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Christian Chicken Littledom

The sky is falling for some Christians, but not all

Sign N Symbol Production/Shutterstock
Sign N Symbol Production/Shutterstock
Lots of reaction from all over to that Pew Report on the decline of Christianity in America.

Eric Sammons on the Catholic blog One Peter Five is anxious:

The first, and most important, take-away should be this: what we are currently doing isn’t working. I realize this might come across as blindingly obvious, but for many Catholic leaders it doesn’t appear to be. If you attend a typical Catholic event today, most of the talk will be about how great everything is: our schools, our parishes, our youth groups, etc. Nary any mention of the reality that our pews are emptying.

Another take-away should also be clear: this is not a simple problem with a simple solution. Millions upon millions of people are leaving the Catholic Church, and to assume it is for one reason alone would be terribly naïve and simplistic. Any attempt to stem the tide of fallen-away Catholics will need to be multi-faceted and address problems in every aspect of Catholic life.

The complexity of the problem doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands and give up. I think there is something buried in the Pew numbers that is revealing, and points to a possible solution. When you look at the “religious switchers,” it is clear that the mainline Protestants and Catholics are the worst at attracting new members, and the best at repelling existing members. Yet look at other faith traditions, such as Evangelical Protestants, Mormons, and Muslims: you see that they were able to maintain their numbers in an era of religious decline– the Evangelicals actually added more members than they lost.

Is there anything they hold in common, as opposed to mainline Protestants and Catholics?

According to Sammon, they take their faith seriously.

Orthodox Christians are so few on the ground in the US that they barely made a blip on the survey, but we are slightly declining. Gabe Martini, in a comment that appeared a few days ago (so was not in response to the Pew data), says that the chronic tribe-at-prayer ethnic clubbery of US Orthodox parishes is holding back growth, and preventing the Church from doing what it’s supposed to do for its people, and for the world. Excerpt:

For example, when a parish focuses practically all of its energies on an annual ethnic festival, what are they telling the world? That our faith is reducible to middle eastern treats and dancing? That our Church really is only for a certain culture or people? And what about the names we choose for our parishes? By leaving “Greek,” “Russian,” or “Antiochian” on our signs and letterheads, are we unintentionally misleading the world around us to think that the Orthodox Church is not a catholic and universal Church, but is rather solely for a particular ethnicity or tongue? These are simple matters, and quite subtle, but they all add up.

What if a parish devoted all of its efforts to catechizing the inquirers of their community? On smaller groups for fellowship, communication, and instruction? On creating true families with those they share a common faith, rather than simply with whom they share a common blood? (For an example that puts most canonical Orthodox churches to shame, see this presentation from the Copts—a people “being killed all day long” by extremists in Egypt and elsewhere, who yet have the time to focus on the Gospel for English-speaking people.)

What if parishes cancelled their annual ethnic festivals, and instead hosted choral performances that included full translations of the sacred hymns, and a presentation of the Orthodox theology of music and arts at the end? What if those in attendance were then invited to experience an Orthodox Vespers service immediately afterwards? Better yet, what if all of the parish’s efforts were directed towards making worship beautiful and heavenly? The statistics show that the people will come, they will stay, and the money problems will take care of themselves.

At Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer says Christianity is not dying, Christianity-In-Name-Only is:

Christianity isn’t dying and no research says it is; the statistics about Christians in America are simply starting to show a clearer picture of what American Christianity is becoming—less nominal, more defined, and more outside of the mainstream of American culture.
For example, the cultural cost of calling yourself “Christian” is starting to outweigh the cultural benefit, so those who do not identify as a “Christian” according to their convictions are starting to identify as “nones” because it’s more culturally savvy.
Because of this, the statistics show (on the surface) that Christianity in America is experiencing a sharp decline. However, that’s the path of those who don’t read beyond the surface. If there remains a relatively stable church-engaged, convictional minority, and there is a big movement on self-identification, that means that the middle is going away.

As the Pew Forum’s Conrad Hackett explained (before this release of the data):

To some extent, this seems to be a phenomenon in which people with low levels of religious commitment are now more likely to identify as religiously unaffiliated, whereas in earlier decades such people would have identified as Christian, Jewish or as part of some other religious group.

In short, and as I put it, the “nominals” are becoming the “nones” AND convictional Christian practice is a minority, but generally stable, population. If that is the case, and that is what the data is showing, than the decline is primarily (not exclusively) that nominal Christians are becoming honest reporters.

Russell Moore says the same thing:

Bible Belt near-Christianity is teetering. I say let it fall. For much of the twentieth century, especially in the South and parts of the Midwest, one had to at least claim to be a Christian to be “normal.” During the Cold War, that meant distinguishing oneself from atheistic Communism. At other times, it has meant seeing churchgoing as a way to be seen as a good parent, a good neighbor, and a regular person. It took courage to be an atheist, because explicit unbelief meant social marginalization. Rising rates of secularization, along with individualism, means that those days are over—and good riddance to them.

Again, this means some bad things for the American social compact. In the Bible Belt of, say, the 1940s, there were people who didn’t, for example, divorce, even though they wanted out of their marriages. In many of these cases, the motive wasn’t obedience to Jesus’ command on marriage but instead because they knew that a divorce would marginalize them from their communities. In that sense, their “traditional family values” were motivated by the same thing that motivated the religious leaders who rejected Jesus—fear of being “put out of the synagogue.” Now, to be sure, that kept some children in intact families. But that’s hardly revival.

Secularization in America means that we have fewer incognito atheists. Those who don’t believe can say so—and still find spouses, get jobs, volunteer with the PTA, and even run for office. This is good news because the kind of “Christianity” that is a means to an end—even if that end is “traditional family values”—is what J. Gresham Machen rightly called “liberalism,” and it is an entirely different religion from the apostolic faith handed down by Jesus Christ.

Here’s what I think:

1. Moore and Stetzer are mostly right. This is a winnowing-out of nominal Christians, and it could make the church stronger. The down side of this is that a post-Christian culture can and will slide into an anti-Christian culture, one that will not content itself to let us be weirdoes off by ourselves, but will actively attempt to suppress us. I am certain this will happen. It may be good for us, ultimately, but I cannot say that I’m looking forward to watching institutions be torn apart.

2. This will probably be good for the Orthodox Church, because it might force leadership stuck on worshiping ethnicity and ethnic identity to grasp that this is the way to death. An Orthodoxy that is about nothing more than the tribe at prayer is not true Orthodoxy, and will not survive in a culture in which there is no felt social pressure to go to church. On the other hand, as the Episcopal church’s experience shows, a leadership class can be willing to suffer staggering decline and still double down on the path to suicide. By the time the leadership in many Orthodox churches realize how far it has declined, it might be too late to turn back from the falls.

Orthodoxy is also going to have to learn how to evangelize. This may be hard at first, because Orthodoxy is not a form of Christianity that can easily be summed up. It is strange for Americans, and it is demanding. Yet this is its strength! But it somehow has to figure out how to get Americans to come see for themselves what it’s like.

3. This is a disaster for Mainline Protestantism. But you knew that. This is not news. I am aware of some Mainline congregations in Dallas that are genuinely thriving, but as far as I can tell, they are doing so because they are resisting the denominational tide toward liberalization and conformity with the world.

4. Catholicism is in the most difficult position of all. In my experience as a Catholic, most of Catholicism at the parish level is effectively Mainline Protestantism, with the same milquetoast preaching, catechesis, and spirituality that is killing those churches. The challenge is that Catholic ecclesiology makes it difficult for the faithful to church-shop for parishes where the priest and the ethos is robustly Catholic. And a priest who is strongly evangelical and orthodox in his Catholicism may run into a buzzsaw of laity who reject the Church’s teaching, and want to keep the desultory status quo, and try to shut him down. A particular challenge that orthodox Catholic parents have is that they sometimes have to work against the institutional church to raise children who know and believe what their church teaches.

I don’t have the faintest idea how parish life can be revived under these conditions. Maybe you do. Those Catholics who want to remain Catholic, and want their children to remain Catholic, are going to have to give up waiting for the institution to come to their aid, and get about doing the work themselves, somehow. I suspect movements within the Catholic Church, like Communion & Liberation, will grow in prominence.

The overall bottom line: churches that do not give people a reason to stay, and — more importantly — do not form them in the habits of the mind and heart that thicken their attachment to the practice of the faith — will continue to unwind. When I talk about the Benedict Option, I’m talking about embracing practices that anchor us more deeply to God and to our faith traditions. We are all — Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox — going to have to start thinking and behaving more monastically. Try to be all things to all people, and you will be nothing to a dwindling number. Evangelize, yes, but stop focusing so much on seekers, and instead build up the faith of finders.