The Meaning of Decline: Christianity, Religion, and Spirituality

Recently discussion of Lillian Daniel’s essay in 2011 and subsequent book on the Spiritual but not Religious (SBNR) and the need for institutional religious community, has been appearing in my social media streams and in a few blog posts.  This has dovetailed with two books I’d picked up recently. I wasn’t surprised but, I’m finding that we’ve been anxious about the possible decline of religious institutions and Christianity in the U.S.  for the past 40 years (Most if not all of my lifetime).

The first  book is from 1973, A Fire We Can Light, Martin E. Marty’s prognostications on the state of Christianity in the United States at that time.   Marty writes at a moment of an upsurge in religious fervor and conversion.  However,  Marty reports a lack of commitment to the trappings of religious institutions.  Marty puzzles over this growing interest in Christian faith that doesn’t care about American Christian institutions.  These movements were the Jesus People and what Marty calls new Pentecostals but soon would be called Charismatics.  Marty notes the interesting ways these groups have an unusual relationship to institutions.  The Jesus people are depicted as being unconcerned with doctrines or even consistency in beliefs, Jesus’ divinity, Resurrection and reincarnation are said to coincide in one person.  The new Pentecostals retain denominational identity but are an ecumenical phenomenon.  Marty anticipates both that these “Pentecostals” will have continuing effect in the various denominations (My wife is the daughter of some of these Pentecostals in the Episcopal Church), and that something like but unlike denominations will emerge out of this group, eventually Vineyard and other loose confederation of charismatic congregations (my mother-in-law, is currently in one of these congregations.)  However, Marty is concerned that these groups aren’t going to really contribute to the life of established religious institutions.  Reading A Fire we can Light now it is interesting, for there is an anxiety about decline and yet report on a great deal of dynamism in the religious (we might say now spiritual) landscape in the U.S.

The other book I’m reading is from 1996 (my first year at Fuller Theological Seminary) Robert Wuthnow’s Christianity and Civil Society.   The main thrust of the book is for another post, however, the questions addressed and raised by Wuthnow, are rooted in an anxiety about the relevance of religion in our culture and society.  He’s asking what if anything our religious institutions can or should contribute to Civil Society. In seeking to answer this question Wuthnow doesn’t  know what to do with the seemingly contradictory statistics about the importance of religion in the United States.  Reading this now I say, ah this seeming contradiction is that in the statistics we are seeing the emergence of what we’ve now label SBNR.  Yet scholars like Wuthnow and the writers of surveys hadn’t noticed that a distinction and line was being drawn between spirituality and religion.  Even now if I use the language of Religious Studies, SBNR are religious, just religious outside of traditional institutions. From a Religious Studies standpoint “institutions” aren’t’ the essential component to being religious, though at the same time Religious Studies has been adverse to essential definitions of religion, and have stuck to phenomenological ones.  So I can tell you this is an instance of religion but I can’t tell you why all instances of religion belong to that set.  But I digress, in apart because Wuthnow was well received in Religious Studies as well as Theological circles.  Wuthnow seeks to be upbeat, the most negative reports on religion he feels are exaggerated, because of the continuing reports of belief in God and the practices of prayer etc.  Even so, he can’t deny the decline of the “Mainline”.  From the data Wuthnow sees that Americans don’t seem to be any less religious then we have been especially if one looks over the long-term (and not simply comparing the 1990’s to the 1950’s).  Yet at the same time there does seem to be a decrease in interest in the religious institutions, specifically at this time represented by the decline in the formerly dominant religious institutions of the Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians.  Even, so Wuthnow seeks to be optimistic about American religious institutions.

Both Wuthnow and Marty can’t quite make sense of the phenomena they are seeing and describing.  At first I just chalked it up to hindsight being 20 x 20.   But I was also intrigued by their difficulty of seeing genuine religious conviction and experience outside of the established institutions or even outside religion as an institution.  That this happens in the thought of Martin Marty a key figure in established Christian religion in the United States is understandable especially in 1973. However, it is more striking in 1996 from Wuthnow a prominent sociologist of religion to miss almost entirely what I already knew as at that time: people were already identifying as spiritual and not religious, it hadn’t become a thing “Spiritual but not Religious”.  Many of my friends and acquaintances were already expressing such sentiments in the late 1980’s, by 1996 to me this was old already simply the landscape in which I lived.  It was already obvious to me that people felt they had religious experience and faith outside of American institutions of religion.

So, what is in decline?  Does it matter?

It matter’s to people whose sense of religion and faith are dependent upon American religious institutions.    It matters because many people who may have named their experiences of transcendence and connection with God as religious and then found their way to Church are now calling that experience “Spiritual” and concluding not only that American religious institutions aren’t necessary to nurture their “spirituality” American Religious institutions (including mainline and progressive ones) stand in the way of nurturing spirituality.  And I think this evaluation is largely correct, and much religious institutional life in the U.S. was either useful in the 1950’s or always about these institutions captivity to values and outlook that have little to do with Church or Christian spirituality.  If so, then what is in decline isn’t religion or the Church or Christianity per se but certain trappings that either were only a very particular cultural adaptation or things set against the very values these institutions claimed to uphold, that is it’s  either dead wood or hypocrisy.  I say let it go, let it decline.

If your religious community is genuine it may shrink in this context, but it won’t disappear.  Sure American religion and the Church in America may not look like it has for the past 50 years (or may not look like, but that’s okay.

We need to embrace what’s happening and let things decline.  If we do, maybe some SBNR may see the Church as the  spiritual institution it is supposed to be.

We need to stop trying to preserve “religion” or “denominations”, but seek to follow Christ and be the Church in our time and place.  Sure that produces anxiety because we may get it wrong, and we don’t know what we are doing any more.  That’s the risk.

I’ll conclude with this anecdote:

This past Saturday I was at a gathering of Church Planters for the Central Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church.  In this meeting were African-American and Hispanic church planters.  A few  African-American church planter’s I talked to were coming out of large African-American congregation with programs and large attendance.  These pastors spoke wearily of how these congregations were full of “church people” who only interacted with themselves and of programs once created by these congregations to reach the community and now simply perpetuating themselves with no sense of what was actually going on in the community.  These pastors were becoming church planters because these “church people” and institutions were  a barrier to the Gospel.  A Hispanic pastor spoke of the difficulty of starting a Hispanic church plant in neighborhoods that are diverse and thus missing whole groups of their neighbors because everything they do as a congregation is in Spanish and for Spanish speakers.  This was perceived as a negative limit and not being responsive to the environment in which they as a congregation existed.  These are insiders, those committed to religious life, saying American Religious institution (even those of ethnic immigrants having their separate institutions, denominations and congregations) works against the values of the Church and the Gospel.

Perhaps it’s time for these things to decline and pass away.  Perhaps we’ve been asking the wrong questions, and American Religious institutions don’t need to be saved or preserved.