The Decline of Evangelical America

John S. Dickerson, an evangelical researcher, described the steep decline of evangelical Christianity in a recent New York Times article. “Evangelicals have not adapted well to rapid shifts in the culture – including, notably, the move toward support for same-sex marriage,” Dickerson writes. “The result is that evangelicals are increasingly typecast as angry and repressed bigots. In 2007, the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, in a survey of 1,300 college professors, found that 3 percent held ‘unfavorable feelings’ towards Jews, 22 percent toward Muslims and 53 percent towards evangelical Christians.”

“Instead of offering hope, many evangelicals have claimed the role of moral gatekeeper, judge and jury. If we continue in that posture, we will continue to invite opposition and obscure the ‘good news’ we are called to proclaim.”

“Studies from established evangelical polling organizations — LifeWay Research, an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Barna Group — have found that a majority of young people raised as evangelicals are quitting church, and often the faith, entirely.”

While insightful, Dickerson’s article ultimately defaults to a “love the sinner, hate the sin” position and fails to recognize shifts in evangelical Christianity towards the full acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and the positive impact this can have on church growth. One such example is Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

Special Focus: Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church in Shepherdstown, West Virginia is a welcoming and affirming church nestled in Shenandoah Presbytery, one of the conservative presbyteries that failed to ratify Amendment 10-A. MLP interviewed Rev. Randall Tremba during the 10-A campaign about how his theology evolved and changed about welcoming LGBT people into the life and leadership in the church.

Rev. Randall Tremba

I was raised in a Bible-believing fundamentalist Baptist church. The only reference to homosexuality I ever heard was: “it’s an abomination unto the Lord.” At Wheaton College I majored in Bible and philosophy. Homosexuality was hardly ever discussed. The assumption of Bible inquiry was based on the “verbal plenary inspiration of the Bible.” I assumed that was the one and only right way to understand the Bible…

As I learned the Presbyterian approach to Scripture more deeply, I came to see all of Scripture, including its alleged condemnation of homosexuality, in a new light. Reformed theology (with its suspicion of private interpretations) and the Confessions provoked a paradigm shift in my thinking. It didn’t happen overnight. I had a lot of biblical literalism to overcome. As I was reading and studying, I began meeting actual gay and lesbian people and not just doctrinal “straw figures.”

Soon after my installation as Minister for the Shepherdstown Church in 1976, I became good friends with Larry, an “out” gay man. His life was one of the most exemplary Christians lives I’d ever witnessed. Cognitive dissonance set in. Soon after, I became increasingly aware of gay men and lesbians in the congregation who were faithful and devoted members. They were exemplary, in fact. Among them was Sally who exuded love for the church and a willingness to undertake even the lowliest tasks. Getting to know these gay men and lesbians as real people and not as abstractions in a theological argument awakened me from my dogmatic slumbers.

I re-examined Biblical texts that I thought I knew so well. As it turns out, the Presbyterian/Reformed approach to Scripture would enable me to see and understand the Scriptures in a new way. It took me awhile but with the aid of the booklet “Presbyterian Understanding & Use of Holy Scripture” (1983) and the Book of Confessions, I came to realize that the Living Word of God (Christ) was more than the Written Word of God (Scripture) and that Christ the Living Word was discerned in community, particularly in the Confessions. I had never quite fully appreciated the distinction between Word Incarnate and Word written. The Confession of 1967 acknowledges this critical order and possibility. The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. (9.27) Furthermore, reconciliation was a determinative lens of interpretation. The Bible is to be interpreted in the light of its witness to God’s work of reconciliation in Christ. (9.29).

I came to see that bans on homosexuality (or food or clothing, etc.) expressed in the Bible cannot and should not be transferred into our culture. That would be disrespectful of God’s word conveyed to a particular people at a particular time.

The welcoming posture at Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church has been good for church growth. In a letter to the Shenandoah Presbytery, Rev. Tremba described the “consequences” of ordaining a lesbian in a 25-year relationship to the office of deacon.

The Lord has honored our work and witness more than any could have imagined. Devout and even lapsed and disillusioned Christians (homosexual and heterosexual) have risen up to praise God and to give their hearts to serving our Lord anew. Many are returning to the church for the first time in a long time. Together we gladly and boldly proclaim that Christ’s way of bold and courageous love is indeed THE way, the truth and the life. There is no other way!!

More people than ever are attending Sunday services (two) and participating in multiple education and formation classes, seminars and forums. Our Sunday School is bursting at the seams. Our youth group has multiplied. Our youth take great pride in being part of a church that publicly welcomes homosexuals.

Learn more at MLP’s Biblical Interpretation resources page.