Photo by FORREST CAVALE on Unsplash
Here’s one of the most interesting pieces of church data I’ve come across this year:
This is, of course, an incomplete picture, starting with the fact that it only represents white Christians. The full (and fascinating) Census of American Religion is available here.
It also labels us in ways we may not always agree with. Mainline protestants are a group that includes Methodists, Episcopalians, and the largest representations of Lutherans and Presbyterians in the United States. Evangelicals typically include Baptists, Pentecostals, and a big chunk of churches who would describe themselves as “non-denominational.”
These words aren’t always especially helpful. I’m a United Methodist, which means “mainline” in this study. But there are plenty of United Methodists – in our East TN/Southwest VA Holston Conference, in the church I grew up in and the churches I’ve served, and elsewhere – who would more closely identify themselves as evangelicals.
That word, of course, means “good news.” What’s the good news in a study like this?
Maybe think of it this way: what’s the fastest growing religion in the United States? In the last decade, the answer was, “None of the above.” Those who are unaffiliated still make up a larger percentage than mainline, evangelical, or catholic churches alone.
But in the last five years, the fastest growing of those four groups – and the only one to show significant growth – is mainline protestants.
Because we all want our churches to be good. It’s usually just a matter of what “good” means. If you’d use “good” to describe a church – if you’d use it to describe your church – what does it sound like?
I grew up in a good church. The kind where Sundays were hopeful. My mama was the children’s director there for two decades, so I’m a little biased, but the kind where people knew they were loved, starting from birth, reaching out through their whole lives. And, in part because they were so good at those things, the kind that grew.
And I’ve served good churches. The kind where people try to believe they are in it together, even fully aware of their differences. The kind that challenge your best-case scenarios. The pass-the-hat, do-we-need-more-chairs, sounds-crazy-but-let’s-give-it-a-try kind.
We’ve all got our lists of what a good church means to us. And all of them have been challenged by the pandemic. It’s still dangerous to talk about this thing in anything other than the present tense, but the challenges we’re facing now sure feel less black-and-white than last year’s. Now it’s less about whether your doors are open, and more about what’s different inside those doors.
But we did learn last year that the ground can be fertile in ways you didn’t realize before.
What’s interesting to me about that study is the potential movement from one kind of church to another, as Diana Butler Bass goes on to discuss in that Twitter thread. A potential movement among some evangelicals who are leaving their churches…but not leaving Christianity. Who may have found enough “not good”, or whatever you want to call it, to leave one thing…but enough good in Jesus to look for him somewhere else.
If we’re choosing words to describe our churches, I do like “fruitful” more than “good”. I like “growing” a lot, and don’t think it should be shied away from. But growth, in and of itself, is an idolatrous endgame. Fruitfulness is what we’re called to: it’s the very first thing God says to human beings in Genesis 1. And it can be a beautiful thing about different kinds of churches: there’s more than one kind of fruit.
In the same way, my least favorite expression in church world is, “We can’t grow until…”. Because the more you believe that – the more you blame the season – the easier it becomes to find the next reason why you can’t. To be led more by what we tell ourselves we have to say no to than what we can say yes to.
And hey, it’s easy to blame the season, especially an unpredictably harsh one. Sometimes I have to remind myself that all the agricultural metaphors in the Bible came without the AccuWeather app on my smartphone, or the seven-day outlook, or even the Farmer’s Almanac. Perhaps to them, “unpredictable” was just another word for “today.”
Yet still, they planted. They watered. They prayed. In exile, they sought the welfare of the city.
There’s almost a stubbornness to it – maybe that’s a good quality for a farmer – in believing that the church can always be fruitful. That God has already given us everything we need.
So that’s one danger: that we would stop sowing. That we would believe the ground isn’t fertile anywhere right now, or won’t be again until we’re back to “normal” or beyond a denominational issue.
But I think this study also reveals the danger of only sowing in one direction.
If the fastest growing churches in America are mainline protestants? According to the study, that means the fastest growing churches in America are also more diverse:
- 22% of Republicans and 16% of Democrats identify as mainline protestant, compared to 29% of Republicans and only 9% of Democrats who identify as evangelical.
- The median age among mainline protestants is 50, down from 56 among evangelicals. “None of the above” still trends younger here with a median age of 38.
- For those in our part of the world, there’s a tremendous opportunity for conversation in diversity. The county where I live is 40% evangelical, 25% mainline, and 23% unaffiliated.
There’s a story I love from 2 Kings 5, where Naaman, an Aramean general, is sick. But he hears there is a prophet in Israel, Elisha, who could heal him. When he reaches the prophet’s house, Elisha simply sends down a messenger to tell him to wash in the Jordan River seven times. And Naaman doesn’t like this, because he expected the solution to be more dramatic.
It’s his servant who quietly comes to him and says, “If they asked you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it?” (2 Kings 5:13)
Or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message, “Father, if the prophet had asked you to do something hard and heroic, wouldn’t you have done it? So why not this simple ‘wash and be clean’?”
Sometimes we tell ourselves that growth, fruitfulness, the path forward, or whatever we think of about being a good church…whatever it is, it must be dramatic. We sow hard and heavy in political issues, running hard and fast to the right or the left. Because the turning point in this study for mainline protestants is 2016, I think it’s fair to ask how a church’s relationship to politics may have impacted its fruitfulness.
It can feel like taking a stand for whatever you’re taking a stand for is absolutely the best way ahead.
But perhaps we’ve missed that the most fertile ground is a little less dramatic and a little more in the middle. More simple. More Jesus. And probably already right underneath our feet.
After all, that’s the ground where the most number of people might find their faith putting down roots. And that’s the kind of church that has a chance to reflect the kingdom of heaven, which I believe will include democrats and republicans and Lutherans and Baptists and young and old and, I hope, Methodists.
A fruitful church is best defined by the nature of fruit itself: is it healthy? Does it taste good? And does it contain within itself the seeds of its own multiplication? Does the good news people encounter in your church make a difference in their lives and in their community? Is it a gospel they want to share?
And I think those things are still found best in simple obedience: to love first, and love well. To love our neighbors, which we cannot do unless we know them. To believe in Jesus, who tells stories of farmers who sow everywhere.
And to believe the most fertile ground might be right underneath our feet.