Listening to all the soul-searching and finger-pointing among Republicans since Election Day reminds me of the conversations that have been going on in many American churches for several decades. The puzzling ingredient for both groups is demographic change and how—or whether—to adapt to that change.
On Election Day, I flashed back to a curious conversation I had with a home missionary in Miami more than 20 years ago. I was a young, naïve reporter for the SBC Home Mission Board. We were visiting what once had been a large Anglo congregation in Miami. The building was large, but the congregation was dwindling. Fewer than 50 people met for worship in the large Sanctuary each Sunday. Meanwhile, a Spanish-speaking congregation of more than 300 met in the church basement.
I asked the missionary why the tiny Anglo congregation was meeting in the larger space while the growing ethnic congregation was meeting in cramped quarters below. The answer has stuck with me for two decades: “The people who are longtime members of this church feel like they have lost everything else they once knew to be theirs in this city. They have lost their neighborhoods and their schools. They are now the minorities at work. The church is last place in the community where they can retain a sense of life as they once knew it.”
This is about so much more than worship styles. Hymnals and organs versus screens and drum sets is not the big question. Responding to demographic change transcends musical styles. Here’s where the internal debate inside the Republican Party and the Protestant church run on parallel tracks:
1. Big and small. Even in a red state like Texas, where I live, a close look at the voting results map shows what’s happening. The major metropolitan counties in Texas all voted majority blue. Republicans are trying to figure out how to translate their dominance of rural and small-town Texas into urban areas because migration is emptying rural areas and filling the large cities. The same thing is happening in churches. There are more small churches in American than large churches, but the vast majority of Americans now worship in large churches. Denominations and other service providers can’t figure out whether to focus on where the most people are or where the most churches are.
2. Social issues. Abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage and similar topics have been the hot buttons of both evangelicals and Republican candidates for several decades. While preaching about these issues fires up the loyal base whether in the pew or on the stump, it increasingly alienates those outside the fold. Research consistently tells us today that one of the reasons young adults stay away from church is because they think the church is only interested in social issues.
3. Leadership. In both politics and the church, it’s one thing to invite people of other ethnicities and cultures to the party, but it’s another to allow them to influence decision-making—or to occupy the sacred spaces we’ve built for ourselves.