The Real Crisis Facing American Christianity

[Author’s Note – In previous years, I have used Reformation Sunday as an opportunity to talk about where the Christian church is at and tie that back in some way to the Reformation. This talk continues that practice and was delivered to the adult Sunday School class of Christ Presbyterian Church Burke on Sunday, October, 30, 2022.]

We are bombarded daily with messages from the “outrage” machine of the regular and social media.  But what is the real crisis?  Is it the Far Right, looking to seize political control and curb immigrants and other minorities in support of some nostalgic vision of White Christian America?  Is it the expanding influence of the Woke-ist Left, fronting an LGBTQ agenda and Critical Race Theory?  The media tries to push people in either of those directions.  I think, however, that for us as Christians, however, the real problem is more subtle and long-term: we are losing our “saltiness.”  Here I am drawing on our Lord’s words in His Sermon on the Mount when He said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?  It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men” (Matt. 5:13 NKJV).  Salt is a preservative.  When it fails to be salty, it fails to preserve.  The American church today is becoming largely irrelevant, and the strife we see in our society today in no small measure because of this.  This is the real crisis of our day.

The Church in Decline

Demographic trendlines do not make popular headlines but are disturbing, nonetheless.  The Pew Research Center for Religion in America found in 2007 that about 78% of Americans self-identified as Christian; in a follow-up study in 2014 that number was down to about 70%, or roughly a 1% drop every year.  As of 2020, Pew assessed that only about 64% of Americans self-identified as Christian, continuing about the same rate of decline.  Those that are leaving the faith generally are not converting to another religion; rather, they are joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated or what Pew calls the “nones.”  That grouping now makes up about one-third of American society.  For perspective, in the early 1990s, about 1 in 10 people would have said they were religiously unaffiliated; now it is about 1 in 3.  If current trends continue, by the mid-2030s less than half of all Americans will consider themselves Christian.  That will considerably change the social dynamics in the US. Indeed, it already has, as people look to activist politics, libertine sex, and social causes to fill the “God gap.”

If current trends continue, by the mid-2030s less than half of all Americans will consider themselves Christian.  That will considerably change the social dynamics in the US. Indeed, it already has, as people look to activist politics, libertine sex, and social causes to fill the “God gap.” This decline almost certainly will accelerate in the next 15 years.

This decline almost certainly will accelerate in the next 15 years, since the youngest generation, Generation Z, is also the least religious and the influence of secularism will strengthen as their grandparents and great-grandparents pass away.  Also, although the decline is hitting all Christian denominations, it is hitting the Roman Catholic Church and mainline Protestantism particularly hard.  Some mainline denominations will literally cease to exist within a couple of decades because they are not bringing into adherents to the faith through either births or conversion, while their congregants are aging and dying.  The median age in the Episcopal Church USA, for example, is about 69 and with no growth the church will largely die off within the next 25 years.  Although we as conservatives disagree with the mainline churches theologically, the implosion of the mainline churches will be negative for us as well; it means there will be culturally less of a moderating influence between us and secularists, especially since those leaving the faith are often leaving with an animus toward it.

The decline also is geographic.  The 2018 General Social Survey found that 50% of all people in the United States who attend church at least once a month live in the South.  One might be tempted to think that Christians should just form a Christian redoubt in the South, but the problem with that is that Christianity in the South is in danger of becoming merely a cultural marker, a handmaiden to a social and cultural identity, rather than a deeply held set of beliefs.  The North went through this phase roughly a century ago and that manifested itself in efforts to publicly ally Protestantism and political power through such things as putting “In God We Trust” on our coinage or having mandatory prayer in schools.  Such, actions, however, failed to arrest the decline of the church in the North.  Years ago, a friend of mine from Texas once said, “We don’t care how y’all did it up North.”  I understand the sentiment, but the fact of the matter is that Christians in the South had better care how things happened up North because the South is heading in the same direction.  The destination is unbelief.

Most worrisome, the decline of American Christianity is manifested in a hollowing out of belief even among those who profess to be Christian.  Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway have been doing their “State of Theology” survey since 2014 and this year’s results are particularly disheartening.  A majority of Christians—to include Evangelicals—believe that people are born innocent and basically good by nature.  This fundamentally contradicts the Bible’s characterization of people as being under a divine curse, lost in sin, and without hope except for salvation through the work of Christ.  In addition, a majority of Christians—again including Evangelicals—believe that God accepts the worship of all religions, and that He is not absolute but is learning and adapting to different circumstances.  Moreover, while they affirm the truthfulness of the Trinity, they also believe Jesus is a created being; that He is not necessarily God, and that the Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being.

These things are not esoteric doctrines on which Christians may agree to disagree; they have been core tenets of the faith throughout the history of the church, the denial of which marked people as being definitively outside the faith.  This puts into perspective the conflicts we see around us:  why do we think God will somehow be pleased with our stance on social justice or traditional sexuality when we are both fundamentally misrepresenting who God has revealed Himself to be and denying the direness of our own condition?  God does not need us, and we are not doing Him any favors as if He ought to be grateful to us for even giving Him the pitiful amount of attention that we do.  That God is allowing American Christianity to decline as it has reflects His judgment on the church.  We must always remember His sovereignty in the circumstances; this is not happening outside His purview.  He is sifting the church and pruning it.  Cultural Christianity is dying off, just as God allowed the unbelieving generation of Israel to die off in the Wilderness.

Why do we think God will somehow be pleased with our stance on social justice or traditional sexuality when we are both fundamentally misrepresenting who God has revealed Himself to be and denying the direness of our own condition?  God does not need us, and we are not doing Him any favors as if He ought to be grateful to us for even giving Him the pitiful amount of attention that we do.

The Underlying Drivers

I grew up in northern New England, as cultural Christianity there was fading, and the spiritual shadows were lengthening.  Within the United States, northern New England is now the most secular part of the country, surpassing even the Pacific northwest.  Church buildings that were the vestiges of the old Puritanism, were even then being repurposed to become performing arts centers, nightclubs, billiards halls, and sandwich shops as congregations died.  New England led the broader decline the nation more broadly is experiencing.  As a result of this decline and my own experiences with the mainline church and with evangelicalism, I have wrestled since the late 1980s with the question of how the Christian church in this country has gotten to such a bad place.  My own disillusionment led me at one point in the early 1990s to consider converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, but God in His providence showed me the problems with that tradition as wellSo, in reflecting on this, then how did we get here and how do we move forward?

The answers to how we have gotten here are complex and books have literally been written on the matter.  I will not be able to do justice to all of that here.  After I turned away from thinking about converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, I read two books that in many ways still sets my thinking on these questions: Michael Horton’s Made in America; The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism and J. I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness; The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life.  Horton enabled me to see the negative impact that the Second Great Awakening had on much of American Protestantism, and this theme has been laid out in a more scholarly manner by Daryl Hart and others.  Packer helped me to realize that the Protestantism that we see now is not reflective of the richness and depth of our Puritan forebears.  Incumbent upon us today is the need to take a hard look at our own shortcomings in American Protestantism and to recover the richness of the faith as articulated by the Reformers and the Puritans.

As I have thought about it over the years, there were five key characteristics of American Protestantism that were crystalized in the Second Great Awakening of the first half of the nineteenth century and that underpin the problems that are coming to a head today: pragmatism; superficiality; sentimentalism; moralism; and a desire for social influence.  Let me discuss each of these in turn.

There are five key characteristics of American Protestantism that were crystalized in the Second Great Awakening of the first half of the nineteenth century and that underpin the problems that are coming to a head today: pragmatism, superficiality, sentimentalism, moralism, and a desire for social influence.

First, Americans are a pragmatic people.  Pragmatism has a connotation of “getting things done” but philosophically it means “whatever works in getting the desired results.”  As Americans our embrace of pragmatism stems from our frontier origins, and in many ways is not inherently bad: we have been able to build a large, stable, dynamic, and prosperous country through being pragmatic.

Pragmatism, however, is not always a good thing, especially when applied to the church.  The revivalism of the Second Great Awakening put a great deal of emphasis on techniques that could be employed to manipulate people into “making a decision for Jesus,” and that mentality persists to this day.  If you use ABC techniques then you should get XYZ results.  Like the Revivalists of old, our pragmatic sensibilities are most visibly manifest in how we use worship to evangelistically “reach people” for Christ.  I remember talking to a Russian Baptist years ago who had translated for American evangelicals who came to the Soviet Union when it started opening up in the late 1980s.  He observed that the Americans would come in with a laundry list of things they would need for event, including a specific number of cards for people to indicate that they are making a commitment to Christ because they could expect X number of conversions.  At first this Russian wondered how Americans could know how many people would be converted; did the Americans have some special anointing of the Holy Spirit?  The more that he worked with the Americans, the more he came to see that this was simply American pragmatism in action.

Second, such pragmatism leads to superficiality.  One can see this in the fixation on “decisions for Christ” over continuing discipleship, since the former is more easily measurable than the latter.  It is also manifested in pressure upon pastors and teachers to show specific tangible implications from whatever the preach or teach.  This encourages a superficial use of the Bible, either for atomized, biblicist proof-texting or for moralistic stories.  To be sure, our preaching and teaching should be something that we can apply to our lives but we as Americans love the multi-step plans toward self-improvement.  Biblical truth is not always easily reducible to such multi-step plans.  It will, however, over time reshape understanding of the reality in which we live and the ends for which we desire  Ironically, the superficiality of pragmatism can make us more open to bad theologies if it looks like these will provide a better payoff or be more “sophisticated” and “scientific.”  This is the route through which much modernist theology and philosophy has been absorbed into seemingly conservative and evangelical churches.

Third, just as ironic, pragmatism can also led to a pietistic sentimentalism.  Historically, the Rationalism that came out of eighteenth-century Europe yielded to the Romantic era in Europe and the Transcendental movement in America.  It becomes appealing because it is perceived as a counterbalance to the calculating aspects of pragmatism.  In reality, however, it is spirituality without the constraints of doctrine.  Although the focus may start out on Christ, such spirituality is open to any number of influences, regardless of whether they are good or bad.  In our day, we ten to think of the counter cultural New Age movement of the 1960s, but when one looks the first half of the 1800s, while the Second Great Awakening was underway, there were a number of comparable aberrant spiritualist movements that sprung up.

Fourth, and not surprisingly given the revivalist mentality that the came with the Second Great Awakening, there is a strongly moralistic strain in American Protestantism.  On a personal level, I have seen this on multiple occasions when people give their testimonies.  There is implicit pressure to show how Christ has made a dramatic difference in your life, just as one would in giving testimonials endorsing products: “I tried Jesus, and this is how radical a difference He made.”  Many Christians who did not have a dramatic conversion experience feel they have to apologize for growing up in a godly Christian family.  They should not have to feel that way; growing up in a Christian family should be preferred, rather than the exception.

Such moralism exists on a corporate scale as well.  Because America was such a young nation, there were few real institutions early on.  Thus, after people became converted at revival meetings, there was not only reform in their own personal lives but a desire to build up their communities as well.  Going hand-in-hand with revivalism were reform movements for abolishing slavery, for fostering temperance regarding alcohol, and for improving the conditions of the poor and needy, among other things.  To be sure, personal and corporate moral reform are indeed good things, and they have made a positive difference for Americans and American society.  The danger has come in the continual temptation to make them ends in themselves.  Our moralism and pragmatism lead us to believe in the perfectibility of ourselves and society and that is a subtext in our social and political dialogue.

Lastly, past successes have created an expectation that the church should have broad and high social influence in society, ostensibly in the name of the Gospel but really beyond propagating the Gospel.  That, in turn, creates pressure to accommodate the culture in varying ways, so as to gain influence or at least not lose social and political influence.  Even within our own denomination there are pressures of this type and that is proving corrosive of a faithful and orthodox witness to the truth.

Returning to the Reformation

Much more can be said, but I want to come back to how we move forward in light of all this, and especially, what difference the Reformation makes.  In light of these trends, conservative Christians are inclined toward three ways of dealing with the situation we now face: reconstruction, Romanism, or revival.

By “reconstruction” I mean efforts to restore the prominence of Christianity in America, typically by leveraging the power of the Federal Government.  This sentiment explains the desperation and political activism of so many conservative Christians today.  Over the past 10-15 years, I have repeated, well-meaning calls for Christians to “wake up” before everything is lost and get the right politicians in office now.  I am frankly doubtful that this will work.  I lack confidence in any politician to know how to turn the clock back, let alone to do it competently, and moreover, the demographic trends are not going to be reversed by legislation.  In many ways, the situation we now face is akin to the failed last-ditch efforts one reads about in 2 Kings to stave the impending invasion of the Babylonians.  If the decline of the American church is a judgment of God, then it is already too late.  Rather, we need to repent of our desire for influence and replace it with a simple desire for faithfulness to the Lord.

In terms of “Romanism,” there has been a trend over the last few decades of many Protestants thinking that the Roman Catholic Church is a bastion of conservatism that is withstanding the onslaught of secularism and the New Paganism.  Rome cultivates that image, and Catholic theologians like to charge that the secularism of our day is the result of the Reformation shattering a united Christendom.  I know of one an ordained pastor in the PCA church I used to attend who “crossed the Tiber” because he thought Protestantism lacked the theological and intellectual ability to deal with the challenges of public life.  I know of young people raised in conservative evangelical homes who have done likewise.

This is wrong on multiple levels.  Roman Catholic theologians are as diverse in their views as those in Protestantism.  Among the laity, the State of Theology survey shows that attitudes among Roman Catholics are generally consistent with or more liberal than even mainline Protestants.  The decline of self-identified Christians in the Catholic Church is greater than that of mainline churches, according to the Pew Research.  Catholic nostalgia for “Christendom” is only sustainable by willful ignorance of actual history; when one looks at the real historical record, “Christendom” was never as united or spiritual as people would like to think of it as being.  Moreover, while the Reformation did contribute to the rise of secularism in Europe, a stronger argument can be made that Roman Catholic efforts to maintain political authority in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries did much more than Protestantism to engender an atheistic backlash, especially in the events surrounding the French Revolution.

The default mode for many evangelical Protestants is that we need to “have a revival.”  No doubt, a revival of the Gospel would be most welcome these days.  But if, as I have outlined here, part of the problem underlying the decline of American Christianity stems from the pragmatism and associated effects of the Second Great Awakening, then doubling down on revivalism is not going to be an effective part of the solution.  Even insofar as revivalism worked in the past, it is clear that the marginal gains have been diminishing over time.  Techniques cannot bring about true revival; only God can.

So, where does that leave us?  Actually, I think the time is propitious to reset the foundations of American Protestantism by returning to the richness of the truths recovered by the Reformers and their Puritan descendants.  This is what Packer pointed out in his book and his work on the Puritans.  What I mean by this is more than simply affirmation of the solas of the Reformation (sola Scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, soli Deo gloria).  Those are important, to be sure, but the Reformation is not reducible to the five solas.  Much more was going on in the Reformation that has lasting significance.

The time is propitious to reset the foundations of American Protestantism by returning to the richness of the truths recovered by the Reformers and their Puritan descendants.

Take, for example, the priority that the Reformers and their immediate successors placed on Scripture.  It would be wrong to think that the pre-Reformation Catholic Church did not use Scripture at all.  They did use it, but because of limitations of books at the time, much of their understanding of Scripture relied upon compilations of quotes from Scripture on specific topics.  In some respects, current biblicist approaches to Scripture are not that far removed from this pre-Reformation approach.  The revival of learning that came in with the Renaissance, however, prompted a drive to get back to the original sources in the original languages.  As church historian Richard A. Muller notes, this led in the Reformation to a revolution in how the Scriptures were interpreted, with far more extensive exegetical work, seeing the Scriptures as a unified whole rather than an atomized collection of verses and passages.  Such deep exegesis resulted in the Reformed understanding of what we now call covenant theology.

Covenant theology is a distinctive of Reformed theology that captures the epic of God’s redemptive work.  There is a longing today for some kind of grand epic bigger than oneself, and that can be seen in the immense popularity of the Star Wars movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Middle Earth fantasies of J. R. R. Tolkien and even the Narnia series of C. S. Lewis.  For too many people, Protestantism has simply been reduced to “getting saved” and “being a good moral person.”  For a people looking for how their lives have meaning in the broader sweep of the world, this reductionism is not enough.  Such meaning and purpose, however, can be found in God’s covenantal work.  Moreover, the covenantal nature of Scripture not only unifies the Old and New Testaments, but also brings into clear focus all aspects of theology and the Christian life.  And, unlike the popular epics of today, it has the added benefit of being true.  Reformation covenant theology runs counter to the superficiality of contemporary American Protestantism.

Another example of the richness that can be recovered from the Reformation regards worship.  By focusing on just the solas of the Reformation it is easy to lose sight of how much energy, effort, and polemic was put in to reforming worship.  Today, people criticize Reformed worship as being too plain, yet its plainness is not a bug, but a feature.  Prior to the Reformation, Catholic worship exacerbated the distance between the laity and God.  The ornateness of the ritual, especially the serving of the Eucharist, was intended to overawe worshipers.  The distance between medieval Catholicism and modern megachurches is not as great as one might assume.  Both are motivated by a spirit of what man thinks should be offered up, rather than what God has asked for.  Worship is a production.  In Scripture, however, God spends much time specifying to His people how He is to be worshiped, but man’s sensibility is much like that of Cain’s—God gets what we want to offer, not what He has asked for.  Reformed worship not only reverses this, so as to be better pleasing to God, but its simplicity facilitates spiritual formation and communion, and draws us nearer to God.  For a people burned out on the constant pursuit of the “next big thing” such simplicity may well seem refreshing.

A final example can be seen in the Reformed understanding of the nature of the church itself.  The Catholic Church asserted obedience to an ecclesiastical hierarchy that was accountable to no one but itself, and such power opened the door for abuse.  In our own day, we see individual celebrity pastors or ministries, while not operating on the scale that the Catholic Church did then or does now, nevertheless have engaged in spiritual abuse themselves, having no authority outside of the church to check their power.  The Reformers, however, worked out an understanding of church government that built in graduated courts to diffuse and limit such power and to provide necessary accountability.  The Reformers also envisioned a different role for the minister.  In the Catholic understanding, the priest was largely the dispenser of the sacrament.  For modern churches, the minister is supposed to be the charismatic master of ceremonies for the worship “event.”  In the Reformed understanding, the minister is the steward of God’s Word and the pastor of God’s people.  That is a far more significant role in the spiritual formation of God’s people.

The current situation facing today’s church is undeniably bad and unlikely to be reversed quickly, but it is not beyond recovery.  A key lesson from the Reformation is that the situation the church faced prior to the Reformation was also bad, but through the Reformation God revitalized His church.  Recovering the truths of the Reformation is not going to be a simple multi-step solution that our reflexive pragmatism looks for.  It will take time and effort, and may seem “inefficient” by the world’s standards.  But returning to the model presented by our forebears in the Reformed tradition will provide a more secure, stable foundation than what we have been dealing with, and that is something to be pursued.  The Reformers embraced the motto, “Post Tenebras, Lux”—”After darkness, light.”  That is a motto worthy for our time as well.

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