The driving force behind the trend is the well-documented decline in Americans’ commitment to organized Judeo-Christian religion.
Denominations large and small report falling membership numbers, decreased attendance and faltering financial support. The decline began accelerating in the 1990s.
Membership at churches and synagogues has fallen by nearly 20 percentage points since World War II, according to Gallup.The Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church USA have lost nearly half their members since 1967. More than a thousand Catholic parishes have closed since 1995.The number of Jews who call themselves culturally but not religiously Jewish is rising sharply among millennials.
A few faith traditions have fared better. The Muslim and Orthodox Jewish populations are growing, and evangelical Christianity’s numbers are holding steady. But more than 20 percent of Americans say they’re unaffiliated with any religion. That’s the highest number ever.
One influential Christian author has said such changes are nothing new. In works such as The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, Phyllis Tickle argued that the Christian church has undergone a clarifying shakeup every 500 years.
The Rev. Daniel Webster, canon for evangelism and media for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, has studied and written about the current trend for nearly two decades.
While it’s hard to pinpoint a single most important factor, Webster says, it’s impossible to ignore the repeal of most of the old state blue laws, regulations that had long placed restrictions on commercial activity on Sundays, starting in the mid-20th century.
Today’s faith leaders must compete with everything from youth soccer and pro football games to shopping at the mall.
“When I was growing up in what I call the salad days of the 1950s and early 1960s, the question in the neighborhood was ‘What church do you go to?’” Webster says.
“Now it’s, ‘Why do you go to church?’”
“We no longer live in Christendom. We really have to accept that it’s a thing of the past.”
More and more often, the answer seems to be: shed your baggage, move more nimbly and sharpen your sense of mission.
On Sunday evening, I spoke at a private Benedict Option event in Orange County. It was gratifying to meet so many interesting and engaged Christians there, including some Biola University professors, and a contingent of Norbertine friars, an orthodox and growing community of Catholic priests and monks from nearby St. Michael’s Abbey. I was also able to speak with some Evangelical laypersons and pastors from the area, and met a couple of guys who attend St. Barnabas Orthodox Church in Costa Mesa. (I had planned to go to the liturgy there on Sunday, but was unavoidably delayed in Malibu — a big disappointment for me.)
The decline of active Christianity was a frequent topic of conversation after the talk. One thing that really got to me, because it’s shockingly common, and hard for me to understand: that so many Christians believe Sunday sports is more important than church.
I spoke at length about this to one pastor’s wife at dinner last night. She said that at their mission church, they struggle with parents who want their kids to be Christian, but who refuse to put church before Sunday morning sports. Soccer first, Jesus second. People see the institutional church in consumerist terms, as something that ought to be there to meet their family’s needs on their own terms. If Sunday morning sports is more important to the family, well, pastor, why do you have a problem with that?
Her husband, the pastor, told me that one of his biggest challenges is figuring out how to tell his congregation what they need to hear, versus what they want to hear. He said that after I had listened to his wife explain the mentality they’re up against in the suburbs, and it made me a lot more sympathetic to the challenge all conservative/orthodox pastors face. As a pundit, it’s easy for me to say exactly what I think, and let the chips fall where they may. Unlike these pastors, I am responsible neither for the fate of souls nor for keeping the lights on.
The reason I have so much trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that Christian families really do choose Sunday sports over church is that it is so blisteringly obvious that this is spiritually suicidal, in the sense that kids catechized by the popular culture in this way will not practice the faith as adults. The faith will likely die in their generation. Their parents and their community will have taught them by example that God is less important than sports. Or, to put it another way, that sports is the true God.
(Interestingly, this morning a Catholic friend from Baton Rouge texted me, about Sunday: “We still pretend that it is off limits. But it will get taken over when people realize that no one is using it for church anymore.”)
See, this is how assimilation happens. You can carry around in your head the idea of God, and that you affirm your religion, but that’s vaporous if you don’t put it into practice in this ordinary way. I bring up in speeches a lot the challenge I received from a Christian undergraduate at a talk earlier this year: “Why do you say practices are so important? Why isn’t it enough to love Jesus with all our hearts, as we were taught growing up?” This Sunday sports thing is one reason why. Not a single Christian parent who chooses sports over church believes that he or she is denying the faith. After all, they still believe, in the sense of affirming certain propositions, right? But unless the faith is manifested and embedded in practices — communal practices — it is not going to last.
Here’s a passage from The Benedict Option about liturgy:
Liturgy restores the stability we’ve lost by cementing the story of the gospel in our bodies. As MacIntyre has said, if we want to know what to do, we must first determine the story to which we belong. Christian worship, done properly, provides us with regular reminders that we belong to Christ and to the story He is unfolding. It also teaches us, though, that we are not free to improvise the story but are bound to write our own chapters according to what has been revealed to us in the Book, and in continuity with what our fathers and mothers of the faith have written before us.
Even secular sociologists recognize the power of these physical acts to maintain cultural memory. In his book How Societies Remember, the social anthropologist Paul Connerton studies practices that various peoples have undertaken to hold fast to their stories in the face of forgetfulness. He says that when a community wants to remember its sacred story, the one that gives it meaning, it must make the story a matter of “habit-memory.” That is, it must absorb the story as something “sedimented into the body.”
The most powerful rituals involve the body, says Connerton. They make use of all the senses to impress the sacred story upon the individuals gathered. For example, when worshippers kneel or prostrate themselves at a certain point in a ritual, they learn in their very muscles the awe-filled meaning of that sacred moment—and it helps them remember.
Connerton’s study found that the most effective rituals do not vary and stand distinctly apart from daily life in their songs and language. And if a ritual is to be effective in training the hearts and shaping the imaginations of its participants, it has to be something that they are habituated to in their bodies.
In that passage, I’m using Connerton’s work to talk about worship liturgies, but the point is easy to generalize about cultural liturgies — that is, the habits of daily life that form us. Like, what we choose to do, or not to do, on Sunday morning.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a long blog entry about Connerton’s book. For some reason, it’s not coming up on Google search right now, but here’s a lengthy passage explaining this in greater detail:
Two quotes to start us off:
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” — Milan Kundera
“A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.” — Alasdair MacIntyre
On the flight home from Richmond, I read social anthropologist’s Paul Connerton’s 1989 book How Societies Remember, which had been mailed to me by a reader who said I should read it for research on the Benedict Option book. It is thin but very dense and unsexy, but it hit me with the force of revelation. When I read its final lines as the plane was taxiing to the gate in Baton Rouge, I felt the last conceptual piece fall into place to write this book. Reader, I owe you more than I can say. I am going to try to sum up Connerton’s argument, and relate it briefly to the Benedict Option.
Connerton begins by saying that “our experience of the present very largely depends upon our knowledge of the past,” and that “participants in any social order must presuppose a shared memory.” Those memories, he contends, “are conveyed and sustained by (more or less) ritual performances.” Finally, he argues that these performances have to be embodied to be effective. Let’s unpack this.
When a new regime or social order takes over, the first thing it does is to find ways to sever the society’s connection to its past. ISIS is now doing that in the areas it controls, by erasing any physical embodiment of the memory of the area’s pre-Islamic past. “The more total the aspirations of the new regime, the more imperiously will it seek to introduce an era of forced forgetting,” says Connerton.
ISIS is an extreme example, of course, but this happens in all societies that are undergoing revolutionary change. The Communist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe tried this too. Echoing Kundera, Connerton says that the “there were people [there] who realised that the struggle of citizens against state power is the struggle of their memory against forced forgetting.”
Connerton discusses three types of memories — personal (something in the past that the individual experienced), cognitive (something in the past that the individual knows from having learned it second hand), and habit-memory, which he defines as “our having the capacity to reproduce a certain performance.” It’s like muscle memory: we may not remember how we learned the thing, but we can recall it when necessary. Reading this, I recalled the experience of Father George Calciu, a Romanian Orthodox priest, who was able to celebrate the Divine Liturgy while in a Communist prison because he had committed it to memory. The liturgy reminded him of who he was and what was true, in a time and place in which the authorities brutally tried to force him to forget. Connerton calls this third kind of remembering “habit-memory.”
When a society really wants to remember something as a society — e.g., mythical, religious, or historic stories that tell a people who they are and what they must do — it invents commemorative ceremonies around those stories. It is not enough to tell a particular story; the story has to be “a cult enacted.” That is, the story must convey a metaphysical truth, and thus has to be granted sacred status as an event that is taken out of the past and in some mystical way re-presented in the present. This is, of course, what the Orthodox Divine Liturgy and the Catholic Mass do. Rites are ways that societies maintain a living connection with their past, and enter mystically into it. Connerton says that “performative utterances are as it were the place in which the community is constituted and recalls to itself the fact of its constitution.”
In simpler language, this means that the words spoken in a rite both bind its participants together and remind the people who they are, as a people. Further, the most effective rituals involve the body. Connerton:
To kneel in subordination is not to state subordination, nor is it just to communicate a message of submission. To kneel in subordination is to display it through the visible, present substance of one’s body. Kneelers identify the disposition of their body with their disposition of subordination. Such performative doings are particularly effective, because unequivocal and materially substantial , ways of ‘saying’; and the elementariness of the repertoire from which such ‘sayings’ are drawn makes possible at once their performative power and their effectiveness as mnemonic systems.
The most effective rituals do not vary, and are removed in the form of speech and song from everyday life. And:
Finally, ritualised posture, gesture and movement, instead of flexibly combining to impart a variety and ambiguity of information as in what we conventionally describe as everyday situations, is restrictive in pattern, and hence easily predictable and easily repeatable, from one act to the next and from one ritual occasion to the next.
Connerton says that modernity is a condition of deliberate forgetting, of choosing to deny the power of the past to affect our actions in the present, so as to create a new condition of existence marked by the individual’s freedom of choice. Capitalism requires this deliberate forgetting, and facilitates it, and rites we invent in modern times “are palliative measures, façades erected to screen off the full implications of this vast worldwide clearing operation.” Here is the core:
Under the conditions of modernity the celebration of recurrence can never be anything more than a compensatory strategy, because the principle of modernity itself denies the idea of life as a structure of celebrated recurrence. It denies credence to the thought that the life of the individual or a community either can or should derive its value from the acts of consciously performed recall, from the reliving of the prototypical. Although the process of modernisation does indeed generate invented rituals as compensatory devices, the logic of modernisation erodes those conditions which make acts of ritual re-enactment, of recapitulative imitation, imaginatively possible and persuasive. For the essence of modernity is economic development, the vast transformation of society precipitated by the emergence of the capitalist world market. And capital accumulation, the ceaseless expansion of the commodity form through the market, requires the constant revolutionising of production, the ceaseless transformation of the innovative into the obsolescent. The clothes people wear, the machines they operate, the workers who service the machines, the neighborhoods they live in — all are constructed today to be dismantled tomorrow, so that they can be replaced or recycled. Integral to the accumulation of capital is the repeated intentional destruction of the built environment. Integral too is the transformation of all signs of cohesion into rapidly changing fashions of costume, language and practice. This temporality of the market and of the commodities that circulate through it generates an experience of time as quantitative and as flowing in a single direction, an experience in which each moment is different from the other by virtue of coming next, situated in a chronological succession of old and new, earlier and later. The temporality of the market thus denies the possibility that there might co-exist qualitatively distinguishable times, a profane time and a sacred time, neither of which is reducible to the other. The operation of this system brings about a massive withdrawal of credence in the possibility that there might exist forms of life that are exemplary because prototypical. The logic of capital tends to deny the capacity any longer to imagine life as a structure of exemplary recurrence.
What does this mean? He’s telling us that in modernity, the market is our god. It conditions what we imagine to be possible. We can’t dream that life should be ordered by rituals that bound and define our experience, and link it to the past, to a sacred order. There is no sacred order; there is only the here and now, the tangible. The world exists to be remade to fit our desires. There are no ways of living that we should conform our lives to, no stories that tell us how we should live. When Connerton says that in modernity, and under capitalism, we can hardly “imagine life as a structure of exemplary recurrence,” he’s saying that we can no longer easily believe that we should live according to set patterns of thought and action because they conform to eternal truths.
One more passage:
On my trip, I had several conversations with conservative church folks in middle to upper middle class social groups. Washington DC and Charlottesville, Virginia, (home of the University of Virginia), are full of such people. My interlocutors told me how hard it is to get many people in their circles to believe in anything prophetic in the Christian way of life that would prevent them and their children from participating fully in the meritocracy. When these are rival goods, mom and dad know which kingdom they serve. A man and a woman ask their pastor to speak to their college-age child, who wants to become a missionary, and ask him to talk her out of it; they want her to be successful, not to throw her life away.
In most cases, I understood my interlocutors to say, these in their social circles are not liberals. Quite the opposite, actually. What they appear to want, though, is a faith that baptizes the American Way of Life. Anything that conflicts with that they resist. Consequently, they cannot see how the American Way of Life, with its relentless valorization of innovation and individualism, annihilates Christianity by assimilating it.
You can have left-wing Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and you can have right-wing Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, but neither one is Christianity. Both are the pseudo-religion of the Rich Young Ruler from the Gospel parable. Every single one of us is subject to this temptation, by virtue of the fact that we are Americans, and we live in modernity.
It occurred to me while reading this that the most dangerous enemy we face is not the State, and what it might yet do to individual Christians and their institutions and businesses. The most lethal foe is the Empire of Amnesia, which induces us at every turn to forget who we are, to forget who God is, and to forget what He wants from us. The Empire of Amnesia does not force us to forget our sacred Story as the Soviet empire did to believers; rather, it entices us to forget so we can set free our passions. So we can have our best life now. So we can be as gods. And as Ross Douthat once wrote, “no conservative dream, in the 400 years from Francis Bacon until now, has proven strong enough to stand in its way.”
This is the mission of the Benedict Option: to turn away from the Empire of Amnesia, to build “new forms of community” that can offer sustained resistance to it, and to give ourselves, our children, and our communities resilience in the face of its power, and ultimately to create, over time, the conditions for the resurrection of Christian civilization.
All that might sound like a lot of theoretical hoo-ha, but what it means, deep down, is this: Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me. Not on Sunday morning, not ever. Choosing Sunday sports over church is many things, but it is also to induce cultural amnesia into your family, and to embrace a new, godless culture and its liturgies — sports on Sunday morning, say — by sedimenting its values into your family’s bones. You are teaching your children and yourself that there is no sacred order other than the one you choose. Do not be surprised if they learn this lesson well from you, and as adults, choose not to pretend that they really believe in God. And you will not be blameless in this.
I know I’m being harsh here, but people, this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around. We American church people like to tell ourselves that if the secret policemen were to show up at our door to arrest us for being Christians, that we would bravely go to our fate, as the martyrs and confessors of the past did. What crap. Many of us won’t even say no to soccer on Sunday morning. If the secret police in some distant dystopia were to come to our door and ask if we are Christian, we will already answered that question many times in the past, by the quotidian choices we will have made.
This is why I am, yes, alarmist about the Benedict Option and the future of Christianity. Things really are as bad as all that. When I talk about “strategic withdrawal” as necessary for the preservation of the Christian faith, I’m talking about things as mundane as taking your kids out of sports leagues that require them to play on Sundays (or Saturdays, if you’re Jewish) and holy days. It really is a big deal, bigger than most people realize. You might think, “He’s saying head for the hills, but we can’t do that, because we have to stay engaged, to be salt and light to the world.” Come on, really? If you really want your kids, and yourself, to be salt and light, then you cannot choose sports over Sunday worship, because in so doing you will have lost your savor, and accepted assimilation over fidelity.
Believe me, I’m not lecturing from my high horse. These conversations in southern California I’ve had these past few days have highlighted to me ways in which I can and must do better as a Christian and as a father, in strengthening the liturgy of my life and my family’s life. I have not been doing as well as I ought to be doing. The good thing is that it is never too late to change.
So, to go back to the Sun article:
“We no longer live in Christendom. We really have to accept that it’s a thing of the past.”
More and more often, the answer seems to be: shed your baggage, move more nimbly and sharpen your sense of mission.
Yes. Ordinary Christians have to wake up and comprehend what has happened, and is happening. A reader wrote today:
I just wanted to thank you for speaking at the Santa Monica Catholic Church this past Saturday night. I first heard of you and your book, The Benedict Option, from a New Yorker article my sister gave me. I was drawn to your story because I too am an outsider and your longing for a sense of home is something I can sympathize with.
I’ve never written to a public figure before, but I wish to encourage you to continue raising awareness of the growing threat to the church and our world as a whole. Some of the other panelists’ attempts to dismiss you as ’alarmist’ were well intentioned, but naive at best. Living in the comfort of one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the world can dull one’s sense of reality. But I am no different.
This past Sunday, I was leaving my church after a joyful time of worship and bible study only to encounter a gruesome scene: someone had committed suicide by jumping off a high rise luxury condo two blocks away from my church. The police had to close off the street because of the blood and body parts.
I know one shouldn’t extrapolate too much from one data point, but I took this as a challenge that the church needs to do more. The field hospital metaphor for the church shared on Saturday is apt, but incomplete. Due to the rising hostility against our faith, many who are in need of the Gospel would never darken the door of a church. How can we share the Gospel to a world that doesn’t want to hear it?
The Sun article said churches, to survive, have to “sharpen” their sense of mission. I take that to mean that they have to stand for something clearly and firmly. I mentioned to my interlocutor at dinner last night that I sometimes think that churches ought to focus more on being finder-friendly than seeker-friendly. That is, if you water down your sense of mission to make it accessible to the kind of people who would rather go to soccer games with their kids on Sunday morning than come worship and commune, then you risk driving away those who do come, and who may well be desperate for formation and discipleship.
We need Christian families and communities who are all about Chariots Of Fire, not Minivans Of Apathy.
UPDATE: A reader comments:
We are Mormon and moved from Utah to a very religious and conservative part of Texas recently. We were aghast at all the Sunday sports leagues for kids, which we had never seen in Utah. My kids play ice hockey, but we refused to play on Sunday, and as a result my kids were treated like trash (“letting down the team by not playing on Sunday!”). I remain really shocked by this treatment from people who consider themselves devoutly Christian. And now I see how wonderful it was to be in a place (Utah) where no one would ever think of scheduling a youth sports event on Sunday because no one would show up! We are also told by our Church leaders not to go to stores or amusement parks or such on Sunday–that is, to try not to spend any money at all on Sunday so that businesses would not be needing as many workers on Sundays (so that these workers could go to Church instead). I agree with you that we need to draw lines and stand firm on these issues that might not seem important, but which surely are.
God bless the Mormons for holding the line!
UPDATE.2: Reader TimG, an Evangelical pastor in Mexico:
Here in a very Catholic neighborhood in central Mexico, Sunday morning is soccer morning. The fields are full (ripe for harvest?) and the faith is skin-deep.
My 14-year-old son joined a football team (American) and most of their games were on Sunday. We had to make a choice. Church won. We did squeeze in a couple afternoon games.
The point is that this goes beyond the US. It’s a human thing. In the book of Judges “After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel.” It’s a continuous battle every generation, although I’m pretty sure the problem in Israel back then wasn’t soccer on Sundays.