America did not need an established church (i.e., a state church wedded to public practice) because the everyday habits of Americans assumed the establishment of the Christian church. This assumption has become our biggest problem since the Millennials have come of age. This new generation no longer assumes the church or the public role of religion. They are spiritual questers but not religious in the normal American sense. This is why I meet more and more people my own age (55+) who say, with great emotion and sadness, “I love Jesus very much but I no longer pay any attention to the church. It simply doesn’t seem relevant to my faith journey.”
As a result of significant historical developments Americans continue to have an abiding belief in this god. The god they believe in is really the god of American thought and imagination. This god does not require much of American believers nor does he/she/it connect people deeply to community, thus to anything like the (visible) church. Stanley Hauerwas adds, “To know or worship that god does not require that a church [even] exist because that god is known through the providential establishment of a free people. This is a presumption by the religious Right as well as the religious Left in America. Both assume that America is the church.”
What is our response to these self-evident realities? Most in my generation have tried to defend America’s god and “the Christian religion” through culture wars. Their embattled opposition to secular goals and ideology has become the defining marker of their understanding of our present life and future direction. We write papers and publish books decrying the loss of faith and the dangers that will face the next generation. I edited several such books in the 1990s; The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Moody Press, 1996) and The Compromised Church (Crossway, 1998).
I am sometimes asked, “Do you still believe that there is an evangelical crisis?” My simple answer is, “Yes, I most certainly do.” But what I hasten to add is that my solution to this problem was not carefully rooted in the doctrine of the church as God’s mission. My solution was not missional. It assumed too much about the American god and our culture. What I was defending was a very narrowly defined view of the Protestant Reformation applied with a rather conservative vigor to the loss of biblical preaching and worship that I saw in the churches of the 1990s. What I failed to see was the compromise of the church in terms of the loss of anything remotely like a robust New Testament ecclesiology. I was reading history but only as far back as the sixteenth century in many instances. I failed to develop a pre-Constantinian understanding of the church, an understanding that can be discovered in the first four centuries of Christianity. This is why religion scholar Gerald McDermott recently listed me among those that he calls “paleo-orthodox evangelicals.” (I accept that designation as accurate if it is defined correctly, which is the way Dr. McDermott uses it.)
Simply put, I believe we are living in a time when the god of American Christianity is being rejected by (virtually) an entire generation. For many this creates profound despair about the future of America. For me it leads to rethinking the church and reframing its story for a whole new time in history just over the next hill. This could lead us to embrace the kind of missional theology which says the church is God’s mission. The late theologian Emil Bruner said that “the church exists for mission as fire exists for burning.” If this is true then the real hope of the church is in a recovery of meaning and purpose. Meaning and purpose should be built on a missional foundation. This way of seeing the church and the world around us can help us go forward in faith, hope and love embracing a very different future but one that will have global implications that extend far beyond America and Americanism.