Before we can figure out how to approach helping people explore a living faith in a Living Christ, we must first determine who was most affected by these cultural changes toward post-modernism, a post-Christian culture, or the death of Christendom, Then perhaps we can move from fading organizations to living communities of faith.
So how did the cultural changes influence the church, and who specifically was impacted?
First we must pinpoint a time when these dramatic changes in the culture began to gain momentum. Therefore we return to statements from Nouwen and Hunter. (mentioned in the last post) If priests and pastors did not see in the 1950s what they would be facing, and if churches today continue to do church like it is 1957, then it is obvious that there must have been a turning point sometime after 1960. It appears that the late 1950s or early 1960s were the last time Christendom seemed to be “thriving” in the west.
In looking for clues, we first have to ask, ‘What was happening in America in the 1950s? During that time period, the Cold War was in full swing and the fear of nuclear disaster was in the air. The so-called “Red Scare” happened in the 1950s, propagating the fear that the rise of the atheists of the east would destroy the American way of life. “One Nation under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, and “In God We Trust” became the United States official motto when President Eisenhower signed it into law in 1956. Blue laws (businesses closed on Sunday) were soundly entrenched and prayer in public schools was common place. McCarthyism was in full swing, and books like Orwell’s Animal Farm, published in 1945, continued to be incredibly popular.
The Naked Communist by W. Cleon Skousen, printed 1958, referenced a list of communist goals to take over America, part of the American Communist Party manifesto, scared people. (This list from Skousen’s book was read into the Congressional Record-Appendix, pp. A34-A35 dated January 10, 1963.) Several of the goals Skousen listed, directly or indirectly attacked Christianity and the moral principles espoused by Christianity. Here are a few examples of those goals:
- Infiltrate the churches and replace revealed religion with “social” religion. Discredit the Bible and emphasize the need for intellectual maturity which does not need a “religious crutch.”
- Eliminate prayer or any phase of religious expression in the schools on the ground that it violates the principle of “separation of church and state.”
[The Naked Communist, W. Cleon Skousen, (San Francisco; Izzard Inc, LLC, 2014) Nook Book Chapter Twelve – “The Future Task – Current Communist Goals.”]
I believe that much of these reactions were prompted by the rise of secularism (known then as atheism) as it encroached upon western culture, and fear from within Christendom welled up in society, and it reacted.
It also appears that this fear, coupled with the post-war Baby Boom, actually may have influenced church membership across the nation as it appears to have risen in the 1950s, thus giving birth to a false sense that spirituality was on the increase. Historian and theologian Joanne Beckman draws an excellent picture of this:
“At mid Century, Americans streamed back to church in unprecedented numbers. The baby boom had begun, and parents of the first baby boomers moved into the suburbs and filled the pews, establishing church and family as the twin pillars of security and respectability. Religious membership, church funding, institutional building, and traditional faith and practice all increased in the 1950s. At mid Century, things looked very good for Christian America.”
But then, something changed:
Over the next decade and a half, however, this peaceful landscape was besieged from many sides. The Civil Rights movement, the “Sexual Revolution,” Vietnam, Women’s Liberation, and new “alternative” religions (e.g., yoga, transcendental meditation, Buddhism, Hinduism) all challenged the traditional church and its teachings, its leaders, and their actions. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, then, religion itself was not rejected so much as was institutionalized Christianity. The Church, along with government, big business, and the military—those composing “the Establishment”—was denounced by the young adults of the ‘60s for its materialism, power ploys, self-interest, and smug complacency.
Beckman cites that it was in this timeframe that one begins to see the beginnings of a decline of mainline Protestant denominational statistics. This decline has continued ever since and has even encroached upon more conservative Christian traditions in recent decades. (My own denomination, PC(USA) began losing membership in 1966 and has posted losses every year since. It was 4.2 million in 1965…it Is now under 1.5 million)
It is clear that the late 1960s and early 1970s had a profound effect on the Baby Boomers and those generations older than they. In many ways, the G.I. and Silent Generation, who gave us the Baby Boomers, were the catalyst for many of the changes that took place in society and the church. More than a few Baby Boomers left the church at the time.
What about the generations following them? They were born and raised immersed in this atmosphere. For them there was only a faint memory of the 1950s church. As the death of Christendom (the rise of atheism, secularism, pluralism and unbelief) significantly gained momentum in that time period, the children of the post-Boomer generations stopped coming to church, if they were ever present to begin with. All three of these post-Boomer generations have lived their lives as Christendom in the western world died, and indeed many of them were raised with little or no real connection to established Christian traditions.
My work primarily focuses on members from Generation X and older Millennials, those primarily fifty and younger, for two reasons: First of all, they are the original generations to have been raised in a post-Christian culture, and secondly, thirty to fifty year olds are those primarily raising the children of the subsequent generations (younger Millennials and beyond) who will likely demonstrate a religious apathy similar to, or greater than that of their parents. Thus the crisis will only be compounded if it continues, and it is my belief that if we can cultivate a living faith in a living Christ within the parents, their children and eventual grandchildren may be influenced as well.
My philosophy, to steal and tweak a quote from a famous movie, Field of Dreams, is this: “If you build them, their children will come.”
More on Friday…
“You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth. For if you will be careful to do all this commandment that I command you to do, loving the Lord your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, Deuteronomy 11: 18-22