I wonder, though, if these recent attacks reflect an underlying insecurity about our standing as Christians in the world, especially in America. By nearly every numeric metric you care to cite, the church is treading water or even falling behind. For a long time we Americans looked at Europe and thanked God for our relative position of strength and influence. For a long time we evangelicals looked at the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant mainline and thanked God for our relative vibrancy, largely gained by poaching their ranks. But we're under no such illusions today. Much of the recent criticism of Calvinism comes from within the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant denomination and a rare 20th-century success story for reversing the devastating effects of theological liberalism. Problem is, according to Lifeway Research president Ed Stetzer, "membership in the SBC is now on a multi-year decline. Our 'growth' trend is now negative and our membership is decreasing." Baptisms have decreased 20 percent since 1999. More than a decade of passionate calls to reverse this worrisome trend with a renewed commitment to evangelism has not been able to stop the slump.
When things go bad, we look for someone to blame. The rise of Calvinism among evangelicals happens to correspond to this decade-plus of decline. Might correlation actually be causation? Would the church be in better shape if everyone agreed that God "endows each person with actual free will (the ability to choose between two options), which must be exercised in accepting or rejecting God's gracious call to salvation by the Holy Spirit through the gospel"? As a Calvinist, I say no, but then I disagree that you must affirm this statement in order to find motivation to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and see more than a handful of hell-bound sinners transformed by grace.
So how does a Calvinist diagnose our problem? Why are so many of our churches small and dying? Why do we baptize so few new believers? Why don't we have more large churches welcoming thousands of new members? Why does so much of our supposed growth come from church transfers? More importantly, what's our solution?
The much-discussed and derided "new Calvinism" arose in the last several decades as a critique movement. As a result, we're not particularly popular with some established church leaders. But contrary to popular belief, the new Calvinism does not see the church's problem as insufficient loyalty to a Calvinistic system. Rather, through the ministry of popular writers and little-known preachers alike, many younger Christians learned Calvinist soteriology from Scripture and glimpsed an expansive new vision of God. They gave thanks that "we have redemption through [Jesus'] blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us" (Eph. 1:7-8). They rejoiced to "know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28). And they have sought to share this contagious new joy with others, Christians and non-Christians alike.
Calvinism helped them to embrace grace as a free gift from God we can offer to others, "not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Eph. 2:9). Longing for a sense of transcendence, desiring personal transformation, and seeking a connection with tradition, many young evangelicals have found God-saturated, gospel-centered resources in Calvinism. So why didn't they find this transcendence, transformation, and tradition in their churches? Because our churches aren't really dying for want of Calvinism, nor as a result of Calvinism. Churches die when they no longer help you see God high and lifted up. When they forsake the costly path of discipleship. When they cast aside the Christian past as a hindrance to growth goals.
Calvinism has thrived, then, as a fire engine sounding the alarm and bearing water to put out the flames consuming American evangelicalism. We're not surprised by the bad numbers. In fact, even inside some of the biggest churches in America, we've seen the limits of any strategy that fails to account for our God-given need for transcendence, transformation, and tradition. Numbers are a lagging indicator of unhealth. Even during the megachurch boom of the 1980s and 1990s, all was not well with the evangelical soul.
I've seen the best and worst of non-Calvinist churches. The pastor of my youth in a United Methodist church advised me against prayer, opposed my efforts to raise money for a mission trip where we preached the gospel, and told me "God helps those who help themselves." In the same town, a young Wesleyan pastor braved community opposition to start a church, where he preached the gospel to my middle-aged parents. They were saved less than a decade ago while I set out to document the rise of the new Calvinism. My bad experience with Arminianism (really, in this case, Pelagianism) doesn't invalide the system any more than the good experience proves it. Sinners can distort any biblical truth, and God can work even through flawed churches. Good thing, because every church is at least a little dysfunctional in its own way.
I rejoice in any movement that delights in and freely shares the one true gospel of Jesus Christ. As our friends in the Southern Baptist Convention recently modeled in their annual meeting, a large and largely lost world needs all men and women of genuine faith to shoulder this burden and embrace this privilege to make disciples of all the nations. In no way does our shared calling invalidate the significance of our disagreement. But this urgent calling offers perspective on our foolish and inexcusable tendency to mistreat fellow blood-bought believers in Christ.
Image credit: Lorenzo Petrantoni for TIME.