When the Church Lost its Voice

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.

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  • EricG

    The answer that quickly lept to my mind is pluralism (like his number 3). We are much more pluralistic, at many levels, and very consciously so, than in the past. Which has a significant effect on this question. (Or maybe I just read too much Peter Berger.)
    I also don’t perceive it as a significant problem that Christians have lost their influence. Perhaps if the church more often modeled an upside-down kingdom vision, rather than fighting culture wars, I would have a different view.

  • I do not think Pluralism is so much of an issue. It may have been at first, but with a multitude of voices the one true voice will call out. What we, as a church did, was lost the ability to disciple people through the voices.

    I think that the political polarization of the church is what has lead to us loosing our voice. We have prostituted ourselves for far to long to a political ideology and allowed politics, not the prophetic voice, speak from the pulpit. Money follows votes, and there are not many politicians who do not want the vote of the church. We have broken the commandment that says “Thou shalt not have any idols before me” in a very large way. We need to engage in politics, but not in the way we have in the past. We must be willing to criticize and provide an alternative viewpoint and counterweight to the prevalent political voices. When we do not we fail to engage in the civic dialogue of the town square.

  • Tracy

    This week Charles Blow, (another New York Times columnist) wrote about what he calls the backlash towards religion. http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/30/down-with-religion/ and reports on a number of recent surveys. This is the response of many Americans towards what they view as overinvolvement in right-leaning Republican politics. And among younger Americans, anti-gay rhetoric and political activism on the part of the religious right is not to be admired.

  • Tracy

    I would suggest that anyone wanting to catch the flavor of what this backlash sounds like might read some of the comments following Blow’s piece. I’ve noticed a marked turn to the negative in comments about religion in the Times in the past few years.

    It probably doesn’t help that the two columnists most likely to champion religion are Douthat and Brooks. Both politically conservative. To a lesser extent, Nick Kristof does offer positive portraits of religious people — he tends to write about third world issues, and notes the positive contributions of those who are working in sometimes hopeless situations.

  • Joe Canner

    The impact of globalization/pluralism hit home to me the other night as I was attending my daughter’s high school graduation. I was struck by the increase in Asian students compared to when I graduated from the same high school 30 years ago. I was also struck by how polite and respectful they and their families were during the ceremony, in contrast to the Americans. I think pluralism has helped us to realize that Christianity does not have a monopoly on helping people to live “peaceful and quiet lives” and that there is some of God in all of His people.

    Regarding #5 (Class), it’s should also be noted that recent research has found the poor to be less religious than average. So, apparently, the Church is only relevant to the (shrinking) middle class.

  • Pat Pope

    To some extent, I think what some Christians always believed or felt just came to the surface. As an African-American, I can’t help but think about civil rights when I hear the 60s and not every Christian embraced that with open arms. Many thought it was rocking the boat and that Dr. King was a rabble-rouser. So, at different points along history, I think the various cultural issues has revealed what some of us really believe and feel and that we haven’t always had our beliefs fully fleshed out as it pertain to various issues. In other words, the sheet has been pulled back and what has been revealed isn’t always what one expects of a Christian and in some instances it’s been disappointing that the Church wasn’t leading the charge in some areas. Often, we’ve been more reactive than proactive.

  • The church has become like the world therefore has lost its voice to the world. The church demands conformity, which then leads to separation because we disagree as to what we should conform to, instead of being gracious and forgiving (salt and light) we have become demanding and closed-off. The world now sees us as irrelevant people in the corner of the party arguing over things no one really cares about. We’re pointless. My people perish for lack of knowledge; our knowledge fo Justin Bieber running into glass doors is greater than our knowledge of the life of Christ. Our large church buildings and suburban, college educated clientelle drive the poor further away. We spend more money on buildings than we do on missions, outreach, charity and compassion combined. I shall stop now.

  • Tim Hallman

    Gibson Winter wrote in the sixties about the decline of the church which was evident then and only magnified exponentially know- he wrote from the perspective of suburbanization. As the wealthy and stable middle class moved out, the interior of cities deteriorated, which undefined the church’s credibility, it’s influence, and even knowledge of what ails the city – and thus culture. Douthat makes too little of this movement of Christians to the suburbs.

  • Tom F.

    Another reason for the declining influence of the church in general is the lack of community involvement by evangelical churches. And evangelical churches are grabbing increasing amounts of the public religious space, and yes, nearly immediately politicizing that space.

    The truth is that mainline church members were super-connected within their communities (still are, but they are greying and becoming less and less of factor), involved in local non-profits, taking civic positions, and participating in civic life more generally. Evangelical churches simply are not involved to this extent. I’m thinking here of Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”, where he notes that church attendance among mainline folks is correlated with volunteering in the community, but among conservative/evangelical churches, more church attendance has no effect on community involvement. (I was relieved to at least find that it didn’t actually hurt community involvement.) Similarly, conservative churches are less likely to offer community outreach in the form of food, shelter, or other basic needs. (To be fair, evangelicals seem to be aware of this problem, and perhaps “trending upward” in this area. It remains to be seen whether we actually get any better, or whether we are just talking a better game.)

    So to someone on the outside of American Christianity, the church has become politically divisive and combative at exactly the same time as it has pulled out of community life at exactly the same time that it has become more evangelical and conservative. Is it really that surprising that the church would have less of a public voice? Is it surprising that there would be some backlash against evangelicals in particular?

  • Alan K

    “Question: is political activism for the poor a vicarious act of poverty without the pain?”

    This is a great question that goes to the heart of American Christianity. Most certainly our confession is “Blessed are the middle class.”

  • Adam

    The first thing that came to mind for me was individualism and a reluctance to “welcome the alien”.

  • The church has become seriously sidetracked I believe at least in significant measure, from her calling. But it gets complicated for me, because the church ought to be a voice in the world, but largely through example and proclamation of the good news in King Jesus. The church is distinct, and must avoid becoming a part of something that is driven by something other than the kingdom of God.

  • Scott Gay

    To me the church has made a pact with western culture in the way of truth as uniform, necessary, and unchanging. We have come to the realization that ever present change is part of the truth. This has caused the lack of stability and faith in institutions that are most invested in the unchanging paradigm. The church should have, from the beginning, sided with Heraclitus and his cryptic utterance “all entities come to be in accordance with this Logos”. Of course, he wasn’t fully aware of the true Logos, and the Logos has room for the paradox of both transcendence and immanence. Actually the church can in truth uphold the realities of stability and change simultaneously. But it currently is too invested in the road traveled by western thought.

  • It’s mind-boggling to me that Douthit would cite essentially the support of liberal social policies as a reason for the decline of the church’s voice, when all the data are pointing the other direction – that it’s the church’s embrace of conservative Republican social and economic policies that have neutered its influence; it’s hard to be the conscience of society when your political power is at stake. I don’t doubt there are Christians who “serve vicariously” through voting for candidates who promote policies that support the poor. I also have no doubt that to the extent political support has been a problem for the church, it’s not because of its unerring support for liberals and Democrats. Douthit seems to be letting his politics drive his analysis here.

  • Andy W.

    While there is certainly truth to the 5 shifts listed, these are all outward influences. I think the problem is largely inward. What church? or which church? It’s the vast pluralism within christianity itself that has created a cacophony of voices. Who do you listen to? SBC, PCUSA, UMC, Non-denoms, EO, RC? There is no unified voice.

  • Tom F.

    Okay, I missed the original question about vicarious politicing for the poor. In light of the fact that mainline churches were more involved in actually helping the poor, through non-profits, civic engagement, and the like, it doesn’t seem like this will stick to them. They were involved locally, and they also voted consistently with that ethos.

    It would be different if you could point to statistics that said evangelicals did better at personally helping the poor, but as I said, the statistics suggest that being an evangelical doesn’t make you volunteer in a non-profit any more than the average American.

    Modern liberals on the whole, may or may not be guilty of this sort of thing (I have no idea), but liberal does not entirely equal mainline, perhaps especially when it comes to this sort of local engagement with those in need.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Like Pat Pope, the historian in me immediately thought of Evangelical Christians’ overwhelming opposition to MLK and the Civil Rights Movement. Of course regarding the growing influence of the GOP over conservative Christians, I have long said that the church would some day regret having voted in overwhelming numbers for Ronald Reagan over the most Evangelical President this nation has known.


  • Darrin W Snyder Belousek

    I agree with the notion, drawn from the Anabaptist tradition and espoused by theologians such as John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, that the church has nothing to offer the world concerning how we are to live together in justice and peace other than what it has learned to live in its own domestic life. Insofar as the church has failed to be the conscience of the civic community, the question I would ask would be what has happened in the life of the church. The church exercises its proper social influence, this tradition would say, not by being a force in party politics or even by joining the Rotary Club, but by “being the church.” That is, the authentic social power of the church is not the power of “push” but the power of “pull”–influence by attraction. The early church attracted people from various social classes and nationalities precisely b/c of the attractive quality of life together among “the brothers (and sisters)”–a life that was visible to outsiders through both their internal practices (feeding and clothing the widows and orphans, e.g.) and their risky acts of generous hospitality and social inclusion toward outsiders that grew directly out of their life together (rescuing discarded babies from the trash dumps and adopting them into the church and caring for the victims of plagues neglected by the political leaders, e.g.). What has happened to that life within the church? And why?

    As to the question of political activity, I think the problem lies on both the right and the left: for too many on the left, lobbying for welfare programs functions as a substitute for a church that feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, shelters the homeless, and cares for the sick; for too many on the right, lobbying for abortion restrictions functions as a substitute for a church that welcomes the weak and adopts the stranger into the family of God. The common denominator is that too many Christians, of both left and right, have neglected the native calling of the church.

  • Tom F.

    Darrin, I respect the anabaptist thing, and I understand that church is likely to have a different view of engaging in the public square.

    I’m a bit tired of people repeating this meme of “left” = “welfare replaces a church that serves the poor”. Does anyone actually have statistics to back this up? Where is this coming from? Its a convenient meme, but where the evidence?

    I don’t even necessarily think that its a focus on abortion that has crowded out welcoming the weak on the conservative side. I would guess it has much more to do with theological commitments (dualism, dispensationalism, allergic reactions to anything that smacks of social gospel, ect.) and lingering influences from evangelicals emergence from fundamentalism.