I would argue that in America the impact of personal and social secularization is different than in virtually all other Western nations. The reason for this is because religion was never formally established in America as a function in which the state had a compelling role. From every angle you can look at this question it now seems that state support for Christianity harms long term personal faith commitment. For this reason the “free market” of faith communities has led to a competitive context in which churches can, and do, appeal for people’s support and, in some ways at least, flourish accordingly. This shift to voluntarism means that churches must work to gain the personal commitment of their people. This has proven to be a very healthy thing, at least in one sense. But recent developments have begun to erode the impact of the church in this culture for what appear to be other compelling social reasons that are new to our history. Let me explain.
Within a democracy like the United States churches have been free to speak out on a wide variety of issues ranging from nuclear disarmament to civil rights. This had a significant impact upon mainline Protestant churches in the post-1960s. Now this same impulse has led more conservative churches (since the late 1970s) to use this same American opportunity to promote wars as well as policies about marriage that have alienated large numbers of people. Conservatives have the tendency to believe that they are defending “the faith” when they do this in public thus they see opposition to their efforts as a form of “persecution.” Often the real problem is not so much persecution as foolish and ill-formed public statements. In both instances, the mainline churches and now the more conservative churches, have failed to adequately teach their congregations what whole life discipleship actually means in an increasingly secular culture. We have work to do, a great deal of work.
In a democracy where church and state are separated each generation must intentionally transmit the faith to the next generation, which clearly depends on the church’s ability to form and shape young people. This is the role of religious education. Where Christianity can directly influence schools (including a positive witness inside our public schools) and colleges then it has a much better chance of passing the faith on to the next generation. When the church loses control of knowledge, as has been increasingly the case since the 1960s, it then faces a more hostile context in which religion is deregulated and the media is increasingly privatized. When this happens consumers are allowed to design their own entertainment and information without the church having influence on the mass media that the youngest children and adults consume.
Perhaps the biggest challenge we now face relates to our deep Christian concerns over the control and direction of the family. After the sixteenth century the family became a major focus of Christian concern, especially in Protestant contexts. This happened, at least in part, because it was believed and understood that the “new” world required a socializing center if it was to impact each succeeding generation. Because of this emphasis on the family, which recurred for almost five centuries, we gave the family the primary role in socializing the next generation of Christians. This has all radically changed in my lifetime. While the church was losing control over the public media it tried to double-down on regulating family life in order to protect its central role. (Consider the rise and phenomenon of the ministry called Focus on the Family from the late 1970s until its new image and decline following James Dobson’s leaving in 2010.)
During the same (recent) decades we have seen the emergence of radically new ideas about family, marriage and sexuality. (I’ve recently been watching the television series “Parenthood” on Netflix. Nothing I’ve encountered in the popular media better reveals what the “new” family really looks like in a healthy, and fairly normal, American sense!) These new ideas about family have effectively destroyed the bonds that once tied children and parents together in a shared Christian faith. This has led many conservative Christians to rest a large part of their efforts for discipleship upon defending “family values” against the corrosive impact of modernity. The results of this emphasis, to say the least, are extremely mixed, if not simply negative. Some conservative forms of Christianity benefited, at least initially, but in the long term it could not stop the dam from breaking. The world is now rapidly processing this social change through the Internet and various forms of the social media. Traditionally conservative church youth groups can no longer deliver what parents desire. By age 25 the overwhelming majority of young people have left the church. What is particularly amazing is that their leaving the church is much more likely if these young adults grew up in a church youth group than if they never participated in one at all.
Read my final sentence in the previous paragraph again, several times if necessary, until it sinks in. It should make you deeply suspicious about the supposed importance of almost all church-based youth groups! But most churches still merrily go along with little awareness of what is actually happening to the next generation.
Recently I was working in Starbucks on a winter afternoon. On both sides of me Wheaton-area youth ministers and their lay leaders were discussing their youth ministries and program. I wanted to interrupt, to cry or just groan aloud. My spirit was crushed by what I heard. I chose to quietly pray and then put on my head set (I like to write with classical music) and kept writing. Maybe I copped out, I’m not sure. But what I am sure about is that most of what these precious Christian leaders were doing is counter-productive and they don’t even know why. The very kids that they are talking about will likely be gone in a few years. Until we understand what individual faith commitment really means, and how it involves moving us into a community that lives out mission together, we will fail to impact most of our teens and young adults. This generation craves community and service. What most churches are giving them are programs that we hope will indoctrinate and socialize them. This strategy will fail.