Attrition rates and leadership failures are only one part of the story.
A recently leaked letter from Russell Moore describes profound institutional rot, overt racism, and the toleration of sexual abuse inside the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). (His claims were later substantiated in leaked recordings.) The public square has been consumed with discussing this controversy, especially as the SBC annual meeting is underway.
But the problems Moore describes are not limited to one denomination. Many so-called “moderate” evangelical leaders—those who hold to historic orthodoxy and traditional sexual ethics but speak out on behalf of women and racial minorities—have similar stories to tell. It feels increasingly hard to find institutions in America that aren’t knee-jerk conservative or progressive.
Beyond that, Christian institutions—whatever their doctrine or ideology—often hold in common a thirst for power, an unrepentant self-defensiveness, and a lack of courage that altogether belie the gospel. Many of them don’t seem to function all that differently than institutions outside the church.
In the midst of this upheaval, I’ve watched friends and acquaintances leave the church, others who are in the process of “deconstructing,” and still others (including orthodox church leaders) who are deeply disheartened, even depressed, about the state of the church in the West.
We have reason to be discouraged. The statistics are dismal. In a recent survey from Lifeway, two-thirds of young adults reported that they stopped attending church, citing religious or political disagreements with the church or hypocrisy among members. Two recent interviews in CT paint equally dark pictures.
What is happening to the institutional church in the United States? It’s easy for me to buy decline narratives—believing things will only get worse. And of course they could. There are examples in church history of Christian populations in certain countries dwindling and nearly disappearing.
But increasingly, my hope for the church is found in words that I recite each Sunday in the Nicene Creed: We believe in the Holy Spirit.
When we watch for the Spirit’s presence, we naturally notice those places in our lives where we see fruitfulness and abundance. But ground zero for the Spirit’s work is often in the very places where our resources fall short, where problems seem intractable and unsolvable.
By TISH HARRISON WARREN