2019.07.26 – Part 2: What Happened?

In my last post (Searchdate 2019.07.23), I spoke to you about the Great Lament. In this segment, we look at what happened to the church and when.

When did it happen?

What allows us to pinpoint the struggles of the western church to the mid-60s? Listen to who is lamenting. Who is actually crying out? More and more we hear the song of sorrow originating almost exclusively from church members over fifty (usually in their 70s and 80s) while only a whisper (at best) can be perceived from those belonging to the generations born after them. Indeed the silence of those born after 1964 is deafening! It has become painfully clear from the lament that these post-Boomer generations (Gen-X, Millenials, Gen-Z) are not very invested in or have completely divested from the religious landscape of North America; especially Christianity.

Within my own denomination the crisis is easily discernible. In 2012, the average age of an active member in the PC(USA) was sixty-five years old. [“Presbyterian churches smaller, older, research shows”, Presbyterian Church (USA) website (7/31/2012)] With numbers like these, it does not require a degree in statistics to understand that this means that the largest portion of people in the denomination are over age sixty-five, yet they are primarily concentrated in only two and a half decades (ages sixty-five to ninety years old). Compare this with fewer numbers of people under the age of sixty-five that spreading over five decades (ages fourteen to sixty-four years old…fourteen is usually the youngest age for Confirmation). Some of this disproportional shift can be attributed to people living longer and decreasing birth rates, but to believe this was a major factor would be rationalization at best. (The average age of PC(USA) was calculated using 2011 membership numbers. It has been eight years and, assuming trends have not changed, the number could be easily be approaching 70!)

So What Actually Happened?

On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down the decision that same-sex marriage should be legal in all fifty states. This ruling set off a flurry of celebrations and anxiety across the nation, and the news and social media were positively abuzz. Immediately, Internet articles began flooding my email from the congregants I serve. Almost every email I received claimed that the commentary attached was a “good article.” Some of the articles challenged, others enlightened, and several were just simply offensive.

Yet, regardless of the writers’ stances on the decision handed down, all seemed to share a common theme: The world as we know it “no longer exists.”[“Orthodox Christians Must Now Learn To Live as Exiles in Our Own Country,” by Rod Dreher, Time (June 26, 2015),] Many of the articles declared that we now live in a “post-Christian culture.”[“Some Advice on Same-Sex Marriage for US Church Leaders From a Canadian” by Carey Nieuwhof, CareyNieuwhof.com (June 29, 2015)] It now appeared that people all across America were waking up to the reality that Christendom in the western culture was dying. (Christendom, defined by Webster’s Dictionary, is a “part of the world where most people are Christians; the part of the world in which Christianity prevails,”

But the death of Christendom was not birthed in the weeks or even the months leading up to June 26, 2015. Sure, the ruling may have been a measurable seismographic tremor, but the death of Christendom is more akin to the gradual tectonic shifts that happen over an extended period of time that change the landscape, and only the most observant noticed those changes as they occur. (Please do not comment one way or another on the marriage ruling. It is an example illustration, and I am not looking for a debate from one side or the other.)

The American cultural and religious landscape had been changing over generations from a context dominated by Christian morals, ethics, and Christians, to an environment that was more pluralistic and secular. Some Christians had been observing this shift and had been writing about it all along the way; it simply went unnoticed by many. Twenty-five years ago, Henri Nouwen recognized the struggle of the church in a post-Christian culture as he prepared to speak to a conference of clergy about Christian leadership in the 21st Century. Nouwen stated that “nobody in the 1950s could have foreseen the situation of most priests of today.” He was, of course, speaking to the dramatic shift in the culture and the church’s apparent lack of preparedness for it. [In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Henri J.M. Nouwen, (New York, New York:  The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1989), p12.]

A decade later, George Hunter III commented on the dramatic change and pointed to the same timeframe as Nouwen, the 1950s, as a different religious landscape. He also spoke to the church’s inability to cope with the cataclysmic shift:

In the face of this changing Western culture, many Western Church leaders are in denial; they plan and do church as though next year will be 1957. Furthermore, most of the Western Church leaders who are not in denial do not know how to engage the epidemic numbers of secular, postmodern, neo-barbarians* outside (and inside) their churches.” [The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again, George G. Hunter III (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2000), 9-10.]

*Please note that the author uses the term “neo-barbarian” to describe people heavily influenced by culture as they search for spiritual meaning, and are often thought of by those in the church to lack “refinement” or “class,” and therefore considered unable to receive Christianity; not unlike how Rome viewed the Celtic people of the 5th Century.  I have also read other authors who refer to it as a as neo-pagan culture (example coming up). Neither term is meant to be pejorative, but simply a descriptive.

What many have observed and others have written about for decades was confirmed statistically by Gallup in 2013. They reported that only two-fifths (40%) of Americans claim that religion is an important part of their daily life and attend services more than twice a month. They also discovered that almost one-third (31%) of the population claim that religion is not important at all in their lives and seldom if ever attend religious services. The remainder (29%) either claim that religion “is important” but do not participate in a religious community or (more disturbingly in my eyes) religion is not important in their lives but that they still attend services. [“Mississippi Maintains Hold as Most Religious U.S. State; Vermont is the least religious.” by Frank Newport, GALLUP, accessed 4/23/2014,]

The conclusion that can be drawn from these statistics is this: a majority of the American population (at least 60%) are not really committed to any organized religion. This ever increasing phenomenon has even given birth to a new category or term within the western culture to describe the rise in people who record no official religious affiliation; they are called “The Nones”…”[“The Church that Is, Not Just the Place Where,” byJoshua Gale, Missio Apostolica, 21, no. 1 (May 2013), 134.]

NOTE: Since pulling this article in my research, you can now find the term “Nones” all over the place on the internet. They are even polling this phenomena and I read from several sources that as many as 23% of the nation are nones.

The numbers from Gallup actually reflect people from all segments of society and include all religions practiced in the United States, not just Christianity. Gallup has also focused its polling specifically on Christianity and their latest statistics reveal that three out of four Americans (75%) state some sort of affinity toward Christianity. If this is the case, one can reasonably conclude that less than one-third (30%) of the American population are Christians who take their faith seriously and regularly participate in a church community. This means that faithful Christians are nowhere near the majority within the culture in which they live.

The church I serve engages in ministry in Sparta, New Jersey, a community that sits in the heart of the most secular part of the United States. According to the statistics cited by Gallup (see above), of the ten states and the District of Columbia that comprise the northeastern United States, only Pennsylvania approaches the national average of those who take their faith seriously (the 40%). New Jersey, New York, Maryland, and Delaware all report less than one-third of their populations take their faith seriously. The New England states and the District of Columbia sit in the top ten of the least religious states in the entire country with Vermont topping the list with only 19% of its population taking a serious interest in their faith. (This may have changed. New Hampshire was nipping at Vermont’s heals and may have achieved 1st Place!)

Using the same statistical calculations I used for the nation, this means that less than one in four self-described Christians (24%) who live in the Sparta area actively participate in the dozen or more local churches still open.

So what caused Christendom to begin going down this road? What factors have influenced this dramatic shift in our culture from one that was Christian dominated to one that is not? Many have speculated, some have declared the end of the world, and more than one member in each of the three churches I have served have blamed society because it allowed the blue laws and prayer in the public schools to be removed. It is also very common to hear people lamenting and blaming Sunday sports and faulty parenting for the church’s decline. I suspect that these are all merely symptoms of the cataclysmic cultural shift, but not necessarily the causes.

Walter Brueggemann attributes the cause of the Western Church’s struggles to “the long-term and deep force of secularization.[The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), xii.]

Historian David Bosch offers an even more comprehensive explanation for the change and even points a finger back at the church for some of its own woes:

  • Advances of science and technology have made “faith in God redundant” as we have other ways to deal with the issues of modern life.
  • The advance of secularism has consistently “dechristianized” the West as a “neo-pagan” culture arises absorbed by atheism, secularism, unbelief and superstition.
  • The geographical dividing lines that once created a basic religious separation are now diminishing and followers of other traditional religions “rub shoulders daily” with Christians, thus causing them to reexamine their views of those faiths.
  • As a result of passive or active participation in past exploitation of people of color, western Christians are unable or unwilling to share their faith due to a sense of guilt.(this is now called “white guilt” and seems to affect the progressive side of the church.)
  • Divisions between the wealthy and the poor are more apparent and wider, and the poor often associate Christianity with the wealthy, causing anger and frustration for the poor and a reluctance to share faith by the wealthy.(isn’t this sad)
  • Western theology and church practices are now being challenged by more autonomous younger churches with emerging theologies such as liberation, African, Asian, etc. In addition, Western theology is even seen as suspect as it is often regarded as no longer being relevant, speculative, and the product of “ivory tower” institutions, causing uncertainty from within.

[Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in theology of Mission, David J. Bosch, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011), Nook, Introduction, 31-33.]

Regardless of what you choose to call this event that has been greatly affecting the church in the western world for the past several decades (post-modernism, a post-Christian culture, or the death of Christendom) the devastation is obvious. But the church is still called to a sacred responsibility to be Christ’s witnesses and make disciples of the Triune God of Grace (Acts 1:8, Matt 28:19), and, therefore, we must find a way, new or old, to present him to the culture that surrounds us.

Next Tuesday, we will look at who was most affected by these changes…

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:8

5 thoughts on “2019.07.26 – Part 2: What Happened?

  1. Pat, I have a question for you. Is it possible that Christendom has always had a small percentage of true believers versus marginal believers throughout its history? Because of the decline of Christendom and rise of the church of secularism are we simply seeing the remnants of Christendom as the real percentage of true believers that have existed through history? Are we the guardians of the faith?

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    1. Joe: the working definition is the one defined here as “part of the world where most people are Christians; the part of the world in which Christianity prevails,” It can go deeper to explore the merger of government with Christianity as had existed and shaped Western Civilization, but what you are talking about is a remnant of Christianity that far more reflects more the exilic existence rather than Christendom. I am working on the premise that Christendom was not necessarily helpful in building a living faith in a living Christ, and in some cases may have hindered such a faith because of populism, heightened sense of nationalism due to the Cold War, programatic or institutionalized religion that pumped kids through processes forcing them to memorize prayers, scriptures, and creeds but not teaching them a living faith, etc. This forces us to go look at the first two and half centuries of the church, and other models such as the one used with the Celts in the early fifth century to find non-Christendom models of building faith.

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      1. One more thought. When Babylon destroyed Jerusalem (and the temple), Judea as they knew it died. But the Kingdom of David with its promise of the Anointed One sitting on the thrown forever did not, and this was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Christendom may be dying, but Christ reigns supreme. So Christian faith will never die, because their Lord lives on, but how a living faith is practiced must evolve (change, which could imply change back) in order to present a living faith in a living God.

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  2. I vividly remember Jerry Falwell preparing to testify at congressional hearing related to music lyrics and parental advisory labels on albums in the mid 1980s. He looked directly into the camera and pleaded for this madness to stop. If we as the church do not stand up for truth and righteousness, he said, when does it end? What will be our legacy in Christ to our nation?
    At the time I thought he was a zealot. Turns out they were very prophetic statements.

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    1. Part of the rejection of the church was the church’s message from both the right and the left. Some televangelists compounded the issue with their behaviors and public statements that seemed pretty condemning.

      Some on the far right, like Falwell, may have seen this coming, but also, in my humble opinion, worked under the false impression that this was a Christian nation…which it was not. It was far more secular Roman with its principle of freedom of religion for all…including the deist, atheist, and agnostic.

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