My last post was meant to set up an exploration into what religious practitioners, scholars and populizers have observed when looking at the current expression of American Christianity from a wide-angle lens. These views from the balcony will be generalized and are meant to be challenging. But there is always hope. It’s just that we may have to wait a bit before we get to it, and in all likelihood, I will be looking to individuals such as yourself to help provide it.
So, American Christianity, how’s it doing? Well, generally speaking, it’s declining in population and in significance.
During the 20th century Christianity has become a truly worldwide movement. Yet, Darrell Guder stated, “Christianity in North America has moved (or been moved) away from its position of dominance as it has experienced the loss not only of numbers but of power and influence from within society.” The Christian church is no longer relevant in much of U.S. culture. While 90 percent of Americans are religious and believe in God, a declining number find reason to express their faith by joining a church. Mainline institutional denominations are projected to atrophy until they die out. Many studies have shown that younger generations, considered to be no less interested in spiritual matters, are increasingly rejecting the form in which spirituality is presented by modern church paradigms.
Further studies indicated that external social context and a shift toward greater individual autonomy and freedom from institutional restraints drives the decline. Others have claimed that a market economy is pervasive throughout church expression in America and this focus on people as consumers and religious services as commodities to be purchased has undermined any chance of depth in discipleship.
Richard J. Krejcir concluded that the church is complacent, exhibiting little desire for change. Additionally, the church has been accused of protecting its membership and not valuing, understanding or benefiting those outside its insular, cloistered walls. Research suggests there is no practical difference between church-going Christians and the rest of the American population. For example, Kinnaman and Lyons found that when comparing Christian and non-Christian engagement in lifestyle activities traditionally considered sinful (sexual activity outside of marriage, viewing pornography, stealing, drinking in excess, abusing drugs, lying, gossip and revenge), the two categories were statistically equivalent. The implied question: Why join a church if it literally makes no difference in lifestyle? As Guder suggested, “The churches have become so accommodated to the American way of life that they are now domesticated, and it is no longer obvious what justifies their existence as particular communities.”
The view from here feels like I’m passing the car junkyard out in the Valley on I-90: lots of empty shells of things that used to work. Not so good. My first response to these perspectives was to distance myself from the problem, saying, “Well, that’s not me. I’m different; my community is different.” But if I hold to the notion of the universal church, led by the Holy Spirit, I am linked to others as a part of the larger church. I cannot dismiss them.