I heard Julia Duin, author of Quitting Church, on The White Horse Inn last week. Her interview was interesting, so I ordered her book and a book she recommended, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation by Christine Wicker.
I can’t offer full reviews of these books. They are both similar in that they reference a lot of research from the past decade that looks at what is happening in American religious life, particularly in reference to evangelicals.
Duin’s book is squarely focused on why so many formerly committed Christians have left and are leaving churches. If you have any doubt that we are becoming a de-churched culture with millions of Christians choosing to have no relationship with an organized congregation, this book will march the research and the evidence in front of you.
Duin is a long time religion reporter and this book reads like a collection of extended articles. Her writing style is influenced by the kind of reporting that surrounds the issue of why people leave church. Heavy on anecdotes and relying a bit too much of personal experience and anecdotes, Duin nonetheless makes her points plain: churches are increasingly unfriendly, unhelpful and dysfunctional. Singles are neglected, women are marginalized, spiritual power is passe’, teaching is shallow and leaders are overstressed. Duin finds that millions of people who once found church meaningful are now out the door and not planning to return.
As a non-Charismatic, Duin’s extensive references to Charismatic church issues went past me a bit, but her experiences among the fundamentalists, reformed, emerging and megachurches were all on target.
Despite being an interesting read and passing along many good pieces of information and research, Duin’s own point of view is jumbled. One moment she longs for communal simplicity, another for the seminary atmosphere of intense theology and the next for the erudition and authenticity of L’Abri. I was never sure just what she thought of the megachurches she wrote about, and I was never clear on how she was evaluating the message and doctrines she was hearing at various churches.
Christine Wicker’s book, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, is more focused on evangelicals as they were perceived in the Bush era. Wicker seems more removed from the fundamentalist evangelicalism of her Southern Baptist upbringing. Still a great journalistic stylist, and still bringing research and statistics into the discussion, Wicker is at heart a story-teller. Her chapters dwell longer on individual stories that reveal all sides of evangelical experience, perception and problems. She has a real gift from seeing the personal aspects of evangelicalism sympathetically and accurately.
In the first half of the book particularly, Wicker is on a mission to deflate the balloon of evangelical hype. She believes there are less than 15 million committed evangelicals (with fewer all the time.) Most studies assume there are 55 million and growing. She believes the political clout of evangelicals is largely based on bluster and attention from the media that is far from objective. She contends that most Christians in American would not affirm the conservative evangelical scorecard of beliefs and values, but that most Christians are moderate progressives. (You can argue with her, not me.)
Wicker pays lots of attention to Southern Baptists, especially in their rush to baptize a million in 2006 (an effort that produced the lowest number of baptisms of the previous three years.) She understands Baptists, conversions, evangelism and evangelical piety. When she writes about the collapse of evangelicalism in upon itself, and the coming abandonment of evangelicalism, she is convincing.
You may not buy Wicker’s theories, evidence or predictions. Her claims of evangelical demise and defeat are shocking, but I believe they are true. When Wicker says the Megachurches are the last hurrah of an evangelicalism whose only baptism increases are in the ages of 5 and below, I know she’s on the same journey.
I recommend her book without reservation. Must-reading for post-evangelicals.