When I look at the church, what gives me hope?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer complained that the Protestant mainliners he met in the United States during his visit to Union Theological Seminary were light on theology and preoccupied with defining themselves as “not those fundamentalists.” Something analogous could be said for evangelicals whose identity is tied up in not being (or worse, becoming) ‘those liberal Protestants.’ I’m hopeful that this old narrative, a cheap form of tribal identity in both groups, is losing power. Which means the time is ripe for evangelicals and mainline Protestants to start listening to and learning from each other.
Both groups are being humbled by reality. The mainline has been in a long period of decline, which evangelicals love to point out—Ha! I told you so! Our way is better—look at our success! Except that according to Robert Putnam and David Campbell in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, evangelicalism stopped growing in 1993 (that’s more than two decades ago) and is now in soft decline, especially among younger generations. Putnam and Campbell explain this decline as a reaction to the rise of the religious right, a reaction that has swelled the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated in the United States.
Humility, the inevitable fruit of facing reality, prepares the soil for new growth. So look for a time of cross-pollination between these two previously warring camps. Look especially for mainline protestants who crave authentic spiritual experience to turn toward what Tanya Luhrmann has called the “experiential evangelicals”—sons and daughters of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements who have sifted much of the cultural and theological baggage of those movements enough to crave a fresh experience themselves. Look for evangelicals who realize their culture war was a big mistake to turn toward mainline Protestants who adopted a more sympathetic approach to the secular world and are turning to Jesus like the widow with empty cupboards and a hungry midnight visitor. Look for the mutually chastened to mix with each other, to compare notes, exchange treasures, learn from each other, and in that humble exchange begin to find God in fresh ways that make sense to the poor in spirit again.