Evangelical Decline?

There’s a new article over at First Things by Byron Johnson, a social sciences professor arguing that many commentators have misinterpreted the numbers in describing recent religious trends in America. We often hear, he says, that more people are leaving the church, and those who remain are increasingly liberal. This is untrue. What actually happened, according to Mr Johnson, is that younger evangelicals don’t know what kind of denomination they are part of, and respond to polls as “unaffiliated,” while still being involved with a local nondenominational church.

Supposing Mr Johnson’s interpretation of data to be accurate, I’m not sure what to think about this. It is, of course, good that there are a lot of Christians in America — but what does it mean that so many of them apparently don’t know or won’t admit what kind of denominational tradition their church is in? Perhaps it’s the logical consequence of denominationalism: if each church is so separated that it nearly constitutes its own denomination of one, with no bishop to oversee the local unity, then there’s a strange kind of unity — nobody much cares about denominational differences because nobody much cares about formal unity at all. There are fewer official barriers between the churches, because nobody has any loyalty to any particular kind of church over another — and is even ignorant of what the differences are, apart from superficial changes of music tempo and pastoral emphasis.

So I’m not sure what to make of this, but am suspicious of it. If someone were to suggest ending jurisdictional disunity by ceasing to know what jurisdiction each of us was in — by failing to know who our bishops are, or what our history and traditions are — I would say: that’s crazy, terrible! But perhaps without bishops and some sense of history people are bound to forget what kind of church tradition they’re in? Or neglect to tell their children?

(I didn’t know that my parents’ church is Lutheran tradition, though I did know it was Evangelical Free — mostly because I attended some denominational youth conferences a while back)


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