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. 


0 thoughts on “Shift Happens: Why American Christianity Dying, Is A Good Thing

  1. To see a group of Christians living in this new paradigm, visit a Kairos Prison Ministry International team. You will find people who are passionate about spreading the gospel but who don’t have to convert Muslims or Wiccans or atheists or Jews or Buddhists or homosexuals (proselytizing is prohibited by state law and not in our script), we love them and listen to them just like we do everyone else on the weekend. We leave them in the hands of the Spirit after our weekend but come back every week and every month, too. What do we find inside our prison? A large and growing group of men passionate to spread the gospel among their fellow prisoners, men determined to follow Christ in their every day lives. The future of the Christian church in the West may well be developing inside American prisons.

  2. Hey John
    Once again I agree with your premise. I have been struggling against the structured church for a # of years now. I think we disagree on the cause of the exodus (there are a myriad of reasons that people have left the visible church, so we clearly don’t disagree on all of the causes). Plus, you seem to be acting as if this is something new. It’s not. Jesus told us there would be a struggle in the church; false teachers, those seeking to lord over one another, the wheat and the tares, etc… Those who know the Scriptures are not surprised nor are we fooled by an “emergent” like yourself, Rob Bell, and Brian McClaren, etc… who to teach false doctrines.

    Many people will fall for false teaching because they are unaware of the Scriptures and Church History. During Athanasius time the predominant false doctrine was Arianism (denying the deity of Jesus). The churches became steeped in this false belief system, but Truth beat it back. Today the churches are totally worldly (on this we agree).

  3. What a wonderful perspective! You’re such a breath of fresh air. Letting go of control is difficult, accepting change is challenging and fighting to maintain the status quo is common. Dropping our nets and following is never more obvious to me as it is now.

  4. John, I totally agree with what you said. After growing up in fundamentalist churches, as a young adult I became unchurched because of the rigid judgmentalism I saw coming from the pulpits and congregations. A decade later I was invited to a Unity church and my spirit resonated with the message of non-judgmental, loving acceptance. 40 years later, I still attend the same church and dearly love the church family we have there. What I find there is spirituality, not rigid, dogmatic rule dispensing.

  5. John, we haven’t connected personally, but I am authoring three books for the church of tomorrow – The Clock (time), The Key (language), and The Net (organization). We need these three tools in order to move forward with a new image for the church. A fullness of time is bringing about a type of death as many of us know, but as the old dies, the new will also come into being. Your words are true and God’s spirit is clearly speaking through you. If you are open to it, I would love to have a private conversation with you about the church of tomorrow, as God’s spirit has filled me as well.

  6. John,

    The Pew survey indicates that people aren’t leaving the mainline, liberal, and evangelical churches to follow Jesus or a more “pure” form of Christianity. They are leaving Christianity altogether. They are identifying with secularism or with other religions. I’m not sure how much weight to put into these types of surveys, but it is pretty interesting.

  7. Reading these posts is like taking a spiritual shower. I feel refreshed and restored in the knowledge that others also believe in a loving God, that church leaders and members do not have the right to demonize me for being myself and believing accordingly. I gratefully accept the precepts learned in sunday school, vacation bible school and catechism class. Later pronouncements by church leaders, not so much. And messages of hate and superiority by conservative, often very large organizations, subtle or brazen, claiming the badge of Christianity, frighten and disgust me. We are fortunate to have Stuff That Needs To Be Said.

  8. Seriously, this is the truth and the church at large should be more open to a new order that is boundless and free from dogmatism. The ministry of Jesus really centers on humanity. We should however let this gospel be accessible to the world, not preserving it like a relic. Jesus doesnt want that.

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  10. I love this piece, John! I left the building several years ago but I have not stopped following Jesus or trying to be his hands and feet in the places I go and with the people I connect. I find that God is doing just as much work outside of the church and I am joining him in that work. I feel a little freer to share his love now that I am away from the church … a little less shackled to an agenda and a list of things that had become burdensome … a little more daring about rubbing elbows with people on the outside of the walls and being radically inclusive … excited about what I am learning from people who come from different traditions … amazed at how many other followers of Christ are on the same path and who are finding new and exciting ways to make it “on earth as it is in heaven” … in awe of the many glimpses I am seeing of “the Kingdom of God” that is certainly at hand every moment of every day … humble about the word that God is doing in my life.

    Thanks for “getting it”

  11. Reblogged this on Life As Is and commented:
    “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.”

  12. John, I’m sure your followers are already filling your comment section with accolades about how much they agree, how you said what they were thinking or feeling, etc. Meanwhile I am left wondering (as I so often am after reading your blog), what the heck are you talking about, and where do you get your information? You seem to enjoy speaking in generalities and quite honestly I find it very confusing. I suppose I could stop reading your blog, but my curiosity about your perspective and its derivation keep bringing me back.

    It would certainly be helpful if you would define ‘Evangelical’ in one of your pieces, since it can mean different things to different people. Another question I have: if I understand you correctly, you are implying that God works only through the new and explosive, and not the status quo and the traditional. On what are you basing this statement–I can’t think of a Scripture indicating that God limits the ways in which He moves nor can I think of one that indicates we have the ability to see all the places God is at work but my memory is getting worse these days.

    Perhaps someday you will write a blog about the church experience that has lead you to be so critical of the group you refer to as ‘Evangelicals’ (is that the same as ‘born-agains,’ or as ‘Believers,’ or as ‘Christians?’ Is there ever overlap among these groups, and if so, how can I discern the difference? If I love Jesus and attend an ‘Evangelical’ church that reaches out to the poor and needy, is that okay in your opinion or should I find a non-Evangelical church that reaches out to the poor needy?)

    • Jill. Please give up the sly crap. You know as well as I do that you think John is a false teacher. All you are doing is fishing to find specifics so you can use your fundie view of scripture to nail him with it. Your view of scripture is not right just because you think it is right. Try this article:

      • Dover1962, I have never been called ‘sly’ before. I will take that as a compliment. Meanwhile, I promise here and now to NOT respond to John in any way–with Scripture or with words of any kind–if he will genuinely answer my questions (above) via his comments section.

    • P.S. I think the main thing that is confusing you about John’s posts is the very real and genuine “I Love You” message that comes along in nearly all of them. The “I Love You” message is not taken seriously in fundie churches outside of “I am preaching fire and brimstone to you because I love you.” That is not a full “I Love You” from a Jesus perspective or any other perspective. Read through the New Testament and look at all of the different ways Jesus loves people and advocates for them in both word and deed.

  13. After reading your blog article, your readers need to read this one to understand why people are leaving the Christian fundamentalist and conservative evangelical churches:

    People have been leaving the mainline churches ever since the 1960s. That is not a recent trend. It is a long historical trend. There are a number of reasons for it. My uncle left his United Methodist Church because the young pastor had just graduated from the School of Divinity at Vanderbilt University and did not believe that the Virgin Mary was really a virgin.

    Many people left the mainline churches because they compromised on the all important “nigger issues” of the 1960s in favor of civil rights for black people.

    I think some left because they were simply bored to death with the eternal sameness of the churches, which emphasized tradition and traditional worship.

    Others left because they did not believe in social justice. Instead, they believed in a God of money and materialism—and they left for churches that would deify the material lusts of their hearts—and the Christian fundamentalist and conservative evangelical churches (owned by the Republican Party) gave them what they most desired—a God that would bless their greed and lack of concern for “the least of these.”

    Another factor, again that comes back to certain members of my family, they left the mainline churches because they were born circa 1900-1910 when a copy of “The Fundamentals” was mailed to every poorly educated rural preacher in the United States. Lacking a library, they just soaked that stuff up and preached it—God is the baddest ass who ever lived—you are a sinner—if you do not come “just as you am” to the altar to accept Jesus—he will one day beat the snot out of you. My relatives told me that this was the kind of preaching they grew up with out in rural Tennessee in the very early 1900s—and they missed it. When they moved to the cities to work, they discovered that the urban churches were different from what they had grown up with, so they tried to find new churches that would “capture the old nostalgia and church atmosphere” of their youth. Really—no shit. Theological reasons—no. Nostalgia—yes.

    The mainline churches are strong on having the mind of Jesus and loving as he did. They take seriously statements such as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and all those other similar statements that Jesus made. When you actually read those statements, you realize that Jesus made demands of his people that are viciously antithetical to normal human nature—such as love your enemies. They are all extremely hard to do—some would say impossible. I think many mainline Christians left because they and their human nature were just not up to the task of trying. The Christian fundamentalist and conservative evangelical churches gave the an attractive alternative because they spend a lot of time IGNORING those hard Jesus commands in the New Testament.

    Finally, I think some people left because they viewed God as a Great Teddy Bear in the Sky who loves them and saves them unconditionally regardless of what they do in life. So, they said to themselves, “I got the Jesus problem solved so I will just lie down on this bed and do zero for Jesus in this life and everything will be okay in the end.” They were bored to death with this all loving God and wanted a different and more exciting view of God—one where rigid demands and laws motivated them with fear each week (kind of like going to a really good horror movie—only you are in it with Freddie Krueger. In other words, they left because they wanted something lively and exciting in their lives. “No more of this boring mainline church God who loves everyone and expects everyone to boringly love someone else.” They never got the message that loving involves—–doing——rather than just sitting in the pews like vegetables and soaking in warm vibes from the “Great Teddy Bear God in the Sky.”

    However, the fundies have their own problems now, especially with the new Millennial Generation of kids and young adults. Check this out:

    Fifty years from now, I feel almost certain that the Christian fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals will be in the same boat that the mainline churches are now. This so-called 2 percent down is just the beginning of woes for them. However, I think the biggest thing going against them is that their children see a deep abyss between what the Bible says on a variety of issues and what their parents and church members actually do as far as living out the gospel. This new generation despises hypocrisy more than anyone else and they are constantly sniffing for it. If the Bible says to love your neighbor as yourself, they know that the gay kid at school is there neighbor—and he is a really nice guy. Therefore, they cannot understand why their fundie parents are carrying picket signs to prevent laws against bullying gay kids in public schools. They see this hypocrisy at every turn in their churches with regard to so many different things. They eventually just get sick to their stomachs with the fundie charade and leave—never to come back again. This trend will continue because, as a friend of mine once said, “Christian fundamentalism is a version of Christianity from which all real love has been drained away.” The kids know when they are not really loved—and they feel none of that real and genuine love in their churches. They flee because of it.

  14. Thank you for your words and your belief of God’s and Christ love for all of us. I lost my job last year due to the DC manager found out I was gay. From that point on his goal was to find a valid reason for dismissal, but after 11 months he was unable too. Eventually I was dismissed due to the reason I was not the right fit. I believe that none of us know if we are going to be received into Heaven until we stand before God and he says come in my child. When faced with hatred especially from Christians I know how to handle it-through the love that Jesus Christ has taught me. Thank you for being a true Christian.

  15. I’m sorry, but I find your article confusing. Your “about” section says you’re a committed Christian, but your premise is that church shrinkage is a good thing because church that works to appeal to some is a bad thing (personally, I don’t think that gourmet coffee in the fellowship hour is not the cornerstone of a ministry, but that’s just me). In fact, the in-house ministry of the church shouldn’t be the only ministry of the church…so why is it the target of all the nitpicking? As a Christian who right now is largely homebound and the bulk of MY ministry is on the phone or on the Net, I get irritated when I see articles such as these that take shots at buildings and orthodoxy. The church is one of the few times I get to fellowship with other believers and receive an encouraging word, but unfortunately there’s a lot of people who complain about having to serve other members. Such a pity. This is not the first article that I’ve read this week that has a professed Christian author griping about the evils of church. Maybe church is shrinking because our message is muddled. And THAT’S not a good thing.

    • IMO, the shrinkage of the church is probably due to a lot of NOMINAL Christians leaving. In other words, it’s the truly faithful that are remaining.

      I’d rather have 100 faithful Baptists, 50 faithful Episcopalians, or 1,000 faithful Catholics than 100,000 fake Baptists, 50,000 fake Episcopalians, or 1,000,000 fake Catholics any day.

  16. Do you think that the scripture that references the masses having itching ears (2 Timothy 4:3-4) has any validity in this case? Just maybe?

      • I agree John. The “itching ears” charge is all worn out because their ears itch mightily, and there is no lack of people who are anxious to scratch those itches with exactly the prejudicial and biased trash they are dying to hear.

  17. John, once again you’ve written an article that lives out the way many of us are seeking the kingdom of God. For me, God is not confined to a building or to rules or to conditional love. He is much bigger than that – so big I cannot wrap my mind around Him. That is the God I pursue every day no matter where I am or who I’m with. And I’m so thankful He wraps His arms around me as I endeavor to know and love Him more deeply.

  18. Much as I appreciate the effort here I have to say the denial is thick in this piece. People are leaving the church for some pretty simply reasons -the main one being that both the “conservative” American church and the “liberal” American churches are busy making themselves ridiculous and pointless, albeit for different reasons. And those leaving are NOT being Christian elsewhere. That’s just denial talking. They are just leaving. The conservative churches have a simpler message that remains more personal so they are fading at a slower rate. Not rocket science. Go to these churches. Pay attention to what is being said, who is there hearing it, and who is not there….

    As a born and bred Episcopal I finally gave up on that church very recently (and man I tried long and hard) as I realized it wasn’t a bringing me closer to God at all. It wasn’t really even interested in bringing me or any other individual “closer to God” in a way ‘t was satisfying and engaging. It was a habit I had to break and a place I went to occasionally to keep my progressive political bone fides in up to date.

    The “mainline” church I grew up in has more or less decided to worship an Anthropology graduate student beta male hippie named “Jesus” they created because – well – mostly because they were annoyed with the superman Jesus the loud evangelicals across town worshiped. This concocted beta male grad student “Jesus” is quite concerned about “social justice”. None of his followers can really define what that is or who, exactly, is going to pay for it or what, exactly it will look like if we get it done… BUT by golly you will know who the victims are (groups that change over time, BTW.) and you will know who the victimizers are…you and me, mostly. You won’t leave a liberal mainline church in 2015 feeling judged about being gay or divorced… but you will leave it feeling diminished because you don’t drive a prius and..well.. you still use plastic grocery bags sometimes and you make reasonably good money. Or something. The judgement on the “left” is less offensive but ultimately more demeaning. And it depressing. I mean that literally. It seems to make people depressed. So the ones who aren’t naturally depressed..leave. As they should.

    Also this graduate student “Jesus” causes his followers to repeat words and phrases that well fed first world progressives find simply irresistible: “Radical inclusion” and “intentional community” are 2 personal favorites because they are so overtly smug, weirdly redundant, and finally destructive as they actually shove meaning further away. (Inclusion is a very simple, elegant idea, it does not need a silly modifier.) And “Intentional community” is just assbackward..Communities are an EFFECT not a CAUSE. One cannot create community by repeating the word community a lot. And valuing a false idol idea like this mythical “community” over the individuals in the “community” while ALSO insisting on more progressive individual legal and societal freedoms will FAIL…Every. Single. Time. It is cognitive dissonance papered over with 1960s seminary clap trap. Jesus taught individuals how to get to God..I see no scripture in which he did team building exercises at a Santa Barbara retreat… Unless churches start THERE and let the community evolve naturally people will continue to exit. And they should. “Intentional communities” are a creepy affectation.

    In fact my “mainline” denomination has turned the word “community” into a kind of talisman…a fetish…for 25 years I’ve heard sermons on “community” and watched the congregations disintegrate. The irony is sad and painful to watch.

    If mainline churches are going to stick to their rituals (which I love ) while ignoring teachings that actually apply to individual people (AND continue to operate as dimestore political action committees) – they will continue to shrink. And they should.

    • That’s probably one of the reasons why Michael Curry was elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Watch his sermon at the recent General Convention. He said that he wants to focus on evangelism and discipleship. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing a radically different Episcopal Church under his tenure. It’ll be one that will still be committed to peace and justice issues; however, it will also be focused on spreading the Good News and making DISCIPLES out of church members.

      Watch here:

      • Thanks Paul! I really loved seeing this. The American Episcopal church may have just saved itself by electing this man as their leader…why? He;s actually talking about hearts and minds of people.Real people Not meaningless progressive claptrap.

  19. It occurred to me that no one noticed something important in thew tile of John’s main post:
    “Shift Happens: Why American Christianity Dying, Is A Good Thing.” You notice it says “American Christianity.”

    Christian fundamentalism and its close correlates in the conservative evangelical realm are a uniquely “American Christianity.” They would have us believe that Jesus abandoned his bride—the church—for 1,900 years, and then he miraculously restored it with the invention of Christian fundamentalism about 100 years ago in the United States. Many Christian fundamentalists claim—and any idiot can make a claim—that their belief system is the only true and authentic historical Christianity going all the way back to 33 A.D. I have even had fundies tell me straight up that they are directly descended from numerous small families dating all the way back to 33 A.D. in the Middle East who had nothing to do with the various developing churches of that early era and withdraw quietly to their own hearth sides to worship Jesus in the own true and right way in their homes (The Fundie Way). Furthermore, they did this quietly and unobtrusively from one generation to another across 1900 years of human history—totally avoiding all of the major changes and the major church movements across that 1900 years—until the fullness of time about the year 1900 when God told them that it was their time to come out into the open and be his real and only true church.

    This is one of the biggest crocks of bullshit I have ever seen. The Eastern Orthodox Church certainly thinks this is the biggest crock of bullshit they have ever seen because they can actually trace their church history back through records to the 1st century. This is why they claim that their beliefs are the real, authentic, first century Christianity. I would like to see the fundies produce the 1900 years of historical records that trace these quiet, isolated, and withdrawn “hearth side alone” fundie families all the way back to 33 A.D. The main reason they cannot produce them is because they do not exist and never have—because it never happened. It is always convenient to make bullshit claims in situations where there is no way to definitively verify the claim. The fundies are masters at this sort of illusion—which is at its very base a form of lying and deceit.

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