Seven follow-ups on 10 reasons for Christian decline

Seven lessons learned through dialogue about Christian decline in America.

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., photographed on Oct. 15, 2013. RNS photo by Kevin Eckstrom

Last week I offered 10 suggestions to try to explain the declining hold of Christianity in the United States. The numerous threads that followed were really quite illuminating. I also received some interesting emails.

I could go for this civilized discussion thing. Thanks everyone.

Here are seven things I learned, and a bit of where I would like to go next.

  1. Bracing dismissals of the intellectual coherence of Christianity, and sometimes of religion in general, came out in abundance. Pew Religion reports that the “nones” have risen to over 20 percent of the U.S. population. They add one percent a year while Christians drop one percent a year. That’s a lot of defectors from Christianity. Clearly, many of them are people who tested Christian faith and found it did not make intellectual sense to their adult selves. Christian efforts to argue “them” out of their skepticism or atheism rarely get anywhere. It seems as if the burden of proof is shifting, from defending disbelief to defending belief. Christian faith can mainly be defended by the good fruit it produces, not by arguments.
  2. Perceived conflicts between science and faith remain a major flashpoint. Sometimes Christianity is taught in such a way that even a rudimentary acceptance of modern science becomes impossible. Sometimes modern science is taught in such a way that what is understood to be Christianity becomes impossible to accept. My personal versions of “Science” and “Christianity” do not cancel each other out in this way. Clearly, those attempting to advance Christian faith have crucial work to do here.
  3. Historic and contemporary harms done by Christian leaders and Christian teaching remain important. I should have mentioned the clergy sex abuse problem, as one commenter did; that has ruined Christianity in the eyes of many, and not just those directly victimized. And of course harms done by Christian anti-LGBT teaching were raised by several readers. Any time we are unwilling to acknowledge the wrongs Christians have done in history and even today, we discredit ourselves badly. Proud Christian triumphalism is past its sell-by date.
  4. Some readers mentioned the Christian Right and the politicized version of Christianity on offer since at least the days of Jerry Falwell. If indeed, Christian = Republican then you lose the majority of Americans who are not convinced that this equation should be made. (There is of course a Christian Left, where Christian = Democrat, but it is much smaller and quieter by comparison and hasn’t had an equivalent cultural impact.) Well, the good news on this front may be that the Christian Right has never looked weaker in the last 40 years.
  5. The Internet, and other forces of globalization, received some nominations last week. I think this is definitely a factor. For most of world history people were raised in a religion and surrounded by its adherents. Now we have information about all of the world’s religions at the touch of our fingertips — often incarnated at work and in the neighborhood with us. The unassailability of our version of religion is harder to sustain when we encounter so many other reasonable people with so many other beliefs. Finding a way to foster a confident, tolerant Christianity for a globalized era is the challenge ahead of us.
  6. I received some queries about my claim that evangelism is dead. I think that this relates to the last point, in this way — the Onward Christian Soldiers era in which we knew we had the Truth and needed to share it in a world of Dark Heathenism has passed. So what exactly is our message? What needs are we seeking to address? What hope are we offering? What, really, is the Gospel? What if multiple churches and traditions are offering multiple competing versions?
  7. The only comments relevant to my provocative claim that we lack talented, compelling Christian leaders came from several readers who noted a growing unwillingness to accept claims based simply on authority. I Say to You as Your Pastor As I Quote God’s Holy Word that this or that is true and you must obey unquestioningly — these kinds of statements don’t work for as many people anymore. So what kind of leader is next? How do we cultivate authoritative, compelling leaders, people who are neither timid time-servers nor authoritarian demagogues? This is one of the questions of the hour for all who train Christian leaders, as I do.

Let the conversation continue.

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