By now we know that evangelical Protestants--generally supportive of Republican candidates but eagerly courted by Democrats this year--are a crucial voting bloc in the November election. Thus it was big news when Rick Warren, the evangelical megachurch pastor, recently asked both John McCain and Barack Obama about their religious beliefs, in part to address the concerns of church-going "value voters." But what about the evangelicals themselves? Is all well within their communities? Is their own passion for church-going as strong as their supposed political passion?
According to Julia Duin, a religion reporter for the Washington Times, more and more evangelicals are in fact fleeing their churches. Indeed, Ms. Duin regards church-quitting, at least among evangelicals, as nothing less than an epidemic. The problem, in her view, is not in the souls of the church quitters but in the character of the churches they choose to leave. "Something," she observes, "is not right with . . . evangelical church life."
The faults she points to--relying on her own reporting and survey data--are many. They are surprising, too, running counter to the stereotype of evangelicals bonding happily in their churches. She reports, among other things: a lack of a feeling of community among church members, inducing loneliness and boredom; church teaching that fails to go beyond the basics of the faith or to reach members grappling with suffering or unanswered prayer; pastors who are either out of touch with their parishioners or themselves unhappy, or who fail to shepherd their flocks, or who are caught up in scandal, or who try to control the lives of church members in a high-handed way. She claims that many churches have "inefficient leadership models" and that many, preoccupied with the care of families, neglect single people.
Women in particular leave evangelical churches, Ms. Duin says, because they are asked to do too little by their churches. Ms. Duin, who has a seminary degree, writes: "I have been one of those unwanted women for years." In fact, Ms. Duin's interest in her subject is partly autobiographical: She left a church in 2001 and didn't find a new one until 2007. She has lived through the process of church-quitting, and she has interviewed a lot of people with the same experience.
There is no doubt some truth in what Ms. Duin reports. But is there truly an epidemic of church-quitting? She says that evangelical churches, which for decades increased their numbers at impressive rates, are today growing "only appreciably." If so, church-quitting may be one reason. But so, too, may be the undisputed demographic fact--not explored in "Quitting Church"--that evangelical parents are having fewer children these days. And the church-membership surveys Ms. Duin cites do not include nondenominational churches. They tend to be large and evangelical, and their growth rate remains strong.
If the trend Ms. Duin describes is not as big as she thinks, her concern is still understandable. It is truly disturbing--to some of us, anyway--to hear of a longtime church-goer deciding to stay home on Sunday mornings and read, yes, the New York Times; or to hear of a best-selling evangelical author quitting his church and arguing that leaving the institutional church is something that "mature Christians" should do. Whatever the incidence of church-quitting, it is not a happy development for those who regard public worship as essential to the Christian life.
What is the answer? For Ms. Duin, churches will have to become places that people feel eager to attend--"decent" churches, as she puts it. She calls for better teaching, better preaching and better pastors, who are in touch with the lives of their worshippers--in short, for better churches, where "community" is cultivated, women are taken more seriously and singles can find mates. With such changes, "people will begin craving church instead of quitting church, and the exodus will be no more."
Perhaps, but Ms. Duin's brief is more sociological than theological, as if a church exists to "serve needs," like any other community organization. It does so in a way, of course, but it exists primarily to serve biblical purposes. Ms. Duin does say that churches should "concentrate on discipleship," and here she hits on a theological point: The church's mission--as defined in the Gospel of Matthew--is to make disciples of all nations by teaching them everything that Christ commanded. That imperative entails teaching what is termed "the whole counsel of God" and not the Christianity lite that Ms. Duin finds in many evangelical churches.
According to Ms. Duin, churches dedicated to making disciples will "do well in this era of dumbed-down, purpose-driven, seeker-friendly Christianity." But is that really true? From a theological perspective, there is no guarantee that churches will prosper as they attempt to make disciples--if we judge prosperity by church membership alone. A church might conscientiously carry out its biblical tasks and yet, by measures of popularity, do poorly in this world. Such a church would not be doing right if it adjusted its mission for the sake of higher attendance records. Note that by the end of his ministry the number of disciples with Jesus was down to 12. Now there was a decent church, one might say, if a small one.
Terry Eastland is publisher of THE WEEKLY STANDARD. This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal.