How should we adapt to a culture in which Christianity is becoming less familiar, pervasive and persuasive than it once was.
By Gerald Sittser
The fact is: Christianity in America is declining, in both numbers and influence. The culture is changing, and we must therefore recognize that we live in a world very different from the one that existed even half a century ago during what appeared to be the “golden age” of American Christianity.
You probably sense the change and observe the trends, too. You know about the decline of mainline churches; the lack of growth in evangelical churches; the rise of “dones” (Christian dropouts) and “nones” (those people who refuse to identify with any religious tradition); the ideological division between liberal and conservative Christians, often accompanied by an unconscionable level of vitriol; the obsession with political power; the rise of Christian nationalism; the creeping loss of religious freedom; the growing dominance of secularity in the public square; the deterioration of traditional morality in the entertainment industry. My own profession illustrates the point. Only a century ago (even half a century ago) Christianity played a significant role in shaping the ethos and curriculum of most colleges and universities across the country, which is hardly the case anymore.
Many of us have read reports and experienced the changes. We feel it, too, like the stuffiness and headache that warns of an oncoming cold.
At this point I probably sound like a political conservative, longing for better days. It appears to be a growing sentiment. Many conservative Christians argue that America once played a special, even divinely appointed, role in history, as if it were a “chosen nation,” and they advocate that America should step into that role once again, which leads them to impose their brand of conservative morality and politics on the nation, sometimes as brashly and bellicosely as the opponents they detest. It will not work, at least not anymore. It has probably never worked, or if it has, under terms in which the cost was probably too high, sacrificing genuine Christian influence for the sake of political power.
I am not advocating that Christians follow this strategy, any more than I would argue that Christians make common cause with left-wing politics. Either way, it is not the right way, nor the Third Way. And it is not the best way to influence society. Power at the expense of the gospel is not a power the church should ever seek. The problem we currently face is not primarily political or ideological. The problem is the compromised identity of the church itself and the compromised message of the gospel. The role of Christianity in the West has changed. It is no longer culturally dominant. A political strategy to hold on to or to regain power will only set the church back even further. It would be like a boxer swinging aimlessly at an opponent to prolong time in the ring, even though the match is nearly over and clearly lost.
I write this not to lament lost identity and influence, which was far more superficial than once thought, but to embrace a new challenge; not to pine for the past, which was hardly ideal anyway, but to plot a course for the future. Christian belief is far less familiar, pervasive and persuasive than it once was, and Christian institutions and practices far less visible and dominant or, in the few cases where they still are, often tainted with a bad reputation. Our cultural memory of the past might actually be keeping us from seeing the changes happening before our very eyes and from adapting creatively to them. The best hours of Western Christianity might be ahead of us, not behind us, assuming we dare to think differently about what it means to be Christian and to live as Christians in a culture that is changing.
Excerpted from Resilient Faith by Gerald L. Sittser ©2019. Used by permission of Baker Publishing BakerPublishingGroup.com.