We are living in a period of dramatic transformation in American Christianity. Those of us who pay attention to the work of historians, sociologists, scholars of religion, and other cultural commentators are vividly aware of many of these dynamics. For instance, many of us are familiar with the claim that the United States is an increasingly “post-Christendom” culture. According to the British Anabaptist theologian and missiologist Stuart Murray, post-Christendom is “the culture that emerges as the Christian faith loses coherence within a society that has been definitively shaped by the Christian story and as the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence.”1The culture of post-Christendom emerged first in Europe, in places such as France, England, and Spain that had been the centers of Christendom influence of many centuries. But now scholars and others are observing signs of post-Christendom culture in the United States as well.2In addition to the emergence of post-Christendom, many of us are also aware of the rise of the so-called “nones—N-O-N-E-S.The “nones” do not identify with any particular religious tradition. They are also sometimes known as the religiously unaffiliated. Some are agnostic, some are atheist. Others still believe in God. But they refuse to identify with any institutional expression of religion, especially Christianity. They are, as an increasingly common phrase puts it, “spiritual but not religious.”3This segment of the American population has been growing over the last four decades: In 1972, they were about seven percent of the overall population, but by 2010 they represented 18 percent of the overall population. In 2016, the “nones constituted 24 percent of the entire nation.4
Both of these developments merit the attention of thoughtful Christians today. But there is yet another transformation, largely understudied, that is also making a major impact on Christianity in the United States. And it has to do with going to church. Three years ago, the Barna Group asked adult Christians in the United States this question: “What, if anything, helps you grow in your faith?” People offered a variety of answers: reading the Bible, praying, spending time with family and friends, having children. But “going to church” did not even make the top-ten list. As the Barna Group reported, about 49 percent of respondents said that going to church was “somewhat” or “very” important to their faith development, the other 51 percent said it was “not too” or “not at all” important. They concluded, “Although church involvement was once a cornerstone of American life, U.S. adults today are evenly divided on the importance of attending church.”5
The argument of this conference is that American Christians are living in a “post-church age.” Our gathering today seeks to understand that phenomenon and to suggest some strategies for being the church in the midst of a culture that sees churchgoing as irrelevant, unimportant, or worse. Our goal is not to denigrate those who struggle with being part of the church, nor is it to look back nostalgically to a “simpler time” when churchgoing was more deeply ingrained into the fabric of American society. Neither of those impulses is helpful. Instead, we want this conference to be about listening to one another’s experiences, challenges, and hopes for the future. We want our time together to focus on missiology and ecclesiology—our theologies of mission and of the church. We want to offer some ideas for how the body of Christ can move forward in the midst of this sometimes difficult culture in which we find ourselves.
Before we can do that, though, we need some background and some context for our presentations and discussions. In the next few minutes, I want to lay out a rationale for this study conference. And I want to do so by asking two key questions:
- What is a “post-church age”?
- Why should we care about it?
What is a post-church age?
So what do I mean by “post-church age”? In part, I’m referring to our contemporary moment in which more and more Americans either (1) are not identifying with any organized religion at all and thus not participating in local congregational life, or (2) are still identifying as Christian but not going to church—not seeing congregational participation as an integral part of their spiritual journey.
What evidence do I have for this post-church age? I’ve already described the rise of the “nones,” that sector of American society that identifies with no particular religious tradition and therefore does not participate in routine churchgoing. To explain that other segment of our post-church culture—those who still identify as Christian but do not go to church regularly—I want to draw on some recent demographic data.
As I already stated, American Christians are almost evenly divided about the importance of churchgoing, with the slight majority—51 percent—saying it is “not very” or “not at all” important. What does this divide look like in practice? Of course, literally millions of Americans go to church each weekend. But using tracking data published by the Barna Group, we can begin to see how Christian self-identification measures up to actual church attendance, as well as how patterns of church attendance and the nature of churchgoing have shifted over the past decade.
At the outset, it’s important to point out that the vast majority of Americans still identify as Christians. According to the Barna Group, in 2016 almost three quarters of all Americans (about 73 percent) said they were Christian.6Not only do most Americans identify as Christian, but the same percentage (again, 73 percent) also states that religious faith is very important in their lives.7But Barna researchers do not see a parallel between self-identification and actual practice. They write, “Even though a majority of Americans identify as Christian and say religious faith is important in their life, these huge proportions belie the much smaller number of Americans who regularly practicetheir faith.”8And lest we assume that only mainline or Catholic Christians fail to match self-identity with lived practice, evidence exists to suggest that evangelical Christians also fit this pattern. Thus, the United States remains a predominantly Christian nation in terms of the way its population identifies itself, but does not meet the standard for being Christian in terms of actual practice.
For Barna Group, churchgoing provides one of the metrics by which to distinguish between self-professed Christians and practicing Christians. For their research purposes, Barna considers a “practicing Christian” to be “a self-identified Christian [that] attends a religious service at least once a month and says that their faith is very important in their life.” When that triangulation of affiliation, self-identification, and practice is applied to the data, researchers note that only one in three U.S. adults (about 31 percent of the overall population) is an actual practicing Christian.9In other words, when you filter the 73 percent of Americans who identify as Christian through the screen of actual church attendance, that percentage drops dramatically.10
Some further observations on church attendance, also provided by Barna Group. First, overall church attendance has declined over the last decade. In 2004, approximately 43 percent of the population attended weekly church services; in 2014, only 36 percent attended regularly.11That’s a downward trend over the last 10 years. Barna Group also reports that the natureof churchgoing is changing, too:
Regular attenders used to be people who went to church three or more weekends each month—or even several times a week. Now people who show up once every four to six weeks consider themselves regular churchgoers. Many pastors and church leaders are accounting for sporadic attendance in their ministry planning.
[Even more troubling], the percentage of people who have not attended a church function at all in the past six months has surged in the last decade from one-third to nearly two-fifths of all Americans. The shift is even more drastic among younger Americans: more than half of Millennials and Gen Xers say they have not been to church in the last six months.12
So who are these non-churchgoers who still self-identify as Christians? Pundits might imagine the non-churchgoing public as political leftists, urbanites, hipsters, and the college educated. That image may have some truth to it, but it also obscures another reality.13Somewhat more surprisingly, the data suggest that those on the politically, culturally, and religiously conservativeend of the spectrum also increasingly see churchgoing as irrelevant and unimportant. In a staggering piece in The Atlantic, the journalist and political scientist Peter Beinart notes that “the percentage of white Republicans with no [congregational] affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990.”14Evidence also exists to suggest that disengagement from churchgoing is more pronounced among moderately educated white Christians than among college-educated white Christians (moderately educated meaning those with a high school degree or less). As the sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox has observed, since the early 1970s rates of church attendance have fallen more than twice as much among conservative whites without a college degree as among those who graduated college.15
Laying aside issues of political ideology, generationally speaking the most skeptical about the value of church attendance are millennials—people born between 1980 and 2004. According to Barna, only two out of every ten millennials believe that churchgoing is important. Moreover, more than one-third of millennials take an anti-church stance.16Their skepticism dramatically outpaces that of their elders: among all people who express doubt about the importance of church, the vast majority are millennials, as compared to members of older generations.17In addition, a staggering 59 percent of millennials who self-identify as Christian claim to have dropped out of church at some point in their lives—perhaps briefly, sometimes longer.18
What reasons do millennials give for their skepticism about the church? Those who express skepticism about the church and/or do not attend regularly cite three signal factors. About 35 percent claim that their skepticism about or disengagement from the church stems from the church’s irrelevance, hypocrisy, and the moral failures of its leaders. Another 20 percent say that they feel God is missing in the church. Another 10 percent says that they experience churches as places where legitimate doubt is prohibited.19
So, what can we observe about the state of American churchgoing, even among evangelical Christians? Allow me to summarize.
- Church attendance overall has dropped over the last 10-plus years.
- A majority of Americans are skeptical about the spiritual and relational value of going to church.
- Of the 73 percent of Americans who claim to be Christian, about 41 percent do not actually practice their faith (as gauged by metrics such as going to church, reading the Bible, praying, and more).
- Those who claim to be Christian but don’t go to church come from different parts of the political, social, and economic spectrum, including the political right and the moderately educated. (It’s not just liberals and college professors who don’t go to church.)
- The youngest generation of Americans, millennials, are the most skeptical about churchgoing.
- Millennials see church as irrelevant, hypocritical, morally flawed, critical of doubt, and absent of God’s presence.
These facts paint a bleak portrait of the state of the American Church. They also paint a bleak portrait of the future of the church. We are indeed living in a post-church age.
Some thoughts on our post-church age
A few brief thoughts on this post-church age. Number one: I am an historian by training, and so it would be professionally irresponsible to deliver a bunch of demographic data without trying to put it into some kind of historical context. It is worth noting that the twenty-first century is not the first moment in American history to witness significant religious disaffiliation or lack of churchgoing. As my friend and George Mason University historian Lincoln Mullen observes in his new book, early nineteenth century America looked a lot like today, with large groups of people not associated with any religious institution. That fact so alarmed Christian missionary organizations that they sprang into action. Mullen notes,“There was this tremendous effort to reach people and convert them to Christianity. Over the course of the 19th century, through their missionary effort, more people became affiliated[with Christian churches].”20
It’s also worth noting that the so-called “golden age” of churchgoing in America was not necessarily as golden as it may seem in retrospect. Most of us probably think of the 1950s as a time in which most Americans went to church or exemplified some sort of religious faith. And indeed, the mid-twentieth century was a time of popular religious revivals and increasing church affiliation: In 1950, 55 percent of Americans belonged to an established Christian denomination; by 1960, that number had risen to 69 percent of the nation.21But as the historian Sydney Ahlstrom has observed, a “generalized kind of religiosity . . . predominated in the post-war years.” This religiosity was a “faith in faith,” but not much else, Ahlstrom concludes. “Peace of mind and confident living were the promises it held out in the ‘age of anxiety,’ especially to those who were caught up in the stress and busy-ness of the business world and/or the insecurity and tensions of residential life in suburbia.”22In other words, in Ahlstrom’s view much mid-century Christianity was not as sincerely devout or deeply spiritual as it could or should have been.
Of course, we should not take this historian’s argument as universal evidence that all mid-century Christianity was about self-fulfillment and inner peace, rather than sin, conversion, and salvation. Rather, we should take his point to suggest that the supposed “golden age” of church attendance and religious affiliation was perhaps more gilded than purely golden.
A second observation: It’s worth saying at this point in our conversation that the post-church turn in American Christianity isn’t being felt uniformly in all of our contexts. In some parts of the country, church attendance has been declining much more rapidly and for a much longer period of time; in some other parts of the country, churches are flourishing and attendance is on the rise. So to say that we are living in a post-church age is not to say that all individual congregations are dying or in a state of decay. Rather, it is meant to suggest broad patterns in what is happening in the United States. Moreover, we ought to consider the different dynamics of different contexts as opportunities to learn from one another about the particularities of our places in ministry.
A third and final observation before I move on: It also goes without saying that the foregoing demographic analysis about church attendance and participation in the community of faith is not meant to gloss over or to neutralize the many sincere objections to and criticisms of church life in twenty-first century North America. Church-going Christians need to spend time listening to those around us who have stopped going to church, for various reasons. In my own generation, many have ceased going to church not because they are lazy or because they are bitter. Rather, for many people my age, the church has never lived up to its own professions of its purpose and promise. It has talked the talk, but not walked the walk. Too often, the church has been a place of judgment rather than love; a place of cliquish behavior rather than authentic community; a place of rote instruction rather than a space for mentorship, communal discernment, and real discipleship. For many, the church has become politicized and partisan in the extreme. We must listen to these critiques of the church.23More importantly, we must do better. What we must never do is assume that insincerity and laziness alone are keeping people from belonging to the community of faith. They aren’t.
Why we should care about a post-church age
Having said all that, let me conclude my comments with a few short thoughts on why we should care about this post-church age in which we find ourselves living.
It may go without saying, especially in a group like this, that we shouldcareand do care about this post-church reality in which American Christianity finds itself. But let me lay out a few specific reasons that seem to me to be especially relevant.
For starters, it’s worth noting that regular churchgoing and participation in a faith community have been shown to have positive social impacts, particularly on people’s psychological, emotional, physical, and economic wellbeing. For instance, the journalist Peter Beinart has collected a variety of data to show that white, middle-class Americans who do not regularly attend church services are more likely to suffer from divorce, addiction, and financial distress; are more hostile toward African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims; and are more likely to say that the American Dream no longer holds true for white, working-class people.24In effect, this cumulative research shows convincingly that notgoing to church has negative implications for one’s wellbeing. By contrast, those who do go to church regularly and invest in the gathered people of God have much to gain from such participation and belonging.
But of course, belonging to the community of faith is about more than reaping psychological, social, and economic benefit. We should also be concerned about this post-church age because the Bible holds the gathered people of God in high regard. Scripture has much to say about the necessity of corporate worship and fellowship—much to say about, in the words of the famous German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, life together. We see this clearly in the Acts of the Apostles, which describes the early church as a worshiping community: They were “devoted . . . to the apostles’ teaching . . . to prayer . . . [and to] praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (2:42-47). Likewise, we see it clearly in Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, when he describes the importance of corporate Christian gatherings as the primary means of Christian discipleship, of growing together into whole and holy persons, of moving together in the journey of becoming more like Christ. Paul writes, “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” (1 Cor. 14:26). And we see this high view of church clearly in the New Testament’s persistent emphasis on one another. We are encouraged to love one another(Rom. 13:8), to live in harmony with one another(Rom. 12:16, 1 Pet. 5:5), to instruct one another(Rom. 15:14), to serve one another(Gal. 5:13), to bear with one another(Eph. 4:2), to submit to one another(Eph. 5:21). The list could go on and on. But the point is clear: Scripture clearly tells us that the church is a necessary part of living the Christian life.
Those of us in this room who are Brethren in Christ should also care about this post-church age because of our tradition’s particular ecclesiology—our particular theology of the church. From the very beginning of our movement, the church has been critical to our understanding of salvation, sanctification, and mission. The late historian Martin Schrag put it this way:
[For the Brethren in Christ,] the church was central in God’s plan of salvation. God did not aim to transform the whole social order; he did not end his work with saving individuals. The focus of his concern was the creation of people who by his grace and love lived in koinoniawith God and with one another. Those drawn together because they were one in Christ were brethren [and sisters] in Christ. With the love of God shed abroad in their hearts, the converted, committed, and gathered people could concretize a redeemed society where love, mutuality, and harmony were living realities. Such a people were a sharing, discerning, witnessing, and disciplined group.25
There’s a lot to unpack in that statement, and we don’t have time to do it full justice. But suffice it to point out that Schrag sees the Brethren in Christ view of the church as distinctive in its emphasis on the church as a gathered people, made up of converted Christians who choose to live together in particular ways: sharing their resources generously and wisely, discerning together the will of God through corporate exposition of the Bible, witnessing to their conversions within the community and outside of it, and submitting to one another through mutual forms of discipline.
The late Brethren in Christ church leader John E. Zercher called this the Brethren in Christ “accent” on the church. He believed that the Brethren in Christ spoke differently about the church, in comparison to other Christian bodies. While most mainline and many evangelical denominations might view the church primarily as a worshiping and witnessing community, Zercher believed—with Schrag—that the Brethren in Christ saw it as “more than a worshiping [and witnessing] community.” The Brethren in Christ, Zercher argued, also emphasized the church as a place of fellowship and a place of discipline: “[The church, for the Brethren in Christ,] is a family of faith with the familial responsibilities and benefits. Discipline is exercised in the initial act of reception and in the long-term development toward maturity.”26Our current statement of core values also emphasizes the distinctive role of the church as a fellowship or community of faith.27And although “church discipline” is an unpleasant phrase to most twenty-first century ears, as recently as 2009 the denominational magazine, In Part, published an article encouraging Brethren in Christ to practice “mutual accountability,” a contemporary means of assuring integrity in relationships, faithfulness to Christ, and progress in one’s journey of discipleship.28In other words, with a few modifications, this Brethren in Christ accent on the church continues to shape the way we talk about our life together.
All that to say: we Brethren in Christ have a particular stake in this post-church age. We have good reason to care about it. We have good reason to be focusing on it today.
In sum, these brief comments have sought to give us a rationale for our time together today. We are gathered here to discuss the challenges and opportunities presented to us by our present historical moment, a moment in which going to church and belonging to the community of faith is increasingly seen as irrelevant and unnecessary. I’ve tried to give us a picture of this present historical moment, and to suggest a few reasons why it should matter to us.
Of course, the real question that we need to answer is “How should we respond to this post-church age?” That is the question that the next set of papers will seek to address.
Importantly, while a post-Christendom or post-Christian culture continues to emerge in Europe and now in the United States, this turn from Christianity is not the global norm. Scholars are increasingly aware of the growing vitality and strength of Christianity in the Global South and the implications of that shift for global Christianity as a whole. As the Kenyan theologian John Mbiti has observed, “the centers of the church’s universality [are] no longer in Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York, but Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, and Manila.” On this development, see among others Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity(New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), and Douglas R. Jacobsen, Global Gospel: An Introduction to Christianity on Five Continents(Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2015). Quotation from Mbiti in Jenkins, Next Christendom, 2.
On the rise of the “nones,” see James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2014), and Elizabeth Drescher, Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones(New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). Brethren in Christ church planter Kurt Willems addressed the rise of the “nones” in relation to the church and church membership in “Does Church Membership Still Matter? Reflections on ‘Belonging’ in Twenty-First Century Christianity,” Brethren in Christ History and Life38, no. 2 (August 2015): 254-262.
“‘Nones’ on the Rise,” Pew Research Center—Religion and Public Life, October 9, 2012, http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/, and Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox, “America’s Changing Religious Identity: Findings from the 2016 American Values Atlas” (Washington, D.C.: Public Religion Research Institute, 2017), 11, 24-26.
“The State of the Church 2016,” Barna Group, September 15, 2016, https://www.barna.com/research/state-church-2016/. A more recent study, conducted from January 2016 to January 2017 by the Public Religion Research Institute and released in September 2017, found that the overall numbers of self-identified Christians who also identify racially as white went down in the United States, among all three sectors of Christianity: mainline, Catholic, and evangelical. See Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox, “America’s Changing Religious Identity: Findings from the 2016 American Values Atlas” (Washington, D.C.: Public Religion Research Institute, 2017),18-22.
It is worth noting that, as Barna Group reports in another section of the same report, that more Americans are “churched” than “unchurched.” They state, “Churched adults are active churchgoers who have attended a church service—with varying frequency—within the past six months (not including a special event such as a wedding or a funeral). Unchurched adults, on the other hand, have not attended a service in the past six months. . . . Under these definitions, a slight majority of adults (55%) are churched—though the country is almost evenly split, with 45 percent qualifying as unchurched adults.” This metric tells us that while the majority of self-identified Christians are not practicing, a bare majority of Americans overall have some frequency of participation in religious services. See “State of the Church 2016.”
Research conducted by the Pew Forum, for instance, suggests that 52 percent of Americans who identify as political liberals also identify as Christians (as opposed to 10 percent who identify with non-Christian faiths—Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.—and 36 percent who identify with no religious faith at all). But Pew also found that attendance at religious services is quite low among self-professed liberals: while 22 percent attend a religious service at least once a week, and 34 percent attend once or twice a month/a few times a year, the majority—45 percent—seldom or never attend. See “Liberals,” 2014 Religious Landscape Study, Pew Research Center, accessed November 6, 2017, http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/political-ideology/liberal/.
Lincoln Mullen, interviewed in Emma Green, “Convert Nation,” The Atlantic, August 12, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/conversions-lincoln-mullen/536151/. In the article, Mullen speaks with Green about his new book, The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2017). Green also makes the connection between this nineteenth-century situation and the current American religious landscape in Green, “The Most Non-Religious States in America,” The Atlantic, September 6, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/09/no-religion-states-prri/538821/.
One great place to start listening to these stories is David Kinnaman and Ally Hawkins, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church… and Rethinking Faith, reprint ed. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2016).
Martin H. Schrag, “The Original and Classical Brethren in Christ Concept of the Church,” in Reflections on a Heritage: Defining the Brethren in Christ, ed. E. Morris Sider (Grantham, PA.: Brethren in Christ Historical Society, 1999), 90-91.
Author: Devin C. Manzullo-Thomas
Devin Manzullo-Thomas is the director of the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies and an adjunct instructor at Messiah College, and assistant editor of Brethren in Christ History and Life, the journal of the Brethren in Christ Historical Society. He holds degrees from Temple University (M.A., 2012) and Messiah College (B.A., 2009), and is enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Temple University. He and his wife Katie and their young son live in Harrisburg, PA.