What do Evangelicals have that we don't?

SMU Theologian Fred Schmidt discusses why evangelical churches draw bigger audiences.

Associate Professor Frederick W. Schmidt of Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University

By Frederick W. Schmidt

What do Evangelicals have that we (Progressive, Mainliners) don't have—other than larger churches, larger seminaries, bigger attendance on Sunday, more serious engagement with Scripture, and enough passion for their faith to keep David Platt's Radical on the best seller list for 55 weeks running?

We can sniff and comfort ourselves with pride, if we want to do that. But I am sure that was pretty much where the crew of the Titanic lived just before the ice water began to roll in over their feet.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't a size thing. But we can only console ourselves for so long by arguing, "small is beautiful" or "we are too sophisticated to be popular." "Large" may not mean "good," but "small" is not necessarily a synonym for "virtuous" either. Sometimes, small just means "not all that interesting."

The question is also prompted by the tenor and level of engagement that Evangelicalism inspires. To get just a taste of it, read the obituary in last week's New York Times describing the life of John R. W. Stott who died on July 27.

There's another problem with dismissing Evangelicals out of hand: Many of the excuses we tell ourselves are based on a caricature that simply isn't fair or particularly accurate. Evangelicalism has its problems, but the ones it does have rarely receive attention and a lot of the criticisms laid at its doorstep are simply not true. Evangelicals are often bright, well educated, and comfortably middle class. They are not necessarily literalists or inerrantists. And contrary to the old stereotype, they do not hold the monolithic positions on social issues that some suppose.

So, it's time to ask, "What do they have?" Here's what I think explains the popularity of Evangelicalism:

Evangelicals believe something. To name a few things: They believe in God, the Trinity, the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ, the Resurrection, and the authority of Scripture. These things define reality in a particular way for Evangelicals.

People are drawn to defining experiences. They ground and center life, they define the boundaries of a community, they lend cohesion to that community, and the shared language serves as the basis for a common life. What a community believes gives people a reason for becoming a part of it and reasons for staying.

There are many good reasons to practice humility about the claims that we make for our faith—not the least of which is our inability to capture everything that might be said about God. But a commitment to nothing in particular as a life's endeavor is finally unsatisfying. It doesn't make for social cohesion. And, at the same time, it is grounded in at least one dogma of its own—in spite of itself—i.e., the conviction that we can't know anything. Fair enough if you are a skeptic, but hardly a powerful reason for going to church.

Evangelicals are actively committed to what they believe. Both the Old and New Testaments connect what is known about God with living for God. The Book of Deuteronomy admonishes Israel to "Teach your children the Law and to do it." The Epistle of James picks up on the same theme: "Faith without works is dead." And Paul connects the facts of the faith with imperatives in his letters. To embrace truth, it must be lived.

Evangelicals own that connection and insist on it. As a result, they tend to give more per capita and they tend to spend more time engaged in one-on-one projects designed to help others. John Stott was a pastor, evangelist, and theologian, but his obituary focused, as much as anywhere, on the way in which his faith shaped his lifestyle.

Evangelicals also think that thinking about what they believe is important. Stott and, before him, C.S. Lewis, gave their lives to the effort to be clear about what they believed and they engaged others in the effort. Being clear opened both of them to criticisms, of course, but nearly fifty years after his death Lewis is still widely read and continues to engage his readers in that conversation.

It is fashionable to argue that spiritual notions are best left cloudy and indeterminate. "Vague is good," some argue. But is it? In the absence of precision, we either live in agnosticism, or we become vulnerable to unnamed convictions about God and life. Those convictions are no less influential because we refuse to name them. Nor does taking refuge in vagueness mean that we don't have convictions. Often, it simply means that we don't want to make a choice—or that we don't want to own our convictions publicly.

These three things alone make a powerful and attractive package. But they are not unique to Evangelicalism. One could argue that they are as old Christianity itself—and present when and where it thrives. That's worth contemplating given the Barna Group's recent report whose findings suggest that the church's influence is trending downward in the United States:

  • Bible reading undertaken during the course of a typical week, otherthan passages read while attending church events, has declined by fivepercentage points. Currently an estimated 40% of adults read the Bibleduring a typical week.
  • Church volunteerism has dropped by eight percentage points since1991. Presently, slightly less than one out of every five adults (19%)donates some of their time in a typical week to serving at a church.
  • Adult Sunday school attendance has also diminished by eightpercentage points over the past two decades. On any given Sunday, about15% of adults can be expected to show up in a Sunday school class.
  • The most carefully watched church-related statistic is adultattendance. Since 1991, attendance has receded by nine percentage points,dropping from 49% in 1991 to 40% in 2011.
  • The most prolific change in religious behavioramong those measured has been the increase in the percentage of adultscategorized as unchurched. The Barna Group definition includes all adultswho have not attended any religious events at a church, other than specialceremonies such as a wedding or funeral, during the prior six-monthperiod. In 1991, just one-quarter of adults (24%) were unchurched. That figure has ballooned by more than 50%, to 37% today.

With trends of that kind, perhaps it isn't relevance and up-dating that Christianity needs as much as evangelical clarity, passion, and conviction.

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt is director of Spiritual Formation and associate professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. An Episcopal priest, he also serves as the director of the Episcopal studies program. He is the author of several books, including Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Luke (Morehouse, 2009) and What God Wants for Your Life (Harper One, 2005).

Schmidt's column, "The Spiritual Landscape," is published every Monday on the Progressive Christian portal.