It is easy for Christians in America to become discouraged. Take, for instance, the headlines that followed the survey conducted by the Pew Research Center last May.  “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion,” announced the Washington Post. The lead sentence reads: “Christianity is on the decline in America, not just among younger generations or in certain regions of the country but across race, gender, education and geographic barriers.” Newsweek was a bit more measured: “Study: America Becoming Less Christian, More Secular.”

Of course, Europe has had a head start in this decline. Have a look at this headline from the Wall Street Journal: “Europe’s Empty Churches Go on Sale: Hundreds of Churches Have Closed or Are Threatened by Plunging Membership, Posing Question: What to Do With Unused Buildings?” In the majority of European countries, regular church attendance has fallen to an average of about 2-3% of the population.

A lot of this is reminiscent of the April 8, 1966 cover of Time magazine that had the headline: “Is God Dead?” to which we might respond as did a recent publication: “God is dead and I don’t feel so good myself.”

So, is Christianity dying? A number of scholars have stepped forward to challenge such a dire prognostication, noting that the epicenter of Christianity is shifting to the growing global south, or that the data of the Pew Research survey was faulty.

While it is certainly true that global trends are dramatically favoring Christianity, the problem here in the U.S. is that every study on the internal life of the church shows that Christians are becoming increasingly less biblically literate. For example, if Barna is correct, nearly 60% of those who claim to be born-again in America do not believe that we are born with a sin-nature, and 40% of self-described evangelicals believe that other religions are legitimate paths to God. And Gordon-Conwell professor David Wells has cited studies suggesting that 53% of evangelicals think that there are no moral absolutes.

Instead I think we need to read this data in light of two dominant civilizational processes: “globalization” on the one hand and “traditionalization” on the other.

Considered the defining trait of modernity, globalization involves what is in effect a worldwide social system constituted by the interaction between a capitalist economy, telecommunications, technology, and mass urbanization.[1] Important for our analysis is that which is built into globalization processes, what Anthony Giddens terms “detraditionalization,” or various mechanisms by which local customs and traditions are relativized to wider economic, scientific, and technocratic forces.[2] Once social life is caught up in a global industrialized economic system, it is propelled away from traditional, national, and local practices and beliefs. This is simply to say that modern life, having been disembedded from local custom and tradition, is no longer defined in relation to the classical social institutions of church, family, and community.

And so globalization involves a predictable counter reaction at the local and national level, what scholars call “traditionalization.” In the face of threats to localized identity markers, people assert their religiosity, kinship, and national symbols as mechanisms of resistance against globalizing dynamics. So everywhere a mall is put up, a farmers market is not far away; fast food chains are countered with slogans encouraging us to “buy local;” and in the midst of the city lights of cosmopolitanism are clusters of intentional communities.

With this globalist/traditionalist reciprocity in place, we can look at the data regarding the state of Christianity and see some interesting trends.

Wherever the church allows itself to be redefined in terms of globalized social processes, as it has in the West, Christianity inevitably withers. And it does so largely because of the public/private dichotomy inherent in secular, non-traditional societies. Because religion is redefined as personal and private, it is sequestered from the public square and consigned solely to privatized social space. We can in fact see this marginalization in our urban planning. Whether we are in the Middle Ages or in colonial New England, public life was centered on the church building. But in modern urban planning, what is at the center of public life? Municipal administrative buildings. And if there is a church, it has been relocated into the places of recreation and consumption, next to pizzerias and dry-cleaners.

Having been relocated next to strip malls, the church’s unique vision for a humane society is reduced to merely one of innumerable options for private recreation: yoga class on Saturday, youth group on Sunday. As a result, the church has in fact ceded its moral witness, since morality is public, not private; objective, not subjective.

I think that secularizing processes inherent in globalization go a long way in explaining the apathy towards the church in the modern West. Redefined in accordance with a distinctively secular social complexion, the church today bears little resemblance to the Christian witness of old; it is simply no longer able to declare plausibly that in Christ all things are made new. The church thus withers numerically and doctrinally.

But what about where the church is not constrained by these Western secularizing social arrangements?

That will be subject of our next post.

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[1] See, for example, Anthony Giddens, Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping our Lives (New York: Routledge, 2000).

[2] Giddens, Runaway World, 61-65, 91.