(RNS16-may2) Anita Hensley of Kansas City, Mo., joins in worship at the National Day of Prayer observance on Capitol Hill on Thursday (May 2). For use with RNS-NATIONAL-PRAY, transmitted on May 2, 2013, RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks.

Ask An Evangelical: Why is the Evangelical church growing?

What do you want to know about Evangelicalism? Pastor Rob Bryceson, of The Gathering House Church, and Elizabeth Backstrom, a member of The Gathering House, co-author this column. Submit your question here.

By Rob Bryceson

Why do you think the Evangelical church is growing, and mainline churches are shrinking?

evangelicalThe decline of mainline church attendance in the U.S is a pretty well established fact. It only takes a simple Google or Yahoo search to confirm it. The hit to mainline churches far exceeds the very minimal decline of Evangelical churches. Here are just a few quick links:

It might help us first to identify the mainline churches and discuss what makes them different from Evangelicals. Believe it or not, this isn’t an easy answer. Different lists of Mainlines consist of Congregational, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodists, Reformed, American Baptist, United church of Christ, and Episcopal denominations among others. However, some of these denominations, like the Reformed Church in America are also part of the National Association of Evangelicals, so it can be difficult to pin down and draw clear lines between Mainlines and Evangelicals.

Mainlines are identified as the oldest and most established denominations in the U.S. Many modern denominations are actually splits from these originals. These churches are historically liberal in both theology and social issues. By definition, they take a modernist view of the Bible, seeing it as humanly devised historical document written long after the fact. They tend to teach the Bible as a developed document full of errors, omissions, undo cultural influences, and human opinion. As a consequence these denominations differ from Evangelicals in that they often see the Bible as neither inerrant, nor inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is not uncommon to see their universities packed with Bible scholars who are actually atheists or agnostics who certainly hold to none of the beliefs of historic Christian doctrine.

But this is a generalization that isn’t always consistent. I worked for four years in a Presbyterian PCUSA church that would be solidly aligned with Evangelicals in their view of Scripture. Whitworth is a PCUSA University that is hugely supported by Evangelicals and holds Evangelical views of Scripture. There are some topnotch authors and leaders within the Reformed church of America, like Tim Keller, who are considered national leaders by Evangelicals. Within the mainline denominations some churches, professors, and leaders are Evangelical. (See my earlier article on SpokaneFāVS – How to Understand Your Evangelical Friend for a definition of Evangelical).

Why Are People Leaving the Mainline Denominations?

Here again a cursory Internet search will turn up numerous pages of analysis and opinion. In one article by Dr Richard J. Krejcir on the website, The Churchleadership.org Francis A. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership And Development  it mentions the decline in the following terms:

  • From 1990 to 2000, the combined membership of all Protestant denominations in the USA declined by almost 5 million members (9.5 percent), while the US population increased by 24 million (11 percent).
  • At the turn of the last century (1900), there was a ratio of 27 churches per 10,000 people, as compared to the close of this century (2000) where we have 11 churches per 10,000 people in America!
  • Evangelical churches added more than 2 million people to their ranks, up from 59.8 million in 2007 to 62.2 million in 2014. Meanwhile, mainline churches lost 5 million people. “As a result, evangelicals now constitute a clear majority (55%) of all US Protestants,” noted Pew.

Krejcir goes on to say, “My church growth colleagues have drummed up their reasons for the decline of the Church such as a lack of several key areas that are not functioning right in the local church. These areas are in the realm of vision, leadership, evangelism efforts, communication, church mentality, capital, child care, youth programs, and being seeker-sensitive. When these key areas are not functioning, the existing people will leave and others will not come. In my own research, I too found the same results. However, I have also found other factors that are in real, critical areas such as not teaching the Word or making God’s Word boring so that people are turned off. . . . . The top reasons why people leave a church have to do with not being connected in the church and/or being revolted by gossip and turned away by conflict and strife while ineffective teaching and pastoral care are also at hand. Another big turn off is being overly money-orientated so that people feel the church wants their money but not them.”

If you were to click the links mentioned at the beginning of this article and others you would find a summary of opinions as to why mainline churches are in decline while Evangelical churches are pretty much staying consistent with only a very small dip in the overall population. Some of the reasons include:

  1. Evangelical churches tend to keep their kids, or at least a much greater percentage of them. They attract more youthful members, while older established churches are simply aging out.
  2. Evangelical people marry partners who share their beliefs and actively participate in their church life. With Mainline Protestants this is less so, as a result there is a drifting away from the church.
  3. Non-denominational churches are usually Evangelical and most new churches are non-denominational
  4. Church conflicts are a turn off. Denominations like PCUSA have been in a bitter split and property fights between churches and their presbyteries which are making headlines from lawsuits and court battles.
  5. People see older established churches as caring more to preserve their institutions instead of caring about them.
  6. Modern people aren’t “joiners.” Old social club memberships in groups like Lions, Elks, Odd Fellows, even Rotary are also in decline. This is partly why non-denominational, non-membership churches are growing.
  7. Evangelical churches that offer an experience with the Holy Spirit actually make a large number of the increase in attendance in Evangelical circles. The Assembly of God and other Pentecostal groups are growing in disproportionally larger numbers.
  8. For us Evangelicals, the shift in lowering the authority of the Bible is tantamount to abandoning the message and power of the Gospel. It’s turning the inerrant Word of God into human opinion free to disregard at any turn. We would say this is the biggest reason the Mainlines are in decline. The truth of the faith has been so watered down and jettisoned for human opinion that God has left the building.

Having said this, the warning to Evangelical churches is to avoid similar mistakes. The attractional model of seeker sensitive church in our circles has been criticized for dumbing down the faith and leaving people Biblically and doctrinally illiterate. Too much emphasize on the institution and its property and buildings have caused some to simply walk away. Caring for people and turning up an emphasis on social justice and poverty works is on the rise in Evangelical circles. There is a huge concern over the loss of a young generation who graduates their youth group experience and end up wandering away from church. There is frustration over the large percentage of people who attend Evangelical churches but aren’t actually Christian in their beliefs or ethical behavior. In other words, for Evangelicals’ it’s not a time to be prideful, there is much room for improvement.

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Eric Blauer

Well said Rob.

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