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Christian Chicken Little-ism

Jake Meador has no patience with Evangelicals of his generation (Millennials) who are hung up on the idea that “the church must change, or die!”. Excerpt:

We’ve been killed by our brothers and sisters in Christ, we’ve fought wars, we’ve been sent off to concentration camps and gulags. There have been many times in our history where the greatest hindrance to joining the church was that getting baptized could lead to imprisonment, torture, or even death. And through all that, the church has endured. But in the minds of certain Christian bloggers, privileged white millennials and their nebulously defined intuitions and impulses pose a greater threat to the long-term flourishing of the church than the Colosseum.

He’s addressing Emergent types who believe that the Church must accommodate the tastes of 21st century young Americans, or consign itself to doom. As Meador says, if you compare the state of churches that fell all over themselves to accommodate modernity, versus those who have made serious efforts to resist it, there’s no contest as to which one has more staying power. According to the Episcopal Church’s own data, at the current rate of decline, there will be no Episcopalians in the United States by 2040.

I agree with his point in context, and realize that even on my side of the liberal-conservative Christian divide, there is often too much of an eagerness to panic. I’m certainly guilty of that. However, the answer is not to assume that things will always stay as they are, that there’s nothing to worry about (I don’t think Jake would disagree with me on this general point; he’s specifically addressing anxious modernizers within his own Evangelical tradition). I never tire of citing historian Barbara Tuchman’s point in The March Of Folly, about how six Renaissance popes helped provoke the Reformation. One of the chief causes of their folly (as she calls it) was the “illusion of invulnerability.” They thought that because things had gone on so long as they were, they always would go on like that. That hubris blinded them to the legitimate grievances of the people against bad Church governance. Had they been sensitive to actual changes in the society and culture of Catholic Europe, they might have been able to act to reform the corruption, and taken away much of the impetus for the Reformation.

This is not to start an argument over the causes of the Reformation, but simply to point out that sometimes, Chicken Little is right. If you were Chicken Little within the Episcopal Church now, you’d have ample cause to scream your head off about how the sky really is falling, and how the hierarchy and institution seems blithely unaware of their own role in bringing down the curtain on that Church. Similarly, while there is no reason to doubt that there will be a Roman Catholic church in the United States for ages of ages to come, it cannot be a matter of indifference to American Catholics and American Catholic leaders that their Church is hemorrhaging members. Peter Steinfels, reflecting soberly and thoughtfully on a dinner discussion with the social scientists Robert D. Putnam and David Campbell, around their book American Grace, mentions Putnam & Campbell’s reporting that one in three American Catholics baptized into the Catholic Church had left it, and that the younger generation is just drifting away. Steinfels:

Catholics becoming Protestants were less apt to stress unhappiness about specific teachings and more likely to pinpoint failures to meet their spiritual needs, frequently stating a general appreciation of their new affiliation and its manner of worship. These former Catholics were also more likely to have been affected by a change in life circumstances, like marrying someone of another faith or moving to a new place. Pew found that the vast majority of Catholics leaving the faith of their childhoods do so before age twenty-four. Those becoming unaffiliated reported having had a weaker faith in their childhood and significantly lower Mass attendance as teens. Most of the former Catholics, especially among those now unaffiliated, reported having just “drifted away” rather than undergoing a sudden change of mind or heart. Relatively few rated the sexual-abuse scandal high among reasons for leaving. That may reflect the calm-between-the-storms moment when the survey was taken. I suspect it also suggests that the scandal often functions less as a trigger to leave than as a confirmation of the dissatisfaction, distrust, or doubt people have already come to feel about the church. Very few, whether now unaffiliated or now Protestant, complained that Catholicism had drifted too far from traditional practices.

Why have I spent so much time on those of Catholic upbringing who have left the church? First, because the numbers are not trivial, to put it mildly. “Catholicism,” the Pew study found, “has lost more people to other religions or to no religion at all than any other single religious group.” In American Grace, their new study of religious polarization and pluralism, Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell quote a member of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Acton, Massachusetts, where it is estimated that former Catholics make up nearly half the congregation. “If it weren’t for people leaving the Catholic Church,” he said, “the Episcopal Church would have died a long time ago in America.” [See William A. Galston,“Getting Along.”]

Second, these numbers are not only not trivial—they are not just numbers. They are our siblings, our cousins, nieces and nephews, our friends, neighbors, classmates, and students, our children and grandchildren, even in some cases our parents.

Third, this pattern of loss may well be the wave of the future. Faltering Catholic religious education, declining Mass attendance rates among adolescents, drops in what younger people report about the importance of religion in their lives are the advance signs of generational loss. Unlike the familiar drift from faith of individuals, which may correct itself over the course of a life, the shift of a generation will be felt for decades. And from preboomers to millennials, each generation of young Americans has taken greater distance from organized religion.


What matters is not this set of proposals—or any other. What matters is merely some kind of acknowledgement from the hierarchy, or even leading individuals within the hierarchy, of the seriousness of the situation. What matters is a sign of determination to address these losses honestly and openly, to absorb the existing data, to gather more if necessary, and to entertain and evaluate a wide range of views about causes and remedies.

I mention this not to single out Catholicism — as Putnam & Campbell document, even Evangelicals, who have been the most robust of all US churches, have been in relative decline since the early 1990s — but because Steinfels’s assessment is so solid, and so mournful. It cannot be a matter of indifference to leaders of any Christian church that we live in a time and place in which young people across denominational lines are refusing to affiliate with a particular church. This isn’t Chicken Little-ism; it’s documented fact.

Some of this is the fault of the churches, but in my view, most of it represents a postmodern shift in religious consciousness. It is no bad thing for religious leaders to question their own practices, with an eye toward figuring out how to make the Gospel accessible to young people who have grown up in post-Christian America. The challenge, in light of Jake Meador’s post, is to discern a sober course between panicked pessimism and an optimism that remains blithely indifferent to the hard facts.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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