This article is part of a three-part series introducing the idea of a post-Christian era, how it manifests itself, and why we need to respond.
Many of us have seen the evidence of the previous post (Is our era really post-Christian?) and don’t agree with the conclusion. Many believe that although there are people and communities that have rejected the Christian faith, there is evidence that Christ is still at the center of most American’s hearts and minds. We might see the many churches around town and preachers on TV and wish to believe that this were so. Do not let the vague shadow of Christian spirituality in our culture fool you. The unfortunate reality is that the American Church (not all churches) is frail, shallow, and unprepared to keep believers holding on to the Faith in the face of an anti-Christian culture.
The Western Church is an Anemic Shell of its Former Self
There is sort of a chicken-or-egg situation with our culture and our churches. Is it that our culture is anti-Christians because the Church is failing, or is the Church failing because our culture is anti-Christian? The two probably encourage each other. But the facts are this: the church is declining in its relevance, the Christianity that many hold to is shallow and powerless to help Christians live faithfully, and the Church is assimilating to our culture more and more.
Research done in the past few years indicates the overall trend that people are rejecting Christianity. A Pew Research survey done in 2015 confirmed that younger generations increasingly identify as having no Christian (or religious) affiliation; that is, identifying as belonging to some Christian tradition or denomination. According to the survey, 85% of those belonging to the Silent Generation (born in 1920’s through 1940’s) identified as Christian, while only 56% of those belonging to the Younger Millennials age group (born in the 1990’s) identify as Christian. Without focusing on age groups, this trend is true of Americans in general: less are considering themselves as belonging to either Evangelical or Mainline Protestant or Catholic; their estimation is 5 million less Christians in a 7 year span. We see the data back up what we all feel; that generations are losing their commitment to the Christian faith.
Some might report that Christianity is strong in America. Take the Time magazine article that wrongly equated Christianity’s cultural strength with political power. The more revealing question is, “does a Christian’s faith motivate their beliefs and actions in America?” In 2011, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton surveyed the spiritual lives of young adult Christians and found that only 40 percent said that their moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or other spiritual foundation1. Incredibly, 61 percent of Christians in their survey admitted to having no moral problem with materialism and/or consumerism. We see at a glance that affiliation doesn’t tell the entire story. Even those affiliated with Christianity don’t seem to be influenced by it all that much. Smith writes that, “all society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”
The semi-religion of MTD
There is research that shows that Americans do hold to a “form” of Christianity. Not the historic Christianity that has been practiced by major Christian branches (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox) and denominations, but a semi-religion in which a shadow of Christianity can barely be distinguished.
In another survey from Smith and Denton, done in 2005, they found that the religious beliefs and practices of most young people, those who identify as Christians and those who don’t alike, can be described not in terms of any major religion, but what Smith and Denton call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD)2. MTD has five basic beliefs:
- A god who exists and created the world and watches over us
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other
- The primary goal in life is to be happy and to feel good about one’s self
- God does not require that he be involved in most of the affairs of humankind, unless there are large problems to resolve
- Good people go to heaven when they die
Their claim is that this vague and unfounded semi-religion is infiltrating Catholic and Protestant churches. Although the five beliefs of MTD are not entirely wrong, they have been repackaged to fit our culture’s worldview as a natural reaction to a fading Christian worldview.
Not only is this semi-religion not Christianity, it can do nothing to keep adherents faithful to their beliefs. This explains the survey numbers mentioned above. Stripping Christianity of sin, sacrifice, morality, submission, servitude, and other ideas that modern worshippers don’t really like, leaves a form of Christianity robbed of its depth and its ability consistently reveal God and the Gospel.
A Christianity in Flux
Many modern Christian churches find themselves seeking the approval and relevancy of an anti-Christian culture. This, unfortunately, has produced a movement of churches that are trading their historic beliefs and practices for those that are more acceptable to a post-Christian culture. A Barna survey conducted in 2009 reports on people’s acceptance of a “Biblical Worldview”. Their definition included some very basic beliefs such as absolute morals, Biblical truth, a sinless Christ, and a God who is creator of the universe. Of those who identified themselves as a “born again Christian”, astoundingly, only 19% affirmed the complete “Biblical Worldview” as their outlook on life.
Although many remain faithful, what is perhaps more disturbing is when major figures and institutions abandon critical Christian beliefs in pursuit of relevancy. Look at this major figure of the Church of England start calling for widespread adoption of homosexual behavior. Even Christian institutions like churches and universities are failing to uphold the beliefs and way of life that they exist to promote. Read this comment by a mom of daughters turned off to prominent Catholic universities because of the rampant immorality within students and faculty. Or this bit of information about the diverse and unique LGBT community flourishing at Wesleyan University for the last few decades.
The world of contemporary Protestant churches has also been affected by its secular setting. Besides a quickly corroding theological foundation, churches look and act less like Christian communities and more like self-help organizations and rock concerts, celebrating super stars. The desire to appeal to a culture infatuated with emotional and moving experiences has churches chasing secular standards in their attempts to conduct “worship services”.
What’s a Christian to do?
Brothers and sisters, the outlook is bleak. Our culture is against us and many of our churches have failed us. So what is one to do. Has God abandoned His people?
Not at all!
Perhaps His mercy has been removed from America and Christian institutions, but we should never have relied on those in the first place. The same Christ who was resurrected 2000 years ago is available to us today. And the same Spirit of God that was given to Christ’s disciples is living and moving in His 21st century students.
But we cannot live “business as usual”. We cannot do the same things and expect different results. We cannot let our culture dictate the extents of our faith without knowing that Christianity will go further into irrelevancy and churches will continue to erode the classic Christian faith. The response must be thorough. It must be strategic. The next and final part of this series will outline the principles of our proposed response to the post-Christian culture and the weakened state of our churches.