Church revival? More liberals are filling Protestant pews.
how others see it
Since the rise of Donald Trump, liberal-leaning churches have reported surges in attendance and newfound energy in the pews. Will it prove a temporary 'Trump bump' or a lasting change after decades of decline in mainline Protestant churches?
GREENPOINT, BROOKLYN—A year ago, Tammy Rose never imagined she’d be active again in church, holding a palm branch with a community of Christians marking the beginning of Holy Week.
For nearly two decades, in fact, she had more or less abandoned the faith, disillusioned by what she saw as a constant focus on conservative social issues and pressing needs for more donations.
But if politics helped drive her away, it is politics that, in some ways, is drawing her back to the fold. And on this sunny Sunday morning at Greenpoint Reformed Church, not too far from the Brooklyn artists collective where she lives, Ms. Rose is beaming as she joins the responsive call to prayer:
“Who are we?” intones the Rev. Jennifer Aull, the congregation’s minister for community service. Responding, the congregation says together: “We are young and old, gay and straight and in between. We are single and partnered, happy and sad, confused and inspired. We are street smart and college-educated. Some of us can’t pay our bills and others have more than enough to share.... We are God’s people. We are the body of Christ.”
Like a number of progressive congregations across the country, Greenpoint Reformed has seen both a surge in attendance and a newfound energy within its pews over the past year. Since the rise of Donald Trump to the US presidency, in fact, liberal enclaves have reported something of an awakening.
Hundreds of churches have joined the “sanctuary” movement to protest the administration's immigration policies since the election, and thousands have begun donating more money to religious groups supporting social justice issues, many report. At liberal seminaries like Union Theological in New York, students and community members have packed into public lectures on the “social gospel,” standing-room-only crowds that have left administrators stunned.
The call to worship on this Palm Sunday embodied some of the reasons Rose decided to return to church last year. “When I visited for the first time last Easter Sunday, I was like, oh my God, these are my people!” she says, noting she had been drawn by the rainbow flag and Black Lives Matter banner draping Greenpoint Reformed’s front facade. “I suddenly felt comfortable in this gang of – how can I put it? Everyone’s a little quirky. I was really happy that there was a place where that diversity could be celebrated.”
Yet the congregation also offered something a bit more intangible, says Rose, a playwright and artist with a day job in Manhattan’s tech industry. Already part of a community of politically-active artists, she is a regular presence at street protests.
But here in a community sharing prayer concerns together, or celebrating a gay couple’s renewal of their marriage vows, or including children coloring their Easter eggs – “I come here and I just feel replenished,” she says.
Revival of 'social gospel'
The current “Trump bump” now energizing many progressive congregations, however, may only be a blip on what has been a decades-long decline of liberal Christianity and some of the mainline Protestant denominations that have carried its torch since the early 20th century, many scholars caution.
“The social gospel has found its biggest moment of relevance since the Reagan years,” says Brett Grainger, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University near Philadelphia. “The energy is feeding directly off the current administration's proposed budget cuts, which target the most vulnerable members of society, and its policies on immigration, which rub against the belief that ‘love of the stranger’ is central to Christian teaching.”
“But if there is a revival, it's most likely to be temporary, in that it thrives on its antagonism to Trump,” Professor Grainger continues.
Liberal Christianity and mainline Protestantism have been contracting for decades, in fact, losing millions of members and the cultural influence it once was able to wield. Mainline Protestant churches, including those in Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Methodist denominations, have lost roughly 5 million adult members since 2007, and now comprise about 15 percent of the US population, according to Pew Research.
Formed in the “modernist” controversies of the 1920s, liberal Christianity began to “demythologize” certain teachings like the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, and the literal meaning of Scripture. In response, conservatives emphasized the traditional “fundamentals” of Christian doctrine, which eventually gave rise to the term “fundamentalism.”
At the same time, many liberal congregations began to emphasize the “social gospel,” which focuses on Jesus’ ministry to the outcast and poor and the call to Christian service. Indeed, Christian congregations on the left were major players in the Civil Rights movement and the rise of the “sanctuary churches” movement that supported Central American refugees in the 1980s. Many were also part of the spread of “liberation theology,” first preached by Central American Catholics in the 1960s, who proclaimed that God primarily identifies with the oppressed and marginalized.
“Churches that are channeling this new anti-Trump energy into justice and caregiving issues, they’re not leaving their understanding of the Christian gospel behind,” says Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “They are saying: This is who we are, we have a history of this, and we can’t be silent.”
A 'Trump bump'?
Rev. Ann Kansfield, the minister of proclamation at Greenpoint Reformed, isn’t sure how much the congregation’s recent surge can be attributed to a “Trump bump.” More people voted for Bernie Sanders in Greenpoint, after all, than any other area of New York City in the Democratic primary last year, and Reverend Kansfield noticed a simmering political energy going back to 2015.
Up to then, the church had plateaued with about 35 adult members. On Sunday, there were more than 60, including children. “We were already established as the progressive church in the neighborhood,” she says, noting that LGBT inclusion and its soup kitchen and food pantry were its primary ministries. “But with this new energy, we’ve been doing some deciding over who we are and what we do, and what following Jesus should look like in our context.”
After many members were abuzz following the Women’s March on Washington in January, the congregation put together a social justice task force. Kansfield has been making contacts with consortiums of faith groups mobilizing for progressive causes.
“But this is a marathon, not a sprint,” says Kansfield, who is also one of the chaplains serving the Fire Department of New York. “It would be really easy for us to tire ourselves out with all our spreading and fretting. But how do we actually invest our energy and time and resources to where it will strategically matter?”
Attending church is most effective when it is the “spiritual engine that drives the rest of the week,” she says, “the way we’re going to recharge and refuel for the rest of the week. And that isn’t going to be ginormous, but church and the spiritual practices that we share together can provide sustainable, ongoing energy that’ll keep you capable of the work of the long game.”
Search for spiritual resources
Sustaining the current spike in attendance at liberal churches may be difficult, however, given the long-term trend of decline, scholars say.
“If we do in fact see an uptick in attendance, it will reflect the fact that liberal Christians are searching for spiritual resources to speak to the sense of despair they feel about the current political direction of the country,” says Grainger. “What organized religion offers is not only that broader network of support but also the theological reassurance that, even if things aren't going well in the short term, in the longer arc of history, God is in control.”
Yet with the religious landscape in the US still in the midst of seismic changes, including the decline of church attendance and the rise of the so-called “nones,” those who do not affiliate with a religious tradition, a liberal de-emphasis of traditional doctrines and a focus on a social gospel might be attractive.
Professor Leonard at Wake Forest notes that many liberal churches have already developed outreach programs to engage “nones” in public theology discussions, home study groups, and dinner conversation groups. “These endeavors are drawing many individuals back to church, or to church for the first time,” he says.
For her part, Rose says she wants to become more involved in Greenpoint’s ministries.
“I usually just go the Sunday services now,” she says. “But I’m thinking more and more about volunteering in the soup kitchen every week. I don’t want to come here just to participate in the family I’ve found. Now I want to give back to the family.”