Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Decline of Christianity

I just read an interesting article entitled: Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline

Benton Johnson, Dean R. Hoge & Donald A. Luidens. I encourage you all to take the time to read the article. It is from the archive of First Things magazine. While the research is predominately from the Presbyterian Church I think it can be more broadly applied to most main line churches and also the Adventist Church as well.

After listing two common ideas for the decline in Main line Christian Churches, a shift to greater individual autonomy and as a protest against the churches perceived lack of care for the poor and political issues like abortion, the article states:

A third intra-religious theory was advanced by Dean M. Kelley in his controversial book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, published in 1972. Kelly argued that the mainline denominations have lost members because they have become weak as religious bodies. Strong religions provide clear-cut, compelling answers to questions concerning the meaning of life, mobilize their members' energies for shared purposes, require a distinctive code of conduct, and discipline their members for failure to live up to it. Weak religions allow a diversity of theological viewpoints, do not and can not command much of their members' time or effort, promote few if any distinctive rules of conduct, and discipline no one for violating them. In short, strong religions foster a level of commitment that binds members to the group; weak religions have low levels of commitment and are unable to resist influences that lower it even further.

Since careful tests of these theories have never been made, no consensus has emerged as to which, if any, of them best explains why mainline churches have lost members. To gain new insights into the reasons for the decline, the three of us decided to interview a national sample of baby boomers who had been confirmed in mainline Protestant churches during the 1960s. To simplify our task, we concentrated on a single denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), formed in 1983 by merger of the nation's two largest Presbyterian bodies. In 1989, with a grant from the Lilly Endowment, we drew samples of names from confirmation lists of churches in six states and located as many people in the samples as we could. We completed 500 Gallup-style telephone interviews and forty face-to-face follow-up interviews.

What they found is interesting:

…In short, our baby boom drop-outs did not leave the Presbyterian church in search of salvation or enlightenment; they left because religion itself had become low on their list of personal priorities. They pray occasionally, they hold Jesus in high esteem, and they have some interest in such questions as the purpose of existence and the fate of the soul after death, but they do not consider it necessary to attend church in order to nourish what faith they have.

The underlying cause it appears is what they call “lay liberalism”:

…We have named this pattern the theology of lay liberalism. It is “liberal” because its defining characteristic is the rejection of the view that Christianity is the only religion with a valid claim to truth…

…Most lay liberals “prefer” Christianity to other faiths, but they are unable to ground their preference in strong truth claims. A few simply told us that Christianity is “true for me,” whereas Buddhism or Islam may be true for others, and some explained that they preferred Christianity because they were raised in that faith. But most lay liberals we talked to were uneasy with the nihilistic implications of this line of thought, and they proposed some universal grounding for their religious preference. Some believe that a common thread of truth runs through all the world's major religions and that at base all religions teach the same thing…

…If God helped write all the world's scriptures, there is no harm in belonging to any religion that one finds congenial. Lay liberals have a much broader notion of what is religiously respectable than old-time Presbyterians had. They are hard put to offer theological reasons why anyone should remain a Presbyterian, or even a Christian…

Ultimately the reason for the decline is:

Orthodox Christian belief of one variety or other, which the fundamentalists and other conservatives in our sample espouse, seems to impel people to commit their time and other resources to a distinctively Christian regimen of witness and obedience in the company of other believers. Lay liberalism, on the other hand, is not an empowering system of belief but rather a set of conjectures concerning religious matters. It supports honesty and other moral virtues, and it encourages tolerance and civility in a pluralistic society, but it does not inspire the kind of conviction that creates strong religious communities.

It seems to me that the answer is found somewhere between the foolish certainty of fundamentalism and worthless all roads lead home of the “lay liberalism”. Fundamentalism encourages the idea that they have the truth and that all other ideas are wrong but it is largely based upon fictional interpretations and beliefs which cannot be maintained under questioning. Both sides are based upon unreasonable methods of interpretation. To say that all sacred books are inspired by the same God even though they contradict each other makes no sense unless God is terribly confused. That does not mean that there cannot be good things in all the different sacred writings we know that there are, but they all carry an underlying goal or principle to which the various religions aspire. Having some good parts does not make the overall document all good or all inspired by God. Neither is the fundamentalist dismissal of all other religious ideas feasible either. Which is why we need to enlist our minds in the analysis of religious ideas. What has happened however is that we have become scared to discuss religion. Not just different religions but even religion in our own faith traditions. One more quote from the article:

Given the reluctance of so many baby boomers to talk about religion or to instill their own views in their children, the prospects that their offspring will make a serious Christian commitment are even dimmer than their own prospects turned out to be. And among the “religious” dropouts the prospects are dimmer still. They are virtually unanimous in wanting their children to have a religious education, but less than a third with children at home have actually enrolled them in Sunday School. Many hesitate to do so for fear of getting “roped in” to a round of church activities themselves. They are “too busy,” and they have a myriad of other commitments. Above all, they see no real point in getting involved.

Modern Christianity has become afraid to deal with “God talk”. This is just as true in the Adventist church as any other church. The fundamentalist style of God talk is largely the reason I think that Christianity has lost the ability to do what it was called to do. The fear most Christians have of looking like an intolerant uneducated narrow minded bigot. The fundamentalist camps have created their own internal support but they have poisoned the water of everyone else. Their ranks are not really growing they are just not shrinking as fast as the rest of Christianity. (see: Most religious groups in USA have lost ground, survey finds )

Adventism needs to pull itself out of this guilt by association predicament. We need to be willing to engage in God talk without the enraging insistence that our interpretation is the only correct view or it is our truth or nothing. We must learn how to engage in the market place of ideas with respect and knowledge and make the case for Christ upon an intelligent argument from history and we must learn to include a new understanding of the information that science provides us. Faith does not simply believe in traditions, faith is believing in a God of grace and goodness who we can share as a relevant part of human life. God is not destroyed by evolution any more than He is destroyed by fundamentalism or legalism; somewhere in between there is something worth holding on to.

If our church can’t find that balance then some other church will most certainly find the balance and continue the work of God despite our pollution. Because certainly God has never given up because people misunderstood Him, at least that is something that history always makes clear.

No comments: