As the reply above indicates that I frequently get from Christian leaders whenever I point out the declines within Christianity and the Church in America, many of them live in a perpetual state of denial. I’m not making this up, however. I coach and consult with hundreds of leaders and churches every year representing virtually every communion within Christianity. What I have observed first-hand myself and what all studies show us, like those in the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the Church, whether Evangelical, Protestant, or Roman Catholic, has been experiencing steep declines in the last three decades.
It is true that the Catholic Church’s declines appear to be the least dramatic. But this is largely an illusion, except to those looking closely at the statistics. Scores of Catholic Churches close every year as a direct result of white flight, but for reasons different from the white flight of the 60’s and 70’s. Many more would close were it not for the influx of the fastest growing people group in America – the Spanish-speaking community - which is almost exclusively Catholic in faith preference.
In other words, the Christian Church is dying. It is spirituality that is thriving instead, at least in the US.
When church leaders are honest, and many of them are not, they will acknowledge the two contributing factors to the emptying of their pews – the “graying” of the church and the “going” from the church.
The church is graying. That is to say, it is aging and dying, as any visitor to almost any church service on any given weekend will tell you. In addition, for the last several years, millions have been “going from” the church. That is to say, they have been leaving the church in record numbers.
Those who leave almost never return. So, a new term has been coined to describe this departure group and that term is - "Nones" – now, one of every five Americans. They are called "Nones" because, when asked which organized religion they support, they responded with “None.”
Three things are interesting about the Nones. First, most of the “Nones” are leaving a Christian background. Second, although they’ve left the church, the majority have not left their faith. They are still very interested in spiritual things. Third, many of them are thinking and writing outside the theological box. They are talking and writing about what the church should be. They’re re-defining what it means to be Christian in today’s multi-racial, religious, and cultural world. It is to these “Nones” and for them that I regularly write and blog at the Huffington Post.
The following distinctions I see emerging within this new expression of Christianity beyond the institutional Church.
1. Christian “Nones” and others are devoted to re-writing Christian theology. Many of them believe the Church has mistakenly perpetrated a teaching within Christianity that is neither Christian nor consistent with the teachings of Jesus. In most churches, for example, the shedding of innocent blood is believed to be necessary to atone for “original sin” and so make salvation possible for the elect. That, without the death of Jesus, people would go to hell and there suffer eternally. For “Nones,” and other “emergent” Christians, as they’ve been called, this theology is a creation of the church, is inconsistent with the historical Jesus, and no longer works in this modern world. Consequently, It must change.
2. These Christians hold what they regard as a healthier view of their sacred text known as the Bible. They respect the Bible but they do not revere it. To them, the Bible is not a "Constitution," as described by one of their primary spokespersons, Brian McLaren, in A New Kind of Christianity. They regard the Bible instead as an inspired book, capable of providing wisdom and spiritual direction. But it is not a textbook on science or the origins of the universe. It is not an “answer-book” on all moral or ethical questions.
3. This new and emerging Christianity is interested in spirituality and does not see itself in competition with other religions. In fact, there is instead an avid interest in exchanging ideas, learning from each other, and collaborating together for social change.
4. Emergent Christians support the LGBT community and believe the gay community should be granted equal rights under the law. In other words, they have given up the church's longstanding war with the gay community. They have chosen instead to accept what science and psychology tell us about the universe, as well as the complexities of the human mind, human development and human sexuality.
5. This new Christianity is open to what other religions can teach us about spirituality, too. They would regard, for example, Desmond Tutu's statement "God is not a Christian," as factually accurate. While affirming that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19), they would still be open to the spiritual insights that may come from Hinduism, Buddhism, or any other spiritual tradition. They believe the current Church is dying because it mistakenly believes "We're right! Everyone else is wrong!"
Again, as I have crisscrossed this country over the last two decades, I have observed the decline and the dying of churches within all denominations. The conclusion to which I have come is that if Christianity is to survive, and the church that is its primary proponent, it must reverse its rapid march toward death.
How? I would suggest paying close attention to the calls for change coming from those who were once its “insiders” – those who now call themselves the “spiritual but not religious” or the Christian “Nones.” It is these who are thinking outside the box, crafting a new theology of salvation, and seeking to renew their understanding of Jesus, as well as their devotion to him.
Who knows what the new Christianity will become?
Dr. Steve McSwain, is the founder of the Foundation for Excellence in Giving. He has provided coaching and consultation to more than two hundred churches and parishes nationwide…representing all Christian traditions. As a founding partner with the Maxwell Team of Professional Speakers, Coaches, and Trainers, Dr. McSwain coaches leaders and congregations within Catholic, Evangelical, and Protestant traditions. He also speaks across the country, serves as an adjunct professor of Communication at the University of Kentucky, and maintains a private coaching relationship with a select group of religious leaders and professional people across America. Learn more at www.stevemcswain.com.