Earlier this spring, I took part in the “Culture Friday” segment on The World and Everything In It podcast. We discussed the Gallup “Houses of Worship” research that showed—for the first time in the eight decades of this survey—religious Americans to now be in the minority. Only 47 percent of Americans claim membership in a church, synagogue, or mosque.
The fading of cultural Christianity, even in traditionally Bible belt parts of the country, has stirred up all sorts of commentary, from the effects of expressive individualism on society’s thought patterns, to the syncretistic approach many adopt in terms of a more generic “spirituality,” and the privatization of belief that leads to conflict regarding religious liberty in the public square.
The Silver Lining in Christianity’s Decline
Some church leaders see a silver lining in these results. Isn’t it better if the façade of a nominal, civil religion falls away?
Many a pastor in more religious areas of the nation has said something like this: “In my context, everyone thinks they’re already a believer, even if that’s just a label and not reality. When sharing the gospel, sometimes you have to get them ‘lost’ before they can get ‘saved.’” Seen in this light, if the nominal Christianity that is powerless to save and often inoculates people to the life-transforming power of the true gospel is fading, then so be it.
Should we look for the silver lining in the Gallup results, then? In a hostile culture, church membership will have some cost attached to it, not just benefits. It may become a little weird and countercultural to attend church, let alone believe what’s taught there. Perhaps the health of a smaller church community will be better. Thomas Kidd writes:
“If nominal, utilitarian, civil-religious ‘Christianity’ is mostly what’s fading away with the cratering of American church ‘membership,’ then I say good riddance.”
When the topic is seen from this angle, I agree with Kidd. If we’re talking about a nominal Christianity devoid of the gospel’s power to change lives—because it’s just a ritualistic cultural thing—then yes, we should want the true biblical gospel to be blazing with white-hot power, and we should be glad when the shell of nominal cultural Christianity that doesn’t have intrinsic power crumbles. In that sense, yes, there’s a silver lining to America’s declining religiosity.
The Costs of Christianity’s Decline
But there is a cost to the decline of cultural Christianity. And in our missional passion to seize this opportunity for fervent gospel witness, we should be honest about those costs.
First, religious decline will affect the plausibility structures of our society (when there are enough people in society whose beliefs and actions make their way of life seem like a reasonable option). When a shrinking minority of Christians claim membership in a church, it makes the whole idea of church membership seem less “normal” to many Americans. That doesn’t mean Americans will no longer be “spiritual” in some sense, or that they’ll give up all spiritual practices, but those with institutional ties (believers who truly adhere to the teachings of their faith) will be further outside the mainstream. This shift can make the challenge more difficult for Christians who seek to fulfill the Great Commission.
Second, the decline of cultural Christianity leads to what Os Guinness has described as a “cut-flower civilization.” He writes:
“The roots of Christian culture have been cut and the flowers are beginning to die on all sides.”
Historians such as Tom Holland have laid out the ways that Western society imbibed Christian morals and principles. In a sense, we are all “Christians” at the foundational level of our assumptions and the “common sense” principles we “take for granted” about the world. But can belief in the dignity of the individual and the concept of human rights flourish long term without the Christian underpinnings? Can the values of Western civilization be sustained with fewer and fewer Christians who live them out?
Third, a less religious America will make things harder for many groups, not just Christians, and these challenges will multiply into various spheres of life. As Andrew Walker points out:
To lament the decline of cultural Christianity is to lament not simply the loss of a Christian consensus, but the loss of the social capital born of common grace that secular society was borrowing from. Is it any surprise that a growing secularity is coinciding with the hollowing out of American civil society? When you define well-being in material terms only, it’s easy to miss that alongside growing secularism is a shrinking marriage rate, surges in addiction and suicide, and a whole new category we call the “loneliness epidemic.” As society sheds its Christian foundations, there will be a serious detriment to human flourishing. We should mourn this as Christians. We don’t want just the salvation of our neighbors but the good of society, too.
Fourth, the decline of cultural Christianity will likely result in more people satisfying their religious impulse elsewhere. Entertainment could be one avenue. Politics is more likely. Even worse, the marriage of entertainment and politics, with partisanship on the rise, will lead people to (1) hold their political views with a fervor generally reserved for religious conviction, (2) treat people with different political views as “evil” or “heretics” who deserve to be hounded out of the public square and “burned” at the social media stake, and (3) find their deepest sense of belonging in whatever group shares their “identity,” and thus fall prey to an identity politics that is ruthless in its obsession with and quest for power.
So yes, good riddance to a nominal Christianity that presents an obstacle to the power of true and saving faith in Christ. Farewell to a cultural Christianity that obscures the nature of regeneration. But as we cheerfully embrace the opportunities before us, let’s not be blind to the challenges we will face and the beauty we will lose as the sunset of cultural Christianity fades.
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