When I was writing about John Shelby Spong's Jesus for the Non-Religious I concluded that he had misread the mood of the times, and that "the growing churches of our time are not the intellectual, post-theistic churches of the likes of Spong and his fellow progressives. They are the booming fundamentalist megachurches of the pentecostal movement, and the bastions of conservative Catholicism promoted by John Paul II and his followers."
Then I read Christine Wicker's The Fall of the Evangelical Nation. Wicker is a religious affairs reporter who spent 17 years writing for the Dallas Morning News, during which she wrote this book. It was published in 2008, conceived in the wake of George W Bush's re-election as US President supposedly on the votes of evangelical Christians who made up 25% of the US population.
These figures are Wicker's first target. Using data published by evangelical churches themselves, she finds that the true number of active evangelicals in the USA is closer to 7% than the widely publicised 25%, and even fewer are highly committed. Many more people claim allegiance to evangelical religion in surveys and censuses, but are not actually active members of any church.
Nor are evangelical churches growing, she says. Their growth lags behind population growth, and they struggle to make new adult converts . The fastest growing religious group in the USA, she says, is those who say they have no religion.
You might be forgiven for thinking at this point that we are dealing with a hostile foe intent on tearing the church down, but this is not so. Wicker is clearly a former evangelical rather than a current one, but she is a highly sympathetic observer.
As part of her research she embedded herself in an evangelical megachurch in Dallas, and spent time interviewing evanglicals from other parts of the country. She came away with a collection of positive stories, a sample of which she presents to us in highly sympathetic pen portraits. There is Van Grubbs, the man in charge of Lake Pointe Church's relief fund, who deals compassionately all day with people in need. Or Mike and Michelle Tauzin, victims of Hurricane Katrina who found new comfort and purpose as well as a loving community through their conversion. There are many others like them whose lives were transformed and given meaning by their faith.
So if this is a faith that changes lives and builds communities, she asks, why are so few people accepting it? Why are churches struggling to make converts when the message and its ambassadors are so attractive? Why are megachurches under threat when they seem so strong and do so much good?
Some of the problems, she says, are within the church. The mega-church model, built around large debts and charismatic leaders, is vulnerable as the first generation of leaders pass on and as their communities change from growing urban fringes to established suburbs. Many evangelicals are seeking a deeper, more personal style of faith and moving beyond the institutional church to independent house churches that quickly depart from orthodoxy. Worst of all, evangelical churches have a wide "back door" with people leaving the faith in large numbers. She tells these stories with as much sympathy as those of conversion. Like Amy, who abandoned evangelical faith after her devout husband came out of the closet. Or Cathy, whose deconversion started when her son said he didn't believe in hell and she discovered she was not at all shocked. Or Helen, who in the midst of a strident campaign to expose heresy in a weight loss program promoted by conservative churches suddenly realised just how un-Christian she was being.
These threats from inside the church combine with threats from without. These are mainly a result of a growing gap between the attitudes of evangelicals and those of non-evangelical Americans. The "fundamentals" of evangelical Chrsitianity - the literal truth of the Bible, the seven day creation from nothing, the miracles - are increasingly hard for secular Americans to adopt in the face of scientific and historical knowledge. While evangelicalism relies on acceptance of authority, non-evangelical parents consistently teach their children to question, think for themselves and challenge accepted wisdom. Americans, including Christians, increasingly accept "golden rule" morality in preference to obedience to detailed biblical commands. The gap between unbelief and belief, or between liberal and conservative belief, has become so much greater than it used to be, and conversion so much harder.
I enjoyed Wicker's nuanced description of the state of evangelicalism, her sympathetic portrayal of the benefits of belief alongside her hard-nosed realism about how these churches are performing. Yet the thing I enjoyed the most was her final chapter, where she described a kind of second conversion of her own. Having abandoned her childhood faith and been through a divorce, she got to a point in her mid-30s where she took a look in the mirror and didn't like what she saw. She was an unfeeling person who strung men along to meet her own needs but gave nothing, brushing them off when they became inconvenient. She was needy and unloving, flirtatious and cruel.
She realised she wanted to change but didn't know how. So she prayed, something she hadn't done for years. She asked God, even though she didn't quite know who God was, to help her to genuinely love. Then she went home from an interstate assignment to the man she was dating and planning to brush off and found the love she prayed for growing. She married him, and has continued her life of love, faith and prayer - not evangelical faith, not even conventional Christianity, but God is nonetheless real to her, and she has seen his power.
Perhaps this is a practical, everyday example of what Spong and his forerunners Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer had in mind. For Wicker the trappings of religion - the doctrines, the church structures, the rigid expectations - were stripped away, and when they were well and truly gone she found within herself the thing that remained, the thing she could not live without. Being Itself, perhaps, and Tillich's Courage to Be.