Post-Christian America?

The loss of the political agenda of the religious right and Christian dominionists is not a marker for the demise of Christianity in the U.S.

Writer Jon Meacham apparently felt the need to clarify further the point of his cover story in Newsweek which was provocatively headlined The End of Christian America .

Meacham’s demurer isn’t a concern here. What intrigued me as I read the remarks of Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, is how different I respond to the same dynamics that he’s concerned about. The issue of how to live a meaningful spiritual life and make it inviting for others in a post-modern, secularizing society is real. One need not be naive or unrealistic about that. More people seem to be opting out of Christian faith and that’s a significant concern.

But the interweaving of politics with theology over the past several years has muddied the waters and also caused real harm to perceptions of religion and religious communions.

However, the broad principles of social justice, as distinct from the specific ethical issues that were written into the Republican platform, still remain strong and I hope will endure. So the fact that the political agenda of the religious right has been solidly rejected does not spell the end of Christianity. It spells the end of a political and social agenda advanced by one of the many branches of people who identify themselves as Christian.

I am encouraged by a new-found and growing sense of urgency in my own denomination. It’s expressed through reaching out to new people, tackling the killer diseases of poverty, addressing poverty, recruiting and training new leaders and living with greater concern for the whole of creation including concern for the environment.

I came away from a couple of meetings in the past two weeks with uncharacteristic optimism. Those who know me well are sucking air right now asking, "what’s happened to him?"

What’s happening is I’m seeing signs of awareness that the church (as it is represented by this particular denomination) needs to be relevant and to engage with people in an authentic, life-enhancing way. I hear concern about how the church provides opportunities for people to become servants in faithfulness to their religious convictions as followers of Jesus. And I hear sensitivity about language and culture and how the church talks with people who want to find purpose and meaning in these difficult times. And I see action that is energizing and fresh.

This is important and whether it results in renewal, transformation or completely new forms of religious communities and expressions, it’s exciting and encouraging.

We’re not facing the end of Christianity, nor its demise but there are urgent reasons for some of us to change and seek new ways to be faithful and relevant in the world today. The rejection of the public agenda of the evangelical right is instructive, but not a measure of the relevance of Christian faith to life today. Whatever it’s importance, the evangelical right is a branch of the Christian community, not the whole of the community in the U.S. much less Christendom across the world.

As I look at the challenges faced by people of faith today I am not discouraged, I am curious, enervated and charged up. We (followers of Jesus and those who don’t) live in hard times. Many are unsettled, in pain and struggling with life. The Christian faith was born in times like these. This is a wondrous time and we are a people of hope.

2 Responses to “Post-Christian America?”

  1. Creed Pogue April 9, 2009 at 5:28 am #

    There is a difference between people’s paradigms moving away from Christianity versus simply being more open about where their paradigms truly are. There has been a disconnect between the number of people who say they are in church versus the numbers we see each Sunday.

    If Christianity, Protestantism, Mainline Protestantism or the United Methodist Church are simply going to be another avenue for achieving social welfare goals then we SHOULD shut our doors because there are a lot of organizations that do it better, faith-based or not.

    If we aren’t putting out the message that WE believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life especially in these hard times, then what good are we???

    To steer the discussion to another part, that is part of my concern about “Rethinking Church.” In business, the ad agency doesn’t make explicit promises that the product can’t deliver if for no other reason than that will get out very quickly and the product will be worse off than it was before. Promising that each person can have a customized experience in churches is dangerous because even our largest churches can’t do that.

    I have grave doubts about whether “seekers” should be the target audience anyway and Bill Hybels is already saying that. There are millions of people who consider themselves Methodist who aren’t in a UM church or any church. We should first work to bring them in rather than water down the message to attract people who are flitting from place to place and in the meantime repelling the ones who are already there.

  2. Larry April 9, 2009 at 6:09 am #

    All good points. We need to have this conversation. We need, in my opinion, to give up either/or thinking about how to proceed and try many new ways to be relevant and faithful. The challenge is how to be relevant and faithful, among many other considerations. On one hand, I hear people say, “You can’t talk to them about Jesus if you can’t get their attention.” And I hear your concern that the message isn’t watered down and vapid. Is there not an intersection between these points of concern? And are there not many ways to approach the invitation to follow Jesus? Karen Greenwaldt recently drew a chart that showed a surprising result of innovation that I think is important to note. It points out that roughly 18 out of 100 innovations succeed. If the church is to experience renewal we will need to change, and change implies innovating (in my opinion)–to do new things and to do things differently. Are we prepared to accept that 18 of the 100 innovations we attempt will succeed?

    Thanks for your thoughtful discussion.

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