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The Church, It is a-Changing

At any given time, I have between 25-30 unpublished, half/barely-started posts or links to interesting articles occupying space in my “drafts” folder. Needless to say, things can get buried pretty easily, so I try to periodically root through this folder to see what I once thought was interesting/worth posting on, and to determine what might need to see the light of day (or be consigned to the cyber-scrap heap!).

This one has been kicking around since around mid-December while I decided how or if I would use it. The following is based on the Barna Group’s research on changes in the religious landscape as experienced in 2010. The study specifically reflects the American situation, of course, but I think much of it rings true in Canada and Western Europe as well (if in somewhat different ways). It is a list that I think is is worth thinking and talking about.

I initially thought of offering a bit of commentary on each section, but that would obviously get quite long and just a bit unwieldy! Instead, I’m just going to post the “Six Megathemes” that emerged from Barna’s research, with the parts that stuck out to me in bold. I’m not sure if you find them as interesting (or, at various times, as troubling and/or encouraging) as I do, but I throw them out there for further reflection/conversation.

1. The Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate.

What used to be basic, universally-known truths about Christianity are now unknown mysteries to a large and growing share of Americans–especially young adults. For instance, Barna Group studies in 2010 showed that while most people regard Easter as a religious holiday, only a minority of adults associate Easter with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Other examples include the finding that few adults believe that their faith is meant to be the focal point of their life or to be integrated into every aspect of their existence. Further, a growing majority believe the Holy Spirit is a symbol of God’s presence or power, but not a living entity. As the two younger generations (Busters and Mosaics) ascend to numerical and positional supremacy in churches across the nation, the data suggest that biblical literacy is likely to decline significantly. The theological free-for-all that is encroaching in Protestant churches nationwide suggests the coming decade will be a time of unparalleled theological diversity and inconsistency.

2. Christians are becoming more ingrown and less outreach-oriented.

Despite technological advances that make communications instant and far-reaching, Christians are becoming more spiritually isolated from non-Christians than was true a decade ago. Examples of this tendency include the fact that less than one-third of born again Christians planned to invite anyone to join them at a church event during the Easter season; teenagers are less inclined to discuss Christianity with their friends than was true in the past; most of the people who become Christians these days do so in response to a personal crisis or the fear of death (particularly among older Americans); and most Americans are unimpressed with the contributions Christians and churches have made to society over the past few years. As young adults have children, the prospect of them seeking a Christian church is diminishing—especially given the absence of faith talk in their conversations with the people they most trust. With atheists becoming more strategic in championing their godless worldview, as well as the increased religious plurality driven by education and immigration, the increasing reticence of Christians to engage in faith-oriented conversations assumes heightened significance.

3. Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life.

When asked what matters most, teenagers prioritize education, career development, friendships, and travel. Faith is significant to them, but it takes a back seat to life accomplishments and is not necessarily perceived to affect their ability to achieve their dreams. Among adults the areas of growing importance are lifestyle comfort, success, and personal achievements. Those dimensions have risen at the expense of investment in both faith and family. The turbo-charged pace of society leaves people with little time for reflection. The deeper thinking that occurs typically relates to economic concerns or relational pressures. Spiritual practices like contemplation, solitude, silence, and simplicity are rare. (It is ironic that more than four out of five adults claim to live a simple life.) Practical to a fault, Americans consider survival in the present to be much more significant than eternal security and spiritual possibilities. Because we continue to separate our spirituality from other dimensions of life through compartmentalization, a relatively superficial approach to faith has become a central means of optimizing our life experience.

4. Among Christians, interest in participating in community action is escalating.

Largely driven by the passion and energy of young adults, Christians are more open to and more involved in community service activities than has been true in the recent past. While we remain more self-indulgent than self-sacrificing, the expanded focus on justice and service has struck a chord with many. However, despite the increased emphasis, churches run the risk of watching congregants’ engagement wane unless they embrace a strong spiritual basis for such service. Simply doing good works because it’s the socially esteemed choice of the moment will not produce much staying power.

To facilitate service as a long-term way of living and to provide people with the intrinsic joy of blessing others, churches have a window of opportunity to support such action with biblical perspective. And the more that churches and believers can be recognized as people doing good deeds out of genuine love and compassion, the more appealing the Christian life will be to those who are on the sidelines watching. Showing that community action as a viable alternative to government programs is another means of introducing the value of the Christian faith in society.

5. The postmodern insistence on tolerance is winning over the Christian Church.

Our biblical illiteracy and lack of spiritual confidence has caused Americans to avoid making discerning choices for fear of being labeled judgmental. The result is a Church that has become tolerant of a vast array of morally and spiritually dubious behaviors and philosophies. This increased leniency is made possible by the very limited accountability that occurs within the body of Christ. There are fewer and fewer issues that Christians believe churches should be dogmatic about. The idea of love has been redefined to mean the absence of conflict and confrontation, as if there are no moral absolutes that are worth fighting for. That may not be surprising in a Church in which a minority believes there are moral absolutes dictated by the scriptures.

The challenge today is for Christian leaders to achieve the delicate balance between representing truth and acting in love. The challenge for every Christian in the U.S. is to know his/her faith well enough to understand which fights are worth fighting, and which stands are non-negotiable. There is a place for tolerance in Christianity; knowing when and where to draw the line appears to perplex a growing proportion of Christians in this age of tolerance.

6. The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible.

Christianity has arguably added more value to American culture than any other religion, philosophy, ideology or community. Yet, contemporary Americans are hard pressed to identify any specific value added. Partly due to the nature of today’s media, they have no problem identifying the faults of the churches and Christian people.

In a period of history where image is reality, and life-changing decisions are made on the basis of such images, the Christian Church is in desperate need of a more positive and accessible image. The primary obstacle is not the substance of the principles on which Christianity is based, and therefore the solution is not solely providing an increase in preaching or public relations. The most influential aspect of Christianity in America is how believers do–or do not–implement their faith in public and private. American culture is driven by the snap judgments and decisions that people make amidst busy schedules and incomplete information. With little time or energy available for or devoted to research and reflection, it is people’s observations of the integration of a believer’s faith into how he/she responds to life’s opportunities and challenges that most substantially shape people’s impressions of and interest in Christianity. Jesus frequently spoke about the importance of the fruit that emerges from a Christian life; these days the pace of life and avalanche of competing ideas underscores the significance of visible spiritual fruit as a source of cultural influence.

With the likelihood of an accelerating pace of life and increasingly incomplete cues being given to the population, Christian leaders would do well to revisit their criteria for “success” and the measures used to assess it. In a society in which choice is king, there are no absolutes, every individual is a free agent, we are taught to be self-reliant and independent, and Christianity is no longer the automatic, default faith of young adults, new ways of relating to Americans and exposing the heart and soul of the Christian faith are required.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Sounds like Barna had a bad day. Such a negative view.

    Barna appears to think of Christianity as a business with a product to sell. (That is, of course, the way some preachers think of it too.)

    Barna reminds me of a corporate business consultant who makes money speaking and selling books at conventions.

    January 11, 2011
  2. I’m not a fan of Barna, especially in Pagan Christianity, but this research is hard to refute. I see most of these just about anywhere. I wonder – is the liturgial free-for-all in most of Protestanism related to the theological free-for-all?

    We as Christians have bought in, whole hog, to one of the most fundamental lies of modernity: that freedom consists in maximizing options and personal choice, and the severe limiting or utter removal of all barriers to “self-expression” and “private” belief. It is one thing for a nation-state to enshrine these values, but for the Body of Christ it is a death sentence. Protestantism is fracturing at such a rate that one wonders what will remain in fifty or so years.

    It is right on about the “pragmatic” preaching vs. theologically or scripturally-informed proclamation. All that glitters is not gold, and much of what people want to hear (and flock to hear) has little to do with Jesus Christ.

    ::cough:: joel osteen ::cough::

    January 11, 2011
    • Yeah, I think you’ve identified one of the common denominators underlying all six of these themes—the idea that the church is simply one more thing that I can access (or not) in the ongoing project of self-definition. Luckily (!), as in every other area of modern life, there is a bewildering array of church options from which to select. Whether I’m looking for a confident guy with nice teeth to tell me how to live my best life or a more “liturgical” option because I’m too historically/culturally sophisticated for the “low church,” everything passes through the grid of “what do I want.” The idea that the church might in any way stand over the construction of our private identities is mostly gone.

      January 12, 2011
  3. Paul Johnston #

    What the….The Barna group would have done better to substitute another word, where they use the word Christian. Frankly, I think “free church refugees” might more accurately describe the study group or perhaps the denominational bias of the studiers. It is essential to the Catholic faith for the believer to understand that her institutional church is willed by Christ and therefore its precepts are inviolable. The church is supernatural as well as sociological. Otherwise it becomes a purely human project, a self and social liberation project. Religious in appearance, atheistic in substance.

    January 11, 2011
  4. EDH #

    1. I find it appalling that a majority of Christians believe the Holy Spirit to be a symbol of God’s presence…. although I shouldn’t be that surprised. But a “growing majority”? Yikes!

    I mean, at least, you should know a bit about the Name that has been placed upon you in the waters of baptism. Then again, I’m sure baptism falls by the way side too.

    I assume church membership tends to be an issue. And what do churches require of their members? “If you want to be a member.. fill out this card” But I think that churches tend to give off the impression that they aren’t the church, and tend to focus more on the individuals, and don’t really care that much, just as long as people fill the pews. I assume that people rather drift quite freely as well, “I’m a member of the invisible church!” And leave it at that.

    Something a good dose of catechesis should clear up!

    January 12, 2011
    • Ken #

      At the PCUSA seminary I attended, most people saw the Holy Spirit as only a symbol for God’s presence. They also thought that “God” is a symbol for what is best in humanity, which was, in their opinion, morality, especially in its social justice manifestation. A symbol and nothing more, forevermore.

      And those are the pastors.

      January 12, 2011
      • Yikes.

        January 13, 2011
      • EDH #

        See, at that point, why even care if you have a seminary or any uniform teaching? Seems like a scam for money, IMO.

        January 13, 2011
    • Church membership is an issue, especially given the above comments around the church-as-extension-of-my-needs idea. I’m happy to be a “member” as long as a church is working for me. The idea of a church requiring things of their members is a bit foreign, at times, I think. We’ll happily add you to a list, but it doesn’t always (often?) go much further than that. There is certainly abundant evidence for the drifting between congregations you speak of.

      Better catechesis would undoubtedly help, but unless I’m horribly mistaken, churches with more formal catechetical processes are affected by these same trends. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to teach better; it’s simply to acknowledge that we’re swimming against powerful cultural currents here.

      January 13, 2011
      • EDH #

        Yes you are right, the church that I am a member of, certainly has this problem too. It really is a vicious cycle. But change has to start somewhere, and I think formal catechesis should be more of an ongoing process, not something you supposedly ‘graduate’ from. I remember going through catechesis, and enjoying it… and then years later, somehow managed to forget a lot of important things. But I think, having crisis of faith, to some extent helps it grow, whether that means hashing out doctrinal issues or just life issues… but most people in some form of another tend to jump ship whenever something comes up, taking the easy way out.

        January 13, 2011
      • Yes, I think you’re right. And we’re back to the whole “consumer” approach to church aren’t we? We’ll learn if we want to or if some crisis makes it urgent, but not until then. This is the water we’re swimming in…

        January 14, 2011
  5. EDH #

    BTW, in reference to the title of this post, I just got Bob Dylan’s new best of CD… so stoked 😀

    January 12, 2011

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