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
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
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.
Secondly, many of the
Thirdly, many people find their experiences of
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
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 heterogeneous1 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
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
Put succinctly, albeit perhaps more abstractly, churches
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)
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
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.
- I don’t use the term diverse here because it can be sometimes too much of a buzzword with baggage from the current form of the politics of identity. I mean this simply to refer to a group of people who do not immediately share the same heritage and traditions, group and personal identities, etc. Over-emphasis on the individual makes such heterogeneous communities hard, because we tend to look to be in groups that more readily reflects out identities and traditions from the start with little tension or conflict surrounding them.
- For those familiar with Derrida, I do not use this term in the exact same manner that he uses the word “logocentrism.”