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Tuesday
Mar202018

Trends in Western Religions - III. American Christianity

 The OLD Philosopher – John M. Miller

 

I have been a Christian all my life. I have been an active ordained minister for more than two thirds of my life. In addressing the subject Trends in American Christianity, if I were allowed only one word to describe current trends in American Christianity, that word would be: concerned. I am considerably concerned about where Christianity is headed in the USA in the early twenty-first century.

On the other hand, I must admit that I am one of those odd people who are always congenitally concerned. I am a genetic fretter. If I am not fretting about one thing, I’m fretting about another. If the truth is told, I normally I fret about several things simultaneously. The state of American Christianity is one of the things that most concerns me right now.

In the past couple of decades, sociologists, particularly religious sociologists, have come up with a new term to describe people who have given up affiliation with any religious group or denomination. They call them “nones,” n-o-n-e-s.

The number of nones is growing. It is growing at an increasing pace. Twenty years ago, less than 10% of Americans were nones. Now, according to the polls, almost 25% are. That is an increase of almost 150% in only two decades. Each percentage point rise or fall in these surveys represents two and a half million people. The General Social Survey is funded by the National Science Foundation. It found that between 2012 and 2014, for example, there was a 3% increase in people who declared that they had left religion during that brief time. That means seven and a half million people became nones. And that means that in only two years, more than 2% of the total American population gave up organized religion altogether.

Anybody who espouses religion, any religion, should be alarmed by those numbers. Even people who disavow religion altogether should be alarmed. Considering that a huge majority of Americans who are religious are Christians of one variety or another, most of those seven and a half million drop-outs were former Christians. If you are a Christian and you are not alarmed, you are clearly not watching or listening or ruminating. Sociologists say that at this rate, nones will soon be the largest group in the country in religious surveys, except that they have declared themselves unaffiliated with any religion whatsoever. What this means is that soon there will more American nones than Protestants or Catholics. And just so everyone understands, we need to remind Catholics and others that nones are not nuns; they are nones.

Nones are most prevalent in cities, especially large cities. According to PRRI, the Public Religion Research Institute, a religious polling organization, Portland has the highest percentage of nones --- at 42%! San Francisco and Seattle have 33%, Denver 32%, Phoenix 26%, Tampa-St. Pete 25%, and Los Angeles, Detroit, Columbus, and Boston, 24%.

But it isn’t only urban areas that have been hit by a decline in religious affiliation. According to a story about a survey by Iowa State University, 500 mainly rural churches in Iowa closed their doors between 1990 and 2010. Many Iowa churches are going back to patterns of church leadership from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They are finding it necessary to utilize clergy or lay leaders to serve two or more congregations, some of those congregations representing two or more denominations.

There is a very significant correlation between age and the disavowal of religious affiliation. Again, according to PRRI, only 8% of people over 80 are nones, 12% of those ages 70-79, 16% of those 60-69, 18% 50-59, 23% 40-49, 29% 30-39, and 38% 18-29. The younger people are, the more likely they are to be nones.  

What explains that? There are several reasons. A recent article in The Washington Post suggested that the children of divorced parents are more likely to drop out of religion than those whose parents stayed married when they were growing up. Pollsters said 35% of adults whose parents divorced when they were children are nones, whereas only 23% of those whose parents stayed married when they were young. Negative religious views of gays and lesbians caused 29% to give up religion, and 19% said they left because of clergy sexual abuse.

By far the largest percentage of nones, 60%, told the pollsters they disaffiliated because they no longer believe what religion teaches. But why might that be? As a long-of-tooth still-practicing parson, I would say the greatest explanation for that decline is that for at least the past half-century, children and youth were increasingly less likely to attend church and/or Sunday school regularly than in previous times. Church attendance is much less acculturated now than it was in prior generations. Religious acculturation and acculturated religion are very influential in the progress or regression of religion.

Furthermore, there are so many more sports and social activities on Sundays for young people than there were half a century or more ago. Regularity in church attendance and activities for youth is the greatest indicator for whether they shall remain active in church as adults. If parents do not bring their children with them to church on most Sundays throughout the year, the children are less likely to be active in church as adults. It is as simple --- and complicated --- as that.  

The Pew Research Center is one of the most important and influential organizations in the study of the sociology of religion. In 2007 they did a huge survey of Americans about their religious affiliation, and they did it again in 2014. During that seven-year period, the percentage of people who described themselves as Christians dropped from 78.4% to 70.6%. However, it is important for everyone to realize that not all those who call themselves Christians go to church. Almost certainly considerably less than half of all Christians attend worship even infrequently, if at all.

Furthermore, many people who are asked if they attend church are persistent prevaricators. They say they do, but they don’t. And that is true across the board for Catholics, Protestants, and evangelicals. Evangelicals are more likely to attend with regularity, but even they, as a group, do not deserve Perfect Attendance Pins the way many of us geezers did when we were little kids. We used to look like Soviet commissars. Now it would be rare for large numbers in any evangelical church anywhere in the country to be legitimately commissarified. As culture has changed, so has religion, because culture affects religion as much or more than religion affects culture.

Even though fewer people were attending church in 2014 than in 2007, those who do participate say they are more involved now than previously. For example, 88% of the religiously affiliated say they pray daily, weekly, or monthly. I find this figure impossible to believe, but 78% of all those polled described themselves as religiously affiliated, which dropped from 83% in 2007, which is also impossible to believe, in light of the “None” figures.

Pew researchers explain the drop in percentages by the dying off of older people and the fact that millennials are much less inclined to affiliate with any religious institutions. Nonetheless, the researchers also found that the percentage of people who claim to be spiritual but not religious has increased in recent years. Andrew Walsh is an historian of American religion at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. He says that religious affiliation today is “increasingly shaped by individual choice and less by inheritance from a family or community.” As a very long-time pastor, I would echo that observation.

A further wrinkle in these numbers is that not all nones have become atheists or agnostics. Many of them are the ones who insist that they are spiritual, but not religious. Josh Packard is a sociologist who recently published a book called Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People Are DONE with Church but Not Their Faith. I hope the book is relatively as long as its title to support its thesis. In any event, “Done” is Mr. Packard’s new alternative for “None.” All nones and dones have dropped out, but not all dones are nones. To express it differently, all these numbers and terms are quite complicated.

Roman Catholic Trends

Everything that has been described about American religious trends applies almost as accurately to the American Roman Catholic Church as to the Protestant denominations. Catholic statistics are increasing at a slow pace, but the increase is due almost entirely to the large numbers of Hispanics who are coming into our country as legal or undocumented immigrants. Active white Catholics are declining at about the same rate as white Protestants. Nones are leaving Catholicism at about the same percentage as former Protestant nones, and obviously I am not referring to “n-u-n-s.”

Catholics are also faced with some of the same theological and cultural issues that have plagued Protestants: differences over same sex marriage, questions about whether openly-practicing gay people should be welcomed into the membership of Catholic parishes, and so on. The questions of whether there should be married clergy or female clergy are matters which have long been debated in American and world Catholicism, and that shall continue. In the end those two issues shall ultimately be decided in Rome, and not in America or by Americans.

Apparently the factor which explains the large number of Catholics who have become nones in the past twenty years is their major dissatisfaction with how the hierarchy has mishandled the many clergy sex abuse scandals. Because of the shortage of priests, the bishops have been loathe to defrock abusive clergy. Instead, they have sent too many of them from one parish to another. Thus the pattern of abuse has persisted, leaving many thousands of altar boys, and girls, damaged for life. Rage over this pattern of bishop culpability has resulted in several million Catholics leaving the Church of Rome. Most of them did not defect to other branches of Christianity; they simply became nones.

Thirteen out of almost two hundred Catholic dioceses have filed for bankruptcy because of large damage suits against the Church by abusive priests. Regional organizations of two religious orders have also filed for bankruptcy for the same reason. It is estimated that between three and four billion dollars have been awarded in suits against Catholic clergy during the past six decades. Most of those awards have been settled out of court in the range of a million dollars for each individual who was wronged.

Since 1950, over 6,500 priests have been accused of molesting children. That represents six per cent of the total number of priests. Many Catholics are clamoring for a married priesthood, thinking that will greatly diminish the problem. So far no serious discussions of that have been made public, or whether discussions are going on privately in the halls of the Vatican.

The American Catholic Church, like its counterparts in many western European nations or in Canada, Australia, and a few Latin American nations, may find itself at odds with those nations where Catholicism is growing the fastest, such as Africa or parts of Asia. Traditional cultures in much of Asia and Africa are far more conservative in issues of sexuality than in the West, and Catholic leaders in those nations are aghast at recommendations being made by progressive Catholics in America and elsewhere.

This relatively new dichotomy is highlighted by an old dichotomy in American Catholicism, namely, the liberal/conservative or the progressive/traditional debates which have always ensued in Roman Catholicism. Early in his papacy, Pope Francis seemed to give encouragement to progressives. Lately, however, he has taken some more traditional steps which give cheer to the conservative wing of the Church.

Soon after his papacy began, Pope Francis issued an encyclical called The Joy of Love. In it he hinted at the possibility of divorced or civilly married Catholics being able to receive communion, which has never been permitted before. Liberals were delighted, while conservatives were dismayed. He also refused to condemn homosexuality outright. “Who am I to judge?” he famously inquired.

The archbishop of Philadelphia said that the only way divorced or civilly married Catholics in that archdiocese may receive communion is if they promise to live together “as brother and sister.” (That was what Pope John Paul II had recommended in 1982. It is unlikely that legions of married Catholics have told their priests that they are now living as brothers and sisters and are ready to be given the host.)

A far more pressing issue for the American Catholic Church is the continuous alarming decline in the number of priests and nuns (this time spelled the old-fashioned way: n-u-n-s). There are 20,000 fewer priests now than in 1965, a 34% drop, even though the Catholic membership has increased by almost 50% in that time, though, as previously noted, most of that increase is due to millions of Latino Catholics coming into the country in recent decades. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 3,500 of 17,500 American parishes have no resident priest. That means almost one out of every five American Catholic churches has no priest living in the rectory.

On the other hand, some bishops claim their dioceses have too many parishes. Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, exclaimed, “We no longer need 368 parishes in their current locations!” He laments that there are 29 churches south of 14th Street in Manhattan. Hundreds of parish churches have been closed around the nation, especially in large cities where many Catholics have moved to the suburbs. Many Catholics quit going to church because of those diocesan closings.

In the meantime, the internal and external influence of Catholicism upon its members and upon the larger society is likely declining in a similar fashion to the decline of American Protestant religion in general. To repeat, no one who identifies strongly with institutional religion of any kind can find comfort in what clearly is happening in American culture with respect to religion.

Mainline Protestant Denominational Trends

Let us now investigate some trends in particular Protestant denominations. Several Protestant denominations have lost members because of a small constellation of issues revolving around sexuality. Decades ago, some of these denominations experienced major stress when they began to ordain women clergy. That issue eventually died down when nearly all mainline Protestant denominations finally approved female ordination, although many evangelical or conservative denominations still forbid the practice.

In recent decades sexual-orientation concerns have been expressed over the ordination of gays and lesbians and the issue of whether or not the clergy should officiate at the weddings of gay people. Every denomination which has approved those practices has lost members because of their approval. To deny that is to deny reality. However, not everyone who left did so because they disapproved of the approval; many left because they disapproved of the rancor that erupted because of the approval. Most of those who left because of the rancor became nones or dones. Most of those who did not become dones either became nones or evangelicals of some sort.

The mainline Protestant denominations who approved ordination and marriage for gays did so because they believed it was a justice issue, that it was Right to approve this new trend and Wrong to disapprove it. All of them have paid a price for their stance. Those who approve are in mourning; those who disapprove may be gloating. It remains to be seen how this will play itself out over the long run.

In the short run, however, we might note that in just a few years the American populace at large went from 60% disapproving of gay marriage to where, now, 60% approve it. Is Justice winning, or is Wrong winning? What you think about this issue determines how you would answer that question.

The American Episcopal Church perhaps best illustrates the sorrow and pain the matters of sexual orientation have created in American Protestantism. Two years ago the worldwide Anglican Communion voted to exclude the American Episcopal Church from participating in many of its policy decisions, because American Episcopalians voted to ordain gay clergy and to allow clergy to officiate at same-sex marriages. However, the Anglican Communion also voted to stay together rather than to divide into two Anglican communions with opposing views on these matters. That vote was unanimous. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and titular head of worldwide Anglicanism, soberly acknowledged that the world’s Anglicans decided to remain together, even though they are now officially a house divided.

There is certainly opposition to ordination and marriage of gays in the American Episcopal Church, but the opposition is strongest by far among African Anglicans, who now represent the largest segment of worldwide Anglicanism. In fact, as we learned in the previous lecture, Africa and parts of Asia is where worldwide Christianity is growing the fastest. Whether hardliners on the gay issue will eventually cause an international Anglican schism cannot be accurately predicted at this time. Southern and Eastern Christians may be headed in that direction, but Western Christians (Europeans and North Americans) are doing everything they can to hold things together.

The concerns of the American Episcopalians have been felt to an equal or somewhat lesser extent by the mainline United Methodists, Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians (USA), United Church of Christ, American Baptists, Disciples of Christ, and other smaller denominations. Virtually all these groups have collectively lost millions of members over the past two decades. Some have half or less the membership they had forty or fifty years ago. These are the concerns that greatly alarm a congenital fretter.

I was ordained by what is now known as The Presbyterian Church (USA), although for the past fifteen years I have served as the pastor of a non-denominational congregation. Some statistics from the PCUSA are indicative of recent trends for all mainline Protestant denominations. The median age for Presbyterian and other mainline Protestant ministers is 57. That means half are younger than 57 and half are older. Three-quarters of all mainline clergy currently serving congregations will be eligible for retirement within a decade. Retirements and deaths for Presbyterian ministers are outpacing ordinations.

 Many Presbyterian congregations are too small to afford a full-time minister, but they refuse to share a minister with another congregation or congregations, and many ministers are unwilling to accept calls to such congregations anyway. Thus the number of congregations who close their doors continues to grow, while the number of realistically available clergy continues slowly to decline. In 2014 it was reported that of the 20,383 Presbyterian clergy, 12,183 were active in some capacity. In other words, a very significant percentage were either retired or not in active ministerial service. Presbyterian seminary enrollments have remained fairly steady for several years, even though there are fewer congregations to serve and fewer seminary graduates willing to serve the type of congregation which has the hardest time attracting clergy.

In 2014, the last year such statistics were available (maybe the denomination has chosen not to make them available any longer), close to a third of Presbyterian congregations had no pastoral leadership at all. Nearly a third of Presbyterian congregations had fifty or fewer members. Those trends are similar to most other mainline Protestants, and they clearly do not bode well for the future.

Several mainline Protestant denominations have found it necessary to close seminaries. For instance, two ELC (Evangelical Lutheran Church) seminaries in Pennsylvania, one in Gettysburg and one in Philadelphia, have merged to form one seminary on two campuses in order to lower financial costs. Others are closing because their endowments are gone. The Association of Theological Schools is the umbrella organization for Protestant seminaries. They report that since 2005 enrollment in their various schools has dropped an average of 24%. Their executive director estimates that over the next several years, 80 out of the top 100 seminaries will have to revamp for financial and other reasons just to remain viable. Needless to say, this is not happy news for progressive Protestantism.

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times. On matters both political and religious he is one of the more conservative writers for the Times, of whom it would be far to say there are not hordes to begin with. On Easter of 2017, April 16 of last year, Mr. Douthat wrote a column called Save the Mainline. It was so outstanding I am going to quote large choice chunks of it verbatim. As a card-carrying, very committed Catholic, he made a far better plea than I ever could for how to end this section of this lecture on Mainline Protestant Denominational Trends.

So sit back and relax while Ross Douthat suggests at least a partial solution to the American Mainline Protestant Malaise.

“(N)ow it’s time to return to this column’s ongoing series of implausible proposals, Easter Sunday edition. Which means I’ll be proposing – yes, I’m that predictable – that many of this newspaper’s secular readers should head en masse to church.

“But not by converting to my own religion, Roman Catholicism. Of course that’s what I really want, what the sinister albino monk at my shoulder keeps muttering about, what the mimeographed orders from Catholic central command expect me eventually to achieve. (All those ‘disagreements’ I keep having with Pope Francis are just classic papist trickery.)

“For now, though, let’s talk about a smaller leap of faith. A large share of well-educated liberal America is post-Protestant – former Methodists, ex-Lutherans, lapsed Presbyterians, the secularized kids of Congregationalists. Their ancestral churches, the theologically liberal mainline denominations, are aging and emptying, with the oldest churchgoing population and one of the lowest retention rates of any Christian tradition in the United States…. For the sake of their country, their culture and their very selves, liberal post-Protestants should find a mainline congregation and start attending every week.

One reason they don’t is that some of what those congregations offer is already embodied in liberal politics and culture. As the sociologist N.J. Demerath argued in the 1990s, liberal churches have suffered institutional decline, but also enjoy a sort of cultural triumph, losing members even as their most distinctive commitments – ecumenical spirituality and a progressive social Gospel – permeate academia, the media, pop culture, the Democratic Party.

“Liberals, give mainline Protestantism another chance. Do it for your political philosophy.

“You say you’re spiritual but not religious because you associate ‘Religion’ with hierarchies and dogmas and strict rules about sex. But the Protestant mainline has gone well out of its way to accommodate you on all these points.

“I appreciate that by staying away from church you’re vindicating my Catholic skepticism of that accommodation…but really, aren’t you being a little ungrateful, a little slothful, a little selfish by leaving these churches empty when you’re trying to be exactly the change you say Christianity would make?

“…Just go to church, guys. The mainline churches’ doors are open. They need you; America still needs them.

“We’ll talk about the Church of Rome next Easter.”

And thus saith Ross Douthat. And thus endeth this section on mainline Protestantism. And thus saith I: Easter is just thirteen days away. I can hardly wait to read what Ross Douthat will then have to say about Roman Catholicism. I have no doubt it will be well worth reading, and that he will say what he thinks without gilding the ecclesiastical lily. He is that kind of writer, which is my kind of writer.

Trends in American Evangelicalism

 Since mainline Protestantism began declining in the Sixties and Seventies, evangelical Protestantism began increasing from that time to the present. Some of those who left the mainline went to the evangelicals, but a much larger number simply dropped out altogether.

American evangelical Christianity has become much more sophisticated than it was at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the last three or four decades, evangelical clergy and laity became better educated in many areas of human existence and experience. Some evangelical churches still look and sound as though they are stuck in the Nineteen-Teens or –Twenties, but many are clearly up to date in the Twenty-Teens, with all the latest technology and educational resources and worship techniques.

Most of the traditional fundamentalist and evangelical denominations have grown dramatically in the past half-century. However, there has been an even higher growth rate in non-denominational congregations of all sizes and varieties. In fact, while highly publicized denominational affiliation has declined among mainline Protestant churches, it has declined even more among evangelical churches. Thousands of conservative churches have given up even a hint of a denominational connection in their names. Many church growth experts have urged pastors and congregations to abandon denominational ties, because they say that American young people have turned away from institutional involvement in all sorts of institutions, including institutional religion. Still, they seem to be drawn to congregations that appear not to be institutional, even if, sociologically, every congregation is its own individual institution.

You may have noticed thus far nothing has been said about the Southern Baptists. The Southern Baptist Convention has always been considered and proudly considers itself to be evangelical. And, up until a few years ago, the Southern Baptists had an unblemished record of ending each year with more members in the denomination than the year before. They are, by far, the largest American Protestant denomination. Starting a few years back, however, the SBC has also ended each year with a very slow loss of members. That means fewer baptisms each year, fewer new clergy, fewer churches. The decline is not great; in 2003 there were 16.3 million members, and in 2016 there were slightly less than 15.5 million. That’s not a large percentage drop, but still, it is a loss of 800,000 people in thirteen years. Less than ten of the more than two thousand American Protestant denominations have even as many as 800,000 members.

By the way, two thousand denominations is an enormous ecclesiastical scandal all by itself. God surely is highly displeased. Jesus must be mystified. But then, Jesus probably has been mystified for two thousand years by the very existence of a worldwide institution that calls itself the Christian Church. What does “Christian” mean, if God is God?

But to return to the Southern Baptist Convention. No denomination in the history of Christianity has sent more missionaries to other countries than the SBC. Nevertheless, nearly a fifth of the five thousand missionaries in August of 2015 voluntarily retired or were reassigned to the USA by early 2016. There were not enough denominational contributions to pay them. The denomination itself had to cut 800 of its own internal employees between 2010 and 2015, because the churches were not sending enough money to headquarters to keep the SBC doing what it had done do well for so many decades.

If the Southern Baptists are in denominational trouble, are other evangelicals in trouble? The answer is Yes. However, for reasons of perpetually promoted positive thinking, the alarm is not yet being loudly sounded. In any case, the troubles are not yet as serious in numbers, percentages, or finances as they are among mainline Protestants.

Some people say that American evangelicalism has ceased to be a religious movement altogether and has become a primarily political movement. As an illustration of that claim, polls indicate that 80 to 85% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the presidential election of 2016.

Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California is an interdenominational evangelical divinity school that has been one of the leading “ecumenical evangelical” seminaries for many years. Its president is Mark Labberton. He is the editor of a book of essays recently published called Still Evangelical? Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning. Some of the evangelicals who contributed articles to the book expressed dismay that so many of their fellow evangelicals voted for a man who clearly expressed himself to be a mean-spirited bully during the campaign. Dr. Labberton wrote that popular evangelicalism has become “an amalgam of theological views, partisan political debates, regional power blocks, populist visions, racial biases, and cultural anxieties, all mixed in an ethos of fear.” For an evangelical, those are quite sharp words. He further states that for many people the word evangelical no longer connotes a set of theological commitments but a “theo-political brand.” It is no mainline Protestant seminary president who wrote those words. It is a self-professed, much-admired evangelical who wrote them.

 There is one major factor which accounts for a considerable if also not clearly discernible explanation for the recent numerical growth of evangelical Protestantism. That is the fairly sudden rise of the megachurch. Not all megachurches are evangelical, but most of them are. And in most of those churches some version of “theo-political” evangelicalism is at least occasionally preached.

Ecclesiastical sociologists have decreed that a megachurch is a congregation or constellation of two or more congregations under one congregational umbrella in which the average weekend attendance is two thousand or more people. Believe it or not, there are over thirteen hundred such Protestant churches throughout the USA. There are an additional three thousand Roman Catholic churches that have at least 2000 people in weekend attendance, but for some reason only Protestant churches can meet the criteria for being megachurches.

The mini-megas must average 2000 in worship each weekend, while the American absolute maxi-megachurch, the Lakewood Church in Houston, averages 47,300 in attendance each weekend, according to their own carefully maintained statistics. That is the congregation whose pastor is Joel Osteen, the megachurch which purchased the old Houston Rockets basketball arena in which to hold their services.   

There is a Pentecostal congregation in Seoul, Korea, which has over 800,000 members. It isn’t a denomination; it’s a congregation. There are other such congregations with hundreds of thousands of members elsewhere in Korea, and in Africa and South America. “Big” has gone “Gargantuan” in the last two generations elsewhere in the world. That is a study in ecclesiastical sociology all by itself.

In America, however, the Lakewood Church is the largest American congregation. Its pastor is the son of a former Southern Baptist minister who became charismatic (i.e., pentecostal with a small “c”) and started the Lakewood Church as a pentecostal congregation in 1959 for pentecostal Baptists. He soon discovered there are not very many such people, and he dropped the title “Baptist” from the church’s name. His son Joel, one of six children, went to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa for a semester, but dropped out, and never went back to college or to any kind of seminary.  He went nack to Houston. For years he worked his way up through the administration of the Lakewood Church, eventually becoming the director of television communications. Joel Osteen never preached a sermon in the church founded by his father until six days before his father died unexpectedly of a heart attack. (Perhaps his father had a premonition.) Very shortly Joel Osteen succeeded his father as the lead minister. Now Lakewood has a seventy million-dollar annual budget, which is more than the total annual budget of all but one or two Protestant denominations. The rest of the Lakewood story is history.

I do not have time to give a full explanation of what a megachurch is. It is not like any other congregations in the history of Christianity. The megachurch is much more of a sociological rather than an ecclesiastical or theological phenomenon. It also is a very recent phenomenon. Thus it is so historically untested for a permanent place in ecclesiastical history that it is impossible at this point to say whether it will continue to be the major force in world Christianity that it is today. There may actually be reasons to believe it shall diminish as other examples of institutional religion are currently in retreat.

The primary reason that is likely is because thus far megachurches have depended very largely on the personality, the preaching ability, and the organizational genius of their founding pastors, 99+ per cent of whom are males. This whole genre of “church” is so new that its level of permanence has not had enough time to become solidified by the passage of decades or centuries.

The best illustration of this uncertainty over passing the baton of the top pastoral leadership is the Garden Grove Community Church of Anaheim, California, It later came to be called the Crystal Cathedral under its founding pastor, Robert Schuller. To call it a “cathedral” illustrates a peculiar kind of hubris which typifies many megachurches. Historically, cathedrals have been churches where bishops were seated in the cathedra, a Latin word for a bishop’s throne. But “Crystal Cathedral” is alliterative, amd therefore catchy, and it stuck. For decades, as long as Robert Schuller lived, the Crystal Cathedral thrived. In his latter years, he became the pastor emeritus, preaching occasionally, and his son became the pastor. However, the son was not as able or marketable as the father. His daughter was more gifted, but she was a female, and in an evangelical church that was a problem. The Schuller Succession eventually fell apart, and after Robert Schuller died, the Crystal Cathedral was ignominiously sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Anaheim.

The sad saga of the Fall of the House of Schuller may become duplicated in countless megachurches all over the world when it comes time to pass the torch from one generation to the next. Who shall take possession of the torch? Shall it be a family member, as in many autocracies, or shall someone else be anointed to fill the gigantic shoes of the founder? And if some of these enormous churches fail, what shall be done with those enormous buildings? Will all that money have been wasted?

To the degree that evangelicalism may have fallen into the trap of marketing itself rather than marketing God, it too deserves to come upon hard times. The Good News presented by historic Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and mainline Protestantism has been the Good News of the Gospel of God As Perceived Through the Ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. The Good News of any form of “evangelical” (in quotes) Christianity has always been more a sociological than an ecclesiastical or theological reality. Evangelicalism has been more interested in the packaging of its product than what is inside the package, more concerned with what sells than with what the product itself ought to be.

Concluding Philosophical Observations

For anyone who is committed to the viability of institutional religion, this lecture is not very encouraging. The growing phenomenon of nones should be of concern to every person of every denominational or theological stripe.

The world is rapidly becoming more secularized. Secularity is not an enemy of religion, but secularism is. Secularity is the acknowledgement that there are aspects of the world which are apart from, and must be separated from, the control or interference of religion, such as government, politics, economics, and the like. Religion may have things to say about those human endeavors, but secular institutions must be given the freedom to operate on their own apart from religious control.

Secularism, on the other hand, becomes a religion in and of itself. It is, after all, an “ism,” a closed system devoted entirely to its own beliefs and values. Secularism rejects the notion of God or of any divine influence in the world. That is certainly a valid intellectual option, and it an option being exercised by more and more people who are nones, dones, or “never dids,” people who have never been a part of any sort of religious community, even in their own nuclear families.

The saddest form of secularism can be observed in what might be called “evangelical atheism.” The word “evangelical” comes from a Greek word which means “good news.” “Gospel” is the Anglo-Saxon word that means the same thing. There is no good news in atheism. There may be truth in atheism; there is no certainty that God exists, or if He (She?) does exist, that He/She is good or loving or trustworthy. Philosophically, atheism might be existentially correct. But there really is no good news when we are told there is no God; there just isn’t.

Evangelical atheism is not the traditional atheism espoused by philosophers like Nietzsche or Hegel or Bertrand Russell. It is the kind proclaimed by “the New Atheists,” men such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. They were nones before the term had even been invented.

Most nones or dones are not atheists. Many of them are spiritual but not religious, and others are agnostics, who will not declare that God does or does not exist.

Despite the innumerable wars religion has foolishly initiated, and the blood it has tragically shed, and the enormous mistakes it has made, the world is surely better off because of religion than it would be without it. Secularism has some religious characteristics, but it is not a religion. It has no institutional structure. It does not organize itself to improve or alter the world. Secularists do not gather on a regular basis to proclaim their secularity. They construct no hospitals, operate no soup kitchens, offer no pastoral care, speak no truth to power. At least not as organized secularists they don’t.

Humanists, on the other hand, do those things, the same kind of things religious people do. Humanists make humanity their religion, and strong philosophical and intellectual support can be made for humanism. But secularism is not humanism. Secularism is secularity for the sake of secularity alone. It sees nothing beyond itself, not even humanity.

Religion won’t die. It could not be killed even if its death were systematically attempted, as occurred in the Soviet Union, Albania, China, Viet Nam, and Cuba. Religion truly can become the opiate of the people, if the people are so foolish as to allow it to become that. But were it to happen, it would be their fault, and not the fault of religion. Religion is, after all, an institution created by and for humans, and only we can improve or undermine it.

In the twenty-first century and in many places around the world, religion is in trouble, because countless millions of people are dropping out. The world will only get worse because of that trend, and we all know it is bad enough as it is.

If there is no God, there is little to suggest that things will get better. Even if God exists, there is no certainly that things will improve.

For better or worse, God (if there is one) has placed the stewardship of Planet Earth in our hands. He will never forget or ignore us, but He won’t control us as though we were His own mindless automatons, either. As has always been true, what happens from now on is up to us.

 

-       March 20, 2018

 

John Miller is a writer, author, lecturer, and preacher-for-over-fifty-years who is pastor of The Chapel Without Walls on Hilton Head Island, SC.

 

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