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Are we seeing the end of institutional Christianity in America?

Are we seeing the end of institutional Christianity in America?


By David W. Virtue, DD
September 5, 2018

Institutional Christianity is in deep trouble in America; pollsters and some commentators say it is dying.

A trifecta of issues is playing out that could set back gospel proclamation for two generations or more.

Firstly, liberal Protestantism is in free fall. Influential with Mainline Protestant churches in the early 20th century, proponents believed the changes it would bring would be the future of the Christian church. Its greatest and most influential manifestation was the Christian Social Gospel, whose most influential spokesman was the American Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch. From Rauschenbusch to John Shelby Spong the gospel was slowly denuded of its supernatural scriptural power resulting in emptying churches and dying denominations. People were left spiritually hungry and voted with their feet and walked away. In the words of John Milton, the people look up and are not being fed.

The Roman Catholic Church faces a critical moment in its history not seen since the Reformation. It is a Borgia pope moment with hundreds of priests sexually abusing thousands of mostly young men. The tip of the homosexual iceberg was revealed in Pennsylvania recently. Forty-nine other state attorneys general could open investigations on priestly sexual abuse, effectively bankrupting the Church with lawsuits. At a deeper level, disillusionment with the Church by millions of laity will not only stifle evangelization efforts by the Church, but see millions of Catholics turn away in disgust at the cover ups and the cynical use of ecclesial power by men who allegedly speak for God. The rot apparently goes right to the top of the Church.

Thirdly, there is the alliance of leading evangelicals with president Donald Trump in a manner that the country has not seen since George W. Bush's entry into Iraq. Evangelical protestants and frequent churchgoers were the most supportive of the Iraq War. Trump has fired up evangelicals so much so that they see him as a king Cyrus figure saving America from liberals, progressives and socialists aimed at undermining the constitution, that would have created a Supreme Court subverting religious freedom. It should be noted that the present movement is led by Jerry Falwell, Jr. President of Liberty University. It was his father who led the Moral Majority movement in the 70s that empowered evangelicals to become politically involved, something that evangelicals had mostly eschewed up till that time. It was formed as a political action group to further a conservative agenda, including the allowance of prayer in schools and strict laws against abortion. The movement died in the 80s.

This new alliance has created a unique moment in American history.

John Thomas Flynn's As We Go Marching, said this in 1944: "But when fascism comes [to America] it will not be in the form of an anti-American movement or pro-Hitler bund, practicing disloyalty. Nor will it come in the form of a crusade against war. It will appear rather in the luminous robes of flaming patriotism." Is the real danger Christians carrying a Bible wrapped in a flag?

The confluence of right wing politics with conservative theology is almost uniquely American. As sociologist David Moberg argues in The Great Reversal, prior to the twentieth-century, evangelicals were leaders in progressive social reform movements. Many of them looked not just to convert souls, but change the world for the better, viewing progressive (for the time) social politics as the best way to do so.

In the nineteenth-century evangelical revivalism found leaders like Charles Finney, publicly asserting that God wouldn't bless their revival if they didn't first work to change unjust social structures, like slavery. Many of the forebears of contemporary evangelical Christianity were socially conscious abolitionists and egalitarians -- even early feminists.

The harsh rhetoric of today's conservative movement, mostly evangelical voice is turning off Millennials who are mostly conflict averse and prefer a more 'go along to get along' approach to life. The twin "doctrines" of inclusion and diversity do not make good bedfellows with evangelical certainty on a whole host of social and political issues.

So, is it the end of Christianity in America? No, but the damage institutionally has been done and many think the situation irretrievable and irreversible for several generations.

Today Millennials, and Generations X and Y are not to be found on church pews. Generation Z (ages 15 -- 25) might prove to be different, but that is yet to be proven.

Overall the number of self-proclaimed Christians is shrinking in America. Surveys reveal an important truth: Fewer people claim a Christian affiliation than ever before, and those who claim no religious affiliation are the fastest growing group in America, noted J. Warner Wallace in an opinion piece for Fox News.

Nine-in-ten Americans believe in a higher power, but only a slim majority believe in God as described in the Bible, Pew research studies show.

Previous Pew Research Center studies have shown that the share of Americans who believe in God with absolute certainty has declined in recent years, while the share saying they have doubts about God's existence -- or that they do not believe in God at all -- has grown. Millennials, Generations X and Y are abandoning churches, rejecting 'organized religion' by the millions.

Millennials have been described as "resident crap detectors." They are secular. Millennial secularity is not about the "death of God" or anything dramatic that's fueled by anger; it's more that the church has made itself irrelevant. Because it has not privileged experience or mysticism or an engagement with the natural world, modern Christianity doesn't speak to Millennials, who are simultaneously "functional atheists and potential spiritual mystics," Pew reports.

They're explorers, not dwellers, who first charted this shift years ago from dwelling (where people remain within the bosom of one religion for a lifetime) to seeking (where they find truth in many places and believe the journey itself is most important), writes Robert Wuthnow. Millennials are taking that shift to its logical conclusion.

"The majority of teenagers are incredibly inarticulate about their faith, religious beliefs and practices, and its place in their lives. The de facto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. teenagers is what they call 'Moralistic Therapeutic Deism': A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth; God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions; the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself; God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem; and good people go to heaven when they die."

Of course, with the death of institutional religion, people will either go deeper into secularism, scientism and technology looking for answers with vague talk of spirituality, or it will be a Jesus moment for Christian leaders willing to think outside the box, drawing young people back to a living faith in Christ. To succeed it will have to disentangle itself from the extremes of right and left politics. It will be a faith more reminiscent of the first three centuries when the church faced continuous persecution and whose leaders had no power to exact partisan political, social or economic positions.

Time will tell.


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