing, liberating forces of secularism. It wasn’t Jesus that was promoting inclusion and affirmation (yes, I know about the Civil Rights Movement, but realize that quite a few involved did not identify their activism with Christianity). The Cold War was on with fear of Communism looming (terrible for business, you know) and at the same time there was all this talk of ‘Human Rights’ that posed a problem for old white men. Conservative evangelicalism offered an opiate for the masses that would also motivate them to defend an archaic, patriarchal view of the world.
The wave of effective TV and radio ministry by conservative Christians drowned out any other Christian voice. Well-funded and politically effective conservative wings succeeded in keeping the mainline denominations roiling with division, primarily over the place of women and, later, LGBTQ people, in God’s heart and in the church. The silence of the mainline in the public square and steadily declining membership are seen as ringing its death knell.
Yes, the evangelicals out-competed the mainliners, in true capitalist form. It’s misleading to portray the well-financed efforts of evangelicals the primary factor. The mainline churches had for years preached a conformist, milquetoast message that admitted – directly or indirectly – that the foundation of the religion was largely a fiction. Very few will find that sort of thing compelling, and so the mainline made it easy for the evangelical movement to win converts from among its number.
The evangelical Christian church may aspire to be that leader, but its craven support of Donald Trump for President in 2016 destroyed any claim it might make to integrity in the eyes of the world.
Well, maybe. Evangelical Christians may largely have their beliefs reinforced rather than undermined by the nonsense going on with Trump. Human psychology is tricky like that. From what I’ve seen, though, their children are less and less persuaded by this xenophobic brand of Christianity. That does not mean that they’ll be any more impressed by the now-socially-active mainline denominations. Social activism can be done with far less overhead through groups unaffiliated with religion.
It is new for the old guard like me to follow. Of course, it is not easy for us or for me. We are accustomed to being in charge. I was in a meeting of faith folk involved in advocacy recently. Hispanic and Black participants insisted that the whites in the room sit back, deferring to others. I confess, I stewed in my back seat, pondering in my heart what was required of me.
Being a Unitarian Universalist I’ve certainly heard of situations where people of color asked white people to remain silent during discussions, particularly those dealing with race and oppression. Given how deeply ingrained white supremacy culture is in us all, I agree with this approach in such circumstances. However, I wonder if the ‘advocacy’ this meeting Rev. Edwards met to talk about involved race. If, for example, I were to attend a meeting on climate change policy and advocacy and were asked to be quiet because of my race, I’d leave.
Most likely, the PCUSA—the American mainline church as a whole—will look radically different from what we were. There is a good chance my ancestors would not recognize what is coming. No matter, they will cheer us on if we follow Jesus. John commented, “It is not yet clear what we shall be,” and Paul assured the faithful, “We shall be changed.”
Certainly the mainline churches will change in coming years. I believe they’ll continue to shrink, and even if they don’t formally merge with one another I suspect they’ll strengthen their alliances and share even more resources (publishing houses, interfaith ministries, etc). At the same time, the evangelical movement is shrinking as well. Christianity as a whole will certainly survive in many forms, but what we’re likely to see (if we are so fortunate) is a far more secular society. Such has been the case in Europe, and so it seems likely it will go in North America as well.
Can mainline churches be ‘resurrected’? I’ll believe it when I see it. Show me.
Over the past few decades, some mainline Protestants have abandoned central doctrines that were deemed “offensive” to the surrounding culture: Jesus literally died for our sins and rose from the dead, the view of the authority of the Bible, the need for personal conversion and more.
Some of mainline Protestants leaders rejected or minimized these beliefs — beliefs that made the “protest” in Protestantism 500 years ago — as an invitation for more people to join a more culturally relevant and socially acceptable church. But if the mainline Protestant expression isn’t different enough from mainstream culture, people turn to other answers.
Is Rev. Stetzer right? In my opinion, yes and no (good, postmodern answer, right?).
The mainline denominations truly abandoned the central beliefs and values that Western Christianity has affirmed for centuries. Biblical criticism and collusion with the status quo led to wishy-washy preaching and a general lack of conviction. When it became no longer necessary in many places to maintain church membership for the sake of respectability, those who cared about that found their way out. The Protestants who were put off by the liberal slant left to form or join evangelical churches instead, leading to the rapid growth of that movement from mid-20th century to its close in the 1990s. Still others, as Stetzer indicated in the quote above, decided that the mainline was no different from the rest of mainstream culture, and so they left church behind altogether.
On the other hand, the culture has changed. More people have undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States than ever before, and regular contact with people from other cultures calls into question the ‘absolute’ truths that Christianity long preached. Science provides a more reliable method for getting at the truth, and provides answers that can (and should) be questioned and examined. In the light of this progress, Christianity in any form is likely to suffer. Such we see to be the case, as now even the evangelical churches are in decline.
In a recent interview, historian Diana Butler Bass points to the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention has lost around a million members in the past decade. For a denomination that once was growing dramatically and seemed unshakable, that’s big news. Her analysis about the root cause of that steep drop in membership has to do with complicity with power.
Bass said conservative religious denominations like Southern Baptists are now going through what liberal churches went through about 30 or 40 years ago. In the mid-20th century, she said, mainline Protestants had grown so cozy with cultural power and the status quo that it “undermined their ability to have any kind of prophetic vision and really undermined their ability to be anything other than just sort of the church of just getting along.”
That fell apart in the 1960s, Bass said, when things like Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement and women’s liberation began to stir in culture, and the mainline struggled with how to respond.
Conservative churches filled the void, she said, and likewise cozied up to the state and became closely identified with conservative politics. Now they are being confronted by gay and lesbian communities, issues of race and other “new voices of justice.”
“Evangelicals have been completely unable to address them in any meaningful way,” she said. “The leaders of evangelical churches have continued their alliance with the powers that be, and the children of evangelicals are saying, ‘We don’t buy it.’”
While I see her point and respect her knowledge on the topic, I’m not convinced this is the whole story. Although mainline churches did fail to take up the cause of justice in many ways in the 20th century, they were certainly doing more than the evangelicals were in terms of advocacy. The conservatives criticized them for embracing a ‘social gospel’ rather than the gospel of individual salvation by faith in Jesus, and pointed to practices like lgbtq inclusion as evidence of their godlessness. During this period many mainliners found their way into evangelical churches. Now, the grandchildren of those people are walking away from evangelicalism, and I’m not convinced it’s entirely about activism and social justice.
The core message of Christianity, including an omnipresent, omniscient, and benevolent deity who for whatever reason doesn’t directly intercede in the terrible suffering that exists in our world, shifting the blame and responsibility instead on fallible, practically impotent human beings, doesn’t ring true to many young people. The purity culture and political hypocrisy of evangelicalism are most certainly major factors in their departure, but Christian mythos needs to be considered part of this as well.
People are finding satisfying social lives among friends and in other ways that don’t involve church, and they’re finding meaning in life without the pre-packaged offerings of organized religion. Some still identify with Christianity and yearn for fellowship, and so they find their way either to progressive congregations or evangelical churches. Those for whom Christianity is not particularly attractive have other options, like Unitarian Universalism, Ethical Culture, and the Oasis Network.
I suspect that in the coming years we will see the continued contraction and possibly the consolidation of mainline Protestant churches, and that this process will also pick up speed in evangelicalism. There will no doubt be vibrant, healthy communities of all types of Christians…just far fewer of them.
On the evening of Friday, June 26, 2015, I arrived at the home of friends just as a Bible study ended. The TV was on, and we were seeing images of people around the US celebrating that marriage equality had been officially recognized by the US Supreme Court. My conservative evangelical friends didn’t look pleased, and more than one complained about perversion and God’s judgement. A handful of college-age youth were present as well, and they looked incredibly uncomfortable at some of the comments their parents were making.They had been raised in this faith, and yet the distance between them and the older people on social issues couldn’t be wider.
And yet there are those who wonder why young people are leaving church behind. They blame it on the temptations of the flesh or the corrupting influence of professors, but they can’t see their own hate.
The internal logic for conservative evangelicals is strong. They read the Bible through a certain lens, seeing the repeated failings of ancient Israel to obey YHWH as a warning not just to themselves, but to everyone. The shame they feel for perceived misdeeds, including consensual sexual activity in youth, leads them to accept the offer of full pardon through faith in Jesus. Among this type of evangelical, patriarchal attitudes are strong. Normally only men can be ministers, though there are exceptions. The father is the head of the household, as Christ is the head of the church. Purity culture is a key characteristic of this group, valuing virginity, particularly for unmarried girls and women. It’s common for girls to receive a purity ring from their father, but rarely is any such done for the boys.
When told that they are out of step with society, they think that that is precisely the point. They see themselves as following God’s way, while the rest of the hellbound world falls under the power of Satan. To them, the LGBTQ+ community is the epitome of all that’s going wrong.
What they fail to see is obvious to almost anyone else.
Their god is a Canaanite storm god that was first exalted in post-Babylonian Israel to the one and only god, and who then was made more complex by church councils centuries later attempting to work out how Jesus could also be god without there being more than one god.
The universe came into being over 14 billions years ago, and life evolved over some of those years here on earth. Since evangelicals think that humans are the supreme form of biological life, they misinterpret evolution, thinking that its goal should be human life. They don’t understand why there are still ‘monkeys’ in this scenario. Paleontology and genetics have demonstrated without doubt that all complex life on earth is descended from earlier forms.
Those among the evangelicals who do understand evolution insist that their god must have taken part in it, guiding it to the current state. What puzzles me is that they don’t really think through what this would mean about their deity, with death being not a scalpel but more of a club that over time made winners or losers of entire species. It was a bloody, painful ordeal, and it continues today. In a Christian theology that claims death came through the sin of Adam, there is no room for evolution.
Granting full, equal civil rights to LGBTQ+ people doesn’t pass muster for conservative evangelicals, because it hearkens back for them to Israel making room for sexuality in more extreme forms, including temple prostitution. Although technically non-Christians are generally believed to be free to ‘sin’ (with the expectation of Hell as their reward), there is genuine fear that allowing it will bring down divine wrath on the nation.
For all these reasons and more, conservative evangelicalism is in decline. While mainline Protestant churches are picking up some from this exodus, it appears that many are simply quitting church altogether. It remains to be seen whether the theologically liberal Christian churches will do any better at marketing themselves, and also whether Unitarian Universalists will get the hint and move away from attempts to copy the unsuccessful mainline Protestant model.
Long before there was Twitter for anonymous people to get into arguments about religion and politics, there were email discussion lists. From around 1998 to about 2004 I participated in several, and even ran a few myself. It was on one of those lists, while I was still doing mission work in Brazil, that someone told me with the most arrogant conviction told me that within 10 years I’d be Eastern Orthodox. Well, it’s been about 15 years now, and I’ve sort of gone the other direction on that one. Someone who has followed the Byzantine trail, though, is none other than ‘The Bible Answer Man’ himself, Hank Hanegraaff.
The photo above, taken at
St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church in April 2017, shows Hanegraaff being chrismated into Orthodoxy. To many this came as a complete shock, but to me it made a great deal of sense.
U.S. evangelicalism holds up theologically only if you compare it strictly to the Old and New Testaments without any historical or cultural context. Once you dig into it, and in particular into the writings of the early church fathers, you find that either the church fell into apostasy while some of the apostles were still alive, or else your understanding of Christianity is somewhat lacking. That the ‘smells and bells’ of Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, or the Coptic faith could have anything to do with ‘New Testament Christianity’ seems laughable to your average Baptist or Church of Christ member, but the story checks out.
Second, there was no one, standard ‘Christianity’ in the first century. There were a variety of sects, some of which were similar enough to each other to overlap, and others that remained separate. Even the doctrines we now consider ‘orthodox’ about Jesus as the Christ did not really become standard for centuries, during which time views that in prior generations were considered normal became defined as heretical. Although Orthodoxy in particular bears the strongest resemblance to what must have been early faith and practice (plus a lot of silver, gold, pomp, and circumstance inherited from the Byzantine Empire), that does not mean that its teachings are true in any objective sense.
At the Church of Christ university from which I graduated, the older ministry professors took great pride in describing their sect as ‘the same one Jesus founded.’ In reality, it is an austere shadow of what was most likely the rich, diverse, and expressive faith of the catacombs.
Here’s what Hanegraaff has to say about his conversion to Orthodoxy, something quite in line with what I’ve heard some converts to Roman Catholicism say:
As for me, I’ll happily continue on with what is observably and evidentially real, leaving for others the cognitive dissonance that accompanies belief in a benevolent, omnipresent, and omniscient deity who can’t be bothered to stop a Holocaust.
The evangelical movement is losing its youth, and with good reason. This post is for any of those open-minded, justice-oriented young people who care to listen.
Do you remember where you were on the night that marriage equality was recognized in the United States by the Supreme Court? I do. I had dropped in on a Bible study at the home of friends. The study was over, and the TV was on with scenes of people around the country celebrating this victory. The mood among my conservative evangelical friends was gloomy, with a couple making derisive comments about ‘the gays’ and how the world is going to hell. The handful of college-age youth in the room looked supremely uncomfortable. The distance between them and their parents was unspoken, yet plainly visible in their faces. That moment was a small glimpse of what’s happening on a much larger scale in the United States. This is what you’re experiencing, if you’ve been raised in a conservative Christian home.
You were brought up in this faith. You attended Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, church camp, and youth group. You were there for lock-ins, Christian music concerts, and prayer meetings. If you’re a girl, your father might have given you a purity ring. This was and perhaps still is your entire life.
There’s a problem.
You hear inspiring, life-affirming messages from the pulpit, but you see the church campaigning against marriage equality or sex education in schools that goes beyond abstinence. You think of that transman you’re buddies with at high school or college, and understand that this church sees him as a depraved sinner. You remember that girl that used to be in your youth group who had a baby at 14. The church thinks of her as a fallen woman, or sullied. At least, that’s what purity culture in these circles tells you.
Now you’ve seen prominent evangelical leaders hypocritically standing behind a sexist, racist candidate for US president, making excuses for his every vulgar outburst with references to the Bible. Is this really what you signed up for the day you decided to follow Jesus?
Isn’t Jesus supposed to be about breaking down barriers, lifting people up, and ministering to the margins? Didn’t Jesus constantly have trouble with the religious and civil establishment because his ways – albeit peaceful – were too revolutionary, upending social norms?
When I was 17, I left the faith in which I’d been raised. I went from Roman Catholic to conservative evangelical. Though I would not follow that same path now if I had it to do over, I remain proud of myself for taking a stand for what I believed on my own. I was never disrespectful to my parents, but I said and did what I thought was necessary. The journey since then has been amazing, set in motion by my initiative and firm resolve. There’s so much I wouldn’t have experienced if I had simply conformed to what had been handed to me as a child. And yet, despite how much my life was enriched by this decision, in the long run as an evangelical I was putting my mind in box, one of my choosing.
Your family situation may be different. Perhaps if you step away from that evangelical church, your parents will be furious. Only you can gauge the situation. If you’re in a non-church-related college, this shouldn’t be too difficult. It depends on what you want.
Do you still believe in God and see value in being part of a church? There are open-minded Christian churches out there. Look for one with a rainbow flag out front or on their website. Also, try to look for one with enough members to have young adult activities. Alternatively, you can find a progressive campus ministry at most public universities by checking with the chaplain’s office.
There are many progressive/liberal Protestant churches out there. You’ll find tiny congregations of older people as well as larger congregations with multiple generations represented. If your background was Baptist or in another denomination that practiced immersion baptism, you might like the Christian Church – Disciples of Christ or the American Baptist Churches. You could check out the United Church of Christ (do not confuse this with the Church of Christ, because the ‘United’ is important) or a congregation of the Presbyterian Church USA if you don’t care about infant baptism. If you like a more Catholic-feeling experience, check out the parishes of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and The Episcopal Church. Both are quite liberal and welcoming, though some few parishes may hold more conservative fews.
A reader of this blog has also asked I add the following:
If you’re looking for a Catholic experience, many independent Catholic (that is, non-Roman) churches are deeply progressive/liberal.
Unfortunately, they have a big problem with marketing themselves so that people know they exist. I’ve fallen in with an Old Catholic congregation that knows I’m damn near atheist, and still welcomes me to the sacraments. We’ve got a feminist woman Baby Boomer priest, and a gay geek GenX priest.
As a Unitarian Universalist, I’d like to make a special appeal. If you find your way into a mainline Protestant church, you may be fine with it. Or, perhaps, your thinking will move in another direction, and you’ll cease feeling comfortable with that church. Instead of changing churches if or when you change your mind, you could seek out a congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Why Unitarian Universalism? This is a liberal religious tradition that embraces free thinking and promotes cooperation to make the world a better place. These congregations are radically inclusive, welcoming all who welcome all. Although the welcome is wide, there is no proselytizing. People come of their own free will, and stay not out of any fear of eternal damnation. LGBTQ+ people are welcome in these communities, as well as theists of all religious traditions and atheists/Humanists. We don’t have to think alike to love alike.
Within Unitarian Universalism, there is room for you to grow. You can change your mind about the existence of god 12 times a week (though I don’t recommend it) and still teach Sunday School or help in the service on Sunday. Of course, you are welcome to simply be a person in the pew, but isn’t the value of communities like this found mostly in forming connections and feeling part of something larger than yourself?
Many UU congregations are small, some are mid-sized, and a few are relatively large. If there’s more than one in driving distance, check them all out, a couple of times each for good measure. See if there’s a UU campus ministry if you’re in college.
For more on UUism, check out the video below. Just remember, you can grow beyond the faith you were given, and you don’t have to go it alone.