Everywhere in the United States, people have more consumer choice in their exercise of religion than they do in almost any other sector of the economy. Individual parish churches, regardless of denominational affiliation, function as independent contractors of salvation in America’s religious free market. Christianity in the United States is dynamic, and American church history is littered with the relics and ruins of denominational change and theological innovation.
The brewing schism in the Episcopal Church, for example, should surprise no one familiar with the workings of America’s religious free market. In a long-expected (and to some observers, overdue) move, The Falls Church and Truro Church in suburban northern Virginia, two of the Episcopal Church’s largest and wealthiest parishes, voted in December 2006 to leave the denomination. Citing increasingly liberal and theologically revisionist views on the part of America’s national hierarchy, they aligned themselves with the Anglican Church of Nigeria, whose leader, Peter Akinola, has taken a harder line against the marriage and ordination of gays.
Truro was founded in 1732, The Falls Church only two years later. They have been part of the Episcopal Church, the Anglican affiliate in the United States, since its founding. In the mid–eighteenth century, George Washington served on the vestry at The Falls Church. Despite these strong ties, the surprise here is not that they have left their ecclesiastical home, but that they stayed so long. Their decision to break away is emblematic of the entrepreneurial spirit of American evangelicals.
The United States’ religious dynamism is as old as the republic itself. But its roots are even earlier, in the ecclesiastical upheaval of the Protestant Reformation. Prior to the sixteenth century—with a few important exceptions—civil and religious leaders in Europe supported each other’s authority, and princes suppressed attempts to buck the bishops. While dissent was occasionally permitted, attempts to deny the religious authority of Rome met with excommunication, a sentence not merely spiritual. But in the Reformation churches of Luther and others, ecclesiastical power was concentrated in the local parish, a model which persists today in American Protestantism.
Since colonial days, evangelical Protestantism in America has been a movement of entrepreneurial development, both in church structure and in church life. Such development was shaped by evangelical theology, which is characterized by four central themes: the Bible as the primary source of religious authority, unmerited forgiveness for sin granted only through Jesus’ death and resurrection, an emphasis on a conversion experience, and a missionary zeal to see conversion effected in others. What evangelicalism deemphasizes is also important: the institutionalization and successive authority of a church or body of churches, tradition as a source of religious authority, and the saving power of external rituals rather than ecstatic experiences.
Evangelical churches have tended to organize themselves more entrepreneurially than their hierarchical brethren. If one parish church felt too constrained or too liberated by its denomination, or if it sensed a wrongheaded shift in theology at higher levels, it was free to leave. The history of American religion involves a litany of evangelical splinter groups—Campbellites, New Lights, Cumberland Presbyterians, primitive Baptists, Southern Baptists, Wesleyan Methodists, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Orthodox Presbyterians, and more.
Evangelical churches also organize their inner workings entrepreneurially. Since there is little direct guidance in the Bible about how to structure authority within a parish, and since evangelicals largely dismiss the Roman Catholic tradition of ecclesiastical polity, each church makes up its own mind. In Anglican churches, a deacon prepares for Holy Communion; a Presbyterian deacon organizes practical and charitable aspects of a church’s ministry. In almost all evangelical churches, however, the congregation has final say on budgetary, constitutional, and major personnel decisions, either directly or through an elected board. Interestingly, several megachurches have used evangelicalism’s lack of guidance on these matters to set up “pastor-as-CEO” models in which the senior minister exercises substantial authority, or structures in which the “senior pastor” is the visionary leader and an “executive pastor” functions as a COO.
Evangelicalism has created theological conditions for innovation in religious practice, leading to both worldwide revivals and worldwide error. The First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s was fueled by innovative practices: outdoor preaching, circuit riders, compelling preaching—and underneath it was a vigorous evangelical theology. Its less great successors also used entrepreneurial methods to spread the gospel: camp meetings, the “sawdust trail” to the altar, assemblies filling massive meeting halls, and celebrity preachers like baseball star Billy Sunday. But such innovation also invites doctrinal error and pop theology, particularly in a rush to convert the masses or fill the pews.
The church growth movement is a contemporary example of evangelical entrepreneurship in action. Its leaders and literature emphasize “seeker-sensitive” marketing strategies. Church-growth-movement churches target their “services” (pun, alas, intended) to different demographics. Many of these churches have age- or family-differentiated services. Saddleback Church, led by Rick Warren of Purpose Driven fame, offers—in addition to services in its main hall—an “island style” service (perhaps featuring Lot searching for his lost pillar of salt?), a rock-and-roll themed gathering, a singles service “with an edge,” a Spanish-language service, and “Traditions,” which features “classic hymns and choruses.” These services often occur simultaneously and all worshipers listen to the main service’s preacher through a video feed. Reaching religious niche markets with a mass-produced product is one way that evangelical innovation matches missionary fervor to be, as the Apostle Paul said, “all things to all people.”
Even evangelical churches that use “traditional” liturgies or are smaller than Saddleback organize themselves entrepreneurially. Hundreds of once-Episcopal parishes have, like The Falls Church and Truro, sought oversight from Anglican archbishops overseas, some joining formal mission dioceses set up by archbishops in Nigeria, Rwanda, Southeast Asia, South America, and Uganda. In these cases, technological innovation has aided evangelical entrepreneurship: dirt-cheap communications and relatively cheap travel have arranged previously impossible connections.
With its emphasis on innovation, experimentation, and change in the service of truth, evangelical theology has generated what one might call a favorable regulatory environment for religious innovation. Evangelical entrepreneurs say, “If you don’t like what’s around you, change! Leave! Try something new!” In this way, Protestantism has inculcated and preserved both liberalism and orthodoxy. At any rate, the evangelical entrepreneurs have ensured a wide variety of choice in religious belief and practice in the United States.
Like freedom in general, this churn has both positive and negative effects. No matter which side one is on, the range of leadership in Protestant denominations and in parachurch movements guarantees that some leaders will be objectionable. One can hardly be surprised when American evangelicals like those at The Falls Church and Truro do as they have always tended to do: blaze their own trail, following only in the footsteps of the divine.
This article was originally published on American.com on January 30, 2007.