The Maturing of Religion in America
Since Christianity remains the majority religion in America, by far, we can cover much of this topic as “The Maturing of Christianity in America”. What may be fueling or driving it?
Christianity in America is maturing, despite certain appearances, as it has been for many centuries, more or less in parallel with secular and intellectual development. I know many Christians like to believe Christian faith and Christians are the drivers. Sometimes they have been. But I observe them as more often the responders or reactors. (First it’s react against change, especially in social structures and mores as we’ve seen and I have posted about, in gay marriage and related issues. Then it’s adapt in the direction of broader culture.)
This being the “Fourth of July,” Independence Day, it may come to your mind how tightly right wing politics (GOP loyalty and beyond) have been bound up with Evangelicalism, our largest “branch” of Christianity, for some years now. This I don’t consider movement in the direction of maturity. But I see signs of maturing beneath and around this. Plus, I won’t be surprised if another national election or two shows that the Evangelical community is becoming less broadly aligned with either Republicans and Tea Party activists or with rigidly conservative social policies, anti-immigration, etc.
Why? Not entirely for thoughtful reasons, but somewhat so…. changing demographics and “practical” issues account for a lot. But there are a lot of younger (but no longer just 20s, 30s and early 40s) Evangelical writers, bloggers, speakers, pastors, etc. who have been doing a lot of thinking and getting their audiences and communities to also.
Some of it is on theology, but much is focused more on “practice”… seeking to do what Jesus did and said to do as much or more than mere studying and trying to believe the “right” abstractions (theology or “doctrine”) about God, Jesus, the Bible, gender roles, etc., etc.
Here is an article which covers just six of the younger Evangelical leaders who exemplify such a trend. And there are many more. Prominent authors Tony Jones, Rob Bell and Brian McLaren come to mind. McLaren, who I’ve written about before here, is perhaps the “least” Evangelical of the six in the article, Jones, Bell or many similar leaders among “Emerging” Christians. (Emergent or Emerging Christianity is a loose affiliation of groups and individuals with generally progressive reform ideas and practices but still generally considered Evangelical in theology. They are broadly known about and influential among younger Evangelicals in particular.)
So is it “Gen X” and “Millennial” (basically under about age 45) Evangelicals who are, ironically, responsible for the maturation of much of Christianity in the US? Is the same true for changes in “mainline” or more progressive churches and independent or non-aligned Christians? If so, why?
The answers are yes and yes, in my view. However, I think the youth effect is less direct among progressive churches. That is partly because youth have traditionally not been focused upon as much in those circles and are not present in as high proportions as they are in Evangelicalism. But the increasing departure of adolescents and young adults from mainline churches is pushing them to also be less traditional, both in theology and in doing church, being community… in the attempt to retain and re-attract youth.
While the strongest force for change (in general toward a more mature, balanced and less rigid kind of faith) in Evangelicalism is that of younger believers, we shouldn’t forget that a great many middle-aged to elderly members have also made major changes of theology, church attendance, etc. in recent years… and the Internet provides an outlet for sharing about it unlike anything before.
With age aside for the moment as a force toward maturation, what remains? Some would say God, Godself. (Those who would say “himself” generally would not hold this.) That is, the Spirit of God continues to “speak to” and guide us, beyond specific teachings of the Bible. For many, this is God conceived as a lure toward love more than a supernatural rescuer (personal Savior, Judge, etc.).
The “historical critical” study of the Bible by both Bible scholars and historians (with archaeologists, etc.) certainly has contributed, and more so than Evangelicals are prone to admit (or even recognize). This influence goes back to at least the mid-1700s but has seemed to be making up for “lost time” in the last 50 years or so. Things are moving even faster on this front in just the last few years I also notice, perusing and occasionally reading books by Evangelicals who are in interaction with much of this vast body of research and writing.
I’m finally seeing what appears a breaking down of the strict lines generally drawn (informally, tacitly) until recently between “traditional” or “conservative” scholarship and “modern,” “historical-critical” or “liberal” scholarship. Similarly, the choosing of one’s sources and scholars per this division seems to be breaking down a lot faster now than even a decade or two ago. This is important at the pastoral level, meaning it will filter through to congregants…. and more pastors than ever are either leaving positions due to changes or deciding to be more honest about their own doubts of traditional views or changes of beliefs.
These are just a few of the factors converging on today’s Christianity in America and the Western world which are leading to its maturation… and in all its branches, although not equally in each or in every region (the Bible Belt of the South and Midwest seems to still lag significantly behind, for example).
What factors do you see, and what has influenced your maturation of faith?