13 April 2011
The Church is Not a Victim of Culture
Culture Isn't Killing Us. Our Grief Is.
I recently attended a retreat with a number of church friends. We spent part of our time together looking at sociological data on religion in America over the last 60 years.
We paid particular attention to mainline denominations, including their declining attendance and size. Over the course of an hour we talked about all sorts of reasons for that decline - political, cultural, sociological.
Not once, however, did we talk about anything the church may have done (or not) to contribute to its decline. To be fair, that question wasn’t put to us, as such. But nothing about the church’s role - in the last 60 years - over the course of 60 minutes?
It was a rather remarkable omission.
It highlighted for me the struggle we have, as the church, with honest self-critique - myself included. In fact, this idea occurred to me as we were talking, but I didn’t raise the question because I didn’t want to be rude - only serving to prove the point.
This one instance is entirely consistent with almost every other conversation I have with friends and colleagues about church decline. The discussion is mostly about how cultural forces are eroding the church. We portray the church as a victim of culture.
The Language of Lament
In my tradition, this is mostly expressed in the language of lament. People grieve the loss of a culture and way of being the church that they knew, loved and thrived in. Other more conservative traditions, also lament this change, but they more often use the language of blame and judgment, taking hard lines on social issues.
In each case, the church is depicted as the victim of culture, society, and politics. While there are surely elements of culture that are hostile to organized religion, this is not the only reason for our decline. Not even close.
We are not the victims of cultural change. At times, we have driven cultural change, like the Quakers in emancipation or the African American church with civil rights. At other times - and in some cases at the same time - we have behaved not like victims, but like perpetrators, using our power and influence to oppress, exclude, and stigmatize. These both still happen today. This latter behavior has indeed led to a strong backlash in our culture against the church, but that’s not the culture’s failure. It’s ours.
And so, any conversation about church decline must include honest self-critique, in which we must our own actions, agency and power. It must also accept as a given that cultural change is inevitable. I take for granted that:
- Cultures change. That’s what they do. That is the history of civilization.
- This is a good thing. Without it, we wouldn’t have emancipation, suffrage and civil rights - to name a few.
- Culture is not homogeneous. There are always multiple cultures, like Boomers, Generation X, and Millenials, which overlap, interact and live in tension with one another.
- As part of the culture, the church participates in and shapes this change.
- As a 2,000 year old institution, the church has experienced countless cultural changes.
The Death of American Christendom
Perhaps part of our problem is that, culturally speaking, the church had it so good in the post-war period. Eisenhower’s America was a perfect situation for the mutual reinforcement between church and culture. It was the height of civic religion. To be a good citizen meant going to church and vice versa. It was perfect: American Christendom.
We tend to see this post-war period as normative, probably because its what we know best. And yet, in the history of Christianity, I wonder if it isn’t actually an anomaly - the exception to the rule.
And now, accelerated by technology and demographic shifts, the remnants of American Christendom have all but evaporated. In just a few years it will be entirely gone.
The church grieves this change, and I grieve with it. The church of my childhood is gone and never coming back. I mourn its passing because it meant a lot to me growing up. But just because it was good for me at that time, doesn’t mean that everyone for now to eternity has to have that same experience. That would be sad and boring - and they would still have to use overhead projectors.
Grief's Unintended Consequences
The problem is that while the church grieves the death of this post-war culture, Gen X and Millennial Culture are quickly passing us by. In our grief for a culture we knew and loved, we are missing the ones that are right before us.
Worse, the way we express our grief makes it sound to these folks that their cultures - their passions, concerns, ways of relating and communicating - are just tattered remnants of what used to be this once great and glorious culture. Not so.
Yes, each culture carries the remnants of previous ones, but they take those remnants and make them into something new. Each generation, each culture has its own authentic culture - and expressions of faith.
And we wonder why youth don’t stay and we can’t attract young adults to our churches.
Culture isn’t killing us. Right now, our grief is.
Despite our grief, we must engage culture on its own terms. If we don’t, we’ll grieve our way to more empty pews and closed churches. If we do, it may not save us, but I believe we’ll find an invitation and opportunity for something new to happen - both in us and in our churches.
I know many of us are grieving, friends, but we have work to do - good, hopeful, challenging and exciting work ahead.