A recent Gallup Poll shows church membership dipping below 50% for the first time in eight decades. The results have provided observers with a chance to take the temperature of religion in the U.S. Some worry about America’s national identity if faith declines. Others regard this as evidence that religious “nones” are almost as numerous as evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Still others notice that the drop has been most significant for Roman Catholics and Democrats who are religious. And among evangelicals, the lesson to learn is either that church membership is necessary and biblical or that Americans are leaving churches because evangelicals are — believe it or not — hypocritical.
What few seem to notice is that evangelicalism, for one, is not a church. It is an impulse or dynamic that turns Presbyterians into Presbyterian evangelicals, or Anglicans into low-church Anglicans. Evangelicalism is not a communion.
For another, the very point of the new birth, as George Whitefield explained it, was to place church membership several rungs below (in importance) a personal relationship with Jesus:
The kingdom of God, or true and undefiled religion, does not consist in being of this or that particular sect or communion. . . . it is certainly a blessing to have the outward government and discipline of the Church exercised; but then, if you place religion merely in being of this or that sect–if you contend to monopolize or confine the grace of God to your particular party–if you rest in that, you place the kingdom of God in something in which it does not consist. (“The Kingdom of God,” 1741)
That stress upon the internal as opposed to the external of religion, on the heart over the head, on experience over liturgical forms, is one reason why evangelicals may not be as troubled by the decline in church membership.
Thomas Kidd, who wrote a biography of Whitefield, applies the logic of the evangelist’s sermon to the recent data:
The overall picture of declining church membership should be of interest, but not special worry to Reformed and evangelical believers. We’re not so much concerned with “mere” church members, but “regenerate” church members. And evangelicals have been at their best—such as during the First and Second Great Awakenings—when they had to work hard at drawing people into church with crystal-clear proclamation of the gospel, and with caring service to the needs of congregations.
Because of this elevation of conversion over church membership, perhaps the evangelicalism in its aggregate character is more like Antifa than the church. Here is how Mark Bray described Antifa last May:
Trump cannot designate “ANTIFA” as a terrorist organization because antifa is not an organization. Rather, it is a politics of revolutionary opposition to the far right. There are antifa groups, such as Rose City Antifa in Portland and NYC Antifa, just as there are feminist groups, such as Code Pink. But neither antifa nor feminism is itself an organization. You cannot subpoena an idea or a movement. That’s not to say that antifa doesn’t exist, of course. Antifa is “very real,” . . .but not in the monolithic, hierarchical way in which he and many other Americans are accustomed to thinking of political associations.
The same applies to evangelicalism. It is an experience, a piety, a sentiment, but not an organization. Fuller Seminary or The Gospel Coalition may be evangelical organizations. But evangelicalism is not monolithic or hierarchical. Evangelicalism does not function like a Christian church.