Evangelicalism in America: Waxing or Waning?

Evangelicalism in America: Waxing or Waning?

March 16, 2009

Back in 2007, the New York Times famously proclaimed that the evangelical movement in America was cracking up. Since then, the media has relished exposing what they see as fault lines in evangelicalism over such issues as abortion, marriage, and the environment.

The pundits seized upon President Obama’s decisive electoral victory last fall to opine that evangelicals were no longer the political force they once were.

And just last week, a well-known evangelical blogger predicted the “collapse” of evangelicalism in America within the next decade, even though he also predicted that out of the ruins of evangelicalism, “new forms of Christian vitality and ministry will be born.”

But the American Religious Identification Survey of 2008 gives me reason to think that the predictions of evangelicalism’s demise are greatly exaggerated. In fact, quite the opposite may be true.

Although the survey, published by Trinity College, boldly proclaims that Americans are “slowly becoming less Christian,” it also points out that 34 percent of all American adults now identify themselves as “Born-Again or Evangelical Christians.” That’s no decline from previous years.

While the report shows that mainline denominations like the Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians have experienced “sharp numerical declines” over the past decade, the number of evangelicals within Christendom is increasing. Some 45 percent of all Christians now identify themselves as evangelicals or born again.

“What is significant,” the survey says, “is the recent spread of Evangelicalism well beyond Christians affiliated with those groups that are members of the [National Association of Evangelicals], so that millions of Mainliners and Catholics now identify with this trend.”

So what does all this mean? It means that the single largest voting block in America remains evangelicals. No other single group comes close. It also means that America still is, by and large, a conservative nation. This is why, for example, we ought not to be surprised (even though the media is flabbergasted) that voters across the country time and time again uphold traditional marriage.

Yes, the evangelical movement is growing, which is good, but numbers don’t mean everything. For example, a new Barna survey shows that only 19 percent of evangelicals hold a consistently biblical worldview. What this tells me is that we’re growing in numbers, but we’ve got to do a better job making disciples.

And here’s where some see a coming collapse, but I see an enormous opportunity—an opportunity to re-catechize believers, to re-introduce them to the glories of Christian truths, to train them to defend and live out their faith winsomely, reaching out to the needy and hurting as Christians have done for two millennia.

I can’t help but think of William Wilberforce, the English parliamentarian who led a small band of believers to eradicate the British slave trade. These men and women, inspired by God, shared their resources, talents, and faith, and not only put an end to a great evil, but they also formed the heart of a movement that quite literally sparked revival and transformed the culture of Britain. It began with a handful of the faithful.

Just think what God might do with 34 percent of the American population calling themselves evangelicals—if those evangelicals re-capture their first love, present a winsome witness, and do the good works God has prepared for us to do.

Chuck Colson’s daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.