Many, or even most, insights about parish growth and parish health are neutral in regard to Church, denomination, or theological orientation.  That is, they tend to be true whether the church is traditional or modernist, Protestant or Orthodox or Roman Catholic, small or large, Calvinist or Pentecostalist or Lutheran.  Here are a few such neutral principles:

  • Congregations in parts of the country that have growing populations tend do better than those in declining areas.
  • Good pastoral care is helpful:  or as Archbishop Cahoon used to say, ‘It’s no secret what people want in a parish priest – they want someone who will be nice to them.’
  • Division and conflict drive people away; friendliness and hospitality attract.
  • A good leader is personally secure and lets others exercise their own proper talents.  A control freak will tend to fail in the long run.

That said, there are long standing tendencies in American Protestantism that, I believe encourage secularization.  This process is, I believe, now entering its final phases.

One starting point of the process was a general turn against liturgical worship and traditional form.  Instead, since the days of the ‘Great Awakenings’ in 18th and 19th century America, the tendency has been to center Sunday services on the sermon, to prefer emotional appeals, and to hold conversion – understood as an emotional, interior, subjective experience – as the central religious reality.  Religion was about ‘being saved,’ and being saved was largely a matter of a personal conviction in response to a sermon whose goal was to create the emotional mix of regret, hope, and desire that would produce the response in question.  ‘Worship’, apart from the sermon, largely reduced to a lesson or two from Scripture, a pastor’s prayer designed to fit with the sermon, and hymns.  Apart from whatever Scripture was read, the hymns tended to be the only point at which the Christian tradition had a place.  But even the hymns were often modern confections, heavy with emotion and sentimentality:  not statements of Christian verity, but emotional effusions about religious emotion (‘Come, ye disconsolate, where e’er ye languish….’; ‘And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me etc.’) 

This general tendency was not all wrong, of course.  Christianity from the New Testament onward has used sermons to call for conversion.  But conversion is the beginning of the Christian life, not its be-all and end-all.  We convert, but then we need to go on toward Christian maturity in a Church that teaches us how to live, how to pray, how to foster community with other believers.  Kerygma, or proclamation, needs to give way to didache, teaching.  Such teaching includes moral teaching, sacramental worship, community involvement, and public standards.  Instead of such maturation and development the American Protestant tendency was and is to stick on the level of conversion, with constant ‘altar calls’ and ‘revivals’ – which are really an invitation to repeat or renew the conversion experience.

Large swathes of American Protestantism are largely barren of the sacramental system, which forms the classical heart of Christian living after conversion.  Likewise, the Christian ascetical tradition, the classical spiritual writers, the schools and doctors of prayer, and even the wisdom of classical moral theology are largely unknown in this world.  The tradition is largely banished. 

That, I think, largely sums up the world of what we might call traditional evangelical, neo-pentecostalist, and fundamentalist American Protestantism.  And this rather negative evaluation of the Protestant landscape does not even touch its occasional even grosser excesses, including outright hucksters, proponents of the prosperity gospel, and the heretical rejections of Nicene orthodoxy. 

Unfortunately, the internal dynamic of American Protestantism gets worse. Whatever the problems of a sermon-centered religion, at least classical Protestant sermons tended to contain a good deal of Scripture and some basic, orthodox, Christian themes:  man is very far gone from righteousness; repentance is needed; Christ came to save sinners; we are saved by grace, not good works; the blood of Jesus is an efficacious remedy.  More recent sermons are less:  avuncular advice for happy living and mild exhortations to kindness.

Many traditional Protestant hymns are sentimental and theologically questionable.  Most modern Protestant church music is much worse.  Some of it is indistinguishable from popular music in general.  Some of it has been aptly described as ‘7-11’ music:  seven words repeated eleven times.  Classical Reformed music tended to take the form of metrical psalms. Classical Lutheran hymns were theologically rich.  The hymns of Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts, likewise, had a great deal of orthodox theological content.  But Wesley and Watts, the Scottish Psalter and Louis Bourgeois, the hymns of Neander and Luther, all antedate the Great Awakenings.  Little is now left standing of classical Protestant orthodoxy, which was itself a declination from the central Church tradition.  The American religious scene is grim indeed.  There is little health or hope there.  The answer lies further back. 

2 thoughts on “American Protestantism

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