A friend of mine, a church-planting pastor, when he and his core group planted their church, told me one of their aims was that the community would come to respect them enough that whenever major community decisions were made they’d want to know what the church thought. Their aim, then, was to become a faithful witness that formed the core of the community’s conscience.
The reason my friend desired this goal was because in community after community the church is neither a faithful witness nor the community’s conscience.
What are the major elements of the church’s declining influence? If you ponder this question, what is the one thing that comes to mind first? What led to declining presence even if the church’s numbers are not that much different?
From a different angle, this is the precise conclusion Ross Douthat has drawn in his chapter called “The Locust Years” in his new book, Bad Religion. The essential sketch of history he constructs is this: into the 1950s the church was alive, well, influential, public and confident. It all changed in the 1960s and by the 1990s and 2000s the church had lost too much of the vitality of its presence, and it was not just because there was an increasing emphasis on the separation of church and state. Why? Douthat sketches five major shifts that undermined the faithful witness of the church:
1. Political polarization: in the 60s the church began to line up more and more — conservatives stood with the GOP and liberals stood with the Democrats. Example #1: Vietnam. Political ideologies now pervade the American.
2. Sexual revolution: it is not just more laxity when it comes to sex; Douthat contends — and he’s not alone on this one — that prophylactics and especially the birth control pill reshaped the connection of sex to personal responsibility. This, in turn, led to a stauncher criticism of the Bible’s and church’s view of sexual activities. The changes are seen in the numbers — from divorce rates to cohabitation to sexual freedoms. It became safe to be promiscuous.3. Globalization: prior to the 60s American culture was European shaped, and in the 60s and beyond that still continued with a major difference: Europe was increasingly seen as a problem, other cultures were more intriguing, and then it happened: cultural critique led to openness to all religions and to the high levels of the doctrine of religious tolerance and universalism we see today. Christianity became one spiritual option among many, and an increasing number of Americans “bricolaged” their own religion.
4. Wealth: one doesn’t have to be a full blown Marxist to implicate American culture and religion in the growth of wealth; sacrifice for a future, or for a vocation, became increasingly uncommon. Americans increasingly saw “sacrifice” to be something others could do on behalf of the poor by voting in compassion:
Embracing policies that promised to eradicate misery and want was one thing; embracing the vows of poverty that traditionally demonstrated Christianity’s solidarity with the poor was another.
Question: is political activism for the poor a vicarious act of poverty without the pain?
5. Class, and this one Douthat doesn’t develop as much as the others. Orthodoxy, he contends, was dismissed as below the wealthy/successful class.
Douthat does not consider the theory that one reason of the decline of the Mainline church is because it won the game: in other words, the values of American culture have become the values of the Mainline liberal church of the first half or more of the 20th Century. Once that culture absorbed the Mainline’s values, the Mainline lost its appeal.
Nor does Douthat consider enough birth statistics on declining populations in major denominations.
Even still, it is reasonable to think there has been a decreasing influence of the church on society and culture.