« Worthy Challenges, Exciting Opportunities »

As the wide range of discussions in this conversation have shown, American evangelicalism is complicated, contested, and multifaceted. We have often failed to reach agreement on how to define many aspects of evangelicalism even within the confines of this forum.

As a social scientist, I spend much time seeking the best ways to define and measure aspects of religious beliefs, behavior, and belonging. Such work helps us better understand the relationship between religion and politics. But when I reflect on the future of American evangelicalism as a movement, I am less concerned about precise scholarly definitions than I am about the popular usage of the term.

Outsiders are unlikely to make much distinction between those who identify themselves with evangelicalism and those who are labeled as such (even if they eschew the label). From their perspective, our internal divisions may look like needless hair-splitting or meaningless squabbles. What they know is what they see from afar. My hope is that American evangelicals can unite in ways that allow us to become a force for positive change; my hope is that outsiders will yearn to know more about God because of what they see evangelicals doing and proclaiming in Christ’s name.

My vision for the future of American evangelicalism is a positive one, although I do have a few concerns. As many of the contributors to this ongoing conversation have noted, evangelicalism has a long, robust, and meandering history. Like all movements, evangelicalism is undergoing change and will continue to transform as society and culture create new obstacles and opportunities. But the underlying principles and beliefs that unite American evangelicals are strong enough to ensure that they will continue to provide salt and light for decades to come.

So what are some of the major challenges and opportunities facing American evangelicalism? As we look to the future, evangelicals should pay particular attention to demographic trends that are changing the American landscape even as we focus more attention on teaching the faith.

Demographic changes are creating both challenges and opportunities for American evangelicalism. Consider several trends.

First, the composition of American churches is changing. Mainline Protestantism is on the decline; church membership numbers have been dropping for decades, and many churches are closing their doors. At the same time, evangelical denominations are more likely to be maintaining their numbers or experiencing growth. Pentecostalism in particular is growing rapidly.

On the other hand, survey data suggest that evangelical numbers may begin to decline as the population ages. When compared with older generations, young adults are less likely to identify as evangelical and more likely to claim no religion at all. Secularism is on the rise, especially among younger Americans. In Pew Center surveys from 2012, for example, 32 percent of 18-29 year olds claimed no religious affiliation compared with only 9 percent of those 65 and older. It has been a common experience for younger adults to stray away from attending church but begin to return as they settle down and have children. But as marriage rates decline and other cultural shifts remake the landscape of American family life, it is less clear that this pattern of returning to church will continue.

Another trend suggests both challenges and opportunities. The nation is growing in racial, ethnic, and religious diversity. According to Census Bureau projections, the size of the non-Hispanic white population will peak in about a decade and then decline. Hispanic and Asian populations are expected to double in size by 2060; the African American population is estimated to increase by 50% in the same time frame. Within thirty years, the United States will be a majority-minority nation. The future of evangelicalism in part depends on how evangelicals respond to these dramatic shifts.

Although Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation that” the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning” is still an apt descriptor, American churches are growing in racial and ethnic diversity. According to the 2010 Faith Communities Today study conducted by researchers at the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, 14.4 percent of Evangelical congregations are multiracial, double the percentage of Mainline Protestant churches, but significantly less than Catholic and Orthodox churches.

So, what steps might American evangelical Christians take to respond to these trends?

Opportunities for multiethnic and multiracial collaborations abound. Evangelical leaders are beginning to address their lack of diversity, working intentionally to broaden their multiethnic reach and appeal. Many churches also house other congregations that host services in native languages of immigrants and refugees. Such efforts need to increase as the church seeks to meet the needs of a changing population and more accurately reflect the diversity of the church universal.

White evangelicals also need to seek opportunities for greater partnership with their African-American brothers and sisters. Although black and white Protestants often worship in different churches (a legacy of racism and exclusion that forced African Americans to create their own, parallel institutions), they share many foundational beliefs. White congregations need to reach out, repent of their past sins against African-Americans, and seek restoration and reconciliation.

Evangelicals also need to teach the faith so that worshippers know what they believe and why. We need to train our own children and church members so that they have a robust, deep, and personal knowledge of the faith. Such education should begin in our own homes and in children’s programming in churches. Our faith communities should seek to build the strong and lasting multigenerational friendships that are so essential for helping young people learn the faith and continue to follow Christ into adulthood.

Evangelical colleges and universities also play an important role in forming future generations, and we should support their efforts. One important way to help is encouraging our children to attend CCCU schools. Of course, Christian colleges are not “one size fits all,” and many evangelical students will find a place on secular campuses. But CCCU schools are an excellent place to train future generations, teach the faith, and prepare students to serve God and His kingdom in a wide range of academic disciplines. We should also uphold Christian colleges and their unique mission with our prayers and financial support.

If we continue to strengthen our churches, bridging past racial and ethnic divides and teaching our young people the faith, American evangelicalism will thrive in the coming decades. Together we can come alongside those in need, be positive agents of change, and share the love of Christ with a broken and hurting world.

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