by Matthew Raley
One Sunday morning in the exurbs of California’s bay area, I watch the faithful of Christ Community Church gather. The church has been active for two decades, and has converted a business complex into an auditorium, offices, and classrooms. On this morning in June, 2005, the church has a wide range of age and ethnicity, attendance of about two hundred, and a full schedule of programs.
Six months later, after the founding pastor resigns to join a seminary faculty, services are cancelled, the congregation disperses, and the property is up for sale. Why, with so many apparent resources and without any scandal, did this church close? And why do many evangelical congregations make the same decision each year?
Political conservatives have been able to rely on the evangelical right for three decades. Election after election, evangelicals have delivered money, grass-roots organization, and votes. Evangelical passion for such issues as abortion and gay marriage has framed stark, simple choices for middle American voters.
The foundation of the religious right’s support structure has been local churches, institutions where Christian ethics and spirituality are taught, encouraged, and above all practiced. In purely social terms, a church is a gathering place for people with a shared worldview. In political terms, a church is a little platoon of citizenship and service, embodying what T. S. Eliot in The Idea of a Christian Society called “the substratum of collective temperament, ways of behaviour and unconscious values” that provide the material for a nation’s political philosophy.
In evaluating the alliance of evangelicalism and conservatism biblically over the past several weeks, I’ve found that there is a broad agreement in priorities between biblical teaching and the conservative movement. The Bible’s view of the state, many of its economic teachings, its command to honor parents, and its examples of national loyalty will consistently incline an American church that teaches these things toward political conservatism. I do not mean that the Bible is politically conservative in every sense, or that political conservatism is without spiritual or ethical problems. I only mean that it will continue to be the natural political home of Bible-believing Christians.
But I have also found that evangelicals do not deeply teach or practice these biblical principles. Indeed, evangelical churches practice them less and less.
While evangelical sophistication in grass-roots organizing has grown over the last thirty years, the local church’s ability to perform its primary mission of nurturing people ethically and spiritually has declined. A range of indicators shows this weakening of evangelical culture, and we will survey the data over the next several weeks.
There are ominous implications for the future of American political conservatism: every time a church like Christ Community folds, conservatives lose a gathering place. American evangelicalism shows disquieting similarity to the Christianity Eliot described in pre-war Britain, a faith that no longer influences the national way of life.
A superficial but telling indicator is the number of American churches.
Warren Cole Smith, editor of the Evangelical Press News Service and author of A Lover’s Quarrel With the Evangelical Church (2008), gives a statistical sketch that can be found in numerous publications (pp 18-19). “In 1900 there were twenty-seven churches per 10,000 Americans. In 1985 there were only twelve churches per 10,000. Baptist Church Planting magazine estimated the number of churches per 10,000 Americans today at less than ten.” Smith adds that 4,000 churches closed in America each year during the 1990s. Church starts were typically less than half that number.
David T. Olson of The American Church Research Project reports that evangelicals started more than 7,000 churches from 2000-2008, but that over the same period more than 24,000 new churches would have been needed to keep up with population growth. Further, Olson reports that throughout the 1990s growth in evangelical church attendance was 1%. By 2006-2007, the growth rate had slowed to 0.3%.
Whatever else these data mean, the bottom line is clear: American evangelicalism is in a slow liquidation.
The issue is not so much that churches close. Christ Community, for instance, didn’t close because it had abandoned the faith or because the congregation didn’t care about ministry. They honestly felt the closure was right in light of what they faced. The issue, rather, is that believers are not planting new churches. They simply don’t believe deeply in Kingdom priorities.
With churches declining, the conservative movement is also in decline at the grass-roots, even though it looks strong as ever. Over the next decade, its ability to mobilize evangelical voters will precipitously diminish because the organizational structure won’t be there.
The more important implication is this: American culture is transforming into the frigid steppes of post-Christianity not because unbelievers are winning political battles but because believers no longer believe.