A clash of Christian cultures in the Pacific Northwest is producing unexpected results:
James Wellman’s fascinating Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest compares and contrasts evangelical and liberal Protestant (or mainline) churches along the Washington and Oregon coasts. Wellamn’s study was driven in part by his interest in religion in the Pacific Northwest, a region that boasts the lowest per-capita church affiliation in the nation, with 63 percent of the population not affiliating with any religious institution. Furthermore, this is a region that is predominately urban, very educated, maintains a median income level above the national average, and has in recent years voted overwhelmingly Democratic. Overall, Wellman describes the region as “best delineated by a pragmatic approach that generally distrusts government, lionizes the entrepreneur, nurtures a libertarian and individualistic set of values, and seeks the preservation of the region’s resources and beauty.” All of these factors, Wellman believes, should guarantee the success of liberal Protestant churches. But they have not.
As Wellman set out to write this book, he planned to identify and compare successful liberal churches with successful evangelical churches. That proved to be difficult. Wellman identified and studied 24 “of the fastest growing evangelical churches in western Washington and western Oregon that had shown substantial growth in numbers and finances between 2000 and 2005.” He compared these with ten “vital” liberal churches—these were churches that had simply maintained their membership and financial status over the previous few years (although by the end of the study they hadn’t even done that). Only two of the liberal churches had grown, three had plateaued, and five had marginally declined, even as evangelical growth continued unabated. By every measure of “success,” then, evangelicals far outpaced liberals. So, rather than providing liberals around the country with a positive model of growth from the Pacific Northwest, Wellman ended up adding another chapter to the familiar chronicle of liberal Christianity’s continuing crisis. Furthermore, by focusing specifically on the Pacific Northwest, he actually demonstrated that the future of liberal Protestantism is even dicier than we have realized. In a region where liberal churches should be thriving, they are dying, and where evangelicals should be relegated to the margins, they are taking center stage.