Don’t Weep For the Demise of American Christianity
I’ve come across two very interesting and insightful essays this week on the demise of American Christianity. The first is Michael Spencer’s “The coming evangelical collapse” published in the Christian Science Monitor, and the second is Jon Meacham’s “The End of Christian America” published in Newsweek. Meacham discusses the decline of Christianity in America in general while Spencer discusses what he believes is the soon and inevitable demise of Evangelicalism in particular. In this post I’d like to provide a brief overview of both articles (supplemented by some information from Christine Wicker’s The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church (HarperCollins, 2008), and then offer my own assessment of this demise.
The Demise of Christianity
There are many indications that Christianity in America is in rather rapid decline. For example, the percentage of self-identifying Christians has fallen 10 points over the last decade (down to 76 percent). According to a recent Newsweek Poll, the percentage of people who think that America is “a Christian Nation” has dropped 7 percent in the last year (down to 62 percent). And the percent of those who say that religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems” is at a historic low – down to 48 percent (it never dropped below 58 percent until the last few years).
There are indications that conservative Christianity (Evangelicalism) is being hit particularly hard by this downward turn. (See Christine Wicker’s The Fall of the Evangelical Nation for superb research supporting this claim). While some megachurches continue to grow, the majority of smaller evangelical churches are shrinking (in part because many of their members are migrating to the “full service oriented” model of the megachurches). Yet, there is an over-all net loss of church attenders each year, though this is somewhat concealed by the fact that most conservative churches are reticent to take members off their membership rolls as well as by the tendency of evangelical churches and organizations [especially Southern Baptists, according to Wicker] to grossly exaggerate their numbers (see The Fall of the Evangelical Nation for a full exposé on this trend).
Also significant is the fact that the average age of attendees in conservative churches is rising and there are many indications that the largely personality driven mega-church phenomenon was a “baby-boomer” trend that will likely die with this generation. In light of these and other indications, Spencer goes so far as to predict that ”[w]ithin two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants.” “The end of evangelicalism as we know it,” he argues, “ is close.” More generally, Meacham argues that America is entering into a “post-Christian” epoch.
The Cause of the Decline
What has brought about this decline? The answer to this question is, of course, very complex, but from these essays two factors stand out.
First, as Spencer notes, American evangelical churches have been, to a large degree, gutted by good old fashion American pragmatism. We’ve become preoccupied with being “relevant” and “efficient” at the expense of holding fast to the theological depth of our biblically based traditions. Megachurches in particular are guilty of this – which in part explains why they become megachurches, for relevance and efficiency sell well to baby boomers. (To younger folks, not so much.) Spencer refers to this, quite appropriately, as the “megachurch vacuity.”
Spencer wonders whether “the coming collapse” of Evangelicalism will “get Evangelicals past the pragmatism and shallowness that has brought about the loss of substance and power?” He’s not very optimistic, however. While he’s quite sure Evangelicalism will continue to decline, he also somewhat caustically anticipates that “[t]he purveyors of the evangelical circus will be in fine form, selling their wares as the promised solution to every church’s problems. I expect the landscape of megachurch vacuity to be around for a very long time.”
A second important factor, which both Spencer and Meacham stress, is that Evangelicals “have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism.” Spencer notes that “[w]e fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.” Even some of the staunchest guards of conservative Evangelicalism are beginning to see this.
For example, Alert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, concedes that “[t]he worst fault of evangelicals in terms of politics over the last 30 years has been an incredible naiveté about politics and politicians and parties.” Manifesting typical Constantinian triumphalism, many conservative American Christians naively thought we could transform American society in a “Christian” direction by acquiring political power to enforce our (self-proclaimed) superior views on selected topics (especially abortion, gay marriage, creationism in schools and stem cell research) on the broader culture. It has not gone well, to say the least.
After 40 years of intense political involvement, Evangelicals have little positive to show for their efforts. To the contrary, we’ve arguably only succeeded in getting multitudes of non-Christians [or simply non-Evangelicals] to distain us and the “Good News” message we’re supposed to be bringing. (A great book on the [mostly negative] non-Christian perceptions of Evangelicals in America is UnChristian by David Kinnamen and Gabe Lyons). Now that the political parties and positions Evangelicals largely identified with have fallen on hard times, Evangelicals have, to a significant extent, fallen with them.
Is The Demise of the Christian Religion a Bad Thing?
For those who are heavily invested in the Christian religion, at least as it’s usually been understood in America, the news that America is entering into a “post-Christian” epoch is understandably alarming. As Meacham makes apparent in his article, people like Albert Mohler find the indisputable evidence of Christianity’s demise in America deeply disturbing. Mohler vows to fight this demise tooth and nail, predicting that a “new generation of young pastors” is about to rise up “to push back against hell in bold and visionary ministry.” “Expect to see the sparks fly,” he adds.
Personally, I strongly suspect that all such “spark flying” efforts on the part the righteous to protect us sinners from ourselves will only speed Christianity’s demise.
Others of us interpret the demise of Christianity and America’s descent into a “post-Christian” epoch quite differently. Indeed, I and many others see this as good news! Yes, the loss of a Judeo-Christian civic religion may bring about a greater degree of moral and religious relativism and intensify American’s moral decadence. This is admittedly unnerving. But here are six reasons why I do not think Kingdom people should weep over the demise of American Christianity.
1. America has never been, and will never be, a “Christian” nation in any significant sense. Among other things, America, like every other fallen, demonically-oppressed nation (see Lk. 4:5-7; 2 Cor. 4:4; I Jn. 5:19; Rev. 13), is incapable of loving its enemies, doing good to those who mistreat it or blessing those who persecute it (Lk. 6:27-35). By applying the term “Christian” to America, we’ve massively watered down its meaning — which undoubedly helps explain why the vast majority of American Christians assume being “Christian” is perfectly compatible with hating and killing your national enemies if and when your earthly Commander and Chief asks you to. The sooner the label “Christian” gets divorced form this country, the better. It provides hope that someday the word “Christian” might actually mean “Christ-like” once again.
2. Related to this, there’s a good bit of research demonstrating that the majority of American’s identify themselves as “Christian” when asked by a pollster, but when asked what this label actually means in terms of core values and lifestyle choices, it becomes apparent that for the majority of them the meaning of “Christian” is basically “American.” I submit that the main problem Kingdom people confront in spreading the Kingdom in America is that a majority of people assume they are already in the Kingdom — they are “Christian” — simply by virtue of being American or because they prayed a certain prayer or go to Church once a year, or whatever. If fewer people are identifying themselves as “Christian,” this is good, for it means there’s one less major illusion that Kingdom people have to confront and work through as they invite these folks into the Kingdom.
3. If Evangelicals lose all their political clout, we may be less tempted to lust after political power, which means we may have one less distraction from actually doing what God called us to do — namely, manifesting God’s reign by how we humbly live, love and serve.
4. As my friend Alan Hirsch demonstrates in his great book, The Forgotten Ways, the Kingdom has always thrived — and really, has only thrived — when it was on the margins of society. The Kingdom is, by its very nature, a “contrast society.” If Christians lose all their power and position in society and become marginalized, this can’t help but be good for the Kingdom. If Christians become persecuted, it likely will be even better. We’d be turning back the clock from the disaster of Constantinian triumphalist Christianity in the direction of Apostolic, servant Christianity.
5. The “Christian” element of American culture was never deeper than the thin veneer of a shared civic religion. A major problem Kingdom people have faced on the mission field of America is that the majority of people mistook the civic religion for the real thing. So it is that so many think that being “Christian” is focused on preserving the civic religion (e.g. fighting for prayer before sports events, keeping the ten commandments on government buildings, holding onto a “Christian” definition of marriage within our government, etc.). Not only this, but this veneer of Christianity causes Jesus followers not to notice the many ways foundational assumptions that permeate American culture are diametrically opposed to the values of the Kingdom. If the civic religion of Christianity were to die, Kingdom people would be less tempted to associate Christianity with symbolic civic functions and would become more aware of how the Kingdom sharply contrasts with foundational aspects of American culture.
6. Finally, and closely related to this, if Jesus followers lose all their position and power and become a minority (or better, revealed to have always been a minority) in American culture, this will expose the idol of American individualism we have bought into for far too long and perhaps help us realize that we need to cling to each other and that the Kingdom is inherently communal. We are called to manifest God’s uniquely beautiful love and bear witness to the reality of Jesus Christ by how we share our lives and serve one another (e.g. Jn. 17:20-26; Acts 2: 42-47. 4: 42-45). But its very difficult for many of us to embrace radical Kingdom community when we can get along very well (by American standards of “well”) without it. The demise of Constantinian American Christianity would serve us well by stripping us of the privilege of individualistic living.
Other possible positive outcomes of the demise of American Christianity could be listed, but this must suffice for now. I hope it is enough to show that, from a Kingdom perspective, the demise of American Christianity is not something we should weep over. To the contrary, its actually good news. Yes, it will likely bring about cultural disarray. But, as has often been noted, the Kingdom thrives best when the broader cultural is falling apart. The God-given mandate to Kingdom people is not to keep the broader culture from falling apart, but to offer all who are hungry a radically different, far more beautiful, way of doing life. And often people will not take this offer seriously until everything else is crumbling around them.
Let the civic religion die. And if the culture crumbles, it crumbles. Our task is to live in a way that gives people hope.
Think about it,