There Is No Such Thing as “The Church”
Here I set aside for purposes of this essay the concept of “invisible, universal Body of Christ”—the ideal collective of all true Christians (and any other saved persons) throughout time. Here I write only about churches visible (and usually institutional) on earth in particular times and places.
Over the years I have heard many people, including people who should know better (e.g., Christian theologians and religion scholars) talking about “the church” – referring to the collective of Christians alive right now. For example, I recently listened to a podcast in which a scholar of American religion referred repeatedly to “the American church.” Clearly, given the context, she meant all the Christian churches existing and functioning in America right now—visibly and at least somewhat institutionally.
No such thing exists.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
There is no “the American church.” Nor is there any “the evangelical church.” Nor is there any “the Baptist church.” I have heard all these phrases used—by people who should know better including journalists of religion, scholars of religion, theologians, etc.
There exists “the Catholic Church” because it is a denomination (at least from my Protestant perspective). But that is not what any of these people have meant. Instead, they were clearly referring to all Christian churches of all denominations but lumping them together as “the American church.” Or they were referring to all Baptist churches of all kinds but lumping them together as “the Baptist church.” Or they were referring to all evangelical churches of all kinds but lumping them together as “the evangelical church.” This is what is called the “reifying fallacy” – treating something abstract and non-existent as if it actually exists. They should know better.
My plea to them is to not lump us all together. I am an American Christian but I do not want my church lumped together with all other American Christian churches as part of “the American church.” There are “American churches” and they are extremely diverse. Very little can be said that is true of all of them. They certainly cannot be blamed or accused or described as the same in any other way than that they all claim to be Christian churches.
The usual way this reifying fallacy appears is that the person writing or speaking accuses “the American church” of being such-and-such (legalistic, out of touch, old fashioned, irrelevant, whatever). Usually I can discern that the person writing or speaking is thinking of a particular brand of American churches such as “fundamentalist churches,” but even then there are far too many and their differences are too great to lump them all together. There is no “the American fundamentalist church.” Most fundamentalist churches emphasize being “unaffiliated.”
Why no “the Baptist church?” Because, and anyone who knows anything about Baptists should know this, there are about fifty-seven varieties of Baptists in America and many of them will have nothing to do with others. For example, just to offer a couple of shocking examples, there are “Spiritual Baptists.” Look them up on Youtube and watch their services. Most other Baptists will have nothing to do with them because of their inclusion of mediumship, divination, clairvoyance, etc. In the hollows of the Appalachian Mountains there are “No Heller” Baptists – Baptist churches that do not believe in hell. Read In the Hands of a Happy God, a book about them. Most other Baptists will have nothing to do with them. There are Baptist churches that are hardly distinguishable from Unitarians. There are Pentecostal Baptists.
Why can’t someone lump all Baptists together as “the Baptist church?” The answer should be obvious. There is no headquarters of all Baptists. There is no connective tissue of any kind holding Baptist churches together. Even Baptist denominations, usually called “conventions” or “conferences,” are only voluntary associations of individual, autonomous congregations with no hierarchy over them. So even the Southern Baptist Convention is not a “church.” It is a collective of individual, autonomous churches.
So, there is no “the American church.” There are only “American churches.” There is no “the church;” there are only “churches.”
Why does this matter? Because often when I hear or read “the American church” or “the evangelical church in America” I feel lumped together with people with whom I share almost nothing in common. People claim that “the American church” is losing members. No it isn’t, because there is no “the American church.” A person could say “American churches are losing members” but even then they would be wrong unless they specified which American churches they mean. Some are most certainly not losing members.
In fact, so I believe, what is really happening is that new expressions of Christianity are popping up that are flying “under the radar” of critics who claim “the American churches” are losing members. People are flocking from many of the old, so-called “mainline” churches and many are attending new collective expressions of Christianity that may or may not be called “churches.” Throughout the South and Midwest thousands of “cowboy churches” are popping up. Most of them do not belong to any denomination or are only very loosely affiliated with, for example, a local Baptist association of churches. There are literally thousands of immigrant churches that are hardly noticed by the bean-counters. For example, the Redeemed Christian Church of God of Nigeria has at least seven hundred congregations in the U.S. I am told that many of these congregations are large and growing not only through immigration but also through evangelism and people leaving other churches to attend these.
Many commentators on American Christianity are only observing the emptying pews of traditional churches and saying “the American church” is shrinking. First, there is no “the American church.” Second, there are many American churches they know nothing about.
Now, I have learned from hard experience that I need to head off potential objections to what I write here. One inevitable one will be this: Someone will say “But you (Roger Olson) are not taking into account the statistics drawn from polls asking people about their religious affiliations. According to the polls the “nones” are increasing and the “church members and attenders” are decreasing. My response is that I am suspicious of all polls until and unless I know exactly what questions they asked and how they interpreted the responses. As a scholar with a Ph.D. in religious studies who has studied American religious life (especially Christianity in all its expressions) for many years, I know that these questions are often crafted by people who simply do not understand religious people’s self-identifying languages. For example: If someone asked me if I attend “church” regularly I might think “O, well, ‘church’ isn’t exactly what we call our gathering” or “O, well, ‘church’ is kind of a negative word right now” and say “no” when, in fact, I do have fellowship with other Christians on a regular basis. That’s just one example. Another might be “religious.” “Do you consider yourself ‘religious’?” is a tricky question—even for many Christians. Like many American (and other) evangelicals, I grew up hearing the cliché “Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship.” So I might say I’m not “religious” when, in fact, I am—by sociology standards.
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