One and a half cheers for evangelicalism

The outlook for conservative Christianity is really, really bright. Or really dim.

It all depends which side of the Equator you live on.

This happy/gloomy view comes via the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which recently released a new Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders. In an enterprising move, Pew interviewed leaders who attended the Third Lausanne Congress of World Evangelization, held in October in Cape Town, South Africa.

What the survey showed revealed both optimism and pessimism.

Of Christians in the so-called Global South, most said evangelicalism will be better off and gain influence within five years. Most in the North, by contrast, said the faith will stay about the same or lose influence. In the United States, a sizable 82 percent said evangelicals are losing influence.

Part of the reason may be the splits among some stances, the report indicates. Large majorities of believers agree on the Bible, abortion, homosexuality, the leadership of men in families, and Christianity as the one, true faith. But deep splits opened when asked if the Bible should be taken literally, whether it's wrong to drink alcohol, or if one must believe in God to be a good person.

One caveat: Although Pew talks in terms of North and South, the lines are not that sharp. Pew places Australia and New Zealand among the "Northern" nations.

And among Northerners, there were definite differences in identifying foes. Most respondents agreed that the biggest enemies were secularism, consumerism and sex and violence in pop culture. Less dangerous in their eyes were interreligious conflict, sexual morals, government restrictions and lavish lifestyles of evangelical leaders.

But despite the inroads of Islam in the West, only 47 percent of Christians said that religion was a major threat. Among Christians in Muslim-majority lands, 72 percent said it was either a moderate or large problem. Another split in opinions that doesn’t run along North-South lines.

The Pew report falls in line with other studies that have come out this decade.

In 2002, Philip Jenkins' book "The Next Christendom" predicted that during the 21st century, Christianity will become more Pentecostal and more apocalyptic, and that most Christians will live in the global South.

Six years later, Christine Wicker's book "The Fall of the Evangelical Nation" said U.S. churches -- including conservative ones -- were already losing members and percentage of the population. As one result, she said Christian influence on the political system would wane, as it has already been.

But it helps to look at different sources. In 2006, a study by pollster George Barna found that 45 percent of American adults claimed to be "born again" -- that they'd had a spiritual turning point that they still considered important. The number is 12 points higher than the born-again percentage in 1983.

The study also said that evangelical Christians make up 9 percent of all adult Americans. Born-agains, though, aren't quite the same as evangelicals to Barna. He defines evangelicals as a subset of born-agains who answer seven key questions, on topics like Jesus, the Bible and salvation.

Even in Canada -- usually seen as an example of European-style secularism -- "McLean's" magazine found in 2004 that nearly a third describe themselves as evangelicals or born-again Christians. Even if they weren’t quizzed on individual beliefs, it's worth noting that they don’t consider the label toxic.

James D. Davis

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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