The reason evangelical churches grow while mainline denominations decline is that evangelical churches are very good at meeting the expectations of those who attend. You know what you’re going to get, and you know how it will make you feel.
Before I go on, a bit of throat-clearing is necessary. I’m not out to insult those who consider themselves evangelical. I also don’t want to treat evangelicals as a homogeneous group, because they aren’t. Furthermore, I have not spent most of my Sundays in evangelical congregations, and I certainly don’t claim to be an expert. But I do have some long-standing theories about evangelical churches, and I have yet to encounter anyone who can convince me otherwise.
There are at least two safe bets you can make when you attend an evangelical church. The first is that you will be given a firm structure for how to make life decisions. The structure is not the same across all denominations, but a level of predictability will be involved. If you do this, you can expect that.
I’m phrasing my words carefully, because it’s very easy to slip into arrogance and condescension. I know some evangelicals who would take issue with how I’ve characterized them. Yet it is surely uncontroversial to say that a mainline congregation, such as the United Church, is burdened with making every choice more complicated.
To take one obvious example: when the United Church rejected discrimination based on sexual orientation (at least officially, if not always in practice), it was an explicit acknowledgment that the Bible is not the ultimate authority. A complex array of principles and values inform such decisions, and reasonable people are occasionally going to disagree — sometimes vehemently and sometimes destructively. Evangelicals generally do not have this problem. That provides a level of comfort and security, and people tend to like that.
The second safe bet when attending an evangelical church is that you’ll feel a sense of exhilaration because the energy level is so high. I’m not just talking about drum sets — though don’t underestimate the awesomeness of drums! Every aspect of an evangelical church has consistently high energy, from the music to the sermons to the interaction between congregation members.
Years ago, I was at a United Church youth retreat in Manitoba and met a girl there from a nearby Mennonite congregation. She loved many parts of the retreat but was confused by the music. “Why is it so slow?” she asked. We were surprised by her question, because for us, it wasn’t slow. We were used to it. But by her standards, people should be jumping up around the room, stomping their feet and, from time to time, breaking down in emotion. That’s how church normally was for her. I could understand why she was disappointed.
The energy at evangelical churches is a positive feedback loop: the more energy there is, the more people get excited, the more they participate and the higher the energy level goes. The same process hurts mainline denominations: the less energy there is, the harder it is to generate and the less motivated we feel to try.
Yet none of this is to say that the United Church needs to start preaching a literal interpretation of the Bible or pouring its resources into hiring rock bands for services. A more nuanced, complicated theological message isn’t a bug of our system; it’s a feature. It’s why we aren’t evangelicals in the first place.
What mainline denominations need is confidence in their identity. With confident leadership comes energy, and though we may never be breaking down in emotion during worship songs, it’s not really clear to me why that’s such a desirable thing anyway. We need to stop the hand-wringing over whether evangelical churches are more popular, and just embrace what the United Church has to offer.
The only safe bet people should have when they come to our churches is that there will be warm and welcoming people inside. Let’s get excited about that, stomp our feet, raise the energy of the room and move on.
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