Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Dying Churches and Post-Modern Religion in a Secular Age

Predictions are Never Easy

So much is being written now about the future of the church and whether faith will be relevant in the years ahead.  Predicting the future is a tricky thing, even when predicting the near future. We can think we have all the facts that allow us to foresee how events will unfold, and still be surprised at how things really shake out. I witnessed one example of failure to predict the future when I was a senior in college. The year was 1977, and one spring day, the headline in the morning paper read, “Speed Limit will be 90 by the year 2000.” The headline caught my attention, as I am sure it was intended to do. The reasoning laid out in the lead article was that with the country converting to the metric system, the current speed limit of 55 mph would be equal to 88.5 kilometers per hour. Since dashboards would be divided in degrees of ten, 90 kilometers per hour would quite logically be the speed limit under the new metric system.

As I read the article, it made perfect sense. The country was in the process of converting to the metric system. We had been seeing Celsius temperature readings along with Fahrenheit on time-temperature clocks at banks around town for some time. We were even beginning to see a few kilometer signs posted along some highways. Furthermore, with the oil crisis that we were still emerging from, everyone knew that our 55 mph speed limit was in place to stay. It was a matter of conservation in light of limited fossil fuels and uneasy Middle East alliances. Moreover, we had found that the lower speed limit on our highways was actually reducing accidents and saving lives. There was no reason to doubt that the metric system would be fully in place and the speed limit would remain at 55 mph.

The reality turned out differently, however. Metrication soon foundered. I don’t know if people thought is was too European, to communist, or too hard to figure out, but the whole metric idea in the U.S. was abandoned. The next big surprise was that when oil prices came down, congress eventually figured that with a seemingly endless supply of cheap oil, there was no reason to keep to a 55 mph speed limit. Thus, my hometown paper’s very reasonable prediction of the near future was a total miss.   

The Future of the Church

Sojourners magazine is running an interesting series, “Letters to Dying Churches.” One recent installment by Brandon Robertson, “To the Dying Church from a Millennial,” is an interesting take from an evangelical perspective.  He expresses the idea that it is not the church that is dying, but rather “Christendom,” or the institutions and structures that propelled a triumphalist Eurocentric culture which included Christianity.  While we are seeing a death which many of us recognize, it is not necessarily the death that we imagined.  Robertson sees a church whose "best days are ahead," yet in new forms and formats that are different from the accustomed institutions of the past (you can read the essay here).  While some mainline churches are lamenting their decline in numbers, and the sight of once vibrant churches closing their doors saddens many, there are others who are proclaiming that the Christian faith is nowhere near dead.

Embrace the Secular City – Imagine No Religion

Reading the Sojourners article reminded me of my experience in college reading Harvey Cox’s The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective. Cox foresaw a kind of end to organized religion as it reconfigured to address the needs of the modern age. He stated, “The age of the secular city … is an age of no religion at all.” He focused on the positive aspects of what can happen in a secular age as long as “secularization” rather than “secularism” takes hold. Cox saw that the anonymity and mobility found in the city were changing the way we relate to one another. The author cited the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example of helping someone in need even when anonymity precludes a personal relationship. Harvey Cox was exploring the implications of how new social norms would affect the practice of faith. His book was one of the seminal documents of modern faith that was being taught when I entered college in 1973.

The Secular City still has important things to say even today.  In the mid-1960s, it presented readers with a prescient view of how urbanization and secular orientation would influence the world. The future, however, unfolded a bit differently from the way Harvey Cox envisioned. Twenty years later he would write and equally exciting book, Religion in the Secular City. In that book, Cox acknowledges that the modern city has indeed seen an expansion of religion rather than no religion. He examines two of the dynamic religious forces at work: the resurgence of fundamentalism and the rise of Liberation theology. You can read an academic review of the book here

Harvey Cox would later write an article for The Christian Century, “The Secular City, 25 Years Later.” It is quite interesting to read Cox’s thoughts as he takes into account unforeseen movements and so many changes, good and bad, that have occurred in the intervening time. Bear in mind, this article itself is dated, having been written in 1990. You can read the entire article here, but toward the end of the essay, Cox writes:

“Tucked away on page 177 of The Secular City comes a little-noticed paragraph that perhaps I should have used as an epigraph for this essay, or maybe it should be put in italics. Secularization, I wrote, "is not the Messiah. But neither is it anti-Christ. It is rather a dangerous liberation." It "raises the stakes," vastly increasing the range both of human freedom and of human responsibility. It poses risks "of a larger order than those it displaces. But the promise exceeds the peril, or at least makes it worth taking the risk.

“All I could add today is that we really have no choice about whether we take the risk. We already live in the world-city and there is no return. God has placed us in this urban exile, and is teaching us a more mature faith, for it is a quality of unfaith to have to flee from complexity and disruption, or to scurry around trying to relate every segment of experience to some comforting inclusive whole, as though the universe might implode unless we hold it together with our own conceptualizations. God is teaching us to approach life in the illegible city without feeling the need for a Big Key.”

Intergenerational Voices, Many possibilities

Harvey Cox has made some brilliant observations about the realities of faith lived out in the world. He is still around and represents the generation that preceded my own. Brandon Robertson, the millennial who wrote the piece for Sojourners, represents the generation after mine.  In other words, I am looking at views spanning three modern generations. The insights shared by these two writers demonstrate that faith in the modern age is quite a dynamic and multifaceted phenomenon. It is also something of a cautionary tale to see that often our best predictions are quite different from what actually unfolds (as in no religion in the secular city, or the metric system in the USA).

We are certainly witnessing a state of flux in the realm of faith and spirituality.  In addition to the position stated by Robertson in Sojourners, many evangelicals are finding new meaning in the older liturgies of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopalian churches.  People from Jewish as well as Christian backgrounds are finding their center in Buddhism. Indeed, in the U.S. many of the world's religions are living in proximity as never before. One thing about the current generation that was not seen as frequently in past generations is that people more readily move from the faith expression they inherited to another faith expression that suits them better (that's what happened with me). While some faith expressions seem to be dying, others seem to be rising. It is a great time to be alive if you are a seeker. Many of us may hazard a guess as to what faith will look like in the future, but there are sure to be surprises as the future continues to unfold.

Upper: Church steeple of First Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Ala.
Middle: Stained glass window St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, Birmingham, Ala
Lower: St. Simenon's Orthodox Church, Birmingham, Ala. 
All photographs taken by Charles Kinnaird


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