Bill Evans’ piece on the decline of conservative Reformed Protestantism has been making the rounds and it raises an important question about the better and worse times in church history. He starts by noting that conservative Presbyterians are not as influential as they once were:
A while back my friend Anthony Bradley posted an insightful and provocative blog piece asking why the popular influence of conservative Presbyterians prominent a few decades back (e.g., Jim Boice, R. C. Sproul, Sinclair Ferguson, and John Frame) seems to have waned in comparison to Baptists of a broadly Reformed soteriological persuasion. I posted an extended comment at the time, and thought I would expand on it here.
There are at least two big issues in play—the Baptistic Reformed success as driven by institutions (e.g., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Founders’ Movement) and gifted individuals (e.g., Don Carson, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Mark Driscoll) on the one hand, and the apparent Presbyterian decline on the other. As a Presbyterian I’m not particularly well equipped to comment on the first, but I think I have something to offer about the second.
Of course, the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition has been declining as a percentage of the American population since the nineteenth century. But statistics available in resources like ARDA and the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches indicate that some of the NAPARC denominations are plateaued or in decline. This is worrisome, and the reasons are doubtless complex, having to do with social as well as theological factors. Below are five general observations from the “for what it’s worth department.”
Matt Tuininga agrees and disagrees:
Evans describes the commitment of many Presbyterians to an increasingly rigid, or fundamentalist understanding of the authority of Scripture. He also worries about an exaggerated confidence in the ability of confessions to productively shape (or leverage?) Scriptural interpretation. When our obsession is with preserving our own micro-traditions, pale imitations of a once great theological and ecclesiastical stream, the temptation is overwhelming to manipulate Scripture for our own purposes, ignoring the difference between the Word and human interpretation of that Word. When we have an exaggerated understanding of the exhaustive significance of 16th and 17th century confessions designed with 16th and 17th century problems in mind, our theology, preaching, and church life quickly become more like artifacts in a museum than like the faithful witness of Christ’s church in 21st century America.
No doubt things are not quite as bleak as this blog post might suggest. And neither Evans nor I are suggesting that Reformed believers abandon the authority of Scripture or vigorous allegiance to our confessions. The problem is not with historic Reformed theology at all, per se. But what Evans seems to be suggesting, and if so, I agree with him, is that the church needs to reexamine whether a tragic preoccupation with tradition and with the forms, practices, and controversies of the past is actually undermining the authority of Scripture, the role for which our confessions were historically intended, and our faithful witness in the present. One thing seems clear. In terms of size, influence, and prospects, the Reformed tradition is, and has been for quite some time, in serious decline. We have a lot of soul-searching to do.
One item worth highlighting, as the title of the post indicates, is that despite the amazing popularity of TKNY in conservative Presbyterian circles, Tim Keller cannot make up for the presence that the likes of Jim Boice and R. C. Sproul projected and still project. It could be that associations with The Gospel Coalition so water down Keller’s Presbyterian identity that his influence from deep within one of the largest, most media-saturated, and wealthiest cities in the history of redemption cannot make up for the sheer doctrinal firepower of the old regulars at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.
The bigger aspect here, though, is how to assess the relative strength of Reformed Protestantism, whether thirty years ago, three hundred years ago, or today. The present is always the hardest to assess. What lasts is seldom known now. (It looks like the Harlem Shake has surpassed Gangnam Style. What a shame.) So making projections about the health of Reformed Protestantism based on contemporary observations is inadvisable.
When it comes to thirty years ago, it is possible to argue as I did in Between the Times that at least one conservative Presbyterian communion is doing better than it was. But the study of church history should always breed sobriety rather than enthusiasm. This is not because the history of Christianity is one long story of decline. It is instead because in the case of Reformed Protestant history, the Reformed churches have always faced an uphill battle. In fact, when the churches were at their most influential (the Free Church of Scotland, the Reformed Church of the Netherlands [GKN], or even the PCUSA), they were generally the most mixed they ever were. It is the nature of any organization, even spiritual ones, that when they become large, they also become fat.
In which case, it is interesting to notice that when they were turning heads thirty years ago, Boice and Sproul were still ministers in the mainline (not conservative) Presbyterian Church, which was hardly the strongest platform from which to lead a recovery of Reformed teaching and ministry.
I myself am not sure where conservative Presbyterianism is headed. I do hold to the view that the healthiest path for conservative Presbyterianism is not celebrity speakers and theologians but churches where worship is lean, teaching confessional, and government procedural. Slow and steady many not win the race. But in the eternal life race, finishing is pretty good.