April 20, 2004,
Evangelical Christians like to do things in a big, bold way.
The evangelical Promise Keeper movement gathers men by the thousands to praise God in stadium conferences, and more than 3.5 million men have done so since 1991.
The Southern Baptist True Love Waits campaign has led some 2.4 million young people to sign cards pledging that they will save sex for marriage, which they have stacked to the roof of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta and used to blanket the National Mall.
Even Sunday services are a big, bold affair for evangelicals. Some 17,000 souls worship each weekend at the Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago, and that's just one of an estimated 842 American megachurches that attract at least 2,000 weekly attendants.
Evangelical Christians make up the largest group in American Protestantism, and one quarter to one third of Americans are evangelicals. They are a group known for their boldness in proclaiming their faith in Jesus Christ and their commitment to biblical morality. As the results of a recent poll suggest, the boldness of evangelical Christianity goes a long way toward explaining its bigness.
Pollsters from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research studied more than 1,600 evangelicals Christians who identify themselves as fundamentalist, evangelical, charismatic, Pentecostal, or born-again Protestants. The survey, which was commissioned by PBS's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly and U.S. News & World Report, gauged evangelical opinions on a host of political and social issues.
Pollsters found that three quarters of evangelicals believe they are part of mainstream society, and about the same percentage believe they have had at least some influence on society. But they don't necessarily feel at home there. About three quarters of white evangelicals believe they must "fight to have their voices heard by the American mainstream" and say the mass media are hostile to their moral and spiritual values. Almost half believe that most Americans look down on them.
The siege mentality of evangelicals stems from the clash between their traditional religious values and those of the popular culture. On everything from same-sex marriage to abortion to church attendance, evangelicals tend to be more conservative than other Americans. And white evangelicals who constitute three quarters of all evangelicals are particularly conservative, which may explain why they feel particularly besieged.
Consider the hot-button issues of today's culture wars: Some 85 percent of white evangelicals oppose same-sex marriage, compared to 61 percent of all Americans. Two thirds of them think abortion should be illegal, versus 45 percent of the general population.
Even church attendance is a dividing line between evangelicals and mainstream America. More than 70 percent of white evangelicals and 63 percent of black evangelicals say they attend church at least once a week, as compared to about 40 percent of all Americans.
Yet evangelicals are not alone in their concern about America's soul. Seven out of ten evangelicals are very worried that children are not learning values and respect, and three out of four white evangelicals and more than nine out of ten African-American evangelicals say "America's moral values are on the wrong track." As it turns out, most Americans agree. Nearly two-thirds worry about the values children are learning, and more than 70 percent think we're on the wrong track.
And therein lies the secret of evangelicalism's success.
As more Americans sense that something is wrong with our culture, more are attracted to the holy boldness of evangelical Christianity and to traditional religion in general. Catholic parishes and Orthodox churches that proclaim the Christian message with the same boldness are experiencing similar success. And for decades now, Orthodox and Conservative Judaism have seen a steady influx of "Baal Teshuvah" or "masters of return" formerly secular Jews who found in traditional religion a community and connection to God that they could not find in secular society.
A 2000 study conducted by the Glenmary Research Center and sponsored by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies confirmed this trend: It found that the fastest-growing congregations in America between 1990 and 2000 were socially conservative churches that demanded high commitment from their members. The study also found liberal churches, like the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ, hemorrhaging members at the fastest rate.
In a decadent culture, the demands of traditional morality appeal. In a sea of pluralism, the clarity of orthodoxy attracts. Religious leaders should keep that in mind when they are tempted to dilute their theology and soften its demands in order to reach more souls. To attract the postmodern pilgrim, it seems, holy boldness is a better choice.