November 17th, 2012
07:11 AM ET
By John Blake,
(CNN) – Since President Obama’s re-election, pundits have asked if the Republican Party needs to change its message to adapt to a changing America.
Here’s another question: Will conservative Christians have to adapt their message as well?
I thought about that question as I interviewed one of the nation’s most popular pastors, Andy Stanley. He is a Christian conservative who is also the pastor of North Point Community Church, a sprawling 33,000-member church in suburban Atlanta, Georgia.
I talked to Stanley about his relationship with his father, Charles Stanley, a famous Southern Baptist pastor. But the informal conversations I had with him, and his colleagues, were just as intriguing. Most revolved around change.
Stanley is an apostle of change. His church has pioneered new ways to reach people turned off by traditional churches. North Point’s funky architecture, the hologram that beams Stanley’s image to satellite churches, the stage lights and visual props Stanley uses during sermons – all of it is geared toward pulling in that new audience. Stanley told me that church leaders come to his staff to learn how to be innovators. “I have little tolerance for doing things just because we’ve always done them,” he said.
Though in many ways Stanley’s church is cutting-edge, its theological foundation is conservative. The church website lists the congregation’s beliefs: The Bible is “without error;” Jesus is the “sole basis for the forgiveness of sin,” and people are “incapable” of having a right relationship with God through their own efforts.
That’s the message conservative Christians have been preaching for over a century. Can that message retain its appeal as the nation’s racial and religious makeup changes?
The religious right experienced what CNN called a “nightmare scenario:” in three states voters approved same-sex marriage; anti-abortion candidates were defeated in red states; and Obama, whose opponent had the support of Billy Graham, won a second term.
Some may still call the U.S. a Christian nation, but the fastest growing religious group in America is people who are not affiliated with any organized religion, according to a recent Pew survey.
“We are witnessing a fundamental moral realignment of the country,” Albert Mohler, who heads the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, tweeted on Election Night.
Jonathan Merritt, the son of another Southern Baptist leader, wrote in a recent essay that the evangelical influence on America is declining because of the “seeping impact of globalization and the digital age.”
Said Merritt: “Evangelicals once presided like chairmen in America’s political boardroom, but they must now sit down with others at a common table to dialogue and search for common ground.”
Stanley may have already shown how that can be done.
He’s a conservative but he’s not a culture warrior in the pulpit. Most of his sermons revolve around personal growth, not politics. His church recently hosted a visit from first lady Michelle Obama even though some members grumbled. Stanley has even been accused of not condemning gay people enough.
He told me he has never compromised his theology to attract people.
“I never felt the need to make decisions with money or with growth in mind,” he said. “I don’t live with that fear.”
But the past shows that some pastors do change their theology with the times. What preachers once taught as biblical truth – slavery is sanctioned by God; women aren’t allowed to preach; gambling and dancing are sin – is now rejected by many churches.
As the nation becomes more diverse, will white conservative Christians reexamine their teachings as they encounter others with a different history and worldview?
Playing hip music and wearing jeans when you preach may not be enough to catch a new generation of Americans.
How Stanley, and others, address these questions will be fascinating to watch.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.