What is Happening to the Church in North America? – Greg Albrecht
What is happening to Christianity in North America? Magazines and television documentaries are filled with reports that people are no longer going to church – by the droves! Why is this happening? Is Christianity as we know it in danger of becoming obsolete?
A recent article in Economist (titled “Counting Christians”) ponders why American religion (the context of the article reveals the Economist actually meant North American Christianity) is in decline.
My history with this topic, following the dynamic I believe to be one of the biggest religious news stories of this early part of the 21st century, goes back 18 years to a book titled “Revolution” written by George Barna.
“Revolution” detailed and described a revolution that was already underway within North American faith – aka “the church” – as the 20th century ended and the 21st started. It spoke of a huge tidal wave of change, sweeping over the North American landscape of faith and belief, causing many to leave “the church.” Given my own experiences, the book hit many nerves for me and resonated deep within my soul. Many leaders within Christendom with whom I discussed this book found the book to be wrong headed, misleading and an affront, in general, to faith. Turns out not so much – it was prophetically correct in so many ways, particularly when one sees the divisive and polarized landscape of faith and politics in 2023.
The article in the Economist follows the normal path of alarm when North American Christendom is presented with the facts of this tidal wave. First, finger pointing and hand wringing (though the superb brand of journalism found in the Economist is much too responsible to be accurately described in such mundane terms). But the popular answers come from religious authorities who arrive on the scene of the crime and attempt to diagnose what happened and why. The popular answers say that people have left, no longer attend, etc. because, and now the finger pointing and blaming intensifies, people who have opted out of church and church attendance are accused of being lazy and shallow and not as committed as previous generations were.
These presumed to be lazy folks are further described as generally less “religious” – meaning less moral and “good” (their words, not mine) because of the fact North American society is going to hell in a hand-basket. The culture, they say, is at “war” with faith.
Then, the finger pointing by way of explanation for this dramatic sea change is that there are now many attacks on Christianity (by atheists, Muslims, etc) and these attacks, after many decades, most of the 20th century in fact, are having their cumulative effect.
Finally, of course say many North American religious authorities — all of this is following the “European” experience of faith which left cathedrals empty.
Without the condemnation, I don’t disagree with an element of truth behind these answers attempting to explain the diminishing numbers attending brick and mortar churches, but I would assign these reasons a smaller piece of the pie in the big picture answer about why people are leaving the church – the more complete answer to the question “why.”
In brief, while I see truth in all of the above more common responses, I see all of what is going on as including:
1) the failure of “big business religion” – with its shenanigans, corruptions, mis-management, could-care-less-about-the-flock all the while fleecing-the-flock – this charge runs across the board of all religion, all over this world, as I see it – in addition to North American Christendom, including Protestants, Greek and Russian Orthodox and Catholic. But “the church” – the religious authorities – will in general not take a look in the mirror and see themselves as causing this massive exodus, and instead blame their constituents, members, etc – effectively, as religion does so well, throwing their own “sheep” under the bus. As we know Jesus pointed out this deplorable tendencies amongst religious professionals of his day, and for that matter, any day.
2) people waking up not just to religious abuses, but genuinely seeking God – seeking meaning in their lives – amongst incredible confusion in our world, on all levels. People deciding they are only finding religion, not God, in their place of worship. An irony, yet a reality for many. In the midst of this confusion, the vast majority of religion, specifically Christendom, has no answers because it is not Christ-centered. It continues its tried and tested but now recognized by so many as bankrupt traditions and ceremonies and rituals. Doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result is of course one definition of insanity.
The religious authorities today, within Christendom, while blaming their members and former members, must now deal with the fact – established and reported by a variety of sociological studies – that not all people who have left “the church” are infidels and unbelievers. In fact, the general rule of thumb in North America today is that there are just as many people who identify as Christians who do not attend church as those who do. So my question to big business religion – “why?” There are quite possibly as many people who see themselves as Christians who have been “de-churched’ or “unaffiliated” and thus “formerly churched” as there are never-churched, those so often termed “un-churched.”
3) I see what is happening a bit like the Protestant Reformers saw what was happening in the Reformation. Yes, incredible confusion, but still, all in all, while not all good, much good can come out of this rejection (at that time) idolatry, heavy handed authoritarianism, rampant religious abuse on so many levels. That said, in the Reformation, not all who left the Catholic church wound up as better Christ followers, and many who remained in the Catholic church continued to be authentic Christ-followers. It was then, and remains today, a complex picture.
But the Reformation was a needed revolution – we can see that so clearly in our 500 years of hindsight! So I am encouraged by this tidal wave of religious revolution that continues to sweep over our landscape. Yes, there are so many victims left in the wake of all of this, but it was bound to happen given the realities of what Christendom had perpetrated, and how it had failed. In some cases, that’s why some (not by all means “all”) are leaving big business religion in order to find Christ!
For all of that, early in 2006 Plain Truth Ministries started calling many of our resources as “Christianity Without the Religion” (CWR). We continue to receive much interest and support in the meaning evoked by such a phrase, for it expresses the goal of multiple millions of Christ followers, some of whom are still affiliated with a brick and mortar church, while many are not. It is our desire and hope to reach out to the many who have been “left behind” – the many who have left formal Christian religion, some of whom feel abandoned and kicked overboard by formal/organized/institutionalized Christian faith.
The Parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14:15-24 pictures a great feast and the house of the Lord which, for a variety of reasons, has many empty seats. The master instructs his servant to “go out to the roads and country lanes” (Luke 14:23, NIV) – “into the highways and hedges” (Luke 14:23, KJV) – this we, at PTM and CWR, along with our team of Friends and Partners, take to be a part of our mission to nourish so many others, via the many electronic and digital resources we provide, in the name of Jesus Christ.