The Spiritual Heritage of the United States
Make no mistake about this one fact. America does have a great spiritual legacy. We might not be “the city set on a hill” but we have been wonderfully blessed. We still have so much to be thankful for as a people. But an unholy alliance of secular humanism, atheism, and New Age agendas are changing us rather profoundly as a people. Add to this the radical sexual agenda of the 1950s/60s and you have a mixture that threatens to divide us even further.
The struggle for freedom of speech and the true separation of church and state must continue. Freedom is a precious gift and is increasingly threatened by our changing landscape. The question is not about defending these most basic rights but rather about how to do it while we still give faithful witness to Christ and the gospel. My deep concern here is not that we should not engage in battles about defining our national future but rather that the way we engage in them will become something far less than Christlike.
Freedom of religion is fast becoming freedom from religion. This has prompted many conservative Christians to fight back. This fight has included political, legal and ideological struggles that are now front-page stories. Now the fastest growing religious demographic in America is “none.” This percentage of our population is now at 16.5% and rises at a 0.5% rate of the population each year. In just a few years 20% of our people will be openly “none” when religion is applied to them as an indicator of their daily beliefs and practice. Add to this the growth of other religions, mostly due to immigration, and you can see that America is very much a mixture of many religions with a large and growing minority that reflects no religion at all. Between 2000 and 2010 almost all Protestant denominations declined, both mainline and conservative. Catholics essentially held their ground, mostly because of Hispanic immigration.
Shifts Within Christian Faith Itself
While the nation has been changing rather significantly over the past forty years the church has also changed with it. This change has not always been fruitful in terms of our vibrant and effective Christian witness to our neighbors. Here are a few of the major shifts we have seen, most of which are actively ongoing.
1. Almost all denominations are struggling to maintain numbers and budgets. As a result Christian colleges and seminaries are struggling. Some are even closing. More closings will likely follow in the decades ahead. Nothing is certain about the future of Christian education in our post-Christendom context. The leadership of our institutions is under incredible stress. Donors are aging and fewer young people want to attend such schools.
2. With the rising monetary and personal pressures on schools and seminaries, some are offering innovative ways to train future Christian leaders. Some of these innovations are hopeful but some seem entirely designed to reach necessary numbers and meet budgets. This is a time for bold missional response! However, few leaders are willing to go down this road because their boards, often made up of older leaders, will not accept the prescriptions for what is needed to reach and disciple millennials. If we fail to reach and train millennials we will, of course, see a slowly decreasing number of people in church in every part of America. Even the “Bible Belt” is no longer immune!
3. Post-denominational movements are springing up in new forms and contexts. I consider ACT3 Network one such development. These new movements often create more networks that are highly social (high touch, deep relational hunger) that are rooted in the power of social media joined with personal gatherings that transcend traditional denominational differences. The great danger here is that these new Christian movements, and the networks that they create, will lose deep connection with orthodox Christian faith. We can never assume that orthodoxy will prevail at any time in Christian history. (See my blogs from a few months ago on Ross Douthat’s popular book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.
4. The millennial generation is the most intriguing and interesting social-spiritual development in my lifetime. It is the most emotionally damaged and untaught generation ever. There is deep spiritual confusion among millennials. Yet there is a profound hunger for spirituality without religion. Upwards of 50% say that they are open to spiritual reality but not interested in religion. (The right response to this is Jesus, of course, not systematic theology!) This development presents a whole new challenge to anyone who seeks to disciple leaders in this generation. Moral relativism, broken families, a lifestyle of permissiveness, drug and alcohol abuse, mindless violence, sexual promiscuity, widespread acceptance of the occult and profound self-absorption all characterize a large percentage of this generation. Yet there is palpable spiritual hunger in this generation. This hunger is like nothing I’ve seen in my time. The willingness of multitudes to engage with me about Christ and the cost of discipleship is growing every day.
When political pundits tell you, as they did after November 6, that this younger generation will be back in the conservative camp in another decade, once they marry and settle down, they are whistling in the dark. There is no evidence of any such movement, now or in the near future. In fact, a large percentage of this generation will never marry, or will enter non-traditional relationships that most would not have considered marriage even two decades ago. More than any previous generation in American history this could be the “singles” generation. To use only this one example, how will the church reach and disciple single adults in a conservative church culture that is rooted so deeply in marriage being “God’s ideal”? What message do we have for singles and what will our response be when they begin to lead whole parts of the Christian church?
It is apparent that the American church needs a deep, Christ-centered, genuine revival. Sadly, the word revival has been misunderstood and abused, even in the household of its friends. Many over the age of 50 believe a true revival will restore the past they knew from only a few decades ago. Tragically, some even think a true revival would embolden the church to fight more successfully against homosexuals and political liberals, only with greater effect! Only now are some becoming aware that this kind of revival is not going to happen. I believe the revival we need would not look like any previous American revival. One reason is that God will not be put into that box that we offer in the form of our cultural comfort zones.
We do not need more mass-marketing campaigns for Christ or old-fashioned sawdust trail revivalism. We desperately need a Spirit-drenched awakening that brings the church back to her first love. This, I believe, would only be the beginning of a new era of unity in mission if God granted such an outpouring.