Faith Works 8-20-16
Reports of their death greatly exaggerated (again)
Election seasons seem to bring out these sorts of demographic over-generalizations. We've got books and articles getting attention with titles like "The End of White Christian America" and "White Christian America is Dying," all of which get transmuted through the alchemy of the internet from statistical gold to name-calling straw.
One of the straw men that gets burned regularly online is that trends mean definite outcomes. Economists have a quick dismissal of this misunderstanding, saying "trees don't grow to the sky." Trends are true until they… aren't. Yes, the historical "blip" of white, or Anglo, or northern European dominance in Christian life and thought globally is fading, but they weren't always large and in charge, and in fact they haven't been for quite a while already!
Remember, the typical Christian in the world today, as determined by raw numbers is: 1) from the Global South (70% of all Christians live in Africa, Latin America, or Asia now, with 1 in 4 Christians in the world living Africa and heading for 40% in another generation; China coming up fast with as many Christians in church on a Sunday as there are in the US), 2) likely to be charismatic or at least open to a more public expression of feelings in their faith (the number of Christians who are Charismatic/Pentecostal is above 30% and rising, especially in the Global South), and 3) is likely to be living out their faith in a context of repression and persecution. Globally, religious persecution is a phenomenon aimed at Christians; from Iran to North Korea, Saudi Arabia to China, official harassment and imprisonment along with unofficial killings of Christian clergy, members, and missionaries hit an all-time high in 2015.
Yet Christian faith is growing in all those places.
Anyhow, that's the global view versus scare-mongering about "the church is dying in America." What is true is that in 1900, about 80% of all Christians in the world lived in Europe and the US. Now, 70% live elsewhere. That's a story with many sub-themes to tell, swirling around a strong current of relative growth and vitality for the story of God's good news made known in the person of Jesus.
My friend Charles, an editor in another life, wants me to get to the point having read that much, so here it is: Christianity isn't dying. And your congregation isn't dying, unless it is, in which case you can do something about it. And faith communities in America won't look the same in 2050 as they did in 1950. But if you look back at 1850, that's no surprise (or shouldn't be).
1850 - the fallout from the failed Millerite movements about the "end of time" and Christ's Second Coming emptied out many congregations, and the various splinter groups left after the "Great Disappointment" of 1844 were scattered and bereft. There is essentially no such thing as Pentecostalism; the memory of the Cane Ridge revival of 1801 still echoed in some quarters, but no such church movement existed. Across America, men and women entered two different doors on the front of the building (this was true of most denominations) and sat on separate sides of the sanctuary. Abolitionism was seen as extremism by many church leaders, generally banned as an official position leading to clergy, seminaries, and congregations being kicked out of their respective denominational bodies. Most churches had vigorously supported the War with Mexico of a few years previously, and promoted the formation of militia companies within their memberships, from the Upper Midwest to the Deep South. Church attendance in general was down from where it had been in the 1820s, and most judicatory structures were entirely voluntary in nature, the positions we associate today with regions or dioceses or synods and their executives being held by serving clergy who were elected at annual meetings to oversee various functions -- the hiring of evangelists or the funding of missionaries still a controversial thing in many quarters. The Latter-Day Saints had left Illinois for western Iowa and then across the Plains to the Utah territory just a few years earlier, dropping off the US map for a time, and they themselves were waiting in Salt Lake to hear back from missionaries in England and the Nordic countries. Catholicism was growing through immigration, mostly German in the Midwest and Irish in the Northeast, but persecution and legal restrictions on the ownership of property and opening of schools was still common and, again, legal.
Doesn't sound much like 1950, does it? Nor will 2050. But all shall be well.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's a short term pessimist and long term optimist. Tell him what you're worried about at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.