He’s right that the growth of evangelicalism has likely hit a plateau and hasn’t compensated for the decline of the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. A higher proportion of people are unchurched now than previously. One of the causes, he suggests, is the public face that conservative churches offer potential congregants:
I agree with Knippenberg that it’s rare to find political agitation per se dominating the everyday life of a successful congregation. But I’ve spent enough time in churches both liberal-leaning and conservative to see the ways in which a more general orientation toward activism that’s almost entirely external to the life of the congregation — whether it’s “social justice” ministries, pro-life activity, or some combination thereof — can define and limit the public identity of the church in ways that turns off potential congregants, while also leaving the church’s internal culture weaker and thinner than it needs to be. This tendency is part of what undid liberal Protestantism in the 1970s and 1980s, and I think it’s a significant problem for both conservative Catholicism and Protestantism today.
Certainly the evidence offered by Unchristian suggests that from the outside, the appearance of “culture wars” homogeneity and non-relativism (which seems to some to be harshly judgmental) may be off-putting. And while relational evangelism might begin to dismantle the simple stereotypes, I remember well enough my own unchurched days to know that there can be a lot of resistance to building those stereotypes. Where I live, one of the great reasons to go to church or to return to church is childrearing. Parents who give some thought to the spiritual needs of their children are often willing to swallow some of their rationalist pride and put off (pardon me) reading the Times first thing Sunday morning. Or the dim perception of something missing in one’s life becomes much more vivid when there are kids involved. With fewer people having kids and more of those kids born out of wedlock, there are fewer folks with this reason to roll out of bed on Sunday morning and more who may be embarrassed to sit in a pew without the appropriate mate. (On this latter point, by the way, my experience is that conservative churches are more than willing to welcome single parents.) If, by the way, I’m right that children pull people into or back into churches, this may be one of the explanations for why the Belmonters, who are more likely to be married with children, are also more likely to go to church than are the residents of Fishtown.
With respect to another point I made, I feel to need to offer a clarification in response to Douthat:
But the very fact that Knippenberg writes about the idea of Ivy League-educated clergy as though he’s writing about ministers from Nigeria or Vietnam — as a group that would have to be “imported” into American Christianity from outside — says something troubling about precisely the “coming apart,” elites-versus-masses phenomenon that started this whole discussion. I have no doubt that on a congregation-by-congregation, pastor-by-pastor basis, Calvin College grads make better ministers than the typical Harvardian. But if the problem is an overall downward trend in the cultural influence of the churches, then perhaps those Calvin and Wheaton and Florida State pastors could use some reinforcements — not just from Harvard and Penn, but from the broader range of top-100 colleges and universities. If the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, then even Ivy Leaguers might have something to contribute.
In the first place, I was talking not about our preachers, but about our elders. I certainly don’t disagree that we should encourage as many talented people who have a heart for the ministry to enter it, but in many churches (not just in congregational ones, like my Presbyterian church) there’s a significant role for lay leadership. What’s more, when it comes to entering into relationships where we hold one another accountable and exhibiting morally exemplary character, “book learning” (well, with the exception of one Book) strikes me as not the most important consideration. Sure, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at C.S. Lewis, let alone the Apostle Paul, but I’m pretty happy with the kind of good people that show up in almost any church. More of them would be fine, regardless of their academic credentials. And, yes, it’s very helpful to have have sophisticated folks to defend them, when necessary, from both cultured despisers and charlatans.
In the second place, Douthat himself mentioned the gap between the superzips and the rest of the country. I spent a good bit of my life either actually or culturally on the two coasts, and used to bore my acquaintances here in Atlanta with how inferior it was to Toronto, Boston, and Washington, among others. If what Douthat is urging is that more people like (the younger) me leave the elite enclaves for flyover country, it should be at least as much because they have much to learn (above all, humility) as because their talents are needed. Indeed, if they have a heart for ministry or service, churches in the superzips need them too.
In sum: yes, emphatically yes, let’s have more people doing God’s work everywhere, even people with elite educations. I’m not sure that this is a restoration of the status quo ante (I eagerly await his book ), but it’s certainly worth praying for.
One last point and then I’m done. Part of the problem that Douthat is pointing to is the relatively new geography of class. Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Lost City is a wonderful description of the way things used to be, before the people with the wherewithal didn’t always choose to leave the problems of their communities behind. Leaving aside the other ways in which moral authority has been weakened, there was a time when it was at least relatively widely distributed across the landscape. Marginal white communities have certainly suffered from the flight of the middle class to the suburbs; marginal African-American communities have suffered at least as much, if not more. And once those relationships and structures of moral authority have crumbled, they’re pretty hard to rebuild. Consider what happens to the churches when their congregations flee. The church in which my wife grew up (in a working-class town outside Atlanta) is a good example. The congregation is a bare shadow of what is was 40 years ago; they lack the means to maintain the whole physical plant; some people remain faithful congregants, though they no longer live nearby, which means that their energies are present in church only on Sundays; and while the congregation certainly tries to reach out to its new neighbors, the efforts are rarely very successful. The churches that are “organically” connected to the neighborhood certainly can’t afford to take over the physical plant, so they struggle in storefronts and modest buildings. Perhaps they will one day “grow up” as this church did, but, fearing that the successful people in the community will leave for greener pastures, I have my doubts. And there are other ways in which the experience of the generation that built my wife’s home church are unlikely to be duplicated. Not to make this post longer than it already is, I’ll mention just one consideration. Was not the Tocquevillian “habit of associating” more widespread and alive in 1912 than it is in 2012? Wouldn’t it have been more plausible back then for working class and lower middle class people (together with some of their more prosperous neighbors) to join together to build a church than it would be now?