When working toward our “God and country” badges, my childhood Boy Scout troop was shuttled over to the neighborhood United Methodist church for sessions with the pastor about being good Christians and good citizens. I remember my Southern Baptist sensibilities being shocked when the pastor said, in response to a question, that he didn’t believe in angels or demons. The reigning cultural presence of mainline Protestantism served the same purpose as the “God and country” badge. Give us enough Christianity to fight the communists and save the Republic, they said, but let’s remember not to take it all too seriously.
But that culture is coming to a close, according to a new study by the University of Chicago. According to the study, the number of Americans who identify themselves as Protestants has declined from 63 percent in 1993 to 52 percent in 2002, and continuing to plummet. Now, admittedly, the survey has some flaws-such as defining “Protestantism” as everything from the Episcopal Church USA to the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints. Nonetheless, the study shows a clear decline, no matter which way you read it.
We shouldn’t panic about this.
Frankly, we should be more concerned about the loss of a Christian majority in the Protestant churches than about the loss of a Protestant majority in the United States. Most of the old-line Protestant denominations are captive to every theological fad that has blown through their divinity schools in the past thirty years-from crypto-Marxist liberation ideologies to sexual identity politics to a neo-pagan vision of God-complete with gender neutralized liturgies. Should we lament the fact that the Riverside Avenue Protestant establishment is now collapsing under the weight of its own bureaucracy?
What we should pay attention to instead may be the fresh wind of orthodox Christianity whistling through the leaves-especially throughout the third world, and in some unlikely places in North America, as well. Sometimes animists, Buddhists, and body-pierced Starbucks employees are more fertile ground for the gospel than the confirmed Episcopalian at the helm of the Rotary Club. Accordingly, evangelicals will engage the culture much like the apostles did in the first-century-not primarily to “baptized” pagans on someone’s church roll, but as those who are hearing something new for the first time. There may be fewer bureaucrats in denominational headquarters, but there might be more authentically Christian churches preaching an authentically Christian gospel.
We will be pained to see idolatries springing up where churches once were. In that we will have the same experience our brother Paul did two millennia ago in Athens (Acts 17:16). But, like him, sometimes it is easier to gain a hearing among people who know they are ignorant (Acts 17:17), than with those who think they know. Paul listened to the pagan poetry about Zeus, and showed the Athenian philosophers how not even they could live with the kind of god-concepts they said they believed. Around us we hear the father-hunger in the hip-hop lyrics blaring down the urban sidewalk. We see the fear of death in the plastic surgery clinics and health clubs springing up in the suburban strip-malls. We hear the despondency of sin lamented in the words of a country music song on the sound system of a rural gas station. Against all of that, we proclaim the only message that can answer these unconscious longings and these conscious resentments-Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18). The pagans won’t always listen-but they will know that we are saying something new (Acts 17:32).
The American Protestant majority is faltering. I say, “good riddance.” Now let’s pray for something new-like a global Christian majority, on earth as it is in heaven.