The American Church in the Twenty-First Century (Part Two)

(Part One w/disclaimer here)

University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist Philip Schwadel recently presented his studies which propose that not only is church attendance unchanged, but also that the groups who are regularly attending are changing.[1] Schwadel’s assessment is that the groups of people who have been known to be  more reliable church-goers (women, southerners, and Catholics) have declined in their participation in noticeable amounts. The research indicates that the primary reason for this decline is directly related to rising education among all three groups. Schwadel believes that education levels rose disproportionately among women, southerners, and Catholics in the last four decades, leading to geographic and economic mobility that each group didn’t have in the 1970s. This research then suggests that there is another group that is standing in the gap of the numeric decline of the church in America.

Philip Jenkins, in his book The Coming Christendom, suggests that by the year 2050, that only one-fifth of the worlds Christians will be “non-Hispanic whites”.[2] Though for Americans it may appear that Christianity is a predominantly white religion, the reality of the worldwide growth in Africa, Asia, and South America are rapidly changing this reality. This can also be partnered with the ever increasing influx of Hispanic immigrants who continue to come to the United States in the hopes of better prosperity and safety for their families. It may be concluded then, that if the American church does not decline aggressively, it may be because of the introduction of first generation individuals and families that take part in the local churches, while the educated and upwardly mobile continue their decline in participation.

Next, the future church in America will have to come to terms with its relationship with non-Christian America. Currently the vast majority of American churches still rest on the assumptions of Christendom, meaning they believe that Christianity still occupies a central and influential place in society, when this is no longer true. A quick overview of contemporary culture should quickly and thoroughly convince the observer that Christianity is no longer the central informing influence. Every cultural institution from education and science, media and the Arts, to politics and philosophy are today, convincingly secular. Religion in general and Christianity in particular are being marginalized from the public forum. Christianity has become tagged as a extremist way of thinking that is largely relegated to the elderly and uneducated. Christianity is regarded as being irrelevant when it comes to having anything meaningful or intelligent to offer.

The prior reality of Christendom produced what could be called a church-centered perspective of its mission. Since Christianity was the dominant religion in American culture, the emphasis of the church centered on enlisting “members” through evangelism, as its social and cultural authority was firmly recognized. But, this does not fully represent the true mission of the Church as God’s sent people, and in light of the present circumstances it disregards the post-Christendom reality. Darrell Guder suggests that because so many churches still function believing that they exist in a time of Christendom, they respond to this cultural irrelevance and missional ineffectiveness in inappropriate ways. Rather than redefining themselves and their mission in light of the reality, they stick to pragmatic problem solving methodologies that do not ask the right questions.[3] The church of the next fifty years must learn how to navigate through such challenges in order to effectively and faithfully carry out the full mission of God. The churches who do not learn how to adapt to the emerging post-Christendom world view will not remain a viable part of their communities, and they will eventually cease to exist. Many churches that exist today will not exist in just a few short decades because of this, so what will this mean for the churches that do?

[2] Philip Jenkins. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2007. 3.

[3] Darrel Guder and Lois Barrett. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (The Gospel and Our Culture Series). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998. 3.

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