If you were to look at any type of demographic research on the future trends of the Church in the West, and American more specifically, it wouldn’t take you more than a few moments to discover that people are leaving churches. People are less likely to identify as a Christian and people are less likely to attend church, even if they identify as a Christian. While the sociological factors behind these trends are complex, so be skeptical about anyone who thinks they have garnered solutions that will address the problems (such as changing Christian doctrine to be conducive to others, teaching doctrine more authoritatively, being more hospitable to outsiders, being more mission-minded, etc. etc.) we can make some larger, more general statements as to why people who used to go to church and used to affiliate as Christian are increasingly not doing so.
I would propose an important explanation is a combination of two factors: 1) Christian discourse and behavior is increasingly becoming marginalized in larger society and 2) churches routinely try to solve the problem through changing their discourse. In other words, the very things Christian keep trying to do to address the decline is the very thing that has increasingly led to less influence within our larger, Western society. Christian, and more generally religious, discourse has little influence aside from a smaller subset of the population, of whom many of us are looked down upon for being stereotyped as superstitious, science deniers, judgmental, etc. The end result is that society does not encourage people to be religious, or even more specifically to be Christian, so people are less inclined to do so.
However, there is another way that the tension between the two factors realizes itself in lower church participation and Christian identification. What I gave above is more true about people who are outside or marginally connected to churches, as if the words of society are more powerful than the words of the Church. But when we consider why people who have been more connected to the church, who feel a deep commitment to Christ also have become increasingly detached and dechurched, I would suggest this dynamic between those two factors plays out a little differently. For these people, Christian speech and discourse does at some point had some real credibility; they were willing to go to church, listen to Scriptures and sermons, and sings songs, etc., but along the way they left.
Now, if you were to do wide-ranging research and listen to people’s stories, you would find some combination of at least four answers as to why this is the case: 1) didn’t feel personally connected to the community, 2) didn’t find authentic teaching and living, 3) experience some form of spiritual abuse, whether directly and personally or indirectly through the effect the teachings had on them, and 4) disagree with the teachings of the church(es) they attended. I would suggest, however, behind each of these four realities is the dynamics of the impacts discourses can have or fail to have upon us.
Firstly, in feeling distant from the Christian community, the clash between the discourses of the wider society and Christian discourse play out to be true. Through the triumph of the therapeutic, much of the discourse we hear in the news, in popular books, on the internet, etc. has emphasized the importance of social connections, and for good reason. We are social creatures who need others to function well, but the larger societal discourse has made us value and want social relations even more. Now, many churches recognize this, and some even do something about this, but the solutions many churches have are to put something on their bulletin or signs that says “you are welcome” rather than teaching the nature of hospitality. Churches can even talk about love, but as Jesus even recognizes in the Sermon on the Mount, the rhetoric of love tends to be remembered and followed only for those we are already close to and like rather than to those we are not and do not like. Consequently, many of the dechurched have never broached into the community, and so they experience a deep disconnect between a) the discourse of society and their experience in churches and b) the discourse of the churches and their actual actions as it comes to social connection. The emergence of small group ministries and programs over the past couple of decades serves as evidence that the church has not been doing this well.
Secondly, many of the dechurched have failed to find anything that they would classify as real, authentic Christian faith. Presently, we live in a society that is built around experience, particularly visceral experiences. While traditional Christians might bemoan the moral decay they see in a society that has become increasingly sexualized, increasingly addicted to drugs, increasingly addicted to outrage and anger, etc., etc. undergirding this dynamic is the desire for authentic experience. People want to feel something real, not simply know the right things. So societal discourse has reinforced this through teaching about following your heart and passions, doing what feels good to you regardless of people’s judgment, etc. By contrast, when people go to church, they are often engaged with an increasingly idea-centric discourse, whether the ideas be the exposition of a Biblical text, teaching of doctrine, general moral exhortation, etc. People are encouraged/persuaded/told to think in certain ways, but there doesn’t really seem to be a guidance and apprenticeship into real, authentic Christian experience. The steady increase of more charismatic forms of Christian life and worship that emphasized the work of the Holy Spirit reflect this trend and deficiency.
Thirdly, many people find their experiences of churches to be spiritually, emotionally, and unfortunately even sometimes sexually, abusive. While I can’t even begin to hope to wade into all the complexities of those experiences, discourse does have a role in it. All discourse has embedded within it certain power relations, where certain people have to be looked at, esteemed, listened to, obeyed, etc. and there are certain people to avoid, to mistrust, to reject. Thus, the discourse of our larger society has recognized the nature of this power and how it can be used to emotionally control people, if not even abuse them. However, churches have been slow to recognize the nature of power, particularly in connection to our discourse, but instead tends to justify and legitimate power structures as they are. Insofar as churches are slow to recognize and adapt to this reality, churches a) justify power relationships while b) one of the few institutions with lower barriers of entry for people to obtain this power for personal motives. Christian discourse through theology, ethics, leadership, etc. is thus more readily used to a) provide protection for those with power who then abuse while then b) placing spiritual, psychological, ethical, and moral burdens and suspicions on those who they abuse. While abuse is present throughout society, many churches are unfortunately more inclined to accept the abusive behavior of the powerful and their rationalizations that would be less likely to fly in other institutions, leaving more people harmed and abused by the failures to act. That many denominations, like my own United Methodist denomination, feel the need to institute policies like Safe Sanctuary and clergy sexual ethics training reflects this painful reality.
Fourthly, many people disagree with the teachings of churches, which largely stems from the fact that the theological and ethical discourses of the churches fail to match the content that the larger, societal discourses teach and encourage. Furthermore, that larger society has encouraged a hyper-individualist hermeneutics where we determine teachings and doctrines simply based upon our own ideas, experiences, etc. and not connecting this with our communities means that the theological and ethical teachings of churches and even denominations are constantly being challenged by its churchgoers. But insofar as people who have been authorized to interpret and make decisions for themselves fail to find satisfactory teachings, they tend to disconnect to church. The rise of more free-discussion oriented gatherings in Sunday schools, small groups reflects an attempt to address this discontent.
My purpose in talking about how the conflicts of discourse contribute to the rise of dechurched is not to give some factor that explains absolutely everything, nor can I propose a quick and easy solution to reverse these trends. My point, rather, is to try to persuade you to see how words, language, speech, discourse, etc. can play a significant, contributing role in the increasing numbers of dechurched people.
Put metaphorically, in the war of words, the words of wider society are more persuasive than many of the words of the churches. Many Christians who have been taught to bristle at anything that isn’t explicitly “Christian” may bemoan this, thinking this is simply a problem of people being unwilling to see the truth, perhaps even go so far as to explain all of this to some influence of the devil outside the church. Others see the legitimacy in the wider, social discourse of connection, authentic experience, freedom from abuse, and/or personal autonomy in theological beliefs. Some simply adopt the discourse of wider society wholesale into Christian discourse, without thinking about how the discourse and the ideas we try to bring in function within the context of the Christian tradition.
Then, there are some people, like me, who hear in the wider societal discourse themes, ideas, and feelings that were actually present in the life of the Church when the Scriptures were written, but that many of the churches forgot them and they became rediscovered by the larger society but decontextualized from the Christian tradition. Whether we all have formally recognized this happening to us or not, we have in a sense heard a prophetic-like cry from a society that has lost its original foundations, so it has problematic forms of social connections, it endorses deeply problematic forms of authentic experience, becomes overly cynical in the name of fighting abuse, and overly cherishes the individual to the detriment of more heterogeneous communities. So, both churches and the world are in error, but rather than trying to point the finger at the world, we seek to try to rediscover the true vitality of life of the Gospel, so that the part of what the churches have forgotten and that the society has found lacking can be renewed. Perhaps in doing this, we can rediscover a pattern and habitus of thinking that can lead us to address the causes of the decline of the Church in the West.
Because, right now, the main way we are Christians are tempted to do is through simply adjusting the language and concepts we use. However, while discourse is an inevitable part of the church and any form of social cooperation and connection, discourse along is not the foundation of the Church. In fact, when Paul in 1 Corinthians 1-2 expounds a different form of wisdom that is defined by God rather than the words of (Greco-Roman/Stoic) philosophy of that day, Paul is challenging the discursive practices that the Corinthians, and much of Romanized parts of the Roman Empire, were accustomed to. Paul challenges the discourse of the time by 1) having a discourse that contains words that describe Jesus’ crucifixion in narrative form and 2) an appeal to the dynamic, revelatory, and discerning powers of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Paul obvious recognizes the instrumental role of language to convey God’s wisdom, but he doesn’t simply adopt the discourse of the Roman society but he radically concretizes to the traditions about Jesus’ time on earth. Meanwhile, he recognizes there are powerful events and concepts that are brought forth by the Holy Spirit. In other words, while Paul still recognizes the power of words, a new form of discourse that adequately convey God’s Wisdom is only truly possible by the personal work of the Spirit among and in people.
Put succinctly, albeit perhaps more abstractly, churches can not find its solutions by changing discourse in a logos-centric manner. The wisdom of God is realized through a logos-and-pneuma-centric life, where the patterns of language and discourse, and thus also thinking in general, that people are familiar with are radically challenged by the work of the Spirit who fights against the strangleholds of the flesh. The discourse of churches can not simply be retraditioned to the theological language and ideas of past nor simply undiscerningly accommodate to the prevailing discourses of the present, but our discourse must be transformed by the Spirit. Nor can the discourse of the churches simply try to combine the discourses of our theological traditions and of the wider society as some who speak from a more moderate position may propose; there are a limitless number of ways we can try to do that, but how can we truly approach an understanding that is getting closer to the heart of God unless the Spirit who has the thoughts of God helps us to understand God’s heart. No amount of simply trying to change our discourse, and the ideas our language points to, will address the deficiencies of an almost entirely unconscious, logos-centric, overemphasis of discourse.
It is the Holy Spirit who personally leads us to engage in acts of love towards others beyond those we are naturally connected to; it is the Holy Spirit who brings forth the authentic Christian experience that the New Testaments speaks of happening; it is the Holy Spirit that challenges the centers of power that can be used for destructive purposes; it is the Holy Spirit that can change hearts so that people can see the light of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
And it is this that I would say describes so much of the impact that John Wesley had in the Methodist revival. Wesley was deeply concerned about religious experience, but neither a) in simply saying all experiences expresses something spiritually true about God, nor b) trying to constrict all types of experiences into set, fixed patterns, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of the excess of “enthusiasm” nor the cold, constricting lifelessness of doctrinaire versions of Christian faith. Rather, Wesley was deeply concerned that people be lead by the Holy Spirit, and he sought to understand how the experience of the Holy Spirit manifested in human experience. But if you investigate more deeply, Wesley’s deep engagement and concern about the Holy Spirit lead him, I believe, to challenge the meaning of words and discourses. For instance, while Wesley embraced reason, he didn’t embrace the prevailing Lockean empiricist epistemology that reduced all knowledge to the material senses, but saw the role of spiritual senses; his understanding of reason was dramatically different. Furthermore, while he embraced the doctrine of justification by faith, he also understood it in context of the freedom from the power of sin and not simply the guilt of it as it was commonly used to refer to. The meaning of the discourses about reason and justification underwent change with Wesley’s engagement, who was concerned about human experience as lead by the Holy Spirit.
If all this is the case, then the power that Wesley tapped into wasn’t simply avoiding the extremes of enthusiasm and overly-doctrinal expressions of Christian faith, nor was it that he simply embraced a middle ground, nor was it that he went back to the Scriptures, etc. but rather that Wesley was deeply concerned about the Holy Spirit in the life of Christian faith. It was Wesley’s focus on the Holy Spirit, and not simply some experience or idea that emerged from the Holy Spirit, that leads to the radical change of groups of people in revival. Wesley’s theological inclinations prevented him from the excess that can come with being simply pneumatic-centric, so that Wesley was logos-and-pneumatic-centric.
So, I say all this to leave it at this point: I believe that a theology that will allow us to effectively reach the dechurched must transition from being simply logos-centric, where we think the solution is simply to reemphasize or change our discourse, but rather a theology that is logos-and-pneumatic-centric, but it is Christ as the Word of God and the Spirit as the currently manifested power of God that allows us to truly rediscover what has been lost and to effectively puts what we rediscover into discursive practices that can then apprentice others into the worship and experience of God who discloses Himself in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
And let me finish with this point: for those who seem to struggle to understand what I am saying, I can simply say this. I don’t fully grasp it fully either, but I can only see in my readings of Scriptures and the experience of my own life the role that the Spirit has to generate a type of change in our thinking that is often on the margins of ineffability. So I express this more as a seminal idea about the relationship of the Spirit to language rather than anything fully fleshed out and clearly articulated. Put differently, my understanding lacks the necessary comprehension to be able to find a way to express this in a clear and analytic manner.