Lay Liberalism and the Future of Evangelicalism

Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., serves as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world. Read more

 February , 2006

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.

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