Down the Drain Together


Russ Douthat and Diana Butler Bass, and everyone else with a blog or a website, has shot an arrow across the bow of the American religious liberal/conservative divide in the last 48 hours.

“Can liberal Christianity be saved?”

“Why don’t conservative Christians take blame for the decline of the church?”

“Can Christianity in America be saved?”

“Which part of the church can be blamed for the great exodus from American churches?”

Here’s a thought – the so-called “decline” of the American church has nothing to do with the church itself, its theology, or its beliefs.

It has everything to do with a growing crisis in American society concerning public trust in institutions. Christopher Hayes makes precisely this point in the first chapter of Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. He asserts that the “core experience of the last decade” is “the near total failure of each pillar institution of our society,” including the Supreme Court, the US security apparatus, the financial system, Congress, the White House … and the church.

The church-as-institution has certainly not fared better than any other secular organization, whether you want to point to the Catholic Church’s priest-as-predator scandals, or the co-opting of the Religious Right by shady politicians, or the shameful TV evangelists who peddle their shallow theology to desperate folks.

A recent Gallup poll shows confidence in the church at an all-time low, down 12 percentage points from its historical average.

We simply don’t trust our institutions anymore. Too many of our leaders are corrupted souls, and we can see through them quite easily. And the leaders who do have a measure of integrity find themselves constantly stretched and pulled into compromising situations. We have given up on the hope that our largest institutions can faithfully reflect our aspirations and values.

Smaller bodies and organizations still maintain some modicum of trust, especially if they operate transparently. But once they start to expand, we begin to grow increasingly skeptical.

I am tempted to suggest that this mistrust is inevitable, given the rate and speed at which information travels. In the past, our leaders may have had clay feet, but we simply didn’t see it. In the present, everything is observable and up for scrutiny – instantly. The words I tweet or type in this blog may come back to haunt me in the future. Who knows?

Yet, there’s something else going on. Pollsters have been trying to tell us church folks for years that there is a growing segment of the population that call themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” They may like Jesus, but not the church and her various laws and doctrines. They are interested in God, but not all the accoutrements, especially not theological speculation. And they are interested in social causes that reflect basic, decent, humanitarian and Golden Rule-ish values.

They are, in other words, finished with the church-as-institution, because it consistently has failed to meet basic spiritual and social needs.

I am pretty sure that the “decline” of the liberal church has nothing to do with its supposed theological shortcomings, nor its refusal to defend historical Christianity. Just as I am likewise sure that the “decline” of the conservative church has nothing to do with its supposed theological shortcomings, nor its strong defense of orthodox Christianity. If anything, churches of all stripes have largely failed to satisfy people’s cravings for higher meaning and divine purpose in life. Churches of all kinds of theology or non-theology have apparently failed to connect people with meaningful service and transformative mission.

When people express their hunger and thirst, our churches have responded by sending them to professional clerics, appointed them to committees and boards, and asked them to put more money in the plate.

The people respond by staying away.

Instead of divesting itself of the trappings of the institution, large parts of the Christian church in America are still desperately clinging to what worked in the past, and hoping to revive the respect, dignity, and prestige that the institutional church once held in the eyes of society.

This is a dead-end road. Public confidence can’t be restored over night.

Furthermore, Christians around the world are beginning to rediscover the idea that God’s mission in the world transcends the institutions and organizations that have historically carried the name of Jesus. It appears that something new is happening, something messy and chaotic, unpredictable, anarchic.

Whatever is emerging, it doesn’t appear to look anything like the cathedrals and chapels of the high churches, nor the boards and agencies of the mainlines, nor the revival services of the evangelicals. And it likely won’t be measurable by any known metric.

In fact, the best metaphor is one that Jesus himself used: “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”


One comment

  1. Jarrod

    As a young adult, who leads worship in an established church, I feel the decline is the lack of Christ-like mobility in the church. Christ never stopped moving once his ministry on earth began. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set up a permanent shop in the communities, but we need to be aware of our various mission fields more than ever and continue to strive for meeting the goals in our repective communities. We’re supposed to be MAKING disciples. That takes work and commitment. We’ve just gotten lazy. IMO.

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