Is the church dead? No. But plenty of people seem to be preparing the obituaries, going over which funeral plans are most suitable for everyone and making the funeral arrangements for that inevitable day. Inside Christian circles, the pessimism over the prospects for the church is palpable. There’s a real sense among many that some threshold has been crossed and that it’s all down hill from here.
There are a few die hards who are still trying to “take the culture back for Christ”, but increasingly there’s a recognition that the church went to war and lost. Even the dominionist movement, which has gained some footholds in state politics, seems to exist purely for the purpose of alienating everyone else. Their time will pass, once they’ve done enough damage that even the call the “take the culture back” isn’t enough to garner votes from nostalgic and frightened Christians.
Now, I do not share this very pessimistic view of the direction Christianity is heading. In fact, I’m rather enthused about the future of the church. But I understand the defeatism which is being driven by the realization that the church went to war and lost. Badly. On every issue which the church decided to take a stand, they lost. Not only did the wider culture not embrace the church’s positions, the things which the church felt important enough to declare war over are the very reasons people give for leaving the church. And let’s face it, that kind of rejection stings.
Over the last few years, copious pixels have been used analyzing and lamenting the reasons for the church’s impotence in the face of the freight train of cultural change. Some have traced the beginning of the end all the way back to the Enlightenment. Or Constantine. Or the hippies and women in pants.
So what happened, really? It seems to me that the answer is pretty simple: reality.
For much of human history, our understanding of reality was pretty limited. The sun circled the earth. God or gods controlled the weather. Sicknesses were demons or curses or God’s vengeance. Counting and measuring were for economic transactions, not studying. In this environment, one of the purposes of religion was to explain a reality which was otherwise unexplainable. Part of the power held by Christianity was that, in addition to being a spiritual path, it provided narratives and explanations for reality that worked well enough to be plausible.
Along came the Enlightenment and with it the rise of Empiricism. (Empiricism being the idea that knowledge is gained by observing and measuring what can be experienced through our senses. As opposed to rationalism which favors using logic in order to construct an understanding of reality.) Basically, we went from learning about the world by thinking about how things might work or should work to observing how they actually do work.
This shift in our approach to understanding the world frequently had an unsettling result; it turns out that the world didn’t work very much at all the way we thought it did. And not only that, we could prove it. Conjecture and supernaturalism were no longer realistic methods of explaining the world around us. And unlike religious or philosophical ideas which could be rejected or accepted based on our own judgment (or the judgment of authorities), rejecting the findings of empiricism meant rejecting proven reality.
With depressing regularity, Christians viewed evidence debunking long held explanations for how things worked as a challenge. And not to their own understanding, but a challenge to God and Christianity and spirituality. We could not or would not recognize that our understanding is not the same thing as God’s truth. Which lead to a church which frequently claimed that standing for God’s truth and being a faithful Christian meant rejecting reality. Evolution is a lie, mental illness is a spiritual issue, homosexuality is a choice, disciplining children in harsh and destructive ways was the path to their Godliness, sex is dirty and dangerous, people sin because they are evil, men should be over women, the poor are poor because of their moral deficiency, and on and on and on.
It was pride and arrogance and, frankly, an utter lack of faith in God which lead Christians to fear and deny reality. God made the reality which science and empiricism study and describe. Scriptures say that creation is a testimony to God. Denying reality is just as unfaithful as denying scripture. And we need only look at the fruit of the church’s battle against reality and those who study it to see that the church’s response has been a disaster.
What we need are people who have enough faith in God to allow their own understanding to be challenged and changed. (Only God gets to be unchanging!) We need to be asking, “how do we understand and practice Christianity in light of what has been discovered through God’s own creation?”
Again, God made reality. Jesus said that we will know the truth and the truth will set us free. Christians ought to be at the forefront of embracing humanity’s best understanding of reality. The more we understand the world as it actually is, the better we will understand the deep truths of our faith. But we must be willing to be corrected.
The church has been marginalized because rather than embracing reality as God made it, it doubled down on its own understanding and went to war to defend it. What Christians too often failed to realize was that far from defending God, they were warring against the world which God lovingly created for us. That’s not faithful and that style of Christianity deserves to die. It needs to die for us to move forward.
So, write your obituaries and mourn the end of an era if you must. But it’s not the end of the church. The body will be saved because God is faithful and promised it. Even if he has to do it in spite of us.