Three key evangelical leaders appeared on Easter Sunday’s installment of the ABC news show “This Week.” Each had their own agenda and each seemed to miss the question that was being asked.
When news anchor Martha Raddatz inquired about recent declines in church attendance, the conservative Christian leaders gave puzzling answers. Raddatz reported that in 1992, 70% of Americans attended a church or synagogue, while in 2013 that number dropped to 59%. Her follow-up question to her guests was, “What is happening?”
This would have been a great moment to talk about the need for new imagination, community engagement and cultural sensitivity. It was a chance to reflect on the failures of fallen church leaders and the irrelevance of modern church structures. Here was an opportunity to admit that the Spirit is up to something new and we don’t exactly know what that is yet, but what is needed is a humble posture of listening and learning as we head into this new frontier.
Predictably, none of that happened.
Franklin Graham, President and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, answered the “What is happening?” question with a confident and passionate call to repentance, using his opportunity to convert his television audience (and possibly his host), speaking repeatedly about God's message of love. He then reiterated his support of Putin’s decision to restrict and punish gay people in Russia.
Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, also seemed to dodge the question, saying he wasn’t worried about the decline in church attendance. His response to what he calls “the collapse of a cultural form of nominal Christianity” is to assert that Evangelicalism is a “strange” movement and that’s the way he wants it. Hence, he is even more committed and will work hard to convince Americans that the conservative values they once had are still the best and most beneficial.
Ralph Reed, Chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, assumes that evangelicals are all conservative Republicans and has redoubled efforts to increase participation of this group in the political process, especially through social media.
The answers these three evangelical leaders gave are strikingly similar, not in the actions that they prescribe, but in the philosophy that lies behind their responses. Graham calls for more conversions. Moore wants restored conservative values. Reed pushes for greater political participation. But all of them are basically saying, “We have to continue what we’re already doing, we just have to do it harder, louder and with more resources.” The answer to the question of declining church attendance is to reinvest in practices that worked for the last 200 years (and especially in a 1980s conservative political climate), redouble efforts, solicit larger contributions and gain greater cultural power and control.
This reminds me of the oft used quote attributed to Einstein: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
The comment I was most surprised by during the ten-minute feature came from Cokie Roberts. She correctly identified research that confirms though church attendance is declining, belief in God is holding steady. Depending on which survey is cited, roughly 70% of all Americans claim a belief in God, and many of those pray and read their Bibles on a weekly basis. Roberts’ response to the original question is spot on: “It’s organized religion that they are having a problem with, it’s not belief.”
So true. And what evangelicals need to be asking themselves is not, “How can we continue to do what we’ve always done and do it better?” but rather, “Why have we become so estranged from people’s lives that they don’t find us helpful, relevant or authoritative anymore?”
Of course, if we seriously ask that question, we better be ready to discover stuff about our churches that we don’t want to hear. We should also be ready to learn about the deficiencies of our own gospel interpretation from those who are different than us. We’ll never get anywhere while we continue to listen solely to internal voices.
And all of that is very unlikely to happen when leaders are so confident and sure that their plan for church growth is the right one, the only one and the ordained one.