A couple weeks ago, I wrote about what I think “secular” means. Today, I want to explore the concept of our country being “post-Christian.” The idea that America is now “post-Christian” gets thrown around a lot, but what does it actually mean? I think there’s a lot of confusion about our current cultural moment because when people hear “post-Christian” they think atheistic. They think of God getting removed from the public square, and an overall hostility to religion. I think the Northeast is a particularly interesting counter-example, however. It seems to me that New Jersey and New York City are generally tolerant towards religion. I actually think we can thank our Jewish friends in NYC and Lakewood for that. It’s awfully hard to come down on a religion when you’ll be accused of antisemitism, which I think opens up space for tolerance for all religions.
So if “post-Christian” does not mean atheistic, what then does it actually mean? I think the term “post-Christian” can be summarized in three points:
- The Christian church has lost (and is continuing to lose) attenders and influence in American culture.
- American culture has co-opted concepts and doctrines from the Christian faith in service of the American cultural project.
- Spiritual pluralism reigns. In other words, people are generally “spiritual” but do not like the structure and limitations of “organized religion.”
The Christian church has lost (and is continuing to lose) attenders and influence in American culture
The statistics are fairly self-evident. Church attendance and membership are declining across the board, across all denominations. For example, church membership is at an all-time low:
It seems fairly evident to me too that declining church attendance and membership would also correlate to declining influence. When church or denominational leaders speak to the country, it does not register as nearly as influential as it used to. One response to these trends is to get all bummed out and discouraged. Discouragement could even develop into full-blown “chicken-littleism,” bemoaning a coming disaster for the church.
I’m going to talk more about what our response should be in future posts, but I know what our response should not be: discouragement and melancholy. How would that actually help anything? Another inappropriate response is to bury our head in the sand and think that business-as-usual will turn things around. It will not. The initial response I think we should have is: “Look at the opportunity.” More on that later.
American culture has co-opted concepts and doctrines from the Christian faith in service of the American cultural project
Catholic political scholar Patrick Denaan wrote a book entitled Why Liberalism Failed and, in the book, he essentially argued that democratic liberalism has failed precisely because it succeeded. Part of the Enlightenment project in the 1800s was to liberate people from the controlling power of religion, provide for them choice, and glorify the individual over the community. In America, these trends have been taken to their logical conclusions. Classical liberalism has triumphed over every rival political and economic worldview, but it has left us all as isolated and autonomous individuals.
I think a similar argument could be that the reason why reaching people with Christ these days is so difficult is precisely because Christianity has triumphed in the culture. Our faith has been the impulse towards equality, justice, and fairness for all. Christianity, with our doctrine of the image of God, provides the best grounding for inherent dignity, value, and worth of ALL people. American culture, however, has taken the concept of the imago dei found in Genesis 1:26-27 and unhitched it from the other parts of God’s word, which is why it can push LGBTQ rights so hard. To defend against such arguments is difficult because in some ways, the culture is using the concepts of our own faith against us!
Spiritual pluralism reigns. In other words, people are generally “spiritual” but do not like the structure and limitations of “organized religion.”
Again, I don’t think our culture is becoming more atheistic. People talk about vague notions of “god,” the “universe,” and spirituality all the time. The idea that people define themselves as “spiritual but not religious” captures this sentiment well. I even think that the rise of the “Nones” (those who mark “None” for religious affiliation on surveys) indicates a move away from “organized religion” to more diffusive spirituality.
I think what has happened, however, is that we have had the fusion of a consumeristic, materialistic economic culture with an explosion of alternative spiritualities. People can now choose and consume spirituality according to their own preferences and desires. I wish I could say that Christianity, and the church, was immune to these things, but I see it happening with our faith as well. People may be part of a local church body, but still pick and choose all other manner of “spiritual” teachers to follow whether on YouTube or through podcasts.
Moreover, I’ve had people say to me literally: “I’ve been shopping around for churches for a while but I’ve now settled on LBC.” I’m NOT saying that once you commit to a church, you have a stay there for life. In fact, at LBC, we’ve wanted to be a sending and multiplying church where we send people out for the sake of the gospel. But it’s the whole “sake of the gospel” part which matters the most.
What Do We Now Then?
The short answer is: we’re still figuring it out. I have in mind some ideas as to what I think a full-orbed response for our church should be, but it’s going to take some time to work it out and build it up. Unfortunately, we’re very much in the mode of having to build the airplane while it’s flying. I get the sense that 2022 is going to be a very important year in the life of LBC. And with any important endeavor the first thing we can do is pray: “Pray at all times in the Spirit with all prayer and supplication” (Ephesians 6:18).