Monday, March 09, 2009

Merrily we roll along...

Courtesy of ex-pat in the UK, something else for our consideration. Part of me wants to drill into these numbers and find understanding:

The percentage of Christians in America, which declined in the 1990s from 86.2 percent to 76.7 percent, has now edged down to 76 percent. Ninety percent of the decline comes from the non-Catholic segment of the Christian population, largely from the mainline denominations, including Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians/Anglicans, and the United Church of Christ. These groups, whose proportion of the American population shrank from 18.7 percent in 1990 to 17.2 percent in 2001, all experienced sharp numerical declines this decade and now constitute just 12.9 percent.
But honestly, I'm neither that surprised, nor that interested. Partly because this affirms my analysis that Protestantism, far more than Roman Catholicism, depends on the culture for its identity. Notice that 90% of the decline in those who identify as "Christians" is from "the non-Catholic segment of the Christian population." "Freedom of worship" more and more means freedom not to worship, too.

Most of the growth in the Christian population occurred among those who would identify only as "Christian," "Evangelical/Born Again," or "non-denominational Christian." The last of these, associated with the growth of megachurches, has increased from less than 200,000 in 1990 to 2.5 million in 2001 to over 8 million today. These groups grew from 5 percent of the population in 1990 to 8.5 percent in 2001 to 11.8 percent in 2008. Significantly, 38.6 percent of mainline Protestants now also identify themselves as evangelical or born again.
Mega-churches, of course, thrive on telling you what you want to hear, as most preach some variant on the Gospel of wealth, or promise healing. The few who have turned away from that message, or any message of power, toward a message of service, do so knowing they face an uncertain future. It will be interesting to see how popular the Gospel of Wealth remains in a world economy rapidly retrenching and declining, but interesting only to those who favor abstraction over reality, thought experiments over the real pain this economic "reset" is causing, and is going to cause.

"It looks like the two-party system of American Protestantism--mainline versus evangelical--is collapsing," said Mark Silk, director of the Public Values Program. "A generic form of evangelicalism is emerging as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in the United States."
Well, maybe; but in what form? In the form of Joel Osteen, promising wealth to all who truly believe? In the older American form of Kenneth Copeland, promising healing (Oral Roberts was there first, and before him a long line stretching back through all the inspirations for Elmer Gantry)? In the form of Mars Hill Church, with its almost militant emphasis on badly distorted and poorly understood Calvinism? Or at the other extreme, in the form of Protestant ministers aping Catholic practices for what they imagine to be mystical, or even magical, purposes?

Some, of course, had thought the "more generic form of evangelicalism" was the norm in America, but it wasn't and it never has been. That it may be in the future could indicate an American movement toward the status quo of post-Enlightenment Europe, but more likely what both continents reveal is less as loss of faith than a decline in the social authority of religion. Religion is less and less the controlling factore of public life it once was, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Some pastors will speak of their congregations as "baptized heathens," and there's always been more truth in that than falsehood. One of the critiques of Protestantism against Roman Catholicism was the worldliness of too many Catholic monks and priests. Chaucer's Monk, some two centuries before the Reformation, is a man of wealth and means, despite his vow of poverty. It is the humble parson who is "a good man...of religioun" and "riche...of holy thoght and werk," but not much else. Just by his placement in Chaucer's Prologue, we know the Monk is far more important to society than the Parson, the "village priest," as the notes to my edition identify him. And just as the 14th century monk would defend his ownership of possessions then as necessary to his "ministry," Rod Parsley, who is no mere "village priest" himself, would defend his wealth and property now. What has changed is simply the influence of organized religion in society; not the players.

I realize I've had occasion to say this before. And the survey seems to indicate a gathering toward a normative point of "evangelicalism," even as evangelicalism has been said to be cracking up. It is notable that the "crack-up" of evangelicalism was said to be along lines of social justice:

For the conservative Christian leadership, what is most worrisome about the evangelical disappointment with President Bush is that it coincides with a widening philosophical rift. Ever since they broke with the mainline Protestant churches nearly 100 years ago, the hallmark of evangelicals theology has been a vision of modern society as a sinking ship, sliding toward depravity and sin. For evangelicals, the altar call was the only life raft — a chance to accept Jesus Christ, rebirth and salvation. Falwell, Dobson and their generation saw their political activism as essentially defensive, fighting to keep traditional moral codes in place so their children could have a chance at the raft.

But many younger evangelicals — and some old-timers — take a less fatalistic view. For them, the born-again experience of accepting Jesus is just the beginning. What follows is a long-term process of “spiritual formation” that involves applying his teachings in the here and now. They do not see society as a moribund vessel. They talk more about a biblical imperative to fix up the ship by contributing to the betterment of their communities and the world. They support traditional charities but also public policies that address health care, race, poverty and the environment.
The survey notes among its findings that:

Baptists, who constitute the largest non-Catholic Christian tradition, have increased their numbers by two million since 2001, but continue to decline as a proportion of the population.
Second Baptist Church in Houston, not Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church, was the epicenter of volunteer aid for those evacuated from New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina. Maybe there's a connection between there; and yet another critique of the "mega-church" movement. It's certainly safe to say I'm no fan of mega-churches. And these surveys are of dubious value. What they track is less the reality of church attendance, than the reality of social acceptance. It was once necessary to claim membership in a Christian church. But never in my lifetime has membership been equivalent to church attendance; and I don't think that's aberrational in American history. What's happened now is that church membership is no longer a social obligation. As the culture changes, the interest in Protestantism changes, and that change means a decline in members of Protestant churches. This may be news to the laity, but it is hardly news to the clergy. Some argue the "neighborhood church" is coming back, and will "rescue" Christianity. I think if Christianity survives it will be due to the small church, not the mega-church; and I think Christianity will survive. Mega-churches won't, largely because they, too, are a social phenomenon, not a new and better structure. Mega-churches which try to make religious disciples of their attendees fail miserably at the effort. Theirs is a business model, and even now it may be the ax is being laid to the root of that tree. Mega-churches were very much a product of the last few decades. If that culture is going to be radically revised, the religious institution it created may well have to be revised with it. There is a history of such things in Protestantism, after all. Mega-churches are also cults of personality; and if a new personality is not found to replace the old, they falter, and fail. The legacy of Oral Roberts and the PTL Club and Jimmy Swaggart all loom like ghosts behind Joel Osteen and Mars Hill and even Redeemer Presbyterian. There is a history of mega-churches rising and falling, while "neighborhood" churches go on and on.

Why do people go to church? There are as many reasons as there are people to go. Why should people go to church? That's the central question of ecclesiology, and of evangelism. But too far down that road lies madness, as you try either to cajole people into your vision of "church," or castrate your message by equating the greatest good with appealing to the greatest number. What is church is the better question; if only because it is a question without any one answer.

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