This past weekend, noted progressive-Christian writer Rachel Held Evans published a widely shared and widely read piece in the Washington Post decrying the Evangelical church’s shallow attempts to appeal to Millennials by trying to make church “cool.”
Ms. Evans critiques hashtag campaigns, young-adult groups with names like “Prime” and “Vertical,” and concert-style worship services. She mocks talk of “market share” and “branding,” and in so doing sounds every bit as traditionalist as those who despise the praise choruses of the typical Evangelical megachurch and long for the simple “old-time religion” of their grandparents.
But that’s not really her point. Evans believes the church shouldn’t reform its style, but rather its substance – by becoming, in essence, traditionally progressive. In other words, keep the ancient styles, but change the ancient beliefs. In a previous article, for CNN, Evans set forth the litany of Millennial demands:
We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith.
We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.
We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.
We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.
We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.
We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.
This isn’t a theological statement. It’s a progressive writer’s wish list. Evans’s fervent belief is that the key to unlocking Millennial spiritual energy is found in the old ways – not its actual beliefs, mind you, but the trappings of the faith. To Evans, the answer is combining high-church traditions with no-church theology, because “the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being ‘cool,’ and we find that refreshingly authentic.”
The faith that will win Millennials, in other words, is standard liberalism — except in a museum setting. It’s the Millennial hipster equivalent of listening to your albums on vinyl, because it just sounds more “real.” And so Evans finds herself in the Episcopal Church, where ancient tradition and liberal trends converge:
My search has led me to the Episcopal Church, where every week I find myself, at age 33, kneeling next to a gray-haired lady to my left and a gay couple to my right as I confess my sins and recite the Lord’s prayer.
It’s about the “inclusiveness,” you see:
This is the inclusivity so many millennials long for in their churches, and it’s the inclusivity that eventually drew me to the Episcopal Church, whose big red doors are open to all — conservatives, liberals, rich, poor, gay, straight and even perpetual doubters like me.
There’s just one problem with this analysis: It turns out that Millennials are not, in fact, longing for the Episcopal experience. Not many people of any age are. What Evans neglects to mention is that the American religious community has been engaging in a decades-long experiment in exactly the kind of spirituality she proposes, and the Mainline churches — those churches that combine the ancient forms of faith with progressive beliefs — are committing slow-motion suicide.
Last summer, the Federalist’s Andrew Griswold noted that liberalization – especially on matters of sexual morality – was the single-best way to shrink your church. The numbers he conveys are startling. Few churches have been more aggressively “inclusive” than the Episcopal Church, yet between 2002 and 2012 it lost 18.4 percent of its members, and its church attendance declined 24.4 percent.Other “inclusive” churches have seen similar — or worse — declines. President Obama’s denomination, the United Church of Christ (UCC), lost 20.4 percent of its members in the seven years after it voted to recognize same-sex marriage. The UCC is on pace to disappear entirely within 30 years, but it is healthy compared to the Presbyterian Church (USA), which further liberalized its stance on sexuality in 2006 and redefined marriage in 2014. Between 2006 and 2013, the church lost 22.4 percent of its members and is now on pace to disappear entirely by 2037.
The decades-long reality of American spiritual life is the loss of spiritual consensus and the growth of two intellectually and theologically competitive cultural tribes: religious conservatives and secularists. As Griswold notes, culturally conservative churches such as the Assemblies of God and the Mormon Church have enjoyed strong growth. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is now in the midst of a slight decline, but only after decades of spectacular growth allowed it to eclipse every other Protestant denomination, including every liberal Mainline denomination combined.
Yes, there are liberals who “long” for the church to change. But that’s because they long for it to disappear.
Yes, the “nones” are on the rise as well, with 46 million Americans identifying as religiously unaffiliated, according to the Pew Research Center. But per Pew, these individuals are “not looking for a religion that would be right for them.” (Emphasis in original.) For the moment, they’re not really “longing” for anything from church.
What does all this mean for the American church? In the short–to–medium term, it means more cultural conflict and more cultural division — with only one certain path to extinction: theological liberalization and cultural conformity. Yes, there are liberals who “long” for the church to change. But that’s because they long for it to disappear.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer for National Review.