Like many of our readers, I have been digging into tons of coverage of the new Pew Forum study (full .pdf document here) offering an update on the growth of the "nones" and the cultural-left coalition of religious liberals, agnostics, atheists, "spiritual but not religious" believers and simple unaffiliated people.
As our own Julia Duin noted the other day, the basic theme in the mainstream coverage is that the number of self-proclaimed "Christians" in America is falling, quickly. That's a totally valid, if a rather old and much-reported story.
Also, I noted another old story, which is the fact that the number of religious believers who say they are actively PRACTICING their faith seems to be rather stable. The numbers are level in some pews, slightly down in some (think Southern Baptists), way down in others (think liberal Protestantism and cultural Catholics) and actually rising in a few (think Pentecostalism). The importance of growing ministries to Latinos, African-Americans and Asians is another news story, at the moment.
This was, as you would imagine, the subject of this week's "Crossroads" podcast. However, after host Todd Wilken and I talked -- click here to tune that in -- it hit me that there is another way to frame this debate. In part, Christian leaders are arguing over whether churches grow when they are (a) culturally modernized and less doctrinally demanding or (b) when they hold firm to ancient doctrinal standards and, in many ways, reject trends in the modern world. Then, after that, it hit me that many modern churches -- think evangelical megachurches -- seem to be striving to look and sound modern, while claiming to stay orthodox at the level of morality and doctrine. So that is, kind of, a (c) approach, in their eyes.
With that in mind, consider the following material about the Pew Forum numbers from conservative blogger Matt Walsh. This fascinated me, because it didn't go where I thought it was going to go. Let's look at the summary material near the end, first:
.... This is the problem with Christianity in this country. Not just inside our church buildings, but everywhere. It often has no edge, no depth. No sense of its own ancient and epic history. There is no sacredness to it. No pain. No beauty. No reverence. Or I should say Christianity has all of those things, fundamentally and totally, but many modern Christians in every denomination have spent many years trying to blunt them or bury them under a thousand layers of icing and whipped cream and apathy.
I think this might shed some light on the latest study trumpeting how the Christian ranks have shrunk by another eight percentage points in just the last seven years. Now, about 70 percent of Americans identify as Christians. Still a majority, but the smallest majority we’ve ever had. As atheism and agnosticism surge in popularity, Christianity hemorrhages and fades.
So stop right there for a minute. Who do you think Walsh is criticizing?
Dead mainliners? Cultural Catholics? Old-hymnal Southern Baptists?
To my surprise, it was firing away at another kind of church, one that many researchers might assume is growing. This passage at the start of the essay is long, but it's important to see his argument unfold:
I recently attended a service that might help solve the riddle of the fantastic decline of American Christianity. It was a different church from the one I normally go to. Let me set the scene, perhaps it will sound familiar:
I walked in and immediately realized that I’d inadvertently stumbled upon a totally relaxed, convenient, comfortable brand of church. The first hint was the choir members dressed in shorts and flip flops. Sweet, bro. So chill.
There were a bunch of acoustic guitars and drums and tambourines and a keyboard. Before the service/concert began, some guy came out to rev up the crowd. Opening acts aren’t usually a part of the liturgical experience, but this is 2015 and we’re, like, so not into solemn silence and prayer anymore.
There must always be noise. Always noise. Sounds. Lights. Never silence, not even for a moment.
Finally, church started. The choir, or jam band for Jesus, or whatever it was, played a song that sounded like a cross between a 90′s Disney soundtrack and an easy listening favorite you might hear if you skimmed through your aunt’s second generation iPod. It wasn’t really contemporary, or good, or relevant, but at least it wasn’t traditional. Because YUCK! Tradition is old!
Wait, he then switched to content issues.
The singer was relatively talented, but he carried on like an American Idol contestant. I got the impression that he was fishing for applause, not worshiping the Lord of the Universe. His style and demeanor said “talent show” but the music said “wine and cheese festival” or maybe “my dentist’s waiting room.” It definitely didn’t say “truth,” or “heaven,” or “the Great King sitting upon his throne amidst throngs of mighty angels.”
The pastor began with another round of jokes. They weren’t very funny but they succeeded in being unserious, which I guess is close enough. The sermon was jam packed with youth slang and pop culture. He mentioned a couple of TV shows and Netflix. He made sports metaphors. He didn’t do anything with the references, he just hung them out there like we were supposed to be impressed that he knows about these things.
I think he even said something about Angry Birds. Dated, sure, but it did the job of letting us know that the guy speaking also used a smart phone at some point in the last five years. OMG! He totally gets us!
The word “Gospel” made maybe one appearance in his message. The words “truth,” “sacred,” “reverence,” “sin,” “hell,” “virtue,” “obedience,” and “duty” were conspicuously absent, just as they’re absent from most sermons delivered in most churches, everywhere in the country.
Now, while many would say that his kind of approach packs the house, Walsh claims that the crowd seemed totally bored and disconnected. Thus, his thesis centered on the question of whether this kind of worship is "effective." Maybe?
Effective at making this whole thing seem rote and shallow, that’s for sure. I guess it’s supposed to entertain us, but our faith isn’t suppose to be merely entertaining. It’s so much more than that. When you reduce it to mere distraction and spectacle, it loses its substance, and without its substance it is, among other things, boring.
I wonder what a secular person might think if he was looking to give Christianity a try and that was the first service he ever attended? Yeah, he wouldn’t leave offended (or impacted, or moved, or energized), but would he even be awake?
Would he have a deeper understanding of the faith, or would he be scratching his head, wondering what all the Jesus fuss is about? If he went in prepared to encounter something deep, holy, and challenging, would he walk out feeling like that goal was accomplished?
Thus, Walsh asked a rather blunt question: Is the modern church so tame that it is boring people to death? Yes, there may be people fleeing because they are offended by orthodox theology. But are those people joining other churches or joining the ranks of "nones"? Might other people be hitting the exits because they are simply bored?
This isn't a Protestant question, alone. Looking at these Pew Forum numbers, many Catholic leaders need to ponder that question.