"All Scripture is breathed out by God," we are told in Timothy 3:16, "and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction. . ."
I doubt the same can be said of newspaper columns, but I nonetheless wanted to set the record straight after reading Ross Douthat's piece on American churches in last Sunday's New York Times. Douthat proclaimed that since the 1960s, "conservative Christianity has often been compromised" and "liberal Christianity has simply collapsed."
Douthat is rightly concerned about the continued theological and numerical decline of mainline churches. But like many commentators, Douthat misses the story of hope running through the resurgent parts of American Christianity. Indeed, we are witnessing a reshaping of the national religious landscape -- a move away from mainline dominance toward evangelical, independent and charismatic/Pentecostal churches, the group that my colleagues and I have the privilege to serve in our ministry at Leadership Network.
While the media has focused on the spectacular retirements and flameouts of a few prominent pastors, what hasn't been closely examined -- in the mainstream press, anyway -- is the dramatic rise of megachurches across the country. Consider, for instance, Matt Chandler, who a decade ago arrived as the pastor of First Baptist Church of Highland Village near Flower Mound, Texas. His congregation has grown from about 160 people to more than 8,000 a decade later.
Chandler, whose church has since been re-christened "The Village," is no anomaly. In 2002, there were about 800 churches across the United States boasting average weekly attendance of more than 2,000. Today, more than 1,600 congregations have average attendance of around 3,500 per weekend, according to the Hartford Institute for Religious Research. And although critics often assume that these churches are of shallow faith, participants report a higher degree of spiritual growth and devotion to classical religious disciplines than those attending smaller churches.
In evangelical Christianity, innovation abounds. For example, Chandler's church now operates at three different sites, having assumed the properties of churches in Denton and Dallas. Many megachurches have followed this pattern over the past decade, as they've successfully expanded their ministries to new communities. (Several mainline churches are now trying the same technique.)
At the same time, Chandler's church is helping new congregations spring to life, having assisted in the planting of two independent churches in its local area. And recently, Chandler was named president of Acts 29, a nationwide network that has planted some 425 new churches during the past 12 years. Combined, these churches serve more than 100,000 souls.
Megachurches have also proven innovative in cultivating new leaders. Mainline traditions tend to use formal education and councils of existing clergy to ordain new pastors. Unfortunately, they've struggled to fill these positions. Churches like The Village, by contrast, have a handful of seminary-degreed pastors on staff. But their work is augmented by scores of passionate pastoral leaders, directors and others drawn straight from the ranks of the congregation itself. Some of these people will eventually become pastors and leaders elsewhere.
Another trend that bodes well for the evangelical movement: Younger people -- men and women in their 20s and early 30s -- are now leaders in several hundred megachurches around the country. And these churches, in turn, are attracting many thousands of younger worshippers.
This reality belies the picture painted by many pundits and pollsters, who maintain that a large proportion of Millennials (those born after 1980) are unaffiliated -- 26 percent, according to the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life. The more telling number, as I see it, is that at least 33 percent of Millennials report weekly attendance at a worship service. Although history is not predictive, this percentage tends to rise as people age. It's worth remembering, moreover, that stated worship attendance among Americans has remained remarkably constant for decades, Gallup surveys show.
To accept Douthat's view is to believe that Christianity in this country is dying. But here's a different way to look at things: At least 60 million Americans went to a house of worship last week, thanks in no small part to a megachurch movement that can only be described as vibrant and growing. That's more people than went to a PTA meeting all of last year, or attended a political rally or a meeting for any candidate or cause all of last year, or sat in the stands of a college football game all of last year.
In his prophetic book "The Fourth Great Awakening," Nobel Prize-winner Robert Fogel foresaw an era of what he called "enthusiastic religion." Perhaps this is it. Could we wish for more in these dour days?
Bob Buford is founder and chairman of Leadership Network (www.leadnet.org), which had served growing churches for the past twenty-eight years. Buford's personal blog is www.ACTIVEenergy.net.