The Church's Obituary

Allen Hunt
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Posted: Mar 16, 2009 12:00 AM

The Church has died. Ever since the Church's obituary appeared in the paper this week, my phone has been ringing off the hook. Invitations to be a guest on radio shows from Fresno to Grand Rapids. All to offer comment on the death of the Church in America. The questions popped like firecrackers on the Fourth of July. “Is the Church dead?” “Why are so many people claiming to have no religious affiliation” “What in the world is going on?”As the only mainstream talk radio host who has also pastored a mega-church, I happily fielded the barrage.

The leading source of information for the Church's obituary came from the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), a survey which revealed a deep shift in America's faith life since 1990. The two most remarkable nuggets of data include the decline in the last eighteen years of those Americans who call themselves “Christian” from 86% to 76% of the population. The second nugget: nearly 15% of Americans selected the “None” category to describe their religious faith. That figure has almost doubled since 1990. About one in six Americans now state that they have “no religious affiliation.”

My response? In the words of Mark Twain, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” The Church is alive and well in America although its contours have been morphing for decades. Three dimensions of the survey's results make that plain.

First, nearly all of the significant decline in American Christianity occurred between 1990 and the tragic horror of September 11, 2001. Since September 11, the decline has been minimal. In fact, church attendance since the the economic travails of last October has actually surged in many places. Leaders of evangelical churches and Catholic churches report their pews are the fullest in years this Lenten season.

September 11 and the sputtering economy both reveal that in times of stress and in times of need, Americans still turn largely to the Church. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in 1831, he noted how America contrasted with Europe because “the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men in America.” The observation still holds some 175 years later.

Second, nearly all of the decline in Christian “market share” came from the slowly collapsing ranks of mainline Protestant churches, like the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church. For example, the United Methodist Church has lost members every year since 1968. Forty years in a row of creeping death. These highly bureaucratized, often theologically relativistic and liberal, groups await their own funeral. Americans simply have chosen to find spiritual meaning and growth outside the mainline churches.

However, the third, and most crucial, point of the ARIS study comes from the data showing how other Christian and non-Christian groups are emerging in the maternity ward even as mainline Protestantism lies dying on the gurney. Less-structured, more-localized and individualistic forms of Christianity have been growing for years. In fact, a number of those who classified themselves as having no religious affiliation (“None”) actually claim to be Christian but with no organizational affiliation. These people simply claim to be “followers of Jesus.” They may attend a church for worship here, another church for Bible study there, and a third church for children's activities on the other side of town. They do not see themselves as institutional Christians; therefore, they say they have no religious affiliation (“None”).

Moreover, in one of my radio interviews this week, “Charles,” the show's host, embodied the growing number of Americans who fall into the Home Depot Do-it-yourself category of no religious affiliation. They characterize the large “None” category. Charles was angry to be classified as a “None.” He said, “ I have faith; I just have no religious affiliation. My faith is my own and I am passionate about it. It is my relationship with God, and I don't need anyone else to tell me what or how to believe.”

Many of these “None” individuals pick and choose the parts of various faiths they find meaningful. They essentially mix in a selection of their own likes to create a faith concoction to help them hang on (to paraphrase Jimmy Buffett). They may utilize Christan prayer, Wiccan walks in the park, Hindu polytheism, a little Buddhist meditation, and even some Muslim attire, while saying “I have no religion other than myself.” This category of “Nones” has exploded. It is not atheists who are on the rise in America; on the contrary, it is the individual spirit who does it his own way. That is an important distinction to see.

It is not faith that is being rejected at all. Rather, it is anyone's definition of faith other than my own. “You have yours; I'll have mine,” seems to be the mantra of a growing group of the citizenry.

What to make of all this religious diversity and pluralism if one, like me, is a Christian? Very simple: I remind my Christian brothers and sisters that the Christian movement has usually thrived most when it has been a minority in a hostile environment. Such hostility seems to purify our reason for existence. At its heart, Christianity is a counter-cultural movement. Jesus inverts the world's values completely. “Sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and come, follow me.” “Practice your acts of piety in private not to be seen by others and praised by them.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us, full of grace and truth.”

These are the core statement of a group who sees itself not as fully belonging to this world or its ways. Too often, in America, Christ-followers have forgotten that and concerned themselves with survey data and political victories in Washington. At the end of the day, the Church will be just fine; after all, she belongs to God.