Shift Happens: Why American Christianity Dying, Is A Good Thing

Bud growing

Today a friend posted this piece that’s been making the Interweb rounds this week.

The author contends that the Evangelical churches, possessing “authentic Biblical Christianity” are actually not dying, but the Mainline, more Progressive, more permissive, more malleable churches. He cites the recent Pew Research Center study stats, showing Evangelical churches shrinking by only a couple of percentage points, (which he deems a sign of victory in view of the comparatively larger declines of the Mainline and Catholic communities).

It’s a perfect example of the kind of “lemonade” being made by some more Conservative Christian folks these days in response to the exodus of the American Church. The author ends up doing the kind of clever spin-doctoring that seeks to carefully control the dire narrative, arguing that while people are indeed walking out, they aren’t really leaving Christianity, just the “near Christianity” that those other churches are brokering in.

While that seems like a reasonable argument to make on its face, (as if only a small decrease is itself reason for celebration at all), it ignores another possibility, that is just as likely and far more concerning to them should it be true; the Evangelicals may simply be too afraid to move.

Maybe all these ultra-traditional churches are not shrinking as rapidly, simply because they have all simultaneously dug their heels in and are refusing to grow or evolve or yield to what the Spirit is doing in this place and time in history. Maybe they are clinging tenaciously to what used to be, and sacrificing what needs to be. Maybe they, like the earnest but farsighted Pharisees, are so hell-bent on conserving the faith and preserving status quo, while all around them God is moving and showing Himself in explosive fashion, in real time–and they are oblivious to it all.

The tactic is understandable. If you fully embrace the narrative that you are just fine and that it’s all those liberal nut jobs peddling a neutered, watered-down Christianity to an increasingly self-centered, consumerized, secularized society that’s the problem, you can barricade yourselves within your pristine, well-manicured, well-ammenitied campuses and pat yourselves on the back for being the last remnant of the truly faithful.

But maybe, just maybe the Mainliners and the Catholics have something else that is precipitating their departure from the institution; boldness. Perhaps they are daring to leave the building and leave their nets, and to follow Jesus right into the slums and gutters and corner bars, and into the messy, unpredictable streets to find the Kingdom in their midst. Maybe they are becoming the Nones and the Dones too.

The Evangelical community isn’t reaching those people any more either. It isn’t reaching the religion-weary and the marginalized and the burnt out. It isn’t resonating with the rising generations of people who are seeking spiritual paths outside of their stuffy, judgmental confines. It, like all segments of the American Christian Church is shrinking—and that’s perfectly fine because God long ago left the building. We who represent every denomination, every theological leaning, and every worship style of Christianity need to admit it and respond to it humbly and honestly.

Our heads can be in our hands or bowed in prayer or looking to the sky, but they can’t be buried in the sand.

We as The Church are never going to resonate with a larger portion of the population of the country than we do now, in the form that we exist now. However we want to shape the story or manipulate the data, we are facing unrelenting attrition unless we allow ourselves to be radically altered. We need to enter into the lives of people where they are, with a representation of Jesus that is freshly filled with the Spirit; one that we can’t harness or design or orchestrate the way we can our Sunday services and conferences and campus events.

This isn’t a time to scream louder or grip tighter or fudge the numbers so that we can sleep better at night. We who comprise the larger Body of Christ need to stop deluding ourselves into believing that we’re so damn righteous and that our failure is simply because the ignorant, sinful, defiant, unGodly masses don’t get it.

I think they get it pretty darn well. I think they’re smarter than we’ve given them credit for.

They get that God isn’t out to squash them, so they can’t be scared or threatened into belief.

They get that a life of faithfulness and goodness has to matter as much as a momentary supernatural transaction, and they are looking for a place to live that life in authentic community.

They get that their parents’ Church doesn’t work anymore because it too often has been built on gender disparity, sexism, racism and homophobia—and they are demanding a better system.

They get that Jesus doesn’t really need a state of the art facility with a well-lit stage, a well-coiffed band, and a gourmet coffee bar. 

So we can keep tricking out our worship centers and slapping more cool graphics on everything and churning out Jesus-flavored arena rock, and we’re still going to be drawing the same small segment of the population, albeit with slightly diminishing returns as the older ones gradually die out.

That isn’t The Church that Jesus dreamed about. That isn’t something eternal that “the gates of Hell” will not prevail against. That’s Kodak and Circuit City. That’s video stores and internet cafes. That’s a group of scared dinosaurs waiting for impact from outer space.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus talked about himself, saying that his death needed to happen so that something more beautiful could grow in the aftermath:

Jesus replied, “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity. (John 12:23-25)

I believe that’s what’s happening in the American Church of every variety. We are all slowly dying and we are being presented with the option of being resurrected as something more pure, more God-honoring, more open, and more usable; or we’re being invited to dig in our heels and participate in the last tragic stages of the faith’s extinction.

I’m seeing a generation of faithful, passionate people choosing the former and it gives me great joy. They’re choosing to release their stranglehold on tradition, not because they don’t have the deepest of convictions and an insatiable hunger for Truth and hearts devoted to following Jesus, but because they know that they need to hold things more loosely so that their hands will be free to receive the new thing that God is offering right now.

Christianity in America as we know it might indeed be dying, but Jesus won’t die with it.

I for one, am looking forward to watching what he does with those who are still willing to drop their nets and follow.