Lay Liberalism and the Future of Evangelicalism

With amazing regularity, the national media take notice of the fact that, generally speaking, America’s conservative churches are growing while the more liberal churches are losing members. If this is news, it is almost a half-century old by now. What is going on?

Observers of American church life notice this striking phenomenon–the high levels of lay involvement in evangelical churches. Against the backdrop of decline and membership losses in the more liberal denominations, trends related to attendance, giving, and active participation among church members are setting evangelical churches apart from larger trends. Why?

Liberal churches and denominations are suffering massive membership losses and the evacuation of active church members from congregational life. While some observers are interested only in the levels of church attendance and membership, others note that active participation in the life and ministry of the church is directly linked to long-term involvement and attendance.

Researchers have offered various sociological and demographic arguments for this pattern, but the most salient factors related to this issue are deeply theological. Churches that expect much of members tend to receive much in terms of active participation–and those expectations are directly related to doctrinal commitments and theological motivations.

The involvement of laypersons in church life is directly related to evangelism and the health of congregations. At one level, the evangelical understanding of ministry is poles apart from what is customary in many mainline Protestant churches and in Roman Catholicism. Put simply, evangelicals have historically offered greater resistance to the professionalization of the clergy and the sacredotalism or clericalism that shifts the work of the ministry from the people of God to pastors or priests. Where ministers are understood to bear sole responsibility for the fulfillment of the church’s ministry, church members naturally feel no obligation or motivation to be highly involved in the life of the congregation and its work. Church participation is largely linked to the level of the spectator, or directed toward community involvement that is unrelated to evangelism and church outreach.

While evangelicals have been sorely tempted by market-driven models of professionalism, congregations demonstrating the highest levels of lay involvement are most often led by pastors who see the teaching and preaching of the Bible as central to the task of mobilizing church members for ministry, mission, and action. These pastors put their priority on the teaching ministry of the church and on biblical preaching as the means by which God equips His church for action and witness.

Faithful preaching has always been the central means through which God has energized His people. Preaching the word “in season and out of season” requires that the pastor present biblical truth with clarity and courage, establishing clear boundaries between belief and unbelief, faithfulness and unfaithfulness, truth and error.

This is in stark contrast to what sociologist Nancy Ammerman identifies as the “lay liberalism” found in many more liberal churches and denominations. These “lay liberals” have only a weak grasp of a diluted Gospel, and tend to see doctrine as a matter of little or no consequence. For them, Christianity is reduced to a vaguely positive way of life that often comes down to little more than being kind to others. Ammerman and her team have identified this as “Golden Rule” religion, and it goes hand in hand with low levels of lay involvement.

This correlates directly with research undertaken by Dean R. Hoge, Benton Johnson, and Donald A. Luidens, who looked at the religious patterns of mainline Protestant baby boomers. In Vanishing Boundaries, these sociologists argued that members of more liberal Protestant denominations–especially baby boomers–understood Christianity to require very few beliefs that would put them at odds with the larger secular culture. On matters ranging from the identity of Jesus Christ and the nature of the Gospel to the Bible’s teachings on sexuality, these mainline baby boomers saw no firm boundaries between the church and the world, belief and unbelief. Unsurprisingly, they were not highly involved in the life of any church or Christian movement. Why should they be?

Evangelicals should look to this research as a warning of what can and will happen if Christianity is redefined at the expense of biblical doctrine and a clear affirmation of Christian truth. The transforming power of the Gospel is what energizes Christ’s church–and biblical preaching is its Spirit-blessed fuel.

A look across the evangelical world indicates that lay Christians are most involved in the life of congregations and in the work of ministry when they are continually confronted with clear and convictional biblical exposition, and when the congregation takes the formation and fulfillment of a comprehensive Christian worldview as one of its central tasks.

Bold beliefs lead to bold action, and church members are energized to ministry and motivated to greater faithfulness and deeper discipleship when they can see biblical truth as it is presented to them by the church’s commissioned teachers, and when they are then able to “connect the dots” between Christian truth and the demands of everyday life.

In these churches, members are motivated and mobilized precisely because they come to understand the demands of the Gospel and to understand the New Testament’s vision of a church fully deployed for the cause of the Gospel. Christians are confronted with a biblical call to action and involvement. A commitment to Gospel priorities is produced by the prophetic preaching of God’s Word–and a passion for the glory of God will animate the congregation to action.

Churches hoping to energize members by the use of faddish programs and slick motivational messages should think again. The saints are not slumbering for lack of public relations and programming.

The development of “lay liberalism” among the mainline Protestant denominations should remind evangelicals that without clear biblical preaching, serious commitment to doctrinal fidelity, and passionate commitment to the Great Commission, the same phenomenon could arise in our midst. Indeed, studies of evangelical young persons suggest that such developments could be fast upon us.

This much is clear–resistance to “lay liberalism” will be found only among those with deep conviction. The preaching of the Word and the church’s confidence in the Gospel will, over time, produce a congregation of motivated members who are mobilized for ministry. But then, we shouldn’t need a team of sociologists to tell us that.