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An honest look at where the church is
It is easy for Christians to feel discouraged when we read about declining church attendance or see the growing secularization of our culture, but we are excited about the future.
In many ways, the opposite of secularism is actually nominalism, so growing secularism is an opportunity to develop witness to Christ unclouded by nominal faith. Much of the decline in the church in the West has been the falling off of nominal Christians. As a result, what remains may be healthier. We have the opportunity to become communities focused on Jesus and his mission. The number of true Christians may not be falling so steeply—if at all. What is fast disappearing is the opportunity to reach notionally religious people through church activities.
To seize these new opportunities, we first need to recognize that the Christian gospel has moved from the center of our culture to the margins.
Living in a post-Christian context
One hundred million people in the United States have no contact with church. Among this group are an estimated thirteen to fifteen million people who express a commitment to Christ and accept him as their Savior. This still leaves eighty-five million Americans who are unchurched and unbelieving.
The Easter 2009 edition of Newsweek magazine created a stir with the words “The Decline and Fall of Christian America” emblazoned across its front cover. [See the original cover here.] The cover article by Jon Meacham quotes Al Mohler saying, “Clearly, there is a new narrative, a post-Christian narrative, that is animating large portions of this society.” The number of adults in the United States who do not attend church has nearly doubled since 1991. Over 3,500 United States churches close their doors every year, and the attendance of more than 80 percent of those remaining has plateaued or is declining. Researcher Mike Regele concludes: “The combined impact of the Information Age, postmodern thought, globalization, and racial-ethnic pluralism that has seen the demise of the grand American story also has displaced the historic role the church has played in that story. As a result, we are seeing the marginalization of the institutional church.”
America feels more secular than it actually is.
Since the Enlightenment, Western intellectuals have assumed a link between modernity and secularization. Some rejoiced in this “progress” while others lamented the reduction of everything to “rationality,” but they shared the assumption that modern societies would become secular societies. This secularization theory has been challenged by sociologist Peter Berger. “Not to put too fine a point on it,” he says, but “they were mistaken. Modernity is not intrinsically secularizing, though it has been so in particular cases.” The modern world is not becoming more secular. If anything, it is becoming more religious.
But Berger identifies two exceptions. The first is geographic: Western and Central Europe. The second is sociological: the elites of the Western world. Pointing to a survey that named India as the world’s most religious country and Sweden as the world’s most secular country, Berger quips that the United States is a nation of Indians ruled over by Swedes. In other words, it is a highly religious nation, but its elites are deeply secular, even antireligious. So America feels more secular than it actually is. This has been the experience of Americans coming to do mission in the United Kingdom. They thought of the United States as a secular context until they came to Europe and encountered secular attitudes not only in the media but also among most ordinary people.
A case of plurality
Although he refutes secularization theory, Berger does believe modernity changes the position of the church in the culture. “Modernity is not necessarily secularizing; it is necessarily pluralizing. Modernity is characterized by an increasing plurality, within the same society, of different beliefs, values, and worldviews. Plurality does indeed pose a challenge to all religious traditions—each one must cope with the fact that there are ‘all these others,’ not just in a faraway country but right next door.”
Great swathes of America will not be reached through Sunday morning services.
Pluralism means that although mainstream America is not secular, it is not necessarily Christian. We should not mistake religiosity for biblical faith. In the eighteenth century, American Christianity was the dominant worldview. Not any more. Now Western societies are a melting pot of worldviews. We can no longer assume that if people want to find God or discover meaning or cope with a personal crisis, they will go to church. They may attend any number of religious bodies or sects. Or they may go to a therapist. Or read a self-help book. Merely opening our doors each Sunday is no longer sufficient. Offering a good product is not enough.
It may be that Middle America follows the lead of its cities and becomes more secular. Or it may be that America becomes an increasingly divided nation with secular elites but with a religious heartland. What is clear is that great swathes of America will not be reached through Sunday morning services.
This post is adapted from Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis copyright © 2012. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187.