The Church Has Won

A review of new research on youth spirituality has me rethink the gloom and doom of the mainline Protestant Church.

The Christian Century has a review of Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults that includes this nugget (h/t Nathan on Facebook):

Drawing on sociologist N. Jay Demerath’s thesis that “liberal Protestantism’s core values—individualism, pluralism, emancipation, tolerance, free critical inquiry, and the authority of personal experience—have come to so permeate the broader American culture” that these values no longer need liberal Protestantism to survive, Smith makes a fascinating move: he argues that young people are not more involved in American religious life because they don’t have to be. The values of America’s dominant religious outlook for the past century are now carried forward by American culture itself… Far from being in decline, Demerath suggests, liberal Protestantism has won in American culture.

In other words, the values that drove the American Protestant church have now become embedded in culture and thus the church has won.  Its values have become American values.  The Church has won.  But in doing so, the value of attending church has gone down from a socio-cultural perspective.  So the church succeeded in embedding culture with its values, but now the culture has left the people behind.  But at what cost?  The book concludes:

The gospel gives liberal values redemptive traction, acknowledging the limits of human optimism by offering real hope in God’s activity through human communities.

In other words, the church is still necessary to make sense of the culture to which it has contributed. Like the keymaster who needs the gatekeeper, church and culture are now embedded in each other, symbiotic, requiring the other.

So, that’s the thesis.  And if it is in a truthful direction, then it is not the mainline church that is in the decline; it has won, remember?  Rather, the churches that continue to reflect society’s values of consumerism, echo chambers, segregated experience, and glitzy shiny worship are the impoverished ones because they don’t seek to change innate cultural values (innate is more than simply abortion but respect for all life; more than just gay marriage but deliniation of church/empire limits; etc).  The churches that grab ahold of the progressive values, the ones that beckon us forward to just relationships with one another, they are the ones who by cultural standards of numerical growth are failing, but by the kingdom’s standards are the only hope it has left.

Yeah, a bit soap-boxy, but it’s an interesting conclusion.  Thoughts?

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Comments

  1. johnmeunier says

    I hear echoes of Christ transforming culture Niebuhrism here. That may not be bad, but I think it is there.

    I'm a bit confused by your move from saying the church has won by creating American culture and then arguing that churches that reflect American values are the losers. It sounds like American culture is not as transformed by the church as your author suggests.

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