I really wanted to wrap up this topic in two parts, but I’ve got so fascinated by it that I can’t seem to get stopped. So:
In Part One last week, we looked at the facts regarding the overall decline of American Christianity.
Part Two today will cover the topics shown above, but this will be my personal account: What I have seen and experienced in my 82 years, and my attempt to explain it.
In Part Three next week we’ll look at: 1 The Rise of the “Nones”, and possible causes for that. 2 The state of Orthodoxy in America in the midst of all this chaos.
And that will be the conclusion. Promise.
However… if you want a more thorough popular analysis of the history of Protestantism and how the present messy state of things came to be, go to “Ancient Faith Blogs Father Bill Post 72” and then “73”, “74”, “75”.
The Glory Days of the Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics
In the 1940s and 1950s, “mainline” Protestantism (Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, and the like) was dominant in America. Christian songs were sung in public schools. At Christmas, carols about the birth of Jesus were on the radio – and in the stores, being used to sell merchandise! At the public school in the Ohio village where I grew up, the County Bible Teacher visited us weekly, and on Good Friday everybody tramped two blocks up to the nearest Protestant church to attend services! (When a “Catholic” family moved into town, their kids were excused but only if they went to their church one town north.) It seemed like everybody went to church on Sunday. Into the 1960s “mainline” churches were still being built or expanded, especially to cope with all the Sunday Schoolers.
Roman Catholicism was also booming and in their own way part of popular American culture. (Sometime watch Bing Crosby playing a “Catholic” priest in the movie “The Bells of Saint Mary’s”.) Many of their churches advertised multiple Sunday Masses. Parking lots overflowed. There were many back-robed nuns, large rectories and often several priests per parish.
There was also an odd secularized Christianity. For example my favorite old time comedian Jack Benny was Jewish, but on his show he celebrated “Christmas” and “Easter” just like everybody else.
At least where I grew up, independent fundamentalist Bible churches were a small minority. (Was it different in the South?) But in the Methodist and Episcopalian seminaries where I studied, they were dismissed as a dying breed. Who in this modern world could accept this kind of unthinking religion?
In the 1950s and 1960s “organized religion” as a whole was still the most trusted institution in America.
Why the Fall of the “Mainlines” and Roman Catholics?
I will now try to offend everyone impartially. I will also overgeneralize. There were and are many exceptions to what follows. Keep in mind that in all these churches there have been many good people who are sincerely seeking God, love Jesus, and do many good works. We must especially admire those who do so under difficult circumstances.
I do think my multi-faceted experience gives me some ability to speak here. (This is almost embarrassing to tell you.) I was raised in a “Bible church” (though with “mainline” denominational connections), then became not a skeptic about God but I guess you’d call it a theological liberal for a while. Then I attended a seminary which offered both modern Protestant liberalism and traditional creedal Methodism, take your choice. I chose the Creed. After that I joined an Anglo-Catholic parish which was trying hard to be traditional Roman Catholic. Right Then I studied in a mainline Episcopalian seminary, and finally settled for 21 years in a standard high church Episcopalian parish – only to watch the Episcopal Church being conquered by liberal Protestantism. There isn’t much I haven’t been through.
Now I’m home, thank God and Saint Nicholas. I’ve been Orthodox for 31 years.
So here we go:
1 On the whole, formerly “Mainline Protestantism” has abandoned their Scriptural (and Traditional) roots, “sold their inheritance for a mess of pottage” as the KJV put it. (Read Genesis 25:29–34.) Or at least they have compromised and made room for false teachings. As early as the mid ’60s, an official Episcopalian commission declared that the term “heresy” no longer applied in today’s world!
Teachings, both doctrinal and moral, have been altered. Even within their own denominations, people can now go parish to parish, pastor to pastor, and find huge differences, almost different religions. Forgive me for picking on the Episcopal Church, but it’s what I knew. A friend of mine once went to Trinity Church, Wall Street, for their weekday Noon Mass. A visiting Bishop, vested in traditional regalia, presided and preached that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a piece of junk and has got to go. Then he proceeded to celebrate Mass and at the end he blessed everyone with the sign of the Cross “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” and departed. Did the local Bishop step on him? No. He sort of agreed.
When I was Episcopalian, the rector of a nearby parish told me one day that he still had people in his church who actually “believe that Jesus is God“! Yet he said the Creed every Sunday. I asked a friend one time how he could recite “who was born of the Virgin Mary” when he didn’t believe it. He replied that he believed in a “spiritual Virgin Birth”. Object lessons on how to disorient your people.
Forms of worship likewise were changed, sometimes radically – often for good reason, to try to recover early Church Tradition – but it threw ordinary folks for a loop. Abortion, female clergy, homosexuality and sexually active gay clergy which had always been “wrong” suddenly were “right”. Many “Mainline” leaders, abandoning the Gospel, turned to left wing social and political ideology. I mean, if this is what people want, why go to church? It’s a lot easier to stay home and watch MSNBC. Or go somewhere else, as many did. Oh, I should also mention that the low birthrate among “Mainline” people has also contributed to the decline.
2 The Roman Catholic Church appears to have gone the same way. Doctrine officially remains unaltered, though in practice it is sometimes hard to tell that. Much else has definitely changed. Eating meat on Friday, once a mortal sin which could send a person to hell, overnight became no big deal. The Mass has changed radically and lost its old sense of mystery. Confession is no longer mandatory: one Priest alone in a large parish couldn’t possibly handle it.
First let me say that over the years I have attended a number of Roman Catholic services that were respectably done, though I fear rather dull. And I hope to God the following were “beyond the fringe” and are now under control. However, without seeking them out, I have also attended two RC Rock Masses. In one the refrain to the only “religious” hymn was “For God, love, rock and roll!“. The other featured an offertory procession consisting of a corporate snake dance carrying raisin bread to the altar for consecration. And a “comedy club” wedding where the priest interspersed the ceremony with jokes, some rather tasteless, and non-Catholics stood around the altar and helped consecrate (?) the bread and wine. I discovered a “clown Mass”. And a group of Milwaukee nuns who worshiped “Wicca”, the mother goddess. And I heard a “Catholic” priest publicly deny the divinity of Jesus.
But what is for most people the biggest issue: the abuse of children by too many clergy, tolerated and covered up by too many bishops, and too many dioceses going to civil court to avoid compensating the victims, till finally the law got them and they’ve declared bankruptcy.
Do we wonder why the Roman Catholic Church in America is rapidly declining? A former member once told me that the single largest religious group in America today are “lapsed Catholics”!
The Rise of the Evangelicals
But not everybody has declined.
Just for clarity(?), let me explain (pay attention closely now, class) that sixty years ago most mainline Protestants were still Evangelicals in the Reformation tradition. Some more conservative Protestants (like traditional Lutherans) still call themselves Evangelicals. However now, as we said, most “Mainline Protestants” are theological liberals. Today some (but not all) of the “Bible churches” call themselves Evangelicals, though in popular parlance all of them are referred to as “Evangelicals”, and here I’ll use the term that way. However, traditional Evangelicals had denominational connections and oversight. Most modern independent ones do not. Does that make it come clear? I didn’t think so.
Why have “Evangelicals” done so well in recent years?
Simple. They have been picking up pieces left over from “Mainlines” and Roman Catholics. I know people who have left and gone to fundamentalist churches just so they can hear about Jesus, and to find something solid to live by. “Evangelicals” are now situated where the “Mainlines” and Roman Catholics were sixty years ago.
And we know what’s happened to them. Few things in the modern Protestant world last for long.
Before we go further, let me add a disclaimer. When I lost faith in Anglicanism and didn’t know what ever to do, I briefly gave modern Evangelicalism a serious look, because I dearly love the Scriptures, as do they. I did not like much of what I saw and still don’t.
I think today’s Evangelicals have some big problems.
1 Instability. Nothing is solid – the result of their “Bible alone” doctrine. What is the correct interpretation of the Bible? It’s a free for all. Which is why there are now a gazillion Protestant churches, each with the “true” Bible teaching. How can a person know which one is the right one? How do I choose? Luther discovered this to his horror. Modern Evangelicals and fundamenalists are now catching on to this.
Here from Pew Research is a list of today’s Bible church “Evangelical” groups in America Some have broken away from traditional denominations to form their own denominations. Others just hang there by themselves. And I’m sure many are not listed there. I know of some in Milwaukee.
I do not intend you to read all this! Just scroll down and get the picture.
Evangelical Protestant Tradition
Nondenominational in the evangelical tradition
Interdenominational (if born again)
Community church (if born again)
Federated or union church (if born again)
Association of Bridge Churches
Ethnic nondenominational (if non-black and born again)
Nondenominational, ambiguous affiliation (if non-black and born again)
Nondenominational, not further specified (if non-black and born again)
Lutheran in the evangelical tradition
Church of the Lutheran Confession
Apostolic Lutheran Church in America
Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ
North American Lutheran Church
Lutheran Church of the Reformation
Ethnic Lutheran (if born again)
Lutheran, ambiguous affiliation (if born again)
Lutheran, not further specified (if born again)
Presbyterian in the evangelical tradition
Associate Reformed Presbyterian
Cumberland Presbyterian Church
Bible Presbyterian Church
Conservative Presbyterian Church
Covenant Presbyterian Church
ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians
Ethnic Presbyterian (if born again)
Presbyterian, ambiguous affiliation (if born again)
Presbyterian, not further specified (if born again)
Pentecostal in the evangelical tradition
Assemblies of God
Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.)
Four Square Gospel (Four Square)
Pentecostal Church of God
Pentecostal Holiness Church
Church of God of the Apostolic Faith
Assembly of Christian Churches
Church of God of Prophecy
Open Bible Standard Churches
Full Gospel (if non-black)
Apostolic Pentecostal (if non-black)
Nondenominational, independent Pentecostal (if non-black)
International Pentecostal Church of Christ
Church of God of Kentucky
Charismatic (if non-black)
Home church (if non-black)
International Communion of the Charismatic Episcopal Church
Other ethnic Pentecostal (if non-black)
Electronic ministries (if non-black)
Pentecostal, ambiguous affiliation (if non-black)
Pentecostal, not further specified (if non-black)
Anglican/Episcopalian in the evangelical tradition
Anglican Orthodox Church
Anglican/Episcopalian, ambiguous affiliation (if born again)
Anglican/Episcopalian, not further specified (if born again)
Restorationist in the evangelical tradition
Church of Christ
Christian Churches and Churches of Christ
Restorationist, ambiguous affiliation (if born again)
Restorationist, not further specified (if born again)
Congregational in the evangelical tradition
Conservative Congregational Christian
National Association of Congregational Christian Churches
Independent Congregational Church
Ethnic Congregationalist (if born again)
Congregationalist, ambiguous affiliation (if born again)
Congregationalist, not further specified (if born again)
Holiness in the evangelical tradition
Church of the Nazarene
Free Methodist Church
Christian and Missionary Alliance
Church of God (Anderson, Ind.)
Wesleyan Methodist Church
Pilgrim Holiness Church
Holiness, ambiguous affiliation (if non-black)
Holiness, not further specified (if non-black)
Reformed in the evangelical tradition
Christian Reformed Church
Reformed Church in the United States (German Reformed)
Protestant Reformed Church
Reformed, ambiguous affiliation (if born again)
Reformed, not further specified (if born again)
Adventist in the evangelical tradition
Worldwide Church of God/Grace Communion International
Church of God General Conference
Church of God (Seventh-day)
United Church of God
Living Church of God
Anabaptist in the evangelical tradition
Grace Brethren Church
Brethren in Christ
United Brethren in Christ, United Brethren
Brethren, not further specified (if born again)
Mennonite, not further specified
Anabaptist, not further specified (if born again)
Pietist in the evangelical tradition
Evangelical Covenant Church (covenant)
Evangelical Free Church (free church)
“Born again,” “Bible believers,” etc.
Evangelical Bible Church
Bible, Gospel, Missionary Churches
Fundamentalist, not further specified
“Charismatic,” “spirit filled”
Protestant non-specific in the evangelical tradition
Home church (if non-black and born again)
Mixed Protestants (if non-black and born again)
Other Protestant non-specific (if non-black and born again)
Nondenominational in the historically black Protestant tradition
Other ethnic nondenominational (if black)
Nondenominational, ambiguous affiliation (if black)
Nondenominational, not further specified (if black)
Pentecostal in the historically black Protestant tradition
Church of God in Christ
United Pentecostal Church International
United House of Prayer for All People
Apostolic Pentecostal (if black)
New Testament Church of God
Nondenominational, independent Pentecostal (if black)
Full Gospel (if black)
Deeper Life Bible Church/Deeper Christian Life Ministry
Other ethnic Pentecostal (if black)
Electronic ministries (if black)
Pentecostal, ambiguous affiliation (if black)
Pentecostal, not further specified (if black)
Holiness in the historically black Protestant tradition
Apostolic Holiness Church
Fire Baptized Holiness Church of God
Church of the Living God
Holiness, ambiguous affiliation (if black)
Holiness, not further specified (if black)
Protestant non-specific in the historically black Protestant tradition
Home church (if black)
Mixed Protestants (if black)
Other Protestant non-specific (if black)
This is me writing again.
So which is the “right one”?! How could anyone know?! Good luck.
Furthermore, there is often little agreement within congregations and denominations. Imagine members in a church where pastors often come and go. Every pastor teaches the Scriptures in a different way and runs the church in a different way and wants everybody to change and do it his way. Until the next pastor comes along. Some years ago a community church pastor near Chicago removed all images of the Cross of Christ – for fear they might depress or offend someone. Love for people within a congregation may hold many laypeople in. But how many are really eager to hang around to see what the next pastor will do? There’s a lot of this happening now.
A young Baptist guy once visited Saint Nicholas. He came from a well educated family in which each member understood Christianity in a quite different way. He said it was fascinating – But he wasn’t looking for a discussion group. He was looking for Truth, the Faith of the Apostles.
2 Politics. This is the current face of Evangelical instability. Here they have taken the same turn as the “Mainlines”, only in the opposite direction. Not long ago, Evangelicals were interested chiefly in converting people to Jesus Christ, changing the human heart and soul, “family values”, seeking the “fruit of the Spirit”. (Note Billy Graham.) Now many (check the statistics for yourself – I don’t want to go there now) are prepared to tolerate, even sell out to the “desires of the flesh” Galatians 5:16-23, in order to support present day politics and thereby gain political power for themselves.
But if people want that, it’s a lot easier to stay home and watch Fox News. I suspect if Evangelicals don’t return to seeking Jesus Christ and the moral values, that’s what many will do.
Or maybe, like the proverbial frog in boiling water, they’ll never notice. A Baptist pastor (now an Orthodox priest) once told me that the Evangelical movement in America is “a mile wide and an inch deep”. God only knows which way they will slosh next.
3 Fundamentalist rejection of Science or rather (oddly) parts of it. For only one example, the insistence on a literal six day Creation. These folks deny scientific discovery about the origins of the cosmos (indeed, how God created the cosmos), yet they go eagerly to the hospital to take advantage of the discoveries of modern medical science. In college long ago I took a course from a geology professor who on Sunday went to a fundamentalist church which taught that God created the world in six 24 hour days; then on Monday he came back to school and taught us that the universe is ten billion years old. I mean, accepting a paradox is one thing. (We Orthodox are good at that. “It’s a mystery!”) But to fully believe total opposites is another.
And I almost hesitate to point out that, if the length of a day is measured by the movement of the earth in relation to the sun, how exactly was there a 24 hour day before the sun was created? This sort of mental disconnect is very hard for many people to accept or understand. Including me. It sends people running.
OK, have I now offended everyone in all denominations and on all sides of the political spectrum? But, as I say, for me all this isn’t abstract commentary. I have been there and done that.
Let me be clear: I am grateful to people wherever I was. Many taught Jesus Christ, some taught the Apostolic Faith as best they could (which with some Anglicans was very well), all expanded my mind. I learned from all of them, and grew. Everywhere I knew some good and holy people. But everywhere, as time went on, too much that I believed and loved and cherished was going down the tubes. I couldn’t handle it anymore, so I moved on. (Or in the case of the Episcopal Church, my Bishop kicked me out, but that’s another story.)
Next week: The Decline of American Christianity – Part Three. Back to facts: The Rise of the “Nones”.
Week after next: The Prayers nobody pays any attention to