In the early decades of the twentieth century, American liberals and fundamentalists fought over missionary tactics abroad as well as the accommodation of secular learning and culture at home. When liberal mainline denominations began to shrink in the 1960s, conservative Southern Baptists and other evangelicals took this as proof that God had abandoned churches that adulterated his Word with Darwinism, progressive politics, and permissive sexual mores. In a book called The Churching of America(1992) sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke argued that in the American religious “free market,” the churches that grow are the strictest, most demanding churches, the ones that permit no “free riders,” require members to live in constant tension with the wider world and promise a big payoff for sticking to the one Truth. “Humans want their religion to be sufficiently potent, vivid, and compelling so that it can offer them rewards of great magnitude,” the authors wrote. By contrast, those religious communities that concede too much to the world are bound to decline.
Except it hasn’t. True, the conservative SBC revolution has produced a vanguard of impressive young leaders: charismatic, handsome pastors like Birmingham’s David Platt and Charlotte’s Steven Furtick (whose Elevation Church has recently taken heat for planting volunteers to come forward for “spontaneous” baptisms). J.D. Greear leads The Summit Church down the road from me in Durham, North Carolina. These pastors wear stylish jeans and wireless mics; they usually have gorgeous wives and children, numerous advanced degrees, and personal websites. Their megachurches are growing, spilling over onto satellite campuses where congregants can watch their pastor-gurus by streaming video. They combine conservative theology with a trendy Mac-user ethos that shows you can be both a cool Millennial and a Christian culture warrior. My classes at the University of North Carolina are full of students with Summit Church stickers plastered on their laptops and water bottles.
But these poster-children of the SBC’s future can’t make those gloomy national statistics go away. Stark’s and Finke’s book was panned by historians, largely because they cherry-picked statistics to divide American churches into “winners” and “losers” without nuanced attention to historical context. If you step back and assess the big picture, few conservative churches are growing anymore (the Assemblies of God is, but by less than 2 percent per year). Evangelicals’ recent strategies—ranging from a hipster makeover to appeal to the Millennial crowd to the mistaken hope that millions of Latinos are leaving Catholicism and becoming conservative Protestants—cannot hold off the world-historical forces of secularization. As the historian David Hollinger has argued, even if liberal churches have lost the battle for butts in the pews, the steady advance of civil rights, the sexual revolution, and gay liberation suggests that they are winning the wider culture.