Welcome to Post-Christian America

April 12, 2010

America, that “Christian nation,” is rapidly becoming post-Christian.

When I share this with my normal (a.k.a. non-Christian) friends, they shake their heads and disagree. “Naah, Christianity is still dominant.” And while it may still be more dominant than secularism (and other religions), I regularly see signs that its cultural power is waning in the United States.

Here’s a church building we saw while in Mendocino this past August:

This is not a church

Well, it used to be a church building. Now it’s an organic grocery store.

I worked at Adobe on and off for a total of eight years. When I consider all the people I knew, I can think of six people who I knew were Christians. Six, over eight years. In my new job at PayPal, I am meeting a new set of people. One of them might be a Christian.

Tournaments, on Sunday morning?!

A tournament, on Easter Sunday morning?

I spent all day yesterday at my daughter’s volleyball tournament. Yesterday was Sunday. This is the second time we have missed our worship gathering for a tournament, and there will be more. When I shared this with my father, he was shocked. Not too long ago, this would have been unthinkable.

I did share this with my pastor. He asked me, “Are you surprised?” No, I replied. Now we had also missed Easter service, though that was a decision to get some family-only time. Our church, like many in this area, meets in a school. My pastor said, “You know, when we had our Easter service, there was a basketball tournament taking place in the gym.” Now that shocked me. A tournament, on Easter Sunday morning?

Granted, I live in California. The joke is that California is like a bowl of granola, because “what ain’t fruits and nuts, is flakes.” But the coasts are also the leading edges of cultural change; what you see here will eventually make its way to the heartland. All my experiences tell me that Christianity is not the cultural focal point it once was. At the very least, you have to acknowledge that the USA is increasingly becoming a pluralistic society.

How should we respond?

How should Jesus communities respond? Well, one way is to beat your drum louder. Even in my supposedly progressive church, I have heard more than one sermon mention “our pluralistic society” as though it were some kind of blight or cancer. Yeah, that’ll certainly charm people.

I have also seen a few local churches have meeting times other than Sunday morning. That’s a start, though I’m afraid it is usually in the context of multiple services: Sunday morning, plus other choices. And I wonder how that feeds the consumeristic mentality that infects American Christianity: “We have several offerings, depending on what is most convenient for you.”

Recommended starting points

I don’t think there are easy answers that will satisfy the desire of American Christians for a “just do it this way” model. The road requires courage, a boldness to rethink what a Jesus community is and does, and a missional mindset. But let me offer a few starting points from my experience:

  • Skip your Sunday morning church service. Instead go to a mall, a coffee shop, a tournament, and observe: There are people there! Who are they?
  • Stop talking about “non-Christians,” where the prefix implies they are deviations from the norm. Instead, acknowledge that they are the norm, and do what I learned from Dave Jacobs: I call them “normal people” and “my normal friends.” It is disciples of Jesus who are unusual.
  • Stop pretending that normal people have any interest in attending a church service. There was a time when an invitation to a church gathering held weight because it was a social norm. That time is gone. Get over it.
  • Read The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. The author, Lesslie Newbiggin, left England to be a missionary in India. When he retired from the mission field, he returned to England, only to discover that it had changed.
  • Ask your coworkers about their worldviews and belief systems. How many of them “went to church” growing up? (Be careful to do this to learn, not to proselytize.)
  • Learn from Jesus communities in other countries that are more post-Christian. They’ve had many more years at this than we have. Pay close attention to the ones who are not beating the church drum louder, but are playing a different tune — the alternative worship folks in the U.K., or the recent Forge folks in Australia.

What changes are you seeing in American culture? What responses have you seen from Christian churches? Have you done any of the starting points above?

Jon Reid

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As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

15 responses to Welcome to Post-Christian America

  1. “I spent all day yesterday at my daughter’s volleyball tournament. Yesterday was Sunday. This is the second time we have missed our worship gathering for a tournament, and there will be more.”
    First, I’m not advocating that all Christians abandon sports. But I hope you see that this makes more of a statement about the value of Christian community than checking out how many people are in the mall on a Sunday.
    If we, as members of Christian communities, choose to abandon it x-number of Sundays a year because of something else (ie. a game, a party, etc), that tells the outside world loud and clear that our community is not worth making a priority.
    The United States is not newly post-Christian. This progression has been active for the last several decades, and Christians have helped move it in that direction.
    My world is made up of many friends who are not Christians, and it should not surprise you that few of your coworkers profess to love Christ. But what I have seen in my life is that my church community has become all the more precious. We meet every Thursday night and Sunday night, and that time is sacred to me. My friends who don’t yet know Jesus know this, and while they know they’re always welcome, they respect that my time with my church family, regardless of what day or time it falls on, is deeply valuable and fulfilling to me.
    Unfortunately, I see many Christians who attend services on Sunday (or whatever time) because it’s what they do, and not because they love to spend time with their community and their Lord. I wonder what would happen if, instead of being shocked at how many people aren’t in church, we began showing how excited we were to be there?

  2. But again at the same time, who said that we are obligated to meet on Sundays for church? I have been a seventh-day sabbatarian (not Seventh-day Adventist)for years, and can be quite ministered to by going to church on Saturday night.
    And not only that, but the churches, especially where I am living, are full of people who go to church for the social and/or economic profit of being seen there- in other wordsw, it is good for the good old American bottom line to be there.
    AMerica declared its allegiance to what was really important in the 1780s, and now there is an “l” missing from its national motto, as it was then, too.

  3. I recently got around to reading Newbiggin’s classic. He does a great job of summarizing the post-modern apologetic issues (in what sense is Christianity reasonable and why is it just as reasonable a worldview as secularism). I loved his concept of the “congregation as the hermeneutic of the gospel” — but found myself wishing he had given us a hint at what that might actually look like. I agree the church needs to play a different tune — one that doesn’t try to compete with the entertainments and consumer options of the world we live in, but that demonstrates the life of the kingdom. Perhaps what we need is a boost of imagination so that we can dream those new forms of church into reality.

  4. Maria, I just love the way you put that: “the church needs to play a different tune — one that doesn’t try to compete with the entertainments and consumer options of the world we live in, but that demonstrates the life of the kingdom.”
    I think if we are genuinely caring for people and meeting their needs (living out the Gospel) instead of trying to sell the Gospel through slick programs and church services, we will be more effective.
    One of the things my church does that I love is offer an aerobics class 2x a week. There is no preaching involved, the teacher prays briefly at the end, and offers to talk with people or pray with them if anyone wants to. It is a great way to just meet people in the community, and meet them where they are at. And I am much more comfortable asking friends to come to class with me than inviting them to church, which they would probably not be interested in.

  5. Heather,
    I’m afraid many churches are still of the mindset that “If we build it, they will come. And if they’re not coming, then we tweak it until it’s right” — as if “it” will attract people. (Of course, it is Jesus who both goes to people and draws them to himself.) Hence my first suggestion to take a Sunday morning off and simply observe that there are people out there who are not in the least bothered that they’re not “in church.”
    “…That tells the outside world loud and clear that our community is not worth making a priority.” Actually, I see it the other way around. I think, if we do it right, it tells the “outside world” that we think they are worth making a priority.
    We actually discussed with our daughter what to do with Sunday tournaments. She is one of the team captains. As much as Chariots of Fire is one of my favorite movies and I greatly admire Eric Liddell, that was in a different age. My wife asked, “Which do you think would have a greater positive impact on your friends: not playing and going to church instead, or playing and being a positive example through your leadership?” We went with the latter. In the end, I think it comes down to following the Spirit’s specific leading (which may be different in other circumstances).
    It sounds like your community is both relational and focused on the indwelling presence of Christ. If so, you have a treasure that many churches lack, and have only accidentally (and thus occasionally).

  6. Mike,
    While I think Jesus communities ought to give more thought (and flexibility) to when they gather, my point is not the specific time. I hope my other illustrations show that Christianity is losing its position of dominance in America.
    It sounds like this is not yet the case where you live, if people still go to church for the sake of status. I think your example of a place where Christianity is still dominant shows the problems that come with it. Where many people fear the decline of dominance, I welcome it because it recenters us in a “going,” missionary posture that you see throughout the Scriptures. It also leads us from arrogance back to humility, and so back to the Way of Jesus.

  7. Maria,
    One thing I take from Newbiggin’s “congregation as the hermeneutic of the gospel” is the need to shift away from so much emphasis on personal, 1-on-1 evangelism, which reflects an individualistic gospel. Jesus sent them out in pairs. Maybe that’s what “where two or three are gathered” is talking about. Maybe our efforts at personal evangelism generally do not result in “there I am with them,” so people don’t see Jesus.
    But I agree with Samia: I love the way you put it! And maybe we ourselves have not been experiencing as much of the kingdom because the Holy Spirit is “out there,” not so much “in here.”

  8. Sami, I love your example. It’s good to hear it happening around here!

  9. Its interesting going to the US and seeing how ‘christian’ it is compared to the UK. But, its no surprise that the US is following the same path and EU and we are following OZ and Australia! So look to those guys to see where the US maybe in a few years time.
    At our church we have had to have a 4pm service because most family just cant do Sunday morning…to much other stuff on!

  10. Paul, it’s good to hear from someone with non-US eyes. I remember when I was involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the 80’s, we looked upon Europe as “that post-Christian place, look at how far they have fallen.” So it’s kind of funny that now, those same places (and more) are an inspiration to me for the quality and courage of the believers there. It just shows that the Body of Christ is a work of the Holy Spirit, not of people with power. (We are still stuck on power here.)

  11. I appreciate the discussion happening here. Jon, you’re right, I’m in an amazing community, and it makes me so sad to know that not only do many people not have that, but that they don’t ask for anything more than the status quo.
    I think Maria hit it on the head–I guess my main concern is that I keep hearing this dichotomy (and not just in this post, for the record), that EITHER our communities have to be a priority, or our normal (as Jon put it) friends and neighbors have to be.
    Can’t both be true?

  12. Heather,
    “Can’t both be true?” Of course! Community and mission need each other.
    But the danger of the “holy huddle” is very real. A quote attributed to Matt Carter caught my eye on Twitter today: “When we tried for community, we rarely achieved it. When we tried for mission, we got mission and community.”
    Because our tendency is toward community, I push toward mission. My goal is not to pull people away from their Jesus communities, but to shake up our communities so that we live as sent people — especially in post-Christian contexts.

  13. I like this post Jon.

  14. You said “In my new job at PayPal, I am meeting a new set of people. One of them might be a Christian.”
    You’ve probably met a few more by now 🙂

  15. Thanks to you, Kristian!