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Will Evangelicalism Go the Way of Mainline Protestantism?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The big “buzz” in the American religious community is the recently released report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. In the secular and Christian media alike the results were being trumpeted as “shocking,” “disturbing” and “enlightening” among other hyperbolic descriptions. The keyboards of the “experts” began to hum, churning out what all this means for the future of religion in America.

There will be much controversy about this report, but there are certain conclusions that are unmistakable.

Mainline Protestant denominations continue their plunge downward through mediocrity to total irrelevance. No surprise there. Evangelical churches continue to grow—especially those of the non-denominational variety. Again, no surprise. Roman Catholicism is declining more quickly than any other “faith tradition” in America. Again, not a huge surprise.

However, what is surprising is that the ranks of the “unaffiliated” shows a rapid increase. One in four adults age 18 to 29 claims no affiliation with any religious institution—a troubling statistic as we consider the next generation of Christian leaders.

Undoubtedly, this study will be discussion fodder for the foreseeable future.

The report is filled with the typical statistics and analysis but possibly the most important conclusion is the one reached by a research fellow at the Pew Forum, Greg Smith: “There is no question that the demographic balance has shifted in the past few decades toward evangelical churches. They are now the mainline of American Protestantism.”

Whether he knows it or not, Smith’s words may be prophetic. What an interesting thought: evangelical churches are now the mainline. Indeed, this may be exactly what is happening and it should make every evangelical shudder!

The worst kept secret in American Christianity is the continuing demise of mainline denominations. Is it possible that evangelicals could now take their place—in eventual decline? Indeed, if the course many evangelical leaders are charting is followed, the evangelical movement will suffer the same fate as the mainline denominations.

Hundreds of theories have been advanced to explain the cause of the death of mainline American Protestantism. The most compelling argument involves their departure from biblical authority.

A few decades ago liberal theologians gained control of the seminaries. Instead of teaching their pastoral and theological students to love, trust and revere the Bible as God’s inspired, inerrant revelation to mankind, they were taught to question, doubt and debate the claims of Scripture. To question truth became the ultimate objective rather than discovering truth. The “search” was not a part of the journey, it was the destination.

Young theologians were taught by their professors that truth was unknowable—even the truth of Scripture. They were instructed to believe that the Bible had to be re-interpreted by each generation. Truth was defined not by the mind of God, but by the consensus of the present generation.

As years passed this new theology found its way from the seminary to the pulpit. Something strange happened. Those in the pew were more discerning than those in the pulpit. Many couldn’t put their finger on it exactly, but they knew something was wrong. Sermons no longer gave answers to life’s problems from the authority of Scripture, they offered platitudes and empty philosophy. Pulpits devoid of authority lost their power and those in the pew found the door. The result? Those in leadership analyzed the drastic situation of declining membership, attendance and revenue and decided that the answer was to … become more liberal!

The farther the pulpit strayed away from the absolute authority of Scripture the larger the exodus to the parking lot—never to return. The trend in the pulpit continues as does the exodus. The result? The mainline is no longer the mainline; evangelicals have taken their place.

Even a cursory examination of the current fads within evangelicalism shows a shocking trend. Those once characterized by strict adherence to the authority of Scripture are starting to walk in the footsteps of their mainline counterparts. The Emergent Church (which seems to gain strength daily) is characterized, to a great extent, by the same propensities as those who led mainline Protestantism into oblivion. Consider just one example.

Rob Bell is, without question, one of the most vocal of the Emergent leaders. In his book, “Velvet Elvis,” he considers at length the importance of biblical doctrine in today’s church. While stressing continually his love for the Bible, his commitment to Scripture and his “orthodoxy,” he uses an extremely troubling illustration that contradicts his claims.

In Bell’s theology you look at Bible doctrine either as a brick or a spring. A brick is hard, unbending, unmovable and static. He berates those who hold this view of doctrine as being out of touch, legalistic and rigid. On the other hand, a spring is pliable, moving, dynamic, constantly changing—it’s almost alive. He then relates this to a trampoline. The springs allow someone on the trampoline to bounce and move. Now, it’s nice to have all the springs in place, but in reality you can remove several of them and still be able to bounce.

This is his view (and the view of the Emergent Church generally) concerning Bible doctrine. Doctrine is not primarily to be understood but merely studied. To question, to discuss and to debate is the end—not discovery and proclamation. It would be nice to be able to truly “know” doctrine and to have it all in place, but it’s not necessary. A spring here or there can be removed without hurting the trampoline. In other words, the Virgin Birth is important, but not vital. The whole concept of how a person is really justified may never be completely understood so, as long as you love Jesus, you’re in.

This attack on the authority of Scripture is much more dangerous than that of the liberals who destroyed the mainline denominations. Why? Because it’s much harder to discern. It’s cloaked in the language of evangelicalism, but under the cloak is the doctrine of doubt rather than confidence in the biblical witness. For Bell and others, it seems that questioning Scripture is more important than understanding it. We’re left with essentially the same message as classic theological liberalism, but wrapped in different packaging.

Unless the evangelical church wakes up to the fact that the authority of the very Word of God is under attack in their own movement, evangelicalism will indeed become the new “mainline”—and experience the same tragic end.

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