This campaign--and the larger sentiment behind it--is doubly ironic. First, despite their inclusive rhetoric, mainline Protestant congregations are actually less likely to have single parents, single adults, and married couples without children than are evangelical Protestant churches. Mainline Protestant churches attract upper-middle-class people who live in conventional families but also aspire to the progressive cultural conventions of their class, which is to say, they walk right and talk left. Evangelical Protestant churches attract working- and middle-class people who hail from a range of different family situations but who now aspire to live in accord with God's plan for their lives.

Wilcox identifies the UCC campaign as "ironic" for the very reason that it "embraces the trends that have been the undoing of the UCC--indeed, of all the mainline."  He also observes:  "The average young man raised in a Congregationalist home isn't likely to enter his local UCC church on any day except Christmas and Easter--unless he finds himself married with children."

Noting some of the same trends recognized by Mary Tedeschi Eberstadt [see article above], Professor Wilcox argues that the link between intact family structure (married couples with children) and congregational vitality is virtually a "sociological law."

Professor Wilcox offers a compelling sociological analysis.  Without doubt, basic theological issues lie just under the surface of these trends.  Theological liberalism weakened the mainline Protestant denominations long before the breakdown of family structure became evident.  A loss of confidence in the truthfulness and authority of the Bible preceded and facilitated a loss of confidence in the family -- including marriage, childbearing, and the crucial responsibility of fatherhood.

Evangelical congregations should look to this analysis with concern and a consideration of the degree to which our own congregations might marginalize or minimize marriage, childbearing, and the importance of intact family structure.  Gospel imperatives, congregational health, and family concerns all meet at this crucial intersection. 

It certainly makes sense that our churches give careful attention to Professor Wilcox's central argument:  "The fortunes of American religion rise and fall with the fortunes of the intact, married, family."

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In last Friday's edition of The Wall Street Journal,. Professor Wilcox turns to the question of why evangelical Christians are so concerned about family issues.  As he explains:

There are at least three reasons that evangelicals are concerned about issues like abortion, sexual promiscuity and marriage. First, most obviously, evangelicals subscribe to a traditional form of the Christian faith that views the Bible as a literal and authoritative guide to family life.

Second, in the past 40 years, evangelicals have come to see their pro-family worldview as a countercultural badge of honor. It signals both to themselves and to the broader society that they have not conformed to the ways of the world. Thus, paradoxically, attacks by the likes of Howard Dean, Frank Rich and Bill Maher on "intolerant" and "bigoted" evangelicals only deepen their commitment. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Seminary, put it this way in an op-ed in the New York Times: "To the cultured critics of religion, we are the cantankerous holdouts against the inevitable. But so far as the Southern Baptist Convention is concerned, the future is in God's hands. If faithfulness requires the slings and arrows of outraged opponents, so be it."

Third, and perhaps most surprisingly, evangelicals are concerned about the state of the family in their own homes, neighborhoods and communities. And for good reason. Studies indicate, for instance, that teen sex and divorce are as common among evangelicals as they are among other Americans. Indeed, divorce is especially high in Bible Belt states such as Kentucky, Mississippi and Arkansas. Thus evangelical efforts to advance a pro-family agenda in the public square must be understood, at least in part, as a defensive effort to get their own house in order.

In this article, Professor Wilcox seeks to explain the worldview of evangelical Christians to the larger public.  Nevertheless, evangelicals, too, should look carefully at his essay.

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