Preach Like Your Faith Depends on It

Photo-Illustration by Kelly Blair for TIME
Photo-Illustration by Kelly Blair for TIME

This is a very sobering time for ecclesiastically minded Americans. At a steadily growing rate, more and more Americans — especially the young — claim no religious affiliation. The figure has climbed from 15% to 20% of all Americans in the past five years. Pew researchers call the trend “nones on the rise.”

In reaction, Protestants and Roman Catholics are proving that the author of the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes had it right when he wrote that there is nothing new under the sun. In a classic attempt to turn adversity to advantage, Christian leaders who once assumed a cultural dominance (in the beginning of the baby-boom era, Christian identification among Americans was at least 91%; today it’s down to 77%) are now arguing for a double-down strategy. Rather than softening the Gospel message to make it more marketable to an America skeptical of institutions — a frequent reform point of view — what draws the real energy among the faithful is a renewed commitment to what Christians call the Great Commission, the words the resurrected Jesus spoke to his apostles at the end of Matthew: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

(MORE: Empty Pews: Everyone Is Misreading the New Numbers of Religiously ‘Unaffiliated’)

At the center of this strategy of unapologetic apologetics stands George Weigel, the papal biographer and prominent Catholic writer who has just published Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, a handbook for Catholics seeking to keep the church out of the catacombs. “It’s a recovery of the basic dynamic of New Testament Christianity, but that passionate impulse to live the Great Commission and convert the world cooled during centuries when the ambient public culture helped do the church’s job,” says Weigel.

“You could ‘learn Catholic’ by breathing the air in, for example, the 1950s Baltimore in which I grew up,” he says. “No more. The air has become chilly, even toxic, and the Gospel has to be boldly proposed and radically embodied if the church is to grow and the wounds of a culture of self-absorption are going to be healed.” Weigel argues for more-thoughtful preaching and liturgy, among other things. In an age of fragmentation, he says, Catholicism, properly presented, could again offer the sort of unity of culture and vision that once existed.

(MORE: Meacham: Why We Question God)

Evangelical Protestants, for their part, are accustomed to looking outward: a key element of their identity is their sense of obligation to share their faith. Yet given the general hostility toward joining particular denominations — including theirs — they feel a new urgency about their mission. “The evangelical movement in America in the 21st century is going to be forced back into the Book of Acts,” says Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship seminary. The world of Acts, it should be recalled, was one of hostile cultural forces, ferocious witness and missionary zeal. Seminaries will spend more time teaching the ways and means of what’s known as prophetic ministry, the disposition of pastors to speak out to the cultural tenor of the times.

While there’s no doubt that the idea of newly aggressive evangelizing is driving much of the discussion in traditional religious institutions, whether the America of the early 21st century will respond is another question. With typical pungency, G.K. Chesterton once said that “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Putting traditional Christianity back into clinical trial in the culture is precisely what the new evangelists are seeking to do.

MORE: Have We Evolved to Be Religious?

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