Does the Christian church have a future in the Western World? Does a contemporary form of Christianity have a future in the United States? Certainly it would seem so. The vast majority of the population still refers to themselves as Christian. However, things seem to be changing. In 1950, 91% of the US population called themselves Christian. But according to recent polls by both Gallup and Harris, less than 75% of the nation still claims to be Christian. In the 1950’s roughly 70% of the population said that they attended church on a weekly basis. Today, that claim is something closer to 48% of the population across the country, although considerably higher in the Southern states and much lower on both the West and East Coasts. And it appears that even these numbers are suspect, according to several trailing surveys. Follow up interviews have indicated that these figures are probably something less than 30% nationally, with similar differences depending on the region.
In 1948, 2% of Americans interviewed by Gallup volunteered that they had “no religion.” The number stayed in that range until about 1970. By 1972, Gallup had measured 5% with “no religion.” In 2008 the same poll suggested that 12% of the population volunteered “no religion” with an additional 3% refusing to answer the question.
I would suggest that the falling membership of mainline denominations is a more reflective statistic of the current situation in the US today than any other measurement. The number of Christians who identify themselves as Protestant, including denominational, non-denominational, evangelical, Charismatic, and other, has fallen from 91% to 77% with mainline or old-line denominations losing the most members. Gallup reports that roughly half the members of mainline churches are over 50 years old, while other pollsters suggest that number is at least a decade older. Six-in-ten Americans 70 and older (62%) identify themselves as Protestant but young adults ages 18-29 are much more likely than those age 70 and older to say that they are not affiliated with any particular religion (25% vs. 8%).
You get the idea. Since it is difficult to get accurate current information, I will not quote figures about the number of mainline churches that are closing across the country every year. But let me just point out that more than one denominational executive has told me, off the record, that “we are probably closing dozens of churches every month”. Another executive from a large denomination told me recently that if their denomination was a business, they would immediately close hundreds of churches as “non-redeemable.”
Anyway you look at it, the picture is not pretty for those of us who love the church. So why do we keep doing what we are doing? As they say on the farm, are we beating a dead horse? At this point, I believe, as do all of us at here at ProgressiveChristianity.org, that healthy spiritual communities are an important part of a healthy culture and society. We are not ready to give up and we still have hope. More importantly, we are seeing some very interesting and even exciting things happening on the horizon that show some promise of new life. However, these are not the churches or faith communities of the past.
Let’s be perfectly clear. The Christian church, by design, does not change easily. Unlike science, business, technology, and social practices, the church has built-in brakes designed to withstand change. When the scientific community discovers new information, it is tested, openly discussed and when necessary assumptions and models are changed. However, the 4th century church deemed a selected group of books, written after decades of oral tradition, with multiple additions and redactions, the one book that was supposedly created by God and was to be considered Sacred. The church declared these Canonized books as Holy and finite. During the first three centuries of the early Christian movements, there were great debates about who and what Jesus was and about his mission. Many of these debates were politically motivated, and all were shaped by a Greek and Roman world view that was wholly unlike the culture of the man they were supposed to be honoring. These debates were more about power than they were about the experience of the divine. And just to make certain everything was tethered nice and neat, the church created Creeds so it could officially decide who was correct and who was heretical, with punishments that never fit the “crime.”
So here we are, in a world so different than anyone in the 1st or the 4theven 16th century could possibly have imagined, and in large part, our churches continue to do things “the way we have always done them.” And all too often it is still about power.
In the last 50 years, we have experienced an “explosion of information” about the historical Jesus, about the conflicted roots of the early Christian church, about the formation of religions and myth, and about the manipulative formation of what we refer to as the Bible. This new information should have changed not only our thinking about the personhood of Jesus, but certainly should have changed the way we think about doing church. That has not happened in large part resulting in churches becoming less and less relevant for our times… often leading to church doors closing on the finger tips of those who have supported their precious communities for most of their lives with finances, hard work and a lot of heart.
So where then is the new life I referred to? I find myself thinking of them as “Dandelions in the cracks of the institutional concrete.” I will only touch upon some things in this article but we plan to feature more of these examples and models in future publications.
First, we have seen some wonderful examples of new life in many of our affiliate churches that are intentional and publicly positioning themselves as churches that endorse a “new way” of approaching their Christian tradition. The ones that seem to experience the greatest energy and even growth in this declining market start with a more contemporary theology and Christology and move from there to an emphasis on values, relationships and spirituality rather than on beliefs and creeds. Some of the qualities that we can easily identify in these churches include things like active pluralism-real connections with communities of other faith traditions, shared space and the use of combined rituals. Another characteristic we have observed is a comfort, acceptance and even affirming relationships with people from the GLTB communities. In all of these vital churches that we have studied there is no sexual orientation issue.
While many of these models tend to show up in “new start” churches, we have seen real change occur in several older mainline denominational churches. This usually happens with a congregation that has decided that it wants to re-identify itself as a new kind of church. Most of these churches have been led by an inspired pastor through a process of discovery. Probably the most consistent quality that we have seen in these change agents is their ability to articulate a clear redefined purpose of the church. They are usually spiritually grounded and have a positive vision for the future. It helps if they have some skills in dealing with conflict.
Some of these talented folks have their own creative ideas and are entrepreneurial. Others have used one of the dozen consultants that are now available, some with more success than others. Some are using a whole new operating system in order to view not only the church, but their faith and even their world perspective as well.
Dr. Rev. Tom Thresher, author of a new book, Reverent Irreverence, has used his experience with Integral Theory to create new possibilities for the church and Christianity. His book tracks his experience in a church that he pastors in Western Washington and offers a vision for change in the future church. He provides a model that integrates Eastern wisdom and Western enlightenment, yet leaves room for traditional as well as progressive Christians and anyone else that would like to experience what he refers to as “Christ consciousness.” When those in leadership realize that the purpose of the church is to help others experience the Divine at the deepest levels, then the focus of the congregation is on practices and behavior and not on beliefs and creeds. I believe that Thresher is on to something very important.
As I have written before, I am hopeful that the young people in the “Emerging” movement will continue to offer something substantial to a new and vital understanding of the Christian faith. Phil Snider and Emily Bowen, both ordained clergy in the Disciples of Christ church, certainly believe that there are plenty of opportunities in the Emergent movement to help the whole church evolve. They have written a book called, Toward a Hopeful Future. The subtitle of their book is, “Why the Emergent Church is Good News for the Mainline Congregations.” As co-pastors of a church in Springfield Missouri, they speak and write from experience. Like Thresher they offer not only a vision but a model. And best of all, they provide tools and many tips garnered from their own experience of trying to accommodate young people from this changing spectrum. They make it very clear, however, that our mainline churches cannot keep doing things the same way and expect these young people to conform to our ways, our theologies and Christologies. “Emergents” are as uncomfortable with absolute certainty as they are with our typical mainline worship services. But they certainly represent Dandelions in the sidewalk’s cracks of our church institutions.
One of the other places we continue to see new life is in the growing number of people who are forming intentional spiritual groups in their homes and small meeting rooms with no plans to grow into a typical church. We continue to get requests from these groups for educational materials for children and adults, for rituals for small groups and simple music that they can use in their gatherings. They meet on a variety of days of the week and frequently share a meal. While some call themselves Christians, the majority seem to feel that they do not need to identify with any particular religion. They often create their own blend of rituals borrowing from a variety of traditions. It will be interesting to see how these groups develop over the years but their formation indicates a growing hunger for community and spirituality that is not being met in our typical churches.
So yes, there are reasons we are still here. I believe that we are experiencing a move away from creeds and Christological debates, toward a greater focus on values, behavior and spirituality. There will continue to be a growing interest in a spiritual path than in dogma. I still see purpose in forming communities to help each other develop a “Christ consciousness” and to provide the opportunities to experience the Divine. I am certain that it will happen at some point, even if it does not happen in our existing churches. The opportunities, the teachers and the models are there and ready to go. I guess the question is, are we?