March 25, 2009
Every few years somebody announces that Christianity in America is doomed. This time the excuse is a survey that does show a small decline in Christian self-identification, but that this decline has pretty much stopped. A one percent decline in just under a decade in Christian self-identification in a survey with a margin of error of half a percent is hailed as the latest piece of evidence.
When extremist secularists are not paranoid of an imminent American theocracy, whether because someone is singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic or saying the Pledge, they veer into triumphalism, because “all” the smart people or young people (take your pick) are going their way. Of course, religious gloom mongers benefit by overplaying the fears of traditional Christians and joining extreme secularists in seeing the end of the religious world as we have known it.
Pardon me, but Christians should feel fine. This is not the end of American Christian dominance, though it may mark the end of the religious left.
America remains a very religious nation. Liberal Christian groups with little purpose in existing beyond heavy endowments from dead faithful are vanishing, but this is to be expected. It is hard to get people to go out on Sunday morning to worship their bishop’s latest new idea. Bronson Alcott’s excuse to skip divine services and spend his day with himself, the “church of one,” turns out to be much more appealing than the Church of Spong.
Signs of revival are everywhere amongst serious Christians.
Last week I spent time at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Between discussing March Madness and Louisville’s chances, intellectually serious students were planning mission trips to the deepest darkest places in Vermont. Al Mohler and Russell Moore represent the future of Church growth. They are eager for honest numbers regarding Southern Baptists who actually live their faith. This looks like bad news at first, but has provided a road map for
missionary activity. Don’t bet against them.
The enthronement of Metropolitan Jonah in the Orthodox Church of America is also encouraging to traditional Christians. The OCA has been mired in a leadership crisis, but Metropolitan Jonah has the moral authority to change things. His message attacking the “de-personalization” of our age and appealing for authentic community is exactly the right one. When combined with the elder statesman of an evangelical Orthodoxy Metropolitan Philip there is great hope for an Orthodoxy in America that transcends ethnic barriers and proclaims the Gospel to the lost.
Pope Benedict is the right person at the right time to lead the Roman faithful. He is methodically confronting problems in global Catholicism and his first-rate intellect is ideal for challenging the weary secularism of Western Europe. He rightly sees that the future of humanity and of Christendom is not in the moribund geographic West, but the rest of the world. In fact, the future of Western values may come from nations that learn to embrace them through Christianity. Missionaries and priests will soon be flooding the West from Africa and Asia.
If American history is any guide to the American present, we are on the edge of a great revival of traditional Christianity. Americans will reject the consumerism, whether secular or religious, that has marked so much of the last few decades. Anyone who cannot see that money and power cannot make a man happy now is willfully blind. Groups that have always said that this is so, like Reformed Southern Baptists, will do well because they have always done good theology.
Christianity that is anti-intellectual will die. Christianity that is in the grip of trendy intellectualism will remain irrelevant. The revival of Christian philosophy as seen in the careers of persons such as Eleonore Stump or Alvin Plantinga will continue to strengthen the church. New generations of students will build on their work.
This is not the main thing, however. Christianity will survive and thrive, not because of anything people do but because it is true. God exists and He is not silent. Any system that ignores that reality will fail. The better news is that God loves humankind and sent Jesus to reconcile the way we are with the way He is.
Christianity is not, after all, fundamentally about externals or even about cultivating virtue. Many of my secular friends, not gripped by extremism, show great virtue and compassion. What Christianity offers is deep inner healing of a broken relationship between God and humankind. It is not in the end about me, but about Him. I am lonely and isolated until I find my rest in Him.
Christians fail Christ continuously, but He does not leave humanity without a witness. For every failed televangelist or hypocrite, there are men like my father who faithfully serve Christ for years without much payment and with no fame. Even if I am wrong and Christianity is to die in America, it will not die globally. Christianity is always losing, just to something new.
It never really loses.
John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.