Religious vitality in a liberal church

January 23, 2012

Responding to “Evangelical vs. Liberal” by James K. Wellman, Jr.

I  have long been interested in message, ministry, and mission as factors that contribute to the religious and organizational vitality of congregations. The importance of these factors and how they interact in Christian communities takes on a distinctive character when they are used to understand classic Protestant churches. When pastors and lay leaders understand how these factors act and interact, they are better able to lead their congregations forward into greater strength and impact upon their members and the larger communities in which these members and their churches live and work.

My interest in these issues is shaped by the fact that during the past half century there has been a dramatic shift in the religious marketplace of the United States. The Protestant denominations that were at the center of American culture and institutional life in the 1950s, have shrunk in membership even though the population has grown dramatically. During these same years, evangelical churches have grown significantly in their market share, in part because they have been able to generate and sustain very large congregations.

Furthermore, the demographics of these two groups of churches (classic Protestant and evangelical) indicate that this shift will continue well into the future. The members of classic Protestant churches, now getting along in years, are remainders of constituencies that came into these churches when they were young adults with many children. To a distressing degree those children and then the grandchildren have disappeared from the churches of their youth. At the same time, churches in the evangelical movement have burgeoned, in part, because of their effectiveness in recruiting young adults, especially men, and their strong focus on families, children, and youth.

This shift in market share is especially interesting in the Pacific Northwest, which for generations has been characterized by a non-institutional, a-theological religiosity, a spirituality focused on nature and the common good. Until recently, this was the region in the United States with the lowest percentage of people who claimed to be participants in churches or other religious communities. If any form of Christian faith and practice would thrive in this environment, people might think, it would be classic Protestant churches, with their acculturated theology, openness toward varied life styles, and historic commitment to the common good.

Yet, as James K. Wellman, Jr., reports in his book Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), this is not the case. Instead, liberal churches, which is Wellman’s label for what I have been calling classic Protestant, have declined while evangelical churches have grown dramatically so that they have become the dominant Christian sub-culture in the region.

With financial support from the Lilly Endowment and the encouragement and assistance of colleagues and students at the University of Washington where he teaches, Wellman studied thirty-six thriving congregations in the region (twelve were liberal and twenty-four were evangelical). His book is an important collection of information about these churches and a well-shaped analysis of how their ministers and members think about the Christian faith, shape their churches, and extend their faith into the world of personal life and impact upon American society. Read more:  Wellman


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