Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Has Protestantism run out of gas?

Last year, for the first time ever, Protestants lost their majority status in an annual survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute. Only 47 percent of America identifies as Protestant, with rates as high as 81 percent in Mississippi and as low as 10 percent in Utah.

In a series of some 22 maps of the US, we find the religious complexion of America charted out by states and denominations, among other things.  It is an interesting story of decline that has raised the question of whether or not Protestantism has run out of gas.  You can look up your own states of interest and see how it all pans out.  What interests me is how the once mighty force of mainline Protestantism has become something of a toothless tiger, consumed with social advocacy in place of the Gospel, experimenting with doctrines and worship practices that are probably not Christian at all, and content more with a past than a future.

Protestantism is a mixed bag at best.  There are some noble traditions with a serious past and who still bear some resemblance to a people who pay attention to God and His Word.  These folks sometimes degenerate into purity cults in which it seems the main job is to prove that they are better than others.  This even happens among Lutherans but it is not helpful to be skeptical or suspicious of everyone and everything.  On the other hand, there are many in the mushy middle who do not like the drift of their national church but who assume that things are okay if not of that crazy stuff is in their own back yard.  We have those in Lutheranism as well.  It is not helpful at all to hide in the congregation even if many do for at some point in time we must either face up to what we are a part of or find a better church home.  And then there are the crazies and the fringes who seem to believe that ignoring tradition and taking the Scriptures as a cue rather than the Word that endures forever is what church ought to be -- and that is exactly what they do and, in many cases, they seem to live in this crossless Christianity quite successfully (at last as the world counts it).

And then there are those who believe that diversity of doctrine and practice are no barrier to unity.  These are those who think that the great impediment to Christian witness is not a lack of substance but a lack of visible unity.  They harp on the divisions (which are not good) but forget that these divisions are generally the result of very different understandings of the Word of the Lord and the Gospel -- not just contentiousness.  Frankly, I do not see how God is glorified by a paper thin unity which cannot suffer honest discussion of the truth.

So. . . America is not the great Protestant hope it once was (if it ever was).  Whether or not that is a good thing I will leave to others.  But I can tell you it makes no difference until and unless we take the Word of God seriously, until we inform and conform our confession and practice to that Word, and until we are willing to shed the threads of our tradition that conflict with what has always been believed, confessed, and taught.  The redemption of Protestantism is a catholic confession, in which we are not islands of belief apart from the continent of Scripture and its witness -- clear and clearly confessed through time.  The truth is that the Word of God is rather clear and not at all muddled.  I would personally settle for churches that confessed without reservation and without footnote the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds.  If such were to take place in Protestantism, there might just be some new life in the dying structures of what was once America's religious face.


Carl Vehse said...

"Has Protestantism run out of gas?"

It's more like Protestantism is running out of:

1. children, with Protestants, including Lutherans, having unsustainably low birth rates and,

2. Protestant immigrants in the United States.

It would be interesting to find out how much of the earlier growth of Protestant denominations in the U.S. was due to conversion of nonChristians (or nonProtestants) rather than the above two sources.

Kirk Skeptic said...

they are also having trouble retaining the children thay have had.