Various theories of secularization have been advanced to explain what has happened to the cultures of the West. It seems fairly clear that social secularization has caused religion to lose its power and influence over and within Western society. This process has taken longer to have its impact upon American culture but the last several national elections reveal how profoundly true this has become the “new norm,” at least in terms of social and religious values. Individual secularization, which happens to varying degrees to all of us all the time, is another expression of this same culture-changing phenomenon. This individual secularization seems to have led to our general decline in personal allegiance and open commitment to formal expressions of religion.
The way to measure the impact of personal secularization is notoriously hard to define. I can start with the obvious–declining church attendance and shrinking membership rolls. We do not precisely know what the numbers were for societies prior to the nineteenth century so it is hard to compare the modern era with the distant past. We do know, however, that in and around 1870 church attendance reached its peak in much of Europe. In America, at least in our lifetime, the high-water mark was around 1956. In Europe weekly church attendance declined steadily after 1870 so that a hundred years later it had been cut in half. Between 1970 and 2000 it was cut in half again (in most European countries with the exception of nations like Poland) leaving weekly attendance at only 8% in Great Britain and 4% in Sweden, to give but two examples. (France and the Netherlands, at one time the great Catholic and Reformed nations, are now two of the most entirely secular societies in the world.)
Church attendance in the US declined after 1970, this we know now for sure. But it did not decline as rapidly as it did in other Western nations, including our northern neighbors in Canada. Patterns were obviously shifting. More and more people were still attending but with steadily growing irregularly. Where they had attended weekly for generations now a growing number was attending more like once a month or only once a year. Church attendance in America is still considered to be above 30% but this is, to my mind at least, an increasingly “soft” number. Membership is in decline in almost every ecclesial context. One significant survey discovered that in one year before 2000 not a single county in the US experienced a “net church growth” in numerical increase. Clearly, membership is decreasing. Further more, the practice of the faith is in decline while the fastest growing group of all is “none” (no religion), a group which now reaches close to 20% of our total population. By far, the highest number of “nones” is among the millennials, the generation born after 1982. This is why I spend so much effort training millennial leaders and focusing the mission of ACT3 Network on this generation. I find them more difficult to reach, at least with all the methods and strategies of the past, but far more responsive to relationships and collaboration then any previous generation. They are a generation searching and the gospel story speaks powerfully to that search.
Social secularization is much easier to see and understand. We experience it personally from day-to-day. We can clearly see and feel the growing pressure to push Christianity out of the public sphere. Where once Christianity had the major influence over politics, the economy, education and welfare today this is clearly no longer the case. This great socio-religious change came about in my lifetime (b. 1949). The process has been called “functional” or “social” differentiation. By these terms social scientists are referring to the way in which a particular society gradually separates its main functions into distinct, autonomous spheres. It is here that my ideas about us (Christians) becoming “exiles” is more apparent than ever. After the 1960s the church’s influence upon social structures and power has been eroded almost beyond recognition. Toleration has replaced the cozy cultural alliance the church had with society. The growth of pluralism and multiculturalism increasingly treats Christianity as just one option among many, including the option of “none,” or no religion at all. Toleration now looks a lot more like secularization than even-handed receptivity to all expressions of faith. (If the expression of faith leads to public consequences, which I have argued must happen in a vibrant Christianity, then this becomes even more apparent.) The freedom of religion has a matter of self-determination which happens in the sphere of our “private lives” and “personal beliefs” but has little or nothing to do with the public sphere. Freedom of religion has virtually become freedom from religion, all religion or, in some cases, Christianity in particular. Christianity has been marginalized in terms of its influence on economics, business, education and politics. What is left is mere symbolism, remnants of a past period of time now long gone. I tell people we have met the future and it is us and we are not going back in the foreseeable future so we had best learn how to live in this new context; i.e. Babylon.
Let me give a simple illustration of one change that has unfolded in my sixty-plus years of life in America. The “market” (and with it consumerism) has replaced the role of the churches by undermining the protection once afforded to the sabbath day as a day of rest. Alternative forms of entertainment and spirituality make it possible to fill one’s life with many new personal expressions that have little or no relationship with the role religion once had. This is especially true in terms of how religion called us to live public lives that we shared with most of those who lived around us whether or not they went to church.