The Common Good
June 2005

The New 'Mainline' Church

by Diana Butler Bass | June 2005

Ten years ago,

Ten years ago, historian Mark Noll’s important book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind began with a powerful indictment: "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." From there, Noll attacked evangelical anti-intellectualism and issued challenges to remedy the problem.

Ronald Sider, senior statesman of progressive evangelicalism, modeled his new book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience on Noll’s earlier work. However, unlike Noll, whose concern was evangelical intellectual life, Sider claims that contemporary American evangelicals must confront a wider, more devastating issue. Evangelical moral behavior resembles that of other Americans. To paraphrase Noll, the scandal of the evangelical conscience is that there is not much of an evangelical conscience.

The scandal of evangelical behavior, and its parallel lack of ethical conscience, provides a stinging critique of conservative American Protestantism. Even Noll, with his unblinking attack on the evangelical subculture, shied away from criticizing evangelical morality. After all, as a Christian renewal movement, evangelical religion was justly proud of its piety and could take much historical credit for what early evangelicals called "the reform of manners." But Sider gives no credit for past successes. Indeed, he goes right for the evangelical heart with his claim, "Scandalous behavior is rapidly destroying American Christianity" and "With their mouths they claim that Jesus is Lord, but with their actions they demonstrate allegiance to money, sex, and self-fulfillment." In other words, evangelicals are hypocrites - revivalists who need to be revived.

To support his claim, Sider looks at a host of polling data (mostly from the Barna, Pew, and Gallup organizations) that reveals that evangelical practice about divorce, materialism, sexual promiscuity, racism, and domestic violence does not differ from the practice of the surrounding culture. In some of these regards, evangelical rates of activity actually rank higher than their neighbors. And it is not just individual evangelicals. Regions of the country with large evangelical populations (the Bible Belt, for example) have the highest rates of divorce, domestic violence, and racism. Thus, the evangelical scandal is not only a matter of individual piety. Rather, it manifests as a cultural problem that erodes the church, undercuts the social power of the gospel, and contributes to the decline of American society.

IN A THOUGHTFUL nod to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sider blames the problem on the evangelical "cheap grace" that reduces salvation to an "individual personal relationship with Jesus." If the church embodied "the whole gospel" of kingdom ethics, community, humanity, and sin, "greater biblical fidelity would help end the scandal." But Sider goes further than the theological solution. He also argues that the "church must be the church." Instead of conforming to culture, he urges that evangelical congregations re-vision themselves as radically countercultural communities of holiness, Christian practice, and church discipline. In a short section, he proposes some practical steps of congregational accountability and church membership to move evangelicals toward greater moral integrity. The book ends with some rays of hope - a few less-bleak statistics about evangelical behavior intended to inspire confidence that evangelicalism can reform itself and, once again, be a powerful force of spiritual and social change.

Sider’s book will no doubt upset many evangelicals. All serious Christians should wrestle with the sociological surveys he presents. His prescription for countercultural communities is much needed. However, the book raises many more questions than it ultimately answers. Is this prescription only addressing the symptoms of some deeper problem? Is there any real health and vitality left in American evangelicalism? He tries to offer hope for a cure, but an uneasy quality of hopelessness fills these pages.

Sider acts as a prophet speaking to his own community. But the prophet’s view might not be the most helpful for these problems. The historian’s perspective actually clarifies some of the more uncomfortable problems that Sider raises. Historians recognize that religious movements eventually die. Throughout Christian history, once-vibrant forms of renewal end with the whimper of accommodation once they reach the pinnacle of cultural and political success - currently the case of American evangelicalism. The renewal movement has become institutionalized; it is the new "mainline," with all the privileges - and problems - associated with being an established religion.

Given evangelicalism’s elite social status, Sider’s solution misses the larger historical point, and may not be radical enough. Maybe it is time to recognize that evangelicalism is no longer a spiritual movement but a religion. Religions rarely return to the status of movements (just ask the Methodists). Instead, religions get challenged by newer, more vital forms of spirituality that emerge from the edges of society. Sider’s sobering critique points to an unrecognized possibility: look beyond evangelicalism for the renewal of American Christianity. Instead of thundering jeremiads at a religion in inevitable decline, perhaps we need to find those communities where the gospel is not scandalous - except in the scandal of the cross - and is already transforming life and embodying hope. Such congregations do exist. That is where God’s wind is blowing.

Diana Butler Bass is the author of The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church.

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