What will the Christian church in the United States look like in the next generation? And who will be part of it? Only God knows for sure. But, as the song goes, “the times, they are a-changin’.”
The Pew Research Center, which measures numbers, noted that the results of a survey released earlier this week indicated that the percentages of Americans not affiliated with any religious group has risen sharply, nearly eight percentage points, over the past seven years, driven largely by the so-called millennial generation. The survey didn’t try to explain comprehensively why this is happening, but I have my suspicions.
I suspect too much of an emphasis on and expectation of maintaining “tradition.”
Long gone, of course, are the days where you were born, reared, married and died in one singular faith tradition without questioning. But it seems to me a lot of that has to do with the growing lack of insularity between different traditions, with people moving among them as never before around the time I was coming up. (Until 1998 I was a lifelong Presbyterian of a fairly conservative bent; while I still think of myself as Reformed, that theological school is not a “test of fellowship.”)
I do get concerned, however, with my generation’s emphasis since the 1980s on a national “Christian heritage,” with a couple of state legislatures working on bills to make the Bible their official book. And I wonder if people in their 20s and 30s — those who would be the ages of my children if I had any — are rebelling against that because a higher percentage of the “nones” come from that generation than the population at large.
You see, “tradition” implies “establishment,” to which God never called us as a church because when you become establishment you invariably also become liberal, watering down some Biblical essentials for the sake of getting along in society. What became the religious right beginning in the 1970s and drove the culture war some 30 years ago melded conservative politics with liberal theology, with the fight against “gay rights” actually fitting into that category because all the Bible has always said about homosexuality is, in essence, “Don’t bring that into the church.” Trouble is, our efforts to marginalize gays then have in fact backfired tremendously, with even a number of evangelicals supporting same-gender matrimony.
Some folks are already saying that American society will crumble if people stop going to church; I question that because Europe has been pretty secular for decades, if not centuries, but tends toward stability. I suspect they fear a loss of privilege, an understanding that their values aren’t to be challenged or even questioned. But to me, it also signifies a lack of trust in God to preserve His people, especially since many of them cry “persecution” at the drop of a hat. (Truth be told, you can’t be persecuted if you’re in a position of power.)
I can’t say with any certainty just what the future holds for the church in American society. But I do know Who holds that future so I’m not worrying about it, and we may simply need to adjust.