Six Major Shifts Affecting Church Decline in the US

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The following are six sketches of the major shifts that have contributed to the decline of Christianity in the United States. The multiplicity and speed of change is pushing us into a post-everything age. Much more could be said here. The six shifts are not meant as an exhaustive list, and I share them in appetizer-sized bites.

1. Economy: From Dead Presidents to Bitcoin

We are in a time of incredible economic change. The housing market crash, persistently high unemployment, a rise in wealth for the privileged minority, income inequality for the masses, and stagnation in standard-of-living growth are the persistent North American hardships of recent years. The economic dilemma of this emerging generation is created by a convergence of unemployment, globalization, automation, foreign competition, a faltering education system, and massive educational debt (for a synopsis of this diagnosis, see Paul Taylor, The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown [New York: Public Affairs, 2015]) The postindustrial digital age has dawned. With this globalized and knowledge­-based economy as the new financial reality, there is a growing chasm between the super wealthy and everyone else. The massive unbalanced distribution of wealth has diminished the existence of the middle class that was once the primary volunteer base of churches—what Paul Taylor calls “a hollowing of the middle.” (p. 39) Members no longer enjoy relatively steady nine-to-five jobs, pension plans, paid vacations, and weekends off. The new US economic landscape is a 24/7 work culture. Many people now work on weekends.

Bitcoin illustrates this shift. Globalized civilization is moving toward redefining and potentially abolishing the center of all current economic systems . . . money itself. In our lifetime, we may see the decentralization of minted currency. Bitcoin was the first attempt at a decentralized, distributed currency that needed no central bank. It is a shared, networked system of currency powered by a mathematical technology called “blockchain.” This radical technology has the capacity to decentralize most systems. While some see Bitcoin as a failed attempt (it was immediately harnessed and used illegally in the trafficking of narcotics), blockchain has planted the seeds of a disruptive innovation that may be the future of a globalized economy.

2. Family: From Beaver, to Brady Bunch, to Modern Family

While using the term post-family would be going too far, “post-familialism” is an accurate description of today’s reality to which the church must adapt. (see Taylor, p. 44) Even the need to have a family in the sense of settling down and having children is something undergoing transformation.

Just consider the evolution of the sitcoms or situational comedies that have portrayed family life being broadcasted into US homes for seventy years. Leave It to Beaver is almost beyond generational memory now, but it captured the 1950’s ideal nuclear family structure (i.e., two parents; a man and a woman; usually two children). By the 1970s The Brady Bunch burst onto the scene, in some ways ahead of its time, but reflective of the newly emerging reality of remixed familial structures. Carol and Michael Brady bring their families together with six children (three boys and three girls), a dog, and their housekeeper, Alice. While the blended family unit was somewhat of an emergent improvisation then, this is no longer the case.

In 2010, Modern Family was released. This family is complete with adoptions, multiple habitation, straight, gay, multicultural, and blended traditional. This is an accurate reflection of the change in familial dynamics to date. The blended family, where parents bring children together from previous relationships, and the single-parent family, have been growing steadily as the dominant family forms in the United States.

The definition, structure, and societal expectations of family have changed. The Mission-shaped Church report notes several shifts that translate across Western society: rises in divorce, single parents, stepfamilies, adults who decide not to have children, cohabitating couples, and single persons, all contribute to the decline of the inherited church (see Graham Cray, Mission-shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions of Church in a Changing Context [New York, NY: Seabury Books, 2010], 3–4.) One practical implication for the church is the reality of visitation in these new parental arrangements, where non-custodial parents rotate weekends.

For the most part, the church continues to function, structure, and program toward the Leave It to Beaver days. Our systems are designed for the nuclear family model. Essentially, we have not even gone Brady Bunch yet, much less Modern Family!

3. Religion: From Christendom to Pantheon

While the population is growing, church attendance is declining. Furthermore, studies indicate that people report going to church more than they really do. Robert Putnam notes that careful survey comparisons reveal that parishioners “misremember” whether they attended services, over-reporting attendance by as much as 50 percent. (Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community [New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000], 71.)

The “nones” are the fastest-growing group (those that report no religious affiliation). The perspective of those with a growing tendency of disaffiliation is interesting. Certain myths are perpetuated about this group that are not exactly accurate. A 2012 survey offers some insight. Of the 46 million unaffiliated adults, 68 percent believe in God. Thirty-seven percent self-describe as “spiritual but not religious,” and 1 in 5 reportedly pray every day (21 percent; Taylor, The Next America, 163). They are not anti-Jesus, just anti-church.

Perhaps we are seeing the emergence of a new nonconformist movement. People are open and even hungry for spiritual meaning, but the common assumption is that it cannot be found in institutional religion. The emerging spirituality is once again “protest-ant,” protesting and pushing against the established hierarchies.

Within the living memory of some North Americans is the time of the “Blue Laws,” those restrictions designed to ban Sunday activities to promote the observance of a day of Sabbath. The time of Blue Laws is over. The age of the new pantheon has come. The Roman pantheon syncretized worship to include the noteworthy gods from subjugated peoples. In the syncretistic new pantheonic thinking, all the gods share the same mythical space. They are equally able to meet spiritual hunger and add value to our lives. Most Christians in the United States now report that “many religions lead to eternal life.” (Taylor, The Next America, 173).

4. Technology: From Morse Code to Virtual Reality

Technology is not only changing every industry, it is changing society and the meaning of community itself. Look at the history of broadcasting for instance. Morse code (the wireless telegraph) burst onto the scene in the late 1890s. Commercial radio broadcasting was emerging in the 1920s. In 1939, theater audiences were dazzled by The Wizard of Oz as Dorothy walked into Technicolor and realized she wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Up until the 1950s most US families rallied around a radio for weekly broadcasts. By the 1960s color televisions were becoming widely available. Since that time, Americans have gathered around their televisions to get their news from the three national broadcasting networks: CBS, NBC, and ABC. New technologies have transformed all of this. Millennials, the first “digital natives,” now use social media to receive and disseminate news.

Through the various livestream features you can experience momentous events as they unfold. Televisions themselves will become obsolete. Now, experimental technologies in virtual reality are not simply providing a one-dimensional optical and aural experience, but full sensory immersion. In the 1970s the clunky personal computer was beginning to become available; today we carry around miniature supercomputers on our wrists or in our pockets.

Tech-driven, knowledge-based systems are helping eliminate extreme poverty, increase mobility, and allow mass access to decentralized education. Mobility is allowing longer commutes, pursuit of jobs, and decreased loyalty to a central space where we would live and work our entire lives. What are the implications of these technological revolutions for the church? Why would a newcomer wake up early, on their only day off, and drive to a church for a highly contextual message for a group of strangers? There is no shortage of inspiring messages available at the command of our voice; it only takes two words: “Hey, Siri.” In seconds, a plethora of sermons pop up by professional, polished speakers, not contextually confined to local parishes. Consider the banquet of TED Talks alone, which can be deeply spiritual, may even be equally transformative, not as long, and with no plea for money in the end!

5. Neighborhood: From Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to Neo’s Matrix

All these shifts contribute to this sketch. Community itself has been remixed. There has been a significant erosion of social capital and the concept of neighboring.

I was one of the millions of children impacted by the incredible life of Fred Rogers. From 1968, on and off to 2001, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a steady force for positively shaping the development of children. Live on public television, Fred Rodgers subversively taught generations about the importance of learning, the values of neighborly kindness, and compassion.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is no more—neither the show nor the potentiality it envisioned. We have moved from Fred Rogers’ neighborhood into the fictional computer hacker character Neo’s Matrix.

The Matrix films are prophetic in the sense that the kind of fictional community we see there is becoming reality. Beside the urbanization and clustered-but-isolated living arrangements of Neo’s pre-red-pill world, the films also capture the sense of people living in two worlds, both the actual and the digital. One is about creating avatars and escaping into a virtual realm, the other is the random daily encounters that happen between the screens we now live our lives on. Television screens, phone screens, work computer screens, dashboard screens, and so on.

In this new matrix of networks, the makeup of neighborhoods themselves are undergoing a major remix. New smaller households are growing faster than the population, due to the familial shifts described earlier. As the population grows, urbanization and the increasing lack of space is creating smaller self-contained, dormitory-like structures. In the network scenario, neighborhoods become secondary to flows of communication, information, and mobility, enabled by technology. People gather across geographic boundaries around shared practices that predominately take place in neutral third places. This shift was captured in The Mission-shaped Church report, “The Western world, at the start of the third millennium, is best described as a ‘network society.’ This is a fundamental change: ‘the emergence of a new social order.’” (Cray, Mission-shaped Church, 4.)

Here we can lean into the pioneering work of sociologist Manuel Castells, who describes this new societal order in depth. Within this post-industrial, knowledge-based era now described as the Information age, technology has made the world smaller. Humanity is now a truly global community. Microelectronic and communication technologies serve as flows that enable us to connect across geographies and time. The new organization of this global community is a complex series of interconnected networks. Castells posits that at the end of the second millennium, a new form of society arose from the interactions of several major social, technological, economic, and cultural transformations. Network Society consists of a social structure made up of networks enabled by micro-electronics-based information and communications technologies (Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society [Oxford Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000], xvii–xviii.)

The emerging societal structure is constructed around technologically enabled flows of capital, information, organizational interaction, images, sounds, and symbols. The flows refer to the means of social organization, the expression of processes dominating our economic, political, and symbolic life (Castells, 442). Thus, in a network society, culture is now mobile, moving along a complex web of interconnected networks; flows are about the movement of people, objects, and things from one node to another in social space. Cultures consist of bundles of dynamic practices, connected across space and time through structured flows of information and media. Practices are simply the activities carried out or performed by a group of people habitually or regularly in these social spaces. Flows are the means through which these movements and connections occur (Ryan K. Bolger, “Practice Movements in Global Information Culture: Looking Back to McGavran and Finding a Way Forward,” Missiology 35, no. 2: 181–93. [2007], 188.)

The church is seemingly still stuck in the Fred Rogers’ neighborhood model, while existing in a Matrix world of networks connected by flows.

6. Church: From Constantine, to North American Imperial Cult, Back to Caves

The final shift is within the church itself. The dominant North American version of church goes back to Emperor Constantine in AD 313 when Christianity became the state religion. Up until then, Christians were a rogue—and periodically illegal—religious movement that experienced several rounds of imperial persecution. At times, the primitive church met in secret spaces, subversively scratching the fish symbol (Ichthys) on cave walls to identify meeting places. This small renegade movement, with little resources, no buildings, no professional clergy, and no committee meetings, between the time of Jesus’ death on the cross in the 30s and Constantine in the 300s, grew numerically across vast geographical distances. They became a force to be reckoned with.

The blending of religion and state power had both positive and negative effects. Not being arrested, punished, or having your property confiscated was certainly a plus. The days of meeting secretly in caves and catacombs was largely over. Yet, adversely, vast church building projects were launched of unparalleled grandeur. No longer a minority, many good citizens became Christian. This created a need for professional full-time priests to care for the growing masses. This is the attractional model: build it and they will come.

The United States has operated in the Christendom assumption that we are a Christian nation and that the church enjoys a central role in Western culture. Protestant denominations adopted the organizational structure of the twentieth-century corporation and benefited greatly for a season. However, emerging generations are not buying this amalgamation of Christ and empire.

We have built it, and they have not come. More Americans now hold a secular worldview than a Christian one. The Christendom model as we know it, our dominant Western version of the faith, is disintegrating.

The Good News

God turns deserts into jungles. God turns cemeteries into gardens. God makes dead things come alive again. We describe the power God uses to do this with the word resurrection.
How exactly does God make one a new creation in the present? It’s certainly not that God throws us into a dumpster and starts over. God works with the existing material, reshaping and recreating. God’s way of “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5) is not our consumeristic way of brand-spanking newness and waste. It’s the way of potters remixing at wheels and shattered lives reassembling in new amalgamations.

The formational story of the Christian faith is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Resurrection is the ultimate narrative of disruption. The empty tomb throws a monkey wrench in the death-dealing cycle of business as usual. It changes everything. Resurrection is the power that dismantles all other forms of power.

If you would like to learn more about how the blended ecology of churches can help transform your community’s self-understanding and engage in meaningful mission, you will find Deep Roots, Wild Branches by Michael Beck helpful. “Michael Beck is the premiere practitioner and pioneer of the Fresh Expressions movement in the United States today. He has real life experience leading a traditional church that is also leading the way in the blended ecology of church. His faith community is making new disciples of Jesus in new places and in new ways all while being anchored to a traditional church that is also growing.” (Jay T.) Get it from our store here.

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Reverend Michael Beck serves on the Fresh Expressions US national leadership team as director of remissioning, as well as the cultivator of fresh expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael and his wife, Jill, are the co-pastors of Wildwood United Methodist Church, where they direct recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, an interracial unity movement, and a network of thirteen fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors, dog parks, and burrito joints.

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