I grew up a seven mile bike ride down Chapman Avenue from Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. Recently, Schuller’s evangelical Christian ministry declared bankruptcy, conducted its last worship service, and sold the Cathedral to Orange County’s Catholic diocese for $58m.
Jim Hinch, a reporter and columnist for the Orange County Register does an excellent job explaining the Cathedral’s decline in the context of the changing landscape of religious life in the United States in 2013.
Hinch grew up in SoCal and studied English literature at Berkeley and Oxford. I find his analysis more insightful and convincing than some of his other readers.
Here’s a key paragraph from near the end of his American Scholar essay:
In a few years, perhaps a decade or two, religious America will catch up to Orange County’s present. There will be a shrinking number of evangelical megachurches, gradually aging and waning in influence. There will be numerous small, eclectic, multiethnic evangelical congregations whose emphasis on spiritual commitment and social service is unlikely to attract a large, mainstream following. And there will be surging numbers of immigrant Catholics, Pentecostals, and Muslims. The political influence of evangelicalism will decline. America will not become like Europe, where ossified state churches proved unable to compete against the inherently secularizing forces of market capitalism—and where immigrants’ faith expressions are often met with hostility. America will remain exceptionally religious. But traditional evangelical Christianity will no longer be a dominant presence in that religiosity.
Describing the heyday of the evangelical movement, the 70’s and 80’s, Hinch writes:
As the boomers’ youthful political activism evolved into the suburban libertarianism and mistrust of government that propelled Ronald Reagan into office, evangelical megachurches offered their own spiritual blend of social conservatism and entrepreneurial innovation. Pastors emulated the corporate managers who often filled their pews. They researched their audience, introduced new products, marketed their offerings, and measured success by growth in membership and budgets.
Then Hinch describes the demographic shift which will make the United States’ majority population nonwhite in roughly three decades. Church attendance numbers prove that shift hasn’t been kind to suburban evangelicalism. He writes:
Orange County is dense with Vietnamese pho joints, boba tea shops, Asian shopping malls, halal markets, Mexican swap meets, punk-rock nightclubs, and art galleries. Corporate-style megachurches seem bland by comparison.
Hinch’s analysis of evangelical Christianity’s decline probably applies to mainline Protestant denominations who are also experiencing significant declines in membership.
My church experience may be symbolic of these larger trends. Much to the GalPal’s chagrin, I don’t enjoy my Lutheran church’s worship service as much as I do our adult “Sunday School” class between services. During the services, everyone listens passively while one or two people take turns speaking week after week, month after month, year after year. By lunch on Monday, 90% of people would do poorly on a quiz on the sermon’s content.
In contrast, adult Sunday School encourages active participation. We’ve been studying the early Christian Movement which has prompted people to rethink some of their biblical assumptions they’ve always taken for granted. It’s far more engaging because it hinges on dialogue, more specifically, people share contrasting perspectives on important questions of faith. Complexity is honored as topics are explored in more depth. Consequently, for me, the experience is more meaningful and memorable.
[thanks to SMW for the link to Hinch’s article]