Generation Ex-Christian

Navel-gazing on why people have been leaving Christianity has been going on all my life, but Dyck has drawn on some legitimate research and done some reasonable analysis. He identifies six broad categories of ex-Christians: Drifters, Neopagans, Rebels, Recoilers, Modern leavers and Postmodern leavers. I see all of them in UU churches and at Pagan circles, though not all of our family are ex-Christians. The post-Christian era in the United States has been going long enough that some folks who find us aren’t “leavers,” they’re people who grew up without religion or a religious community and find us on their search for truth and meaning.
As for Neopagans, Dyck says “Not all actually cast spells or participate in pagan rituals, but they deny a transcendent God, and see earth as the locus of true spirituality.” That’s a very loose definition that includes more than a few people still in Christian churches, but I think his categorization is probably accurate for his (orthodox Christian) purposes.
What I find most interesting is his prescription for reversing the trend. Dyck says “I believe churches need to get shift the emphasis away from an entertainment model and back to religious education and spiritual growth.” Now, spiritual growth is one of my top priorities and I totally agree that entertainment is a poor substitute for worship, regardless of your religion. The question isn’t if they should teach religion and spirituality but what kind of religion and spirituality should they teach? If they insist on teaching the same old stuff, just harder and deeper, then they’ll keep getting the same results. Rebels will keep rebelling, skeptics will keep rejecting the myths they’re told they have to believe literally, and Neopagans will keep hearing the call of the Divine in the natural world.
Like so many conservative Christians (including Catholics, Anglicans, and Evangelicals), Dyck points to the explosion of Christianity in the Global South as the future of the Church. That growth is real, and it may be that orthodox Christianity is simply a good match with societies moving from a tribal structure to a national structure. But are these churches ready to accept this as their future and write off Europe and North America?
Although it is a mistake to speak of “Christianity” as though it was a unified, monolithic entity, in general I think Christianity in the West has three choices. One is to do as leaders such as Dyck and the current pope have suggested and refocus and reintensify around traditional doctrines and practices. This will preserve the traditions, but it will speed up the exodus from the Church by those who can’t honestly believe what they’re told they have to believe. It will result in a purer Church, but a much smaller Church, along the lines of Orthodox Judaism.
The second option is to acknowledge that 2-3000 year old ideas about the origins of the world, the place of women, the role of sexuality and the eternal destination for the followers of other religions no longer work. In other words, stop worshipping the Bible and religious tradition and start trying to follow the teachings of Jesus. This will disappoint those who are comfortable with the (false) certainty that church traditions and literal readings of scripture bring, but it will allow many of the “leavers” to return in good conscience, and stop driving so many others away.
The third option is to keep doing what they’ve been doing, which will keep bringing about the same results – a slow, steady descent into irrelevance.
I have not been a Christian for many years – I was both a Modernist and a Post-modernist “leaver,” and I am now a happy and dedicated Druid, Pagan and UU. As such, I have no compelling interest in this debate. But I hate to watch the slow death of an institution that has meant so much to so many people, and that despite its many past and current sins has done much good.
In the end, all religions must be meaningful, helpful and relevant to their followers here and now or those followers will go elsewhere. Those religions that adapt to changing times will thrive. Those that cling to the past will die.
And that’s a warning for all of us, not just for orthodox Christians.
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