Dying Protestantism

Joseph Bottum, an editor at First Things, recently published an article called “The Death of Protestant America.” Here are a few of his observations that give meaning  to the title.

  • By “Protestant America” he means the America that was once defined by the mainline churches—the more liberal expressions of the Northern Baptists, United Church of Christ, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. Take a deep breath and consider: In 1965 50% of the American population was in these churches. But today 8% of Americans belong to these churches.
  • “The death of the Mainline is the central historical fact of our time: the event that distinguishes the past several decades from every other period in American history. Almost every one of our current political and cultural oddities, our contradictions and obscurities, derives from this fact: The Mainline...has lost the capacity to set, or even significantly  influence, the national vocabulary or the national self-understanding.”
  • Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten is quoted to explain why scholars leave the ELCA. Among the reasons he gives is this: “They are saying that the Roman Catholic Church is now more hospitable to confessional Lutheran teaching than the church in which they were baptized and confirmed.”
  • Quoting a 1993 article in First Things, “The Real Reason for Decline”: “The single best predictor of church participation turned out to be belief—orthodox Christian belief, and especially the teaching that a person can be saved only through Jesus Christ....  Amazingly enough, fully 68% of those who are still active Presbyterians don’t believe it.”

What happened?

  • “The churches’ desperate hunger to mean more in politics and economics had the perverse effect of making them less effective opponents of the political and economic pressures on the nation. They mattered more when they wanted to matter less.”

I pray that the younger evangelicals who are pondering where to put their energies will learn from history that doctrinal accommodation brings larger audiences in the short run but death and irrelevance in the long run.

And God forbid that any should say with Hezekiah: Who cares if the death comes in 80 years as long as I have crowds and influence in my day (2 Kings 20:19).

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.