Christianity After Religion: Performing Awakening

In the fall of 1995, a revival of sorts washed over the campus of the small Christian college I attended in central Kansas. It consisted mostly in late night assemblies at “The Clock” in the central courtyard where an earringed, shaven-headed leader led earnest and penitent seekers in praise songs and intercessory prayer.

One night we had a guest speaker. She was the older sister of a student who was herself studying at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. This fact gave her instant credibility. She instructed us from her personal experience that “Revival,” if it is to happen (as we all badly wished it would), “Begins with repentance.”

So we repented. We repented of our impure thoughts, our laziness in devotion, the crushing weight of our sin that we were sure was damming up the Holy Spirit. After a couple of weeks, the enthusiasm faded and the gatherings ceased. The awakening we envisioned never materialized. Or did it?

In the final chapter of Christianity After Religion: The End of The Church And The Birth of A New Spiritual Awakening, Diana Butler-Bass suggests that the kind of awakening my friends and I longed for doesn’t just happen. Rather, awakenings are performed as people commit themselves to a set of practices that enliven and demonstrate new spiritual realities. She writes:

Performance has always been important to awakening. In the First Great Awakening, George Whitefield’s preaching was the ultimate colonial theater. In the Second, the camp meetings were theaters of improvisation, where the converted acted out their encounters with the divine. In the Third, both Pentecostals and progressives displayed the public possibilities of racial integration, women’s leadership, and caring for the poor and outcast in the theaters of pulpit and political gathering. American religious history is marked by theatricality, and religious leaders display the faith as much as teach it.

Butler-Bass suspects that preparation, practice, play, and participation are the constituent parts of all of the awakenings that have shaped American faith, including the one she’s describing now. Preparation as people look closely at their faith’s story afresh; practice as people take on new habits of devotion and service; play as people experiment with boundaries and new norms; and participation as people take over the script and push awakening in the direction they need it to go.

This list makes me wonder if an awakening wasn’t happening among us on that campus enveloped by wheat fields at the end of the last century, and if it hasn’t continued unabated in the lives of its crestfallen participants. We encountered in those weeks a certain disappointment as the piety we’d been reared in proved incapable of bringing about the personal and communal transformation we yearned for. But the longer view of our years of learning together suggest to me that the awakening Butler-Bass sees today was stirring in us even then.

One of us is writing today about The Open Source Church. Another is training at-risk youth in Los Angeles to run marathons. Several others are social workers. Though we didn’t know it, perhaps we were performing awakening even then and sowing seeds that are sprouting today in the most unexpected ways. May it continue to be so.

Previous posts on Christianity After Religion

Great Awakening

The Great Reversal

A New Vision–Belonging

A New Vision–Behaving

A New Vision–Believing

When Religion Fails

Questioning The Old Gods

The End of The Beginning

The Beginning

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Christianity After Religion: Great Awakening

Note: readers of this series will be interested to read Philip Clayton’s op-ed in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, in which he sings the praises of the Emergent Church movement.

The charismatic movement that seized my parents in 1983 and turned my brother into a suit-clad 8 year-old missionary was a backlash. The whole complex of books and television shows and music and even stand-up comedy and bodybuilding exhbitions was part of a Ronald Reagan-inspired program on the part of religious conservatives in America to return to the country’s God-fearing heritage.

So it’s characterized by Diana Bulter-Bass in her new book Christianity After Religion: The End of The Church And The Birth of A New Spiritual AwakeningLeaning heavily again on the work of William McLoughlin, Bulter-Bass explores the period between Reagan’s election in 1980 and the mid 90’s as an interruption, an assertive turn away from the egalitarian, feminist, humanitarian “spiritual revolution” of the 60’s and 70’s.

Quoting McLoughlin’s Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform:

“There almost always arises a nativist or traditionalist movement within the culture that is an attempt by those with rigid personalities or with much at stake in the older order” to organize a backlash to “return to the ‘old-time religion,’ ‘the ways of our fathers,’ and ‘respect for the flag.’”

This always happens with awakenings. It has happened with every wave of spiritual awakening in American history, as “Old Light” forces react to the experience and change advanced by the “New Lights” driving the awakening. However, since 1980, something funny has happened to the revivalist evangelicalism that drove earlier waves of American religious awakening: it has become the force opposing awakening. In Butler-Bass’s terrific phrase: ” . . . the New Lights of the old awakenings have become the Old Lights of the new one.”

This kind of retrenchment effort is what I experienced in the tongues-speaking church of my childhood and then again at the evangelical Christian college I inexplicably landed at in 1990. Butler-Bass calls it “dogmatic evangelicalism.” Dogmatic evangelicalism stands opposed to the “romantic evangelicalism” that so inspired Butler-Bass and her college classmates in the 1970’s to challenge poverty and injustice and racism in the social order.

Dogmatic evangelicalism is advanced by “those who want to shore up boundaries, reinforce creeds, and ensure group identity through theological purity and strict behavior.” Romantic evangelicalism “is led by those who wish to connect with people and ideas that are different, to explore the meaning of story and history, and to include as many as possible in God’s embrace.”

This distinction, imperfect though it may be, helps me understand the difference between movements within my own denomination, The Fellowship of Presbyterians and The NEXT Church. The former is organized entirely around reasserting standards and boundaries of belief and behavior. The latter is loosely confederated upon innovation, narrative, and inclusion.

Despite the efforts of nativist retrenchment movements, Butler-Bass is describing a significant awakening of “Romantic Realism” continuing unabated in the second decade of the 21st century. This one, though, is not exclusively protestant as were its predecessors; it’s not even exclusively Christian.  It’s an inter-religious “spiritual” awakening of men and women seeking “connection, networks, relationship, imagination, and story.”

Yet that awakening is not continuing unchallenged. If every awakening gives rise to nativist Old Light reactions, then why would this one be any different? There’s the Tea Party and Westboro Baptist Church and even the Presbyterian minister who was my seminary classmate but who I had to un-friend on Facebook last week for the video he posted and subsequent conversation he facilitated about the many evils of Muslims.

Where are you part of the awakening Butler-Bass describes? Where are you opposing it?

Previous posts on Christianity After Religion:

The Great Reversal

A New Vision–Belonging

A New Vision–Behaving

A New Vision–Believing

When Religion Fails

Questioning The Old Gods

The End of The Beginning

The Beginning


Christianity After Religion: The Great Reversal

First things first: Big love to Homebrewed Christianity for the link yesterday and for their podcast with Diana Butler-Bass. Before you read any further, go listen to that.

Welcome back.

Diana Butler-Bass wants to flip the script of Western Christianity. She likes this video as an illustration of what she’s after:

Christianity After Religion: The End of The Church And The Beginning of A New Spiritual Awakening is at heart an argument to reverse the order of things in contemporary North American Christianity. Beginning with faith’s beliefs before proceeding to its attendant behaviors which can lead to belonging in the religious community is a dead end. Today, people need to experience relationships of belonging to a church community before they can be apprenticed into some expressions of Christian behavior that may form Christian belief.

“Relationships lead to craft, which leads to experiential belief.”

Jesus didn’t invite followers to hear propositions about God but to be part of a band of followers. He didn’t call followers to cultivate faith but to follow him. And those who followed Jesus sometimes articulated belief that Jesus, in their experience, was “the Son of the living God.” Sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they ran away and denied knowing him.

I doubt that this proposal will generate much controversy for readers of this blog. The people I’ve gravitated toward over the last 10 years have tended to start from the same place Butler-Bass is starting from. Many of these “Emergent” Christians have been mocked by their evangelical forbearers with simplistic pans like that they want to replace Bibles with candles and The Lord’s Prayer with yoga. That was never fair.

Yet, moving into the second decade of the embrace of these emergent ways of thinking, it’s beginning to be asked how much longer their experiential faith can relegate belief to the back pew. Statements of belief are far less important to Christian faith than previous generations of American Christians have assumed, I agree, and yet it is those beliefs that are center stage in the deepening (and likely irreparable) divide within mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S., to say nothing of the way that divide is rending the social fabric of Western civilization.

Can an embrace of Butler-Bass’s reversal change that? If a tidal wave of churches moved relationships and apprentice-style faith practices ahead of articulations of belief in their life together, would that divide be repaired? Would those churches arrest their decline and begin to grow?

Probably not. But that’s not really the problem that Christianity After Religion is trying to solve. Rather, it’s trying to advance an awakening that Butler-Bass sees happening in the expressions of the “spiritual but not religious.” Many churches across the denominational spectrum are already with her on this, like the ones incorporating interactive prayer stations into worship, the ones who have embraced Godly Play as a tool for religious formation, and the ones that are using the relational organizing methods of the Industrial Areas Foundation to strengthen the relationship infrastructure of their congregation and community.

These seem to me to be tools of the awakening Butler-Bass is describing. As tools, they require artisans’ hands and a commitment to something approaching craft. They aim for an impact scaled to a deeply experiential encounter with God, rather than a mass movement.

Count me in.

Previous posts about Christianity After Religion

A New Vision–Belonging

A New Vision–Behaving

A New Vision–Believing

When Religion Fails

Questioning The Old Gods

The End of The Beginning

The Beginning

Christianity After Religion: A New Vision–Belonging

“I would walk with my people if I could find ’em.”

Third Eye Blind

In my early 20’s I ditched a small Presbyterian church who’s pastor and leaders had been nothing but gracious and hospitable to me for a growing church startup full of young adults, including my best friend. After a time, I ditched that young church for seminary. Both moves filled me with excitement and guilt–excitement at the prospect of a new community to which I might belong, and guilt at leaving one that had embraced me.

In her new book Christianity After Religion: The End of The Church And The Beginning of A New Spiritual Awakening, Diana Butler-Bass lifts up Belonging (along with Believing and Behaving) as an element of an emerging spirituality in America that owes less and less to Religion. Given my lingering guilt over how I’ve sought belonging in church communities, I’m interested in where she comes out.

She writes, “The question ‘Who am I?’ and its emerging answer, ‘I am my journey,’ appear to be new contours shaping our sense of selfhood. In the twenty-first century, it may be better to ask ‘Where am I?’ as a path toward understanding who I am.”

Butler-Bass is very helpfully lifting up movement as a force that has animated spirituality from the ancient Hebrews to 21st century Emergents. The Bible, in fact, is mostly a story of people moving, of following or fleeing God in this move or that. Abram and Sarai, Moses, Ruth and Naomi, Jesus, Paul: all of them experienced transformative journeys that defined who they were.

My friend Danielle pastors a church in Dallas that has taken this insight about movement so far as to call itself “Journey.” The church describes itself like this: “We seek to follow the way of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, study the grand narrative of the Bible, and learn from the fullness of Christian tradition.”

Follow=movement.

Fleshing this insight out involves injecting lots of prepositions into our heavily propositional theological discourse. “Prepositions,” writes Butler-Bass, “invite us to consider identity by exploring how we move, to whom we are related, and where we are located.”

“Who am I in God? With God? Before God? Behind God? Beside God? Who is God in me? With me? Before me? Behind me? Beside me?”

So the flaky modern habit of eschewing membership in a church for a looser kind of affiliation might be less about people relating the church as a consumer commodity and more about a church being part of individuals’ winding journeys in God. “Church,” in Buter-Bass’s estimation, “is no longer membership in an institution, but a journey toward the possibility of a relationship with people, a community, a tradition, a sacred space, and, of course, God.”

The churches I ditched a decade ago were part of my journey. Yet I want to resist the tendency to make myself and my journey the center of how I understand what happened between us. Journeys can’t just be about the people who go; there are always people left behind. I’ve been that person too.

Who are you in God? With God? Before God?

How would you use prepositions to describe the American church’s relationship to, in, with, before, through, and beside God at this time an in this place?

Previous posts on Christianity After Religion:


A New Vision–Behaving

A New Vision–Believing

When Religion Fails

Questioning The Old Gods

The End of The Beginning

The Beginning

Christianity After Religion: A New Vision–Behaving

Diana Bulter-Bass wants people to start asking “how” and “who” about their religious and spiritual beliefs. She wants them to start asking “what” and “why” about the behavior that attends those beliefs.

The mark of religion that is declining in the United States is a preoccupation with the “how” of religious behavior. Whether that “how” is experienced as the committee structure of the local church or the gauntlet of technical curriculum and programming produced by denominations, a preoccupation with “how” without enough of an occupation with “what” and “why” has dried up the well of institutional religion.

Here’s the money quote from the chapter on behavior in Butler-Bass’s new book: Christianity After Religion: The End of The Church And The Beginning of A New Spiritual Awakening

Our grandparents and parents may have been very good at the doing of religion, the how of faith, but, in their world, there was no need to engage the interior questions of meaning, the what and why of faith. Maybe their parents forgot to share the what and why with them. In an inherited familial culture, the what was assumed and the why was unnecessary. In a fractured individualist culture, there exist no compelling reasons to reenact familial vocations in work and prayer and many compelling reasons to depart from old ways. Since this cultural shift, three entire generations have been born into a world where the threads of memory have been cut and where life has to be woven anew by each of us. It is up to each one of us to stitch a new fabric of authenticity, meaning, and purpose.

Given this observation, when a friend confides in me, “I don’t know why I go to church,” all I can think is: good. Now we’re getting somewhere.

But hold off on “why” for a minute. What is the “what” of “going to church?” When you invite a person into your church experience, what are you inviting them to do? Come to an hour-long worship service? Give money? Serve on a committee? What are the verbs we use to give life to what church participation is about?

Asked another way, what is the substance of the activity in which people are participating when they do church these days? I’ve written before about Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown’s book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating The Imagination for A World of Constant Change, and their interest in forming collectives of learners instead of communities. Collectives are platforms for interaction. Collectives are self-chosen. Collectives are defined not by the people who participate and their expertise but by the “what,” by the substance of an activity they’re engaging together. The crowd in a karaoke bar is a collective; singing and drinking are the “what” of their activity. The “how” is clearly secondary.

What, then, does your church do?

And what are people doing who are not doing church? What are the practices that make up the modern American Sunday morning (or Friday night) where religious observance once reigned? Maybe by taking an honest look at the “what” of the activities people are choosing over church we can come to a better understanding of what’s distinctively valuable (spiritual, even) about our religious expression as well as what about it might need to change.

Previous posts on Christianity After Religion:

A New Vision–Believing

When Religion Fails

Questioning The Old Gods

The End of The Beginning

The Beginning

Christianity After Religion: A New Vision–Believing (Or Why Brian, Landon, And Chad Are Always Right)

Finally, a useful proposal for confirmation in a progressive mainline church.

After four years of half-heartedly running 9th graders through a doctrinal gauntlet of the divine attributes, Christology, and the authority of Scripture, Diana Butler-Bass has given clear voice to the nagging sense I’ve had that trying to tell young people what Christians believe is a fool’s errand. It’s doesn’t help them. It can only leave them with a choice: do I also believe that Jesus miraculously healed people and that God is all powerful? The clear implication is that if they don’t, then they’re not Christians and shouldn’t say that they are.

While the “Belief” chapter in Butler-Bass’s new book Christianity After Religion: The End of The Church And The Beginning of A New Spiritual Awakening never addresses confirmation directly, the implications for it and for every expression of Christian formation are far-reaching.

Consider this summation of why focusing on “what” Christians ought to believe is problematic in the second decade of the 21st century:

As science, history, and psychology offered ever more sophisticated understandings of the universe and human experience, some Christians became increasingly hostile to secular knowledge, building museums to creationism, proclaiming that America is a Christian nation, and excommunicating those who would question the existence of hell. Put simply, as they reacted to unbelief, certain Christians asked for more belief about increasingly unbelievable things.

In order to redefine the religious question of “what do I believe?,” Butler-Bass proposes two “spiritual questions”: how do I believe? and who do I believe? This is going to be my new rubric for engaging confirmation, like, now.

Take the former:

How differs from what. “How do I get to your house?” “How would that move change my family’s life?” “How do I love?” How is the interrogator of direction, of doing, of curiosity, of process, of learning, of living.

In short, “how” is experiential.

“Who” is also experiential. “Who” is about my experience of a relationship with a person and of that person’s authenticity. “In the emerging spiritual culture, what matters much less than who is sharing the news, and the messenger has become the message.”

“Who” is about privileging relationships in faith formation.

Take my friends Brian, Chad, and Landon.

Brian is in charge of a church agency responsible for making recommendations about controversial matters related to denominational investments. For over 10 years, I’ve known Brian as a faithful, responsible, trustworthy friend. What I believe about his agency’s recommendations has as much to do with my friendship with Brian as it does  my objective reading of the issues themselves. Not because he’s my boy and I’ve got his back (as true as that is) but because I can’t believe that he would stake his faith and conviction to a recommendation that wasn’t worth those things. I know he wouldn’t.

Same thing with my friend Landon, a friend of nearly 20 years and a hopeless malcontent who’s always looking to upset someone’s apple cart. What I have experienced in my long friendship with Landon is a person who authentically engages matters that I and others leave alone. I’ve come to trust my sense that if Landon is stirred up about something, then perhaps I should be to. My relationship has taught me that he doesn’t get twitterpated about insignificant things.

Also Chad. Chad is typically my first call when I have disquieting questions, not simply because he’s a theological gangsta who quotes Moltmann in his sleep, but more importantly because he pays close attention to my questions and never answers what I’m not asking, whether I’m asking about the Reformed understanding of providence or the merits of a new Android smartphone. My relationship with him has taught me that Chad’s a reliable cat, and I’m tilted toward belief in everything he says.

What relationships shape how you believe? Are you totally comfortable privileging those relationships in parsing out the stuff of faith, or does that feel too subjective?

What does a theology grounded in relationships of trust and authenticity look like?

Previous posts on Christianity After Religion:

When Religion Fails

Questioning The Old Gods

The End of The Beginning

The Beginning

Christianity After Religion: When Religion Fails

I attended a small Christian college in the middle of Kansas during the mid-90’s. Having spent my youth doing everything I could to avoid church, I surprised myself by going nutty for Jesus in this college setting.

The college called itself “enthusiastically Christian,” so it was hardly a honey pot for the “spiritual but not religious.” We learned about those people, though, their faddish subservience to postmodernism and their blind devotion to their own feelings. We learned to point out that “spiritual but not religious” is a kind of religious claim, and to drop that assertion like a grenade in conversation and then triumphantly walk away, imagining as we did the beaming ghosts of C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers.

Diana Butler-Bass has a simple response to the self-satisfied recognition by defensive Christians that “spiritual but not religious” is more religious than it knows: “Duh! Of course it’s a religious claim. And as such it’s probably better than your brand of Christianity.”

“Spirituality,” she writes in the fourth chapter of her new book, “is neither vague nor meaningless . . . the word ‘spiritual’ is both a critique of institutional religion and a longing for meaningful connection.”

In Christianity After Religion: The End of The Church And The Beginning of A New Spiritual Awakening, Butler-Bass traces the evolution of this subset of devotees in the American religious landscape. In doing so, she very helpfully points up the events in the last decade that have soured the public’s perception of “religious” people and organizations (think gay ordination fights and clergy sex abuse scandals). As a result, we now have a growing group of (mostly young) people who want nothing to do with the trappings of church, be it Protestant, evangelical, or Catholic.

And that’s good. Despite all of the denominational hand-wringing over decline, Butler-Bass is holding out the possibility that all of this discontent with religion is a historic opportunity. “Discontent,” she says, “can be the beginning of genuine social transformation by inspiring courageous action.” She charts the evolution of the church as an movement and finds in that evolution a constant push-and-pull between the impulse towards experiential, “spiritual” expressions of the faith and “religious” expressions that seek institutional stability and control. What’s happening now has happened before, and when it has happened before it has deposited terrific things on the Christian landscape, like Jesuits, The Protestant Reformation, and Billy Graham.

So where do you see the impulses of spirituality–your own or other peoples’–giving rise to new and vibrant faith within traditional religious settings? And how do you describe yourself? Spiritual but not religious? Spiritual AND religious? Religious but not spiritual?

That last one has come to describe my faith as a clergy person. Much more of my attention and energy goes into church structures and ordered processes than goes into experiential connections with God. I’m working on that.

What are you working on?

Previous Christianity After Religion posts:

Questioning The Old Gods

The End of The Beginning

The Beginning

Christianity After Religion: Questioning The Old Gods

The charismatic Christians in the church of my childhood viewed the Presbyterian and Lutheran Christians in the churches of their childhood with suspicion. As much as speaking in tongues and faith healing, a merciless judgment of the institutional church–especially its catholic expressions–was a key component of being “saved.”

Perhaps that’s why I’ve never had any sympathy for the “renewal” movements that have divided mainline Protestantism these last two decades. What exactly, I’ve always asked of Presbyterians for Renewal (to take one example), would you like to renew?

Advocates for renewal of Christianity in America have a problem that Diana Butler-Bass clearly exposes in “Questioning The Old Gods,” the third chapter of her new book Christianity After Religion: The End of The Church And The Beginning of A New Spiritual Awakening.

In short, their problem is that people lie. Every measurable marker of religious participation in the U.S. has declined over the past 40 years. That much is irrefutable. Yet researchers are increasingly accepting that measurements of religiosity in previous generations were artificially inflated. After citing the work of several sociologists of religion that found survey-based information about church attendance in America from the 1970’s on to be unreliable, Butler-Bass concludes: “Put simply, Americans do not tell the truth to survey takers. They want to be seen as good churchgoers, even if they do not go to church.”

This could be seen as a relatively minor point, and it would indeed be a mistake to cite it as a good reason for denying the rest of the overwhelming evidence demonstrating decline in American church life. But it’s important to get clear what exactly is declining and whether or not it should be saved.

The distinction made here is between beliefs and social norms. Sociologist Will Herberg studied typical American religious beliefs in 1960 and noticed as he did that significant discrepancies existed between what people said they believed about God, Jesus, and the Bible, and the amount of influence they allowed those beliefs in their political, economic, and civic behavior. “These views were as much norms as they were committed beliefs,” Butler-Bass summarizes. “And perhaps they were more the former than the latter.”

Renewing the Christianity of post WWII America, then, would involve re-creating social norms that compel the (overwhelmingly white) faithful to, among other things, lie to survey-takers about their attendance at racially segregated churches led exclusively by men. Any takers?

The crux of the matter is that people have the freedom to exercise choice in religious participation in ways that the social norms of previous generations didn’t really allow. Fear of the neighbors’ stink eye for missing church–to say nothing of the fear of actual damnation–is no longer a reliable motivator for going to church. Praise God for that. But in the absence of that motivation, churches have struggled to present a compelling substitute to an increasingly disinterested public. Some evangelicals have doubled down on Hell. Others have offered wealth and personal “victory.”

Mainline Protestants, for their part, have fiddled with the gears of their polity and theological standards in a push-and-pull battle to renew their theological vitality while at the same time adapting to dramatically changing social norms. It’s hard to see much positive effect in that.

What compels you, then, to go to church? And do you think it’s the same thing as compelled previous generations of American Christians? What ought Christianity to be compelling people to do in 21st century North America?

Previous posts on Christianity After Religion:

The End of The Beginning

The Beginning

 

 

Christianity After Religion: The End of the Beginning

This is the second post on Diana Butler-Bass’s new book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church And The Beginning of A New Spiritual Awakening. Find the first post here.

“The End of the Beginning” is the first full chapter, and it sets out to describe the nature of the change happening to every expression of Christianity in America. Using the Sheila made infamous by Robert Bellah’s Habits of The Heart as a point of comparison from the previous generation, Butler-Bass argues that the highly-individualistic “Sheilaism” that distressed theologians, sociologists, and pastors alike is not the lingua franca of the men and women rejecting Christianity today. Instead, the past decade has birthed a generation of religious skeptics who are less stuck on themselves than they are fed up with the business as usual of institutional religion. According to these folks, she writes, “churches, synagogues, and other religious organizations are broken and have made themselves irrelevant.”

What is ultimately happening in this environment is an awakening. As the patterns of participation that sustained institutional faith in America for the past half century continue to decline, something new is stirring. Butler-Bass is making a very valuable contribution here by charting the X’s and O’s of awakenings, how they work, where we’ve seen them before, and what’s difficult about them; this is neither  teeth-gritting plea to look on the bright side nor a return-to-Jesus sermon. Leaning heavily on the work of William McLoughlin, the chapter explores the possibility that American Christianity has entered into a “Fourth Great Awakening,” marked by a “global, egalitarian ethic of environmentalism, community, and economic uplift.”

“The End of The Beginning” thows down a ganutlet:

And the awakening? What will it look like? It entails waking up and seeing the world as it is, not as it was. Conventional, comforting Christianity has failed. It does not work. For the churches that insist on preaching it, the jig is up. We cannot go back, and we should not want to. Lot’s wife turned to a pillar of salt when she looked back to catch one last glimpse of the past as her family fled to an unknown future (Gen. 19: 26). Centuries later, Jesus reminded his followers, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9: 62).

So then: where are you seeing the spirit of a Fourth Great Awakening (the global, egalitarian ethic of environmentalism, community, and economic uplift)? And where are you seeing more of a looking back? Have you considered these times as more an awakening or simple decline?

Up next: “Questioning the Old Gods.”

 

Christianity After Religion: The Beginning

I want to spend the next few weeks reading the just-released book by Diana Butler BassChristianity After Religion: The End of Church and The Beginning of A New Spiritual AwakeningIt’s a proposal for viewing the decline of traditional religiosity in America, and nobody, to my mind, is more qualified to make such a proposal, for Butler-Bass has spent the last decade in the trenches with the leaders and members of mainline Protestant churches and institutions, carefully studying what’s going on.

The value of a project like this is indisputable, for hardly a presbytery meeting or Layman issue goes by without some well-meaning defender of the faith confidently asserting the decline and death of traditional Christianity in America as the result of a liberalizing, Bible-shooing, God-softening project on the part of mainline denominations. To these prognosticators, the indicator of church success par excellence is growth in worship attendance and membership, both of which, it is asserted, are the result of strong Bible-based pastoral leadership and the cultivation of an active piety among the flock.

That has long been a gross oversimplification of 1) what indicates “success” in a church, 2) what accounts for the success or decline in churches, and 3) what is actually happening nationwide. Christianity After Religion tries to set the record straight–ish. By drawing on lots of different research done by lots of different people and institutions, and by reflecting on her own experience and observation, Butler-Bass is proposing a different way of understanding what can no longer be understood as anything other than a culture-wide decline of all forms of Christian religiosity.

In “The Beginning”–the book’s introduction–Butler-Bass situates her interest in this subject within her own experience, in particular her experience as a teenage “Born Again” Christian in the year I was born, 1976. She describes this time the same way that many religious sociologists have: as a period of immense transformation wherein participation in traditional Christian communities began to erode in favor of new evangelical, suburban, megachurch-driven faith options.

These are the options I was born into. Both my parents were raised in those traditional Protestant structures, one a Baptist and the other a Lutheran, and both of them were powerfully grasped as parents of two young boys by a charismatic church that met in an office building. The staid church routine of their youths gladly gave way to loud singing, spontaneous prayer (often in “tongues”), and inexplicable healings achieved on the sanctuary floor. This, for me as a kid, was normal Christianity.

Obviously, there was nothing normal about it from the standpoint of the Presbyterians and Catholics down the street. Yet, to us, those mainliners were completely normal; that was their problem. They were practicing a religion, while we were growing in a relationship with Jesus. We were part of a swelling mass of American Christians who were taking the reigns of faith without any regard for the institutional concerns of the mainline churches. We were “saved,” “born again,” “believers.” Everyone else–Atheists and Episcopalians alike–were none of those things.

Here’s what Butler-Bass ultimately wonders about that era:

“What if the 1970’s [and my 1980’s] were not simply an evangelical revival like those of old, but the first stirrings of a new spiritual awakening, a vast interreligious movement toward individual, social, and cultural transformation?”

It’s the question that will set the terms for the rest of the book. Having been reared in that revival, lost interest in it as a teenager, rediscovered a more moderate form of it at an evangelical Christian college, embraced an “emergent” Christianity as a young adult, and then educated and ordained by a mainline protestant denomination, it’s a question I think is urgent, both culturally and personally.

You with me?