What’s behind America’s ‘great dechurching’?

In "The Gay Science," Friedrich Nietzsche tells "The Parable of the Madman." In it, a madman lights a lantern in the early morning, runs to the marketplace and declares, "God is dead." Nietzsche's point was that though Enlightenment philosophers had embraced atheism, they had not yet realized the huge implications. So, Nietzsche told them, via a rant from the Madman, which ends when he bursts into church buildings and asks, "What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?"

In 2023 in America, that last question feels uncomfortably relevant, even for those of us who know God is alive and well. U.S. church membership, as a percentage of the population, is now at a record low — down more than 20 points in the 21st century.

For years, this statistic could be attributed mostly to the decline of mainline Protestantism, a once dominant force in American life that is now a kind of hospice for graying liberal theology. However, recent news that the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant denomination, lost half a million members last year makes clear that decline is no longer just a mainline problem.

Evangelicals, as a share of the population, have sunk to pre-1980s levels while the religiously unaffiliated have swelled to nearly a third of the population. Ryan Burge, a statistician and co-author of a forthcoming book titled "The Great Dechurching," calls the emptying of pews and the rise of the unaffiliated "the most significant shift in American society over the last 30 years."

It is significant for reasons most Americans probably don't yet realize. Like the people in Nietzsche's parable, secular observers may shrug off or even celebrate America's "great dechurching." But a less religiously observant society is, statistically, a much worse place to live. As Jake Meador wrote in his review of "The Great Dechurching" at The Atlantic, this change is "bad news" for America as a whole, because "Participation in a religious community generally correlates with better health outcomes and longer life, higher financial generosity and more stable families — all of which are desperately needed in a nation with rising rates of loneliness, mental illness and alcohol and drug dependency."

Faith, particularly Christian faith, is an irreplaceable force for good in society. Its decline will leave America less healthy, less charitable, less connected and less capable of dealing with major social ills without government intervention. Evidence suggests it already has.

At the same time, it is essential to remember that these benefits are byproducts of faith, not the main point. Anyone who hopes to halt and reverse church decline must remember what that main point is.

It's not to entertain people, as Carl Trueman reminded us recently in World. For example, services with a Toy Story or Star Wars theme (I wish I were making these examples up) neither attract serious seekers nor make true disciples. Therapeutic appeals about how Christian principles can supplement or enrich otherwise complete lives also miss the point. Counterintuitively, part of the trend of decline may be churches that ask too little of those who darken their doors.

The authors of "The Great Dechurching" suggest that low expectations of those in the pews and widely embraced individualist assumptions have led to fewer and fewer Americans finding time for church. If Christianity is merely a kind of hobby or weekly pep talk designed to enhance psychological well-being or career success, then we can find better stuff on YouTube or Spotify. Why make time for this type of church every week?

But what if Christianity is a way of life, the thing it's all about. What if it demands our allegiance? What if following Christ restructures our priorities and pursuits, our beliefs and our behavior — including career, family and even personal identity?

Everything else in our society directs our gaze inward, to ourselves, our feelings, our priorities and our problems — as if every individual is the center of his or her own universe. Churches that accept and even participate in this idolatry may be leading millions away from Christianity, not by demanding everything of them but by demanding nothing.

Those who are happy or indifferent about the decline of American churches are beginning to get glimpses of what an America without Christian influence will look like. It can and will get worse. For 2,000 years, the knowledge and fear of a transcendent God, not helpful social programs, has built and filled churches. If the magnitude of that claim is forgotten or even obscured, our churches will indeed become sepulchers — but not for God, who lives and reigns forever and ever. They will become memorials of the squandered heritage of a once deeply, but no longer, Christian nation.

From Breakpoint, Aug. 23, 2023; reprinted by permission of the Colson Center, breakpoint.org.

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