Are Church and Society Collapsing Together?

Are Church and Society Collapsing Together? July 28, 2012

On Facebook, I had my attention drawn to an interesting article by Margaret Wente about the decline of the liberal church, focusing on the United Church of Canada. It is an interesting article, but it deserves to be read carefully, since it acknowledges that pretty much the only churches not in decline are connected with immigrant communities for whom religion and cultural identity (and the preservation thereof) are closely connected. And so its real point is very much like that of the recent Ross Douthat article that generated so much discussion (and to which I wrote a response). It is not about liberal churches per se, but about churches, and the fact that the jettisoning of tradition – whether traditional music or traditional doctrine – has not led to this generation becoming members or actively participating.

So the real question, in light of that, is what the church should be doing if it thinks it should have a future. If neither being conservative nor being liberal makes a difference, then churches should presumably be true to their convictions – but if they are worth having around, then clearly it may have to be for something other than has traditionally been the case. Getting together to sing and listen to a long sermon has never been the attraction. People did that (perhaps put up with that) because the church was the hub of communities. And it still is for immigrants and subcultures, but not for mainstream society in its latest generations. We are finding community, connecting with people with whom we share interests or whose differences challenge us, via blogs and Facebook and other online venues.

And so is there any way that churches – including liberal churches – can serve as hubs for communities? Do we still want face-to-face contact not mediated by a camera and monitor? If so, how can churches fulfill that role in the present day? If not, then the question of what the church's future is is a serious one.

But so is the question whether our societies are fragmenting to such an extent that nothing else helps to bring us together and provide cohesiveness. Is anything else stepping into the places and roles that churches once filled?

Is the demise of churches merely akin to the demise of bookstores, or of coal mines, something that is part of the inevitable and painful changes societies undergo? Or is there a social as well as spiritual role the disappearance of which could not be easily substituted for by virtual interactions?

How worried should we be?


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  • JD

    What do you mean by how worried “we” should be?
    Isn’t that what you are really working for, McGrath?
    Your father is very proud of you.

    • If you are not worried, that is what I am interested in finding out. Perhaps you are not as involved in the life of a local church as I am? Or perhaps you are not as concerned about the loss of face-to-face communities? If so, I would be interested to know.

      Or perhaps your confusion illustrates that, whereas local communities could once talk of themselves in the first person plural, today there is very little sense of being a community in online discussions?

  • Ron

    I’m not worried about the decline. In fact, I’ve been wondering what the justification of church is myself. The best I’ve come up with is that it is a place where people who otherwise might come to blows (as described in one passage in Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Leaving Church”) can come together agreeing that there is something that transcends and (perhaps) critiques their differences. But mostly (in my observation anyway) religion is just one more tool we use to justify ourselves, and if it doesn’t perform that handy function then we ignore it.

  • Gary

    It seems like the regular church goers are getting older. Not as many young people interested anymore. Except maybe when they want a wedding in a church. Or a baptism. Or someone dies, and the family wants a funeral. Maybe that’s a statement of humanity. Interested in God at birth and death. Everything in-between is a crap shoot. Or an internet experience. As Alfred E. Newman said, “What, me worried?” No. How’s that for dating myself? Now excuse me, I’ve got to go to church.

  • spinkham

    I’m not very worried. In fact I’m actually pretty excited:

    I think it’s quite possible the fall of the hegemony of church as the
    social glue of our society may in fact be what is necessary to bring
    about a rediscovery
    of the ways Christianity does still speak powerfully

    Churches I’ve attended have been at best mostly fan service and much more often a manifestation of what I would describe as a truly demonic power. (The series the above article is from explains my general view of Christianity better than I can, and is written by a Christian psychology professor.)

    There are parts of the Christian tradition that would deeply impoverish the world if it was lost, but there is so much of our tradition in this country that needs to be destroyed before that part can shine through.

    That transition requires the death of the church as power system, and I’m not sure anything that resembles the church as we now experience it can survive that process.

    • spinkham

      As to what sorts of things take the place of Church, is filled with groups that do. My social life is more varied than when church was the one-stop shop, but that to me has been a good thing.

      • It might well be that nothing could be better for the spiritual health of the church for all or most of those congregations which are expressions of cultural Christianity to dwindle and disappear.

        • spinkham

          I think the critique of church as often dangerous power structure, tribal boundary marker and reality-bending existential salve is deserved in a much wider sphere than you may wish to include by referring to “cultural Christianity”, but I’m not sure I can do justice to why in less words than Beck has in the series I linked to above. 😉

          There are churches out there that understand and actively fight against those tendencies, but unfortunately they are by far the minority. We have very good reasons to not want to understand all of those things, and the research that helps us understand is fairly new and not widely known.

          • Probably I had the full range of them in mind, and just didn’t choose the best shorthand phrase to encapsulate them. 🙂

  • Dr. Alan E. Brisco

    I don’t disagree with you James; what you highlight may well be true.
    Yet, the decline of the liberal church (referenced in the context of the United
    Church of Canada) of which Margaret Wente wrote, is more a result of
    theological issues which Margaret identifies than sociological ones.

    Margaret named liberal churches and referenced the United Church of
    Canada with purpose; speaking directly of a problem she observes in UCC and
    other liberal churches. True, these churches may not be the community hubs they
    once were, but a great many community activities still occur in their facilities.
    The problem is that they’ve tried to make community involvement their raison d’être.

    The larger issue she highlights is not what these churches have ceased
    to be in society, but Whom they have ceased to follow and serve. Their problem
    is not that they’ve lost a purpose, but that they’ve lost their First Love,
    which leaves them devoted to causes and not devoted to Christ. These liberal
    churches have adopted other interests (some quite noble), yet lost interest in
    Jesus and devotion to him, whom to know is life eternal; seeking to initiative a
    mission instead of joining in God’s ongoing mission.

    Conservatives can sit on the sidelines and feel ‘above or apart from all
    this’. Listen at the end of many services to what people discuss.

    Sadly, instead of liberal talk of food banks and mattresses for the
    marginalized, talk in conservative churches may be about the rockin’ band or
    the cool God talk awe. But listen carefully. How often do we hear people speak the
    awareness and experience of the magnificence presence of God or encounters with
    Jesus in the just concluded service. And of course, conservatives are also be guilty
    for intentionally failing to read the Word (paraphrase instead) and failing to pray
    during what we still label Christian worship services.

    In all of this, is God perhaps calling us to different forms of
    Christian witness and worship in a desperately needy world? If so, are we so
    busy that we can’t hear him?

    • I’m not sure that keeping focus on God necessarily results in large attendance or membership – presumably in some cases a genuine focus on God might challenge assumptions and norms in a way that drives many away. At any rate, I suspect that focusing on attracting large numbers is not a key to either spiritual health or long-term large memberships. 🙂

      But I wonder whether there are any statistics indicating that the departures from thr United Church of Canada have corresponded to increases in more conservative and moderate denominations with a theological interest and focus. That would indicate that it is lack of theology that has impacted the UCC rather than other factors.

  • I go to the local tabletop games store and play D&D now, instead of going to church. I find that it’s a much more enjoyable and fulfilling way for me to socialize, it’s a better and more welcoming atmosphere, the friends I make there are more diverse and more likely to share my interests and values, and for the money I put in I get books, toys, and minis.

    I’m still learning questionable lessons about genocide and abusive deities, but at least now I get to roleplay my own response to them instead of being told how I should feel about it.

    • What a delightful way of addressing this – and it is encouraging to know that there are still people playing D&D, as I used to and still might if opportunity arose. I was afraid that that sort of face-to-face interaction had disappeared in much the same way that the church looks like it might, at least for the next generation. Are there young people regularly involved, if I might ask, or is it just people who grew up playing it in the 70s or 80s?

      • Well, Pathfinder — the “fork” of the open-source 3.5 edition of D&D, which was discontinued by Wizards of the Coast — skews about a decade older than the new edition of D&D, in my experience. Which is partly because the new edition jettisoned a lot of the things that made it D&D, and made a completely new game … a great one, but very different.

        I personally have the most fun when I GM Pathfinder for new players, especially younger ones.

      • Incidentally, I got started in tabletop roleplaying in 2000 when I was 17, with a boxed Star Wars game that used the same rules as D&D. I didn’t start playing D&D for a few more years, because my Christian Cultural upbringing had made me extremely wary of it.

        I say this because you seem to want data points for how people younger than you are taking to hobbies like tabletop roleplaying.

        • I was just curious, since I loved D&D when I was younger, but even something a bit pared down like Star Wars Miniatures can fail to have long-term appeal with some younger people who have grown up with the computer or Wii versions of RPGs. And some of those are excellent, so I am not begruding the fact. I just was curious how the tabletop and mostly-imagination RPGs are doing these days, since I myself have not played them for a number of years now, alas…

  • Michael Wilson

    Most of the Christian church’s membership historically has
    been derived from its control of martial elites. Attendee was mandatory. Now
    people are free to choose other communities. I think it is not possible for the
    church to be as important as it was without force. After 300 years when the
    Christian devotion became the devotion of Rome, the Christians were only 10% of
    the population. I think Christians should embrace the shrinking Church and try
    to see how their myth complements others. Do you think Jesus would really care,
    if he knew what we know, whether or not people revered him if they were living compassionate
    lives? I liked Taryn Fox’s comment about
    the D&D game. My weekly meeting with my friends was a chance to open up
    around other people, to become involved in a fantasy with them. That fulfilled the
    fellowship function of church. It does not however speak to those mysteries for
    which many still call on the church, as mentioned by a commenter above. Many of
    the new non church communities that have emerged still turn to the church for
    births, the baptisms or the circumcision, the weddings and most especially the
    funeral. Why? They are fundamental symbols of community life. They are the most
    basic parts of its existence, the production of new members and the loss of the

  • Elizabeth

    Based on my own experiences with churches, friendliness is key. I have quit going to more than one church where I felt I was just a butt in the chair and a check on Sunday. When I was welcomed, people were glad to see me, interested in what I was doing… and where I felt useful… that is where I settled down. Recently I met a lady who is not of the denomination of the church I currently attend but is discouraged at the unfriendliness of her own denominations various congregations. She is now coming to my church, where we are not good a friendliness, but we work hard at getting better.