No one reasonably disputes that attendance in Christian churches is in sharp decline. The real lingering question is “why?” which is one of the most important questions I take on in my new book, “postChristian: What’s left? Can we fix it? Do we care?”
Though it’s not solely responsible, the internet – along with the way it changes the way we interrelate, communicate, seek and consume information – is certainly doing its part to contribute to the decline. And it’s not just Church that is feeling the pinch; any hierarchic system in which the institution traditionally has played the role of guard, gatekeeper or mediator is finding their authority challenged.
As for why now, the answer is more complex than any single factor. On the one hand, changing domestic, social and economic systems have caused us to spread out and move around far more than before. The churches, as a result, are no longer social hubs of neighborhoods any more. And along with being social hubs, churches also served as economic engines, as businesspeople networked after worship or over a potluck meal. Now we just use LinkedIn.
There’s also been a substantial shift in cultural perception, such that not going to church no longer holds the same stigma that it used to. Even atheists are coming out of the proverbial closet in greater numbers. And as I suggest in postChristian, lower church attendance doesn’t necessarily correlate to fewer people believing in God. Plenty of skeptics have filled church pews out of a sense of familial or other social obligation.
But beyond these factors, there’s the dramatic shift in how we access and consume ideas and information. As Michael Grunwald points out in his TIME Magazine article, “The Second Age of Reason,” we are living today in the midst of a “Golden Age of answers.” This is important on a couple of levels as it relates to church, and actually, it’s been a long time coming.
Prior to the development of movable typeface and the printing press, few people of average means owned a bible. But once printing was accessible, the information once relegated to libraries and collections of the rich was distributed far and wide. Of course, more people had to learn how to read first in order to enjoy the books, but the availability of literature such as the Gutenberg Bible provided an incentive.
Fast forward a few hundred years, and we see the Internet having much the same effect. Aside from the ease and immediacy of access to information, it also offers an unprecedented variety of perspectives. Before, we might have had one newspaper – or one priest or pastor – to tell us what the facts were in any given situation, and we’d take it more or less on faith. But now we dissect everything from the presidential actions in the middle east to Biblical interpretation, and even the price of our favorite coffee.
Perhaps most important, though, as Grunwald notes, is that we have direct access to the information. It’s always “out there,” waiting to be retrieved, rather than being parsed out to us by some other mediating body. “The democratization of information,” he writes, “is particularly threatening to middlemen and gatekeepers. Who needs a travel agent when there’s Kayak and Priceline? How long can real estate agents and stockbrokers survive when buyers and sellers are linking up online?”
Stated another way: who needs a church or a priest when spiritual seekers believe they can access God directly?
Granted, this is a bit of an oversimplification for the purpose of illustration, postmodern thought – a reaction to modernist, post-enlightenment liberal though and Platonic dualism – reached a sort of tipping point with the advent of the Internet in every corner of our lives. Even before the World Wide Web invasion, we were becoming increasingly suspicious of all institutions, and of anyone who claimed to possess absolute truth about anything. The mid-century upheavals caused by events like Watergate and Vietnam hardened us, but they also gave us pause. We started asking questions, doubting and pushing back against systems of authority, rather than taking their sovereignty as a given.
So we were, in a sense, primed for what the Internet afforded us. Not sure if you like your doctor’s diagnosis? Go on Web MD and diagnose yourself, or find six other doctors to offer alternate opinions. Skeptical about the story you read in your local paper? Look into it on Snopes, PantsOnFire or Politifact. Disagree with the sermon your pastor preached on Sunday? Download a slew of podcasts, thousands of ebooks or hundreds upon hundreds of blogs with a focus on theology. Or watch a sermon online, while in your robe and sipping coffee on your couch.
After all, if the Church is primarily a purveyor of information you can get on your own, and if their assertions about being the mediators for your own personal salvation – or at least your spiritual wellbeing – begin to ring hollow, then why go at all?
This is where the Church (with a big “C”) is largely culpable, and not just a victim of unfortunate cultural circumstance. The fact of the matter is that there is great privilege and power to be enjoyed in being a gatekeeper. You get to decide the rules, and the terms of acceptability. Granted, since the advent of Vatican II, we’ve seen gradual, if grudging, movement toward a more “open source” approach to faith. But many Christian churches still claim to be essential, or at least critical to our experience of the Divine.
The thing is, fewer and fewer of us believe it any more.
Organized religion is a big ship to turn around, especially when so many at the helm are resisting the change at every turn. Granted, the willing accession of authority and power is not an innate human instinct, so often times, we only do so when forced to. And as Churches continue to close and denominations shrink, some are being forced into such a “change or die” ultimatum. Even then, some choose death over change, but in other cases, the transformation may be too late, coming off as desperate or opportunistic.
But Jesus has been calling us to such radical abandonment of the “gatekeeper” model of religion from the very beginning of Christianity. In his book, “Zealot,” Reza Aslan argues that Jesus boldly took the spiritual leaders of his time head on. After healing a leper in the gospel of Matthew, he orders the man to go visit the local priest. But Aslan suggests he didn’t do so in order to prove himself to the religious authorities as a bona fide miracle worker. Rather, he did it to challenge the entire system of controlled access the priests used to deem who was worthy to be in the presence of God.
Before this, a man with leprosy had to go through extensive, and expensive, cleansing rituals that benefitted the church financially. But Jesus says to the man he heals to “offer him (the priest) as a testimony the things that the Law of Moses commanded for your cleansing1.”
“Jesus did not only heal the leper,” writes Aslan, “he purified him, making him eligible to appear at the tmeple as a true Israelite. And he did so for free, as a gift from God—without tithe, without sacrifice—thus siezing for himself the powers granted solely to the priesthood to deem a man worthy of entering the presence of God.”
Then we returned the favor, spending the next two thousand years trying to reclaim that priestly authority. But now, we’re paying for our sins.
So although the Internet did not single-handedly put Western Christianity in the state we find ourselves today, it is an important catalyst that galvanized the elements already in place in the culture. On the other hand, the way we are now networked presents no small number of opportunities for organized religion. Whereas a local preacher once would only have had their sermon received by whoever was at worship on Sunday, now podcasts and streaming media offer worship a global reach. The concept of community stretches and expands, as relationships forged on Sunday mornings continue to evolve through our digital ties. Some pastors even welcome the introduction of popular culture memes into the church, integrating streaming images and other media into their lessons.
But focusing too much on such novelties is akin in some ways to adding a coat of paint to a sinking ship. It may help keep a few people there who might have otherwise left, but those who hold religious institutions inherently suspect will not likely be wooed by a video clip from Youtube.
Now, the only question remaining is not whether the rest of the world will come to its senses and return to Church. It is, whether the Church will recognize its proper place in the human experience, as servant and steward, not gatekeeper or arbiter, or risk going the way of the temple in Jerusalem who, too, did not heed the grave warnings of Jesus.
If the latter, then we deserve the obsolescence toward which we are so steadily headed.
Christian Piatt is the author of “postChristian: What’s Left? Can we fix it? Do we care?” and a blogger on the Patheos Progressive Christian channel. For more information about Christian, visit www.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.