How Christianity is Being Saved

I read with great interest Ross Douthat’s column in the New York Times, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” While Douthat doesn’t share many sympathies with those who consider themselves liberal, he did honestly acknowledge that “the defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life.” Though he seems to think Mainline Christianity doomed, Douthat holds out a prayer that liberals might find a “religious reason for their own existence.”

Of course, there is another side to the story of Christendom’s decline in America. Diana Butler Bass, who conducted a study of thriving Mainline congregations for the Lilly Endowment, responded strongly both to Douthat’s question and to his assumptions about liberal Christianity in a piece titled, “Can Christianity Be Saved?” If you pay attention to the numbers, Bass noted, it’s not just liberal Christianity that’s in decline. Save the influx of Latino and Asian immigrants over the past decade, conservative Christian churches would be posting greater losses than some of their Mainline neighbors. Even with the influx from elsewhere, many conservative Christian organizations are cutting staff and trimming budgets. Despite the old dividing lines of the Culture Wars, we have more in common than we think, Bass insists. “Decline is not exclusive to the Episcopal Church, nor to liberal denominations–it is a reality facing the whole of American Christianity.”

When resources are scarce, people tend to fight. But we also get creative, stepping outside our conventional assumptions and daring to imagine new possibilities. By the numbers, the institutions of American Christianity are in bad shape. Truth is, they have been for some time. But this doesn’t mean that Christianity is lost. Across the spectrum of denominational divisions—and quite often in outright defiance of left/right divisions—Christianity is getting born again in America.

I do not think we can understand the great transition that faith is experiencing in America apart from understanding how Constantine changed the Christian movement 1700 years ago. 2012 is an important year, for it was this coming October, in the year 312, when the Roman Emperor understood his victory at the Milvian Bridge as the blessing of Christ. In short order, Christianity moved from being a persecuted minority movement to become the official religion of the Empire. Though we’ve been through significant political changes in the West since then, Christianity has held its place of privilege. Until recently, that is.

Of course, some people note that Christianity began to crumble when it turned out that Galileo was right and the earth was not, in fact, the center of the universe. Others point to Darwin or to the alliance of Germany’s Reichkirche with Hitler’s evil regime or to dozens of other turning points. Christian dominance has, no doubt, suffered many blows for several hundred years. But the big change that Douthat and Bass are arguing about—the transition we are all caught up in—is the empirical evidence that says Christianity as we’ve known it is done.

The Awakening of HopeAs scary as it might seem, this is good news. For if Christendom is dead, then followers of Jesus can dance because a new way of being Christian has been getting born for quite some time. The “immensely positive force in our national life” that Douthat longs for and the “awakening of a more open, more inclusive, more spiritually vital faith” that Bass points toward is real in thousands of communities that have committed themselves to practicing the way of Jesus day by day, come what may. These are the communities that inspired me to write, The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice a Common Faith. Because seeing is believing for so many of us, my friend Shane Claiborne and I went to these places of hope, interviewed some of their saints, and created a DVD to go along with the book—a sort of “Alpha Course” for a new kind of Christianity. Throughout the month of August, you can join a conversation about The Awakening of Hope at the Patheos Book Club.

America has a tradition of Great Awakenings—times when we remember the Spirit blowing across our land and demonstrating God’s power in people’s lives. These revivals have traditionally renewed the church as we know it in our culture, giving rise to new denominations and swelling the ranks of the faithful. Within a Christendom framework, we learned to pray for these renewals because they kept the ship afloat.

But the Great Awakenings also pricked the conscience of our nation’s soul, sparking reform movements from the abolitionists of the nineteenth century to the “What Would Jesus Do?” campaign of the early twentieth century. Douthat is right to note that this is an extremely positive force. If it’s old forms have died, we still need to know where this power is being born again. Lord knows the winds of change need all the help they can get these days.

But the awakening that happens when the Spirit blows across our lives does not have to be “great”—at least, not if great means crowds of people filing into stadiums to hear golden tongues articulate the good news for our day. When Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” testified to God’s power in the early days of the Christian movement, he wasn’t noticed because of his communication savvy. People listened to Peter because they saw signs of hope in the new community he and John were part of. What they noted was that he and his friends had “been with Jesus.” They had been given power from on high to live a different kind of life (see Acts 4:13).

So maybe we’re not waiting for another Great Awakening. Maybe we don’t need another George Whitfield or Charles Finney, a Dwight Moody or Billy Graham. Maybe the Spirit is already breathing new life into the church and into God’s good world through the everyday awakenings that are happenings all around.

In thousands of little communities that are mostly overlooked, people are being stirred by the Spirit to lead a different kind of life. It’s a life that doesn’t make sense if the gospel isn’t true. But because these people have been with Jesus—because they’ve somehow gotten the truth of God’s story deep down in their bones—their life does make sense.

Indeed, for these people the way of Jesus is now the only way of living that makes any sense at all.

To see your life from this vantage point is to see a whole new world of possibility. It’s like waking up from a bad dream to realize the thing that most scared you—the thing that just a moment before was as real as the rising price of gas—was only an illusion.

The way things are is not the way things have to be.

There is a new creation all around us.

It’s an everyday awakening that can happen anywhere. When it does, you know you’ve found what you were looking for. You don’t have to go somewhere else to find the answer. Your desperate search is over because God has met you where you are.

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  • Matthew

    I read recently in Tim Keller´s book “The Reason for God” that it´s in fact conservative Christianity (mainly of the evangelical brand) that is growing worldwide — especially in the developing world. I hadn´t seen anything about the decline of this type of Christianity in America until I read this post … interesting. For me at least — there is an opportunity to merge the great social justice work of the liberal churches with the strong emphasis on personal conversion that exists in more conservative evangelical circles. I wonder if this is what New Monastic expressions of Christianity are focusing on? Also … how would you define a “more open, more inclusive” Christian faith?

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Your latter question, Matthew, is probably one for Dianna Butler Bass, whom I was quoting. But your point about joining a strong emphasis on personal conversion w/ social justice work is one I would give a strong “Amen.” This is neither conservative nor liberal Christianity. It is Christianity. The incredibly wonderful gift of our time is that people from all corners of the denominational streams are rediscovering this. It’s an exciting time. (You might enjoy my friend William Barber’s take on “conservative Christianity” from the sermon he gave at the Wild Goose Festival a few weeks ago:

    • Patricia

      Try reading the book, “Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing,” which talks about the decline by millions of the Conservative churches.

  • Phil Newton

    Interesting post. For some reason it made me think of ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’. Go figure.

  • Kiki Barnes

    It is quite refreshing for anyone to speak of revival in Christendom. After yesterday’s Chic Fil A day scare tactic-religion-as-veneer-for-politics spectacle, I have wrestled with my conservative background. I’ve become so distressed from those in my home communities’ thinly veiled hate speech. But I’m reconciling, which your article helps me to articulate, the need to preserve a sense of personal conversion, balanced with faith inspired social action. I thought I had to be all one thing or another, but I’m realizing, as Duke Divinity School has taught me, “it’s a both/and” Thank you for your words.

  • David

    I have little doubt that the Holy Spirit is alive and kicking. Of course, re-forming the body of Christ is the easy part. What is a bit more daunting is the task ahead. I see many falling from the weight of their crosses. I see many empty mouths and broken hearts. I see legions of old, sick, and disabled left without care. I see violence near and far. I see God’s creation destroyed for greed. We have our work cut out for us. And living as Jesus taught is the only way to cure those ills.

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      I’m not sure which is the bigger challenge–reforming the church or loving the world. But I’m pretty sure we can’t do one without the other. This is, it seems to me, a mark of the awakening that we’re seeing: people who are passionate about Jesus and his church are equally concerned about justice for the oppressed and the healing of creation.

  • James Morgan

    The more Christianity seeks social justice, the more likely it is to survive. I don’t think that Christianity is doomed, but it will become a much more minor belief. Islam and atheism are the fastest growing spiritual beliefs in the world, and atheism is the fastest growing spiritual belief in America. A Pew Foundation survey found that 57 percent of chuch goers are not certain there is a god, and more than half report that their religion is not relevant in day to day life.

  • Kent Sparks

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jonathan. I just ordered the book and dvd. Can’t wait.


  • Matthew

    I wish we could talk about the Chic-Fil-A debacle … maybe someone will be inspired to write an article about it :-)!

  • Matthew

    Oh yes … and I wouldn´t be so certain that Christianity will be turned into a minor belief system. Christianity is booming (apparently) in the developing world — although I would agree it is on the decline in America and has been in decline for some time here in Western Europe.

  • jerry lynch

    “This is neither conservative nor liberal Christianity. It is Christianity.”
    It is a little over ten years ago that I woke up one morning totally convicted on several things to which I had been either previously opposed or unconscious of. The crucial element of all these “convictions” had to do with worldliness. The very notion of labeling myself a Liberal Christian was suddenly an abomination, not just a bad idea. The very notion of labeling any doctrine or dogma after anyone but Christ (as in Luther, Calvin, and Wesley, etc.) was an abomination. The very notion of patriotism for any country was an abomination. There are several othe “convictions” but I will stop there.
    I was not the sort to use such a word as “abomination”; sounded too fire and brimstone to me. To say I was shocked by my new-found easy use of the word and all the profound overnight changes in my views is understatement. Was I possessed? Brain tumor? Bad dream? What happened to me? Then I gradually settled into a more useful questioning: did these convictions have merit?
    For me, the destruction of Christendom as it is now known appears essential, just like an individual soul’s need to die to self. It is so interwoven with worldliness, perhaps from the misfortune of societal acceptance back 1700 years ago, that repairs or ecumenical movements are useless. The misconception about what is or is not worldliness is at the center of the problem.
    So many denominations and sects look to make rules to control worldliness in their congregations, ignorant to the fact that the very rules are a form of worldliness. The way I see it is that a A Great Awakening can only come with clarifying the nature of worldliness, not in attempts to unify in beliefs. One faith, one baptism will be the result of a personal “dying to self” of each Christian and not any movements.
    We have to stop acting like Christians and BECOME as Christ, to become a clear choice between godliness and worldliness. The Spiritual Fruit of love (kindness, patience, gentleness and so forth) are not behavior modeification techniques. We need to get honest with each other about where we are emotionally. Have no image is key to growing in fellowship. The Pharisees looked like God’s chosen people but were not changed in their heart. Joy is the muscle that turns the other cheek, not obedience to the Word. Any “should” needs to be deeply questioned and openly probed to find the reluctance or resistance that makes it a duty and not a joy.
    “Possess nothing” is the rallying cry; any entitlement of “mine” is a hindrance. To “sell all your possessions” means to be non-attached to the values and treasures of this world, as well as the values and treasures of “I.”
    Any psychological need is a form of worldliness. By grace and the complete abandonment to divine providence of Spirit, psychological needs are transformed into psychological gifts; the Prayer of Saint Francis gives us some idea of the changes necessary.
    The conversation, I feel, must always start and end with worldliness, in an open exploration within and not a condemnation without.

  • Matthew


    I think you are onto something. Sometimes the church looks so much like the world that it is hard to tell the difference between the two.

  • David

    also @ Jerry. Well said & thank you. The deceptions associated with the spirit of the age are subtle. The obviously sensual and superficialy religious are often two sides of the same coin. When the ‘church’ trades in the currency of self-righteousness, pride, and fear she becomes as Sodom was-arrogant, overfeed, and unconcerned (Ezekiel 16:49).

    I wrote a few blogs that touch on this point and how we can navigate through these issues. This website could use some lively, interactive conversation so here is a link. Be Blessed.

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  • Cary McMullen

    Jonathan, I’m now reading Douthat’s book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” and he gives an excellent description of the cultural rise and fall of Christian influence in the years after World War II to the present. One of his points is that it is orthodoxy (generously defined) that matters rather than “liberal” or “conservative.” I think Douthat wants more cultural influence than I’m interested in, but I agree that orthodoxy matters, and I am greatly heartened at the kind of communities that you and Shane are engaged in and writing about, which focus on Jesus. Our son belongs to a tight-knit house church, and I like to think this is the future of Christianity, which may be more counter-cultural than cultural.

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Thanks for this, Cary. What I’ve tried to do with The Awakening of Hope is to re-introduce orthodoxy via orthopraxy–that is, to begin with faithful practice and ask, why do Christians do this sort of thing. I think the why matters a great deal, esp over the long haul. But I think the post-Christendom moment is begging for a new way of presenting it.

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