Religious Trends in America

Below is a paper I wrote for my Christian Communication class which I am taking this summer as a part of the M.Min. program at Harding University. Even though it is long for a blogpost, I thought I would share. It would be interesting to hear your feedback.- DD

The three articles I chose to examine for this paper are “The End of Christian America” by Jon Meacham in the April 4, 2009 edition of Time; a “God and Country” segment by Dan Gilgoff from the March 9, 2009 edition of U.S News & World Report; and a report entitled “Most Religious Groups in USA have Lost Ground, Survey Finds” by Cathy Lynn Grossman in the March 17, 2009 edition of the USA Today.

All three of these reports were triggered by the release of the 2009 summary of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). According to this survey Christianity is trending downward in America while those claiming no religious affiliation (“nones” as they are called- the highest percentage- 15%- ever recorded by this survey); the number of people identifying with new religious movements such as Wicca; and the number of agnostics/atheists are growing.  The survey discovered that no church in America reported any numerical growth in 2008 and only the Catholic Church (by virtue of immigration) was able to maintain similar numbers from the previous years. Baptists- the second largest Christian group in America- was down to 15.8% of those surveyed from 19.3% in 1990. The news is even worse for mainline Protestant churches. They (Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ) are shrinking faster than any other group. Since 1990 the only group that has shown any growth is the evangelicals. Overall though, America is moving away from the Christian brand. As Grossman stated, “When it comes to religion, the USA is now land of the freelancers.”

Each article explored the reasons behind this downward trend which has seen those identifying themselves as Christians drop over 11% in just a generation. Reaction to what many perceive as entrenched and protectionist institutional attitudes and actions among the church is sited as one major reason. The Catholic Church failure to act upon sexual abuse among their clergy is one example of this. This abuse along with the highly publicized sexual and financial scandals of evangelical televangelist has also continued to contribute to America’s loss of faith in her churches. For many the stance of churches not supportive of gay rights and gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research and other highly politicized moral issues have left the impression that Christian churches are out-of-touch with current culture. Other factors such as mobility, the secularization of public education and anti-Christian media-bias are also thrown into the mix.

The term now being used to describe this kind of religious climate or lack thereof in America is “post-Christian.” Meacham in his article quotes R. Albert Mohler Jr who is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as saying, “A remarkable culture-shift has taken place around us. The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture.”

I would say Mohler got it about right. Our culture indeed has shifted around us and left many church leaders baffled and often clueless on how to respond. One way that some have chosen to respond has not only seemed to fail, but in ways backfired to create even more negative impressions of the church. That is, the move of Christians into the political arena. Whatever Christians may seem to gain by engaging on this level we seem to lose in the court of public opinion. I agree with Meachum when he says, “Worldly success tends to mark the beginning of the end for the overtly religious in politics.” In the struggle to engage culture with the “grace and truth” of Jesus Christians simply should not depend upon politicians and the legislative process.

And it is a struggle! Just as these articles chronicle churches are experiencing declining numbers. From my own observation I know of few churches in my acquaintance that are larger now then they were even ten years ago. I engage in conversations with people- young and old- inside and outside of my church family who express postmodern values. I encounter people among the growing number who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” I minister to people who have been burned by churches and want nothing to do with organized institutional religion. I deal with my own frustrations as I witness church leadership fall back into patterns of fear-based institutional protectionism instead of embracing and modeling empowering faith and vision. I think I understand- at least partially- why Christianity in America is falling out of favor. We have failed to adequately model and communicate true discipleship.

Consider the two opposite ends of the Christian spectrum in America. On the progressive end numerous churches are accepting and celebrating non-Christian postmodern ideals and lifestyles and openly questioning the inerrancy of Scripture. On the conservative end numerous churches are becoming politically active and adopting methods unrelated to the kingdom to push their agendas.  Both are contributing in their own ways to the decline of Christianity in America. Neither is modeling true discipleship.

I go back to a sentence Meacham wrote, “There is much New Testament evidence to support a vision of faith and politics in which the church is truest to its core mission when it is the farthest from the entanglements of power.” If we are to ever be able to respond, engage and impact our postmodern, hostile culture then it will be only through transparently living the ethics taught and modeled by Christ (on the Sermon on the Mount for instance). It will not be through power politics or institutional maneuverings. When we can discover the value of “losing life” as Jesus put it- then we can begin to more effectively engage culture for Christ- not as a church member, but as his disciple. It is that “downward mobility” that Schultze mentioned (Quentin J. Schultze in his book, Communicating for Life: Christian Stewardship in Community and Media).  It is truly subversive. Politically powerless outsider Christian disciples totally turned part of their world upside down once by simply sharing the “last will be first” message of Christ. Could it happen again?

This is where I find the good news in all the bad news data. Our postmodern, post-Christian culture is turning away from traditional Christian values and growing increasingly hostile and intolerant to those who hold them. Welcome back to the first century! If the gospel message could penetrate the harsh voices competing for the hearts and souls of people then- it can now. As culture grows darker, the light of Christ will have the opportunity to shine brighter. But it has to be his light we shine- not a dim reflection of it.

Anyone in church leadership positions should be paying close attention to the way America is trending concerning Christianity. We cannot bury our heads in the sand or we will just reinforce stereotypes. We should seize these challenging and changing times to present the solid ground of Christ’s truth and love as a refuge. But most of all we should expand our ability to trust in God. I agree with Tom Haynes. He was interviewed for Grossman’s article. He told her, “We just look to Jesus… Christianity is moving totally under the radar. It’s the work of God. It can’t be measured. It happens inside of people’s souls.” It could be while we are wringing hands over alarming trends, God is whispering to us that he has thousands- no even millions- who are not bowing their knees to the gods of postmodernism.

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5 Responses to Religious Trends in America

  1. Darin says:

    Love it. Preach on. I hope the church will hear it. I’m actually kicking off a series of messages related to this and our church.

    In my experience the entrenched views are the greatest hindrance. I love the line “When we can discover the value of “losing life” as Jesus put it- then we can begin to more effectively engage culture for Christ- not as a church member, but as his disciple.” emphasis added.

  2. dholman says:

    I think we are going through a cultural cycle in which “institutions” in general are being pushed aside. I cannot think of a single institution that is not being “reevaluated” by society. The church like all other institutions is being criticized and imagined “irrelevant.”
    However, as the trend grows people will become uncomfortable with “fly by the seat of your pants,” “disorganized and disjointed,” and “every man for himself” religion… then they will start to swing back towards the institution.
    I also think the push against the church in the political and social debate arenas is media led, and cultural. The push is against any body that proposes to tell people they “ought” to be a certain way, or conduct themselves according to some standard. The media encourages this greatly with an everyman determine for himself kind of message. Also, it should be noted, that we institutions are jettisoned and every man is making his own way, Who holds the reins of social power? It is the storyteller, information givers…. the media.
    Christianity is probably too tied to a 20th century, post medieval image of the church as a social institution rather than a movement. However, it is a culturally relevant expression of the church that still fits well in America and Europe. I could be wrong, but I think it will take it on the chin for a few years as it adjusts to the postmodern, mega-choices world, and then it will sail on into the future. I don’t see the world moving past its institutions anytime soon.
    I do agree fully with the modern culture in that the great power is not in the institutions of any kind… the power is the one to one encounters person to person, and person to God.
    Thanks for the article, it is very well done.

  3. brakelite says:

    Interesting. From this distance, (New Zealand), and from a perspective of an extremely secularly based society, America always seems to present itself as the model ‘Christian’ society. From the extremes you describe, that is on the one hand those who politic and lobby to promote ‘Christian’ ideals with the hope of legislating same, to the other hand where it appears every man, woman and dog ‘thanks God’ for everything from Grammy Awards to their survival from the latest tornado, for the foreigner to think of America as anything other than a ‘Christian’ nation seems unthinkable.
    Imagine the perspective of a Muslim. What he sees through the media must be incredibly confusing, and impossible to deduce in any way what true Christianity is really all about. The Christian ‘right’ that teaches ‘love your enemy’ supports the war effort that is destroying his nation, while the left wing socialists and liberals who promote atheism and teach evolution, principles foreign even to Islam,are more likely opposed to the war.
    I see a backlash coming from the current socialist policies coming from the present administration. But such a right wing backlash or ‘revival’ as such, however temporary, particularly if it comes on the back of a disaster as it did after 9/11, poses more danger for religious freedom than the current liberalism.
    A politically motivated revival, in reaction to perceived dangers to religion from the left,and subsequent legislatively enforced ‘righteousness’, will be the real catalyst for the downfall of the republican ideal that much of the rest of the world so admires.

    PS My own denomination(not RCC) is growing I believe by about 4and1/2% per year in the States, and much more than that worldwide, especially in central and south America.

  4. Eric says:

    I think and hope that something else will hold a place for religion for many people. Religion is too messy (and dishonest) for people to embrace it simply because it is organized. There is a humanitarian movement brewing.

  5. fly touch 3 says:

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    […]Religious Trends in America « Adventures in Preaching[…]…

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