The Good News about Evangelicalism: Evangelicalism Isn't Shrinking, and the Young Are Not Becoming Liberals

Article excerpt

Evangelicalism is not what it used to be. Evangelicals were once derided for being uneducated, unsophisticated, and single-issue oriented in their politics. Now they profess at some of our best universities, parse postmodernity, and preach "creation care" with liberal fervor. Looking at the supposed repudiation of "the religious right" in the 2008 election, many pundits chortled gleefully that evangelicalism--the conservative brand of Protestantism reflected by Southern Baptists, the Assemblies of God, the Church of the Nazarene, and others who believe in the final authority of the Bible and the need for conversion--is smaller than most have thought, and that the evangelical young have morphed into social liberals.

In other words, evangelicals are not as powerful a cultural force as previously thought, and in the future they will be even less so. Neither of these claims is true.

The evangelical movement is undergoing a sea change, to be sure, but it is not the sort most observers imagine. For starters, evangelicals have not lost members. This was confirmed by the Baylor Religion Survey, an in-depth study of American religious beliefs and practices using data collected by the Gallup Organization. Instead of relying on questions about religious preference alone, as previous studies have done, the survey identified respondents by religious family, denomination, and local congregation.

This last identification is significant because of the declining importance of denomination in America. Nondenominational churches, almost exclusively evangelical, now represent the second-largest group of Protestant churches in America, and the fastest growing section of the American religious market. Many denominational churches, especially newer ones, avoid advertising or communication strategies that feature their denominational affiliation. Consider Saddleback Church. All of its members know that their pastor is Rick Warren, but not all know that their congregation is Southern Baptist. Typical is Christ Community Church, near Nashville, Tennessee--a member of the Presbyterian Church of America that does not highlight this fact in Sunday services or sermons.

This trend has affected popular statistics and has also served to exaggerate the loss of religious faith and evangelical influence in America. Most previous research missed a new phenomenon: that members of nondenominational churches often identify themselves on surveys as unaffiliated or even as having "no religion." Because traditional surveys do not provide categories that adequately describe those who attend nondenominational congregations, their members often check "unaffiliated" in typical surveys and questionnaires.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Forum, 44 percent of Americans have switched their religious or denominational affiliation. Much of the media coverage suggested that something much different had happened: that a significant portion of the American population had left the faith of their youth. But that is not what the research actually discovered. These are two vastly different stories, with profoundly different implications for American religion in general and evangelicalism in particular. Switching churches or denominations should not be interpreted as a proxy for losing one's faith.

The Baylor Religious Survey took pains to find these nondenominational church attenders by asking them to identify themselves not only by their religious family and denomination but also by their local congregation. The researchers found: 1) that Americans remain connected to congregations, but less so to denominations or more generic religious identities; 2) that the unaffiliated are currently 10.8 percent of the population rather than the 14 percent or 16 percent claimed by other surveys; 3) that many of those typically identified as "unaffiliated" are not only affiliated with congregations but also attend evangelical churches; and 4) that America is considerably more evangelical than prior studies have found. …