By Timothy Keller, The Atlantic, 2/5/23.
Our society is secularizing, and Christianity seems to be in long-term decline. But renewal is possible.
Upon joining the Presbyterian ministry, in the mid-1970s, I served in a town outside Richmond, Virginia. New church buildings were going up constantly. When I arrived in Manhattan in the late ’80s, however, I saw a startling sight. There on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 20th Street was a beautiful Gothic Revival brownstone built in 1844 that had once been the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion. Now it was the Limelight, an epicenter of the downtown club scene. Thousands of people a night showed up for drugs and sex and the possibility of close encounters with the famous of the cultural avant garde. It was a vivid symbol of a culture that had rejected Christianity.
I began to notice “repurposed” church buildings all over the city. They were now condominiums, gyms, art galleries, coffee shops, pubs, and clubs, a trend that continued as my time in the city went on…
From the October 1942 issue: Will the Christian Church survive?
In moving to New York City, I had entered a different world than the one I’d known in Virginia. Here society was secularizing; religion in general and Christianity in particular were in sharp decline. In 1989 my family and I started Redeemer, a new church in Manhattan. We faced cultural attitudes toward Christianity that ran from deep indifference to mockery to shouting-out-loud hostility. Meanwhile, in the middle of the country, churches continued to multiply and some grew to enormous sizes.
What I’ve experienced in New York for decades has now spread across the country. As of 2021, the number of “religious nones”—people who don’t identify with any established religion—in the U.S. had grown to nearly 30 percent of the population while professing Christians constituted 63 percent, down from 75 only a decade ago. The Pew Research Center recently projected the future of this trend: In three of its four scenarios, the percentage of Christians plunges to less than half the population by 2070, and in none does the trend reverse and the Church grow.
Should we expect to see most church buildings in the country repurposed or torn down? Is it inevitable that we will become an ex-Christian society, or could the Church experience a renewal?
… Many secular social theorists—including Émile Durkheim and Jonathan Haidt, to name two—show how religion makes contributions to society that cannot be readily supplied by other sources. Cultural unity, Durkheim argued in the 1890s, requires a “conscience collective,” a set of shared moral norms that bind us together in a sustained way. These norms are understood to be grounded in something sacred and transcendent, not created by culture. Durkheim recognized the difficulties secular cultures have in cultivating moral beliefs that are strong and unquestionable enough to unite people.
Consider the evolution of America. In the classic 1985 book Habits of the Heart, the sociologist Robert Bellah and his co-authors showed that the social history of the United States made it the most individualistic culture in the world. American culture elevates the interests of the individual over those of family, community, and nation. Yet for two centuries, Americans’ religious devotion counterbalanced this individualism with denunciations of self-centeredness and calls to love your neighbor. The Church demanded charity and compassion for the needy, it encouraged young people to confine sexual expression to marriage, and it encouraged spouses to stick to their vows. Bellah wrote that American individualism, now largely freed from the counterbalance of religion, is headed toward social fragmentation, economic inequality, family breakdown, and many other dysfunctions.
At a local level, churches provide community and support to people in their congregations who lack strong family ties or other kinds of emotional and social support. They also serve neighbors who do not attend church, particularly in poorer neighborhoods. More than 20 years ago, a University of Pennsylvania study of Philadelphia congregations concluded, “Congregations are vital to the social fabric of Philadelphia and take a major role in caring for the needs of people in the neighborhoods.” The study authors estimated the replacement costs of churches to communities and government would be about $250 million annually, in 2001 dollars—in the Philadelphia metro area alone.
While a revival of the Church would benefit society, that will never happen if the Church thinks of itself as just another social-service agency. Christians seek spiritual renewal of the Church not because they see religion as having social utility, nor because they want to shore up their own institutions. First and foremost, Christianity helps society because its metaphysical claims are true; they are not true because Christianity helps society. When Christians lose sight of this, the Church’s power and durability is lost.
So: Can Christianity grow again? Yes it can. Even the Pew report concedes that “events outside the study’s model” could lead to a revival of Christianity. The events mentioned include “immigration patterns or religious innovations.”
First, as I see it, growth can happen if the Church learns how to speak compellingly to non-Christian people…
Second, the church in the U.S. can grow again if it learns how to unite justice and righteousness. I have heard African American pastors use this terminology to describe the historic ministry of the Black Church. By righteousness they meant that the Church has maintained its traditional beliefs in the authority of the Bible, morality, and sexuality. It calls individuals to be born again through faith in the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. By justice they meant that the Church has an activist stance against all forms of oppression…
Third, the Church in the U.S. can grow again if it embraces the global and multiethnic character of Christianity. By 2050 nearly one in five Americans will be foreign-born, and these immigrants will likely come from the more religious parts of the world. Immigrants bring their faith with them. Christianity in East Asia grew from 1.2 percent of the population in 1970 to 10.5 percent of the population in 2020. In turn, Chinese and Korean immigrant communities have started as many as hundreds of churches in New York alone since the late 1970s. Protestantism in Latin America has also grown explosively, particularly through the Pentecostal and evangelical denominations, and these Christians are coming to the U.S. The combination of secular Americans having fewer children and the increasing immigration of religious people leads some observers to argue that secularization is likely to stall in America by 2050.
Fourth, the Church in the U.S. can grow again if it strikes a dynamic balance between innovation and conservation. A church must conserve historic Christian teaching. If a church simply adopts the beliefs of the culture, it will die, because it has nothing unique to offer. But the Church has always, especially in times when the faith seemed moribund, introduced unexpected innovations…
Fifth, the Church has in its favor what the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor called “the unquiet frontiers of modernity.” He makes the case that Western culture is deeply conflicted about faith and God. Modern secularism holds that people are only physical entities without souls, that sensations of love and beauty are just neurological-chemical events, that there is no meaning other than what we construct, and that there is no right or wrong outside of what we in our minds choose. Yet most people feel that life is greater than what can be accounted for by naturalistic explanations…
In stark contrast, Christianity offers grace and covenant. Protestant Christianity teaches its members that salvation is by sheer grace, not by one’s moral efforts or performance. We are adopted as sons and daughters of God, so the cosmic ruler becomes our unconditionally loving heavenly father. And all who unite with God as father are brought into a family of faith, which is based not on contractual relationships, sustained only as long as they benefit both parties’ interests, but covenant relationships, in which all parties pledge to serve one another in sacrificial love.
Read the rest of the article at … https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/02/christianity-secularization-america-renewal-modernity/672948/?utm_source=feed