What will become of Christianity in America?
In his post, Hitting bottom must be necessary. (2020 November 6), Jack wrote an excellent, comprehensive timeline of major events that have led us to modern Christianity. I agree that Christianity finds itself in a crisis situation. I have my own ideas about what comes next, which I will describe below.
First, though, a couple of quibbles about the generally very helpful timeline.
First, Jack wrote that the Methodist church started in 1729. This was the time that the Methodist movement got started, but the Methodists didn’t become a “church” until at least the 1780s in North America, and later, after John Wesley’s death, in Britain.
Wesley started promoting his ideas, through preaching in CofE churches, mostly in the 1730s, and it took off from there as a movement within the Anglican Church, and was carried to America that way, which is why, for a very long time, the Methodists in the US were called the “Methodist Episcopal Church”. They only became the current “United Methodist Church” in the 1960s as a result of a merger with the Evangelical United Brethren, a German/Dutch-heritage but subsequently Wesleyan influenced denomination in the US that was similarly one of the so-called “Holiness Churches”.
Wesley himself never promoted the Methodist church in Britain itself, remaining a faithful Anglican priest his entire long life. But after the American revolution, he supported the development of a new Methodist Church in the US, since the “state church” no longer applied there, and he created a slightly modified (edited) Book of Common Prayer for their use. I think that’s the earliest you can say there was a Methodist “Church”.
The second point is a larger one than that quibble. Basically, in my view, you can’t understand the current state of American Protestantism, which is largely what American Christianity consists of, without taking into account the impact of the Second Great Awakening (1790-1850) and the revivalist mindset that it created. That “revivalist” model quickly became the dominant model in American Christianity, and it led to the wildfire growth of both the Baptists and the Methodists in the US during the immediate period after the Second Great Awakening (in fact, in large part this growth is why the Baptists, followed by the Methodists, are, among “denominational Protestants”, the first and second largest Protestant denominations in the United States). The methods and means promoted by Charles Grandison Finney in particular continue to be central to much of American Protestantism today, 200 or so years later. The highlights of the revivalist model include,
- An emphasis on growth at the expense of everything else, and therefore light (often very light) on doctrine so as to draw people in.
- A great emphasis on contemporary forms of everything (music, worship, preaching, organization, dress, everything) to draw people in.
- An emphasis on personal agency (decision for Christ).
- An emphasis thereafter on practical benefits in daily life (continuing the “sell” of Christianity to the believer) coupled with redirecting the new Christian to replicate the same process through involvement in further evangelization along similar revival-type lines.
As you can see from this list, the central feature of this model is about growing membership, based on enhancing the social relevancy of evangelism in order to make the church more attractive to the targets of these evangelical efforts in any one specific time and place.
This “model” is now taken for granted in much of American Christianity, but in fact, it only dates to Charles Finney and the Second Great Awakening. Obviously not all Protestant Churches follow it (the mainlines don’t, for the most part, nor do the generally theologically conservative “confessional Protestants” like the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod or the Orthodox Presbyterian Church or what have you), but the vast swathes of American Protestantism that are represented by much of Baptists, the conservative side of the Methodists, and most non-denominational churches explicitly follow this model.
It’s an important point, I think, because that model greatly facilitates the apostasy we have seen in American Christianity, precisely because it focuses on de-emphasizing everything that interferes with continued growth in numbers. This creates tremendous pressure to be culturally relevant, and to compromise with the culture in order to achieve that, so that evangelism remains lively in a cultural context that has largely moved on from Christianity. The form that these compromises take varies, and often involves creative justifications using scriptural exegesis or, commonly, eisegesis, but the pressure is there because the more “out of step with the culture” that these churches become, the harder it is for the Finney model to work.
The Finney model works best when the culture at large is mostly influenced by Christian values, even if many people in it are spiritually backslid or worse, because Christian evangelical efforts can reach people in culturally “relevant” ways in such a context without compromising Christian values and teaching, because the culture generally accords with those values. It works much less well in a culture that has walked away from Christian values, and we are seeing that problem today … unless, of course, the Church finds a way to “deprioritize” those values which conflict, like it did with women for the most part, through the rise of evangelical feminism in the form of “complementarianism” — an approach that was itself specifically formulated to preserve the cultural relevance of evangelicalism in the context of a broader culture that had definitively become feminist.
That leads me to where I see things going next. The gay sex and marriage issues have basically torn apart the mainline Churches in the last few decades, leading to various schisms in the Episcopal world (most recently the formation of the ACNA, which appears likely to be the main successor for traditionalist ex-Episcopalians), and the migration of a steady stream of remaining “orthodox” mainliners from rainbow mainline denominations like the PCUSA and ELCA to the non-mainline confessional versions like the PCA/OPC and LCMS/WELS. The Methodist warring parties had agreed to a split before COVID hit, and this year’s general meeting was canceled — assuming that the split is approved eventually, we will have a schism in the huge Methodist Church, finally. (It will be interesting to see what the conservative Methodists actually look like, because I have never actually met a conservative Wesleyan, although to be fair, former U.S. President George W. Bush is one.)
Keep in mind, these schisms about the gay sex and marriage issues are happening in churches that are already overwhelmingly socially liberal.
It won’t end there. The same issues are going to rip apart the remainder of non-denominational churches, and it will play out differently, of course, because unlike the mainline, the non-denominational churches do not have the kind of church polity where a central assembly passes rules above the level of the congregation. The issue will instead ripple through congregation after congregation, causing massive generational schism, rival church plants, and a lot of public recrimination about the issue, all arguing about whether a compromise on the gay sex and marriage issues (similar to the complementarian compromise on feminism) is needed in order to avoid greatly damaging evangelization in a culture that has largely moved on from Christian teaching regarding homosexuality.
It’s already happening, of course, here and there. It will happen more, year after year, as the cultural pressure increases, and the desire to continue a Finney/Revival approach faces hard decisions in a culture where being on the “wrong side” of gay issues is increasingly viewed as akin to being a member of the KKK.
In summary, the fundamental elements of the revivalist model, which led to the phenomenal growth of evangelism in the United States and which are ingrained into American Christian culture, are likely to work against the church in the years ahead, in the context of a culture that becomes decisively anti-Christian, and which therefore is very hard for any Christian church to remain “culturally relevant” towards without compromising its own identity and core teachings and values. In fact, it appears likely that the deep-seated tendency of American Christians to think in terms of cultural relevancy will be deployed very effectively against the moral orthodoxy of American Christian churches in the years ahead.