Since the very beginning of the nation, Christianity has been the dominant cultural narrative of the United States. Or, more accurately, the narrative of American Christianity has been the dominant narrative, and it reads something like this:
- Jesus, being conceived by the Holy Spirit, was different from you and me. He was truly God’s child, the first and last God incarnate. We are not.
- Jesus loves you and wants to live in your heart.
- Jesus looked pretty much like a white middle-American, except he wore a robe.
- Jesus plays good cop to God’s bad cop. We sit in the chair of interrogation. In the end, if we don’t answer right, we’re going to get it.
- Jesus said a lot of wonderful things and performed a bunch of miracles, but what really matters is that he died on the cross to save you from your sins. Jesus saves.
- Everyone is welcome in heaven, so long as they believe Jesus died for their sins and they praise his name on a regular basis.
- Jesus is coming again to get those who qualify under number 6 and to leave the rest behind, gnashing their teeth as the world goes down to hell. One of my favorite bumper stickers, in fact, reads, “Jesus is coming soon, and is he pissed!”
I would argue that this is not at all what Jesus was about. But that is for another day. Today, the message is that Christianity, at least in this cultural narrative, is dying in America. And for the most part, the Christian church does not begin to comprehend the reason why. Look around carefully, there is an elephant in the room.
Church attendance has indeed declined steadily for at least the past two generations. Catholics have been hit hardest, followed by mainline Protestant congregations. Large evangelical churches have been more likely to hold on, but even these are now seeing some decline. In every research result, the “nones” and their “spiritual but not religious” cohort (all unaffiliated with any church) are steadily rising, especially in the emerging dominant millennial generation, but even among boomers and the silent generation that preceded them.
The evangelical mega-churches which had their hay day in the last twenty-five years are not immune. Their marketing strategies and strategic plans implicitly acknowledge the consumer mentality of their, should we even use the label, parishioners. Entertainment is not true religion. Run the country out of fossil fuels or put on a better show down the street and watch what becomes of the theater seats, big screens and easy faith.
Some pollsters say the numbers lie, that what is happening is that people just go to church less often. Others say that people are expressing their faith in house churches and other nontraditional gatherings. There is no doubt a level of truth in both of these observations.
But no one is identifying or addressing the elephant in the room. The American Christian church is dying. It is dying not because of Jesus, but because American Christianity’s dominant story line, its basic value proposition, is bankrupt, with fewer and fewer willing to consider it credible enough to buy. Fewer and fewer give any credence to the narrative that we are at core defective, not made just the way Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source (C/S/M/S) intended, and that America’s Christian God requires blood sacrifice – specialized human/deity blood, at that – to keep from damning us to hell.
And nowhere in the church is that being acknowledged or addressed straight out. In my review of religious demographic surveys I could not find even one that asked Christians or anyone else whether they truly believed that God required the blood sacrifice of a human incarnation to redeem them from their fallen nature. Why is that?
I suspect at least three problems. First, American Christian leaders are scared to hell of the likely results, which is why they persist in speculations and surveys about every other possible reason for their steady and imminent demise. Further, it is possibly beyond the realm of imagination for these bearers of Christian angst to conceive of this issue at all. It is literally unthinkable. Finally, the elephant is both so large and so preposterous that people in general find it simply easier to dismiss it quietly and not to talk about it. Who wants to disturb a holy elephant, dead or alive? The result is that hot air is steadily cooling in this once dominant balloon. And the poor wizard, while nervous, convinces himself that the curtain still hides him and the illusion holds sway.
Spirituality in America needs a new value proposition. There were two special metaphorical trees in the Garden of Eden, both intended for us in the mind of C/S/M/S. We ate from the first, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We did not fall, we just thought we did. We simply woke to all the splendor and terror of human awareness. C/S/M/S never wanted us to kill anyone or anything to get free of that tree. That was our idea. The call in all times and places has been to grow up, to make good choices in the context of who we are and to move on to the tree of life.
© Two Trees in the Garden. Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.
Jerry Kennell now provides spiritual direction by Skype. Contact email@example.com.