Okay. I’ll go cliche here.
The decline of ‘religion’ is no doubt a bad thing for the ‘World.’ By it all the things that made England a fairly happy country are, I suppose, endangered: the comparative purity of her public life, the comparative humanity of her police, and the possibility of some mutual respect and kindness between political opponents. But I am not clear that it makes conversions to Christianity rarer or more difficult: rather the reverse. It makes the choice more unescapable.
Back to the cliche. Was that in yesterday’s New York Times?
Surprise! (not really…just go with it)
I read it yesterday in C.S. Lewis. Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church in an essay titled “The Decline of Religion.” (If you’re interested, you can listen to an audio version here). It was written in 1946.
Nearly 75 years ago.
In sum, the essay discusses Oxford undergraduates ditching chapel services after they were no longer mandatory and how that “reveals a situation that has always existed”: That maybe our culture has never really been all that religious. That maybe there were other factors that led the church to believe she was doing better than she really was. But at the same time, little pockets of revival were breaking through at the time that cause a degree of excitement in that now folks would be able to make a more clear choice. That’s me paraphrasing Lewis, BTW.
And, yes, I covered some ground toward that end in my dissertation. See, I needed to establish the practices that led to spiritual maturity. One implication might be that if someone was growing, they’d continue to attend their church. Conversely, if churches weren’t doing that, there would be an exodus of sorts.
So, I did a lot of research on church attendance trends. Some were “sky is falling.” Some were “this is kind of cyclical/normal.” I won’t dive too deep into my own personal views here. Suffice to say that I believe there’s a 3% (or so) decline–which is REALLY troublesome. What I can say for sure is that, like Brad Griffin states, “To summarize, no major Christian tradition is growing in the United States today. A few denominations are managing to hold steady, but that’s as good as it gets.”
And, to re-emphasize, IF “holding steady” is acceptable, we’ve got bigger problems. My suspicion is that “holding steady” is being very generious.
In fact, my friend Mark Matlock wrote an excellent book last year called Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon in which he and co-author David Kinnaman report Barna Research Group’s findings as follows among young people ages 18-29:
- 22% consider themselves ex-Christians (Prodigals)
- 30% are unchurched (Nomads)
- 38% are habitual churchgoers (which, interestingly is defined as once per month)
- 10% are resilient disciples.
Yeah. Do the math. The church doesn’t seem to be doing that great at the one thing it’s charged to do: make disciples. Every business book out there says the first thing a business needs to do is face the brute facts. Surely this is something to consider.
And, as I’ve gotten in trouble for saying, I don’t blame people for leaving their church if it falls short of helping them engage in the truly abundant life found by living in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. That’s on us, man.
But, like Tina Fey says in her essay Tina Fey’s Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat* in her book Bossypants, there are no mistakes, only opportunities. Something great can come from the improvisational comedy dance even if it feels like the whole scene is coming apart. Fey notes, “In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident. Take Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups…”
Okay…so, here’s where C.S. Lewis and Tina Fey collide.
Lewis is correct when he says in the essay that the decline was due to a myriad of factors, but the reality is that there is a revival happening at the same time. In other words, now is a great opportunity to rescue the “scene.”
See, before the pandemic, while we were at best “holding steady” (read: really in decline but I’m being conservative here), there were a lot of positive things I was seeing on the fringe. Youth ministry publishing is becoming saturated with important works (yes, I gave a list to one of my professors last summer of all the book the library needed) on making disciples. There are encouraging signs that pastors are starting to see that their sermons are part of a formative process rather than the raison d’etre of the church. The importance of loving your neighbor via the job, the hobby, the involvements, etc. is being nodded toward. The importance of becoming “rooted” in place and embracing life as an exile in a land where the Christian worldview isn’t the majority opinion is being talked about.
Pockets of revival.
On the fringe.
Where all great movements start.
And times of crisis have an ability to accelerate changes that were already in motion.
Just keep that in mind, patrons.
As C.S. Lewis noted, “But it is the early days. Neither our armour nor our enemies’ is yet engaged. Combatants always tend to imagine the war is further on than it really is.”
But that was 75 years ago…