02 February 2009

Trends In American Christianity

A new survey reveals notable trends in American Christian practice. We remain segregated on Sunday, although the divide is no longer absolute. Congregations and their leaders are getting older. Mainline denomination have reached the point of fearing fear itself as they face demographic collapse. And, they way those who continue to worship do so has followed the trends towards contemporary, expressive practices once associated mostly with progressives and the charismatic movement.

Predominantly white congregations reported an increase in racial and ethnic diversity between the first and second surveys of U.S. houses of worship by the National Congregations Study.

When the study was first conducted in 1998, 20 percent of churchgoers in Protestant congregations and Catholic parishes reported attending a church that was all white and non-Hispanic. In the second round, conducted in 2006-2007, that figure had dipped to 14 percent.

The study also found that the percentage of congregations with no Asian members decreased in the same period from 59 percent to 50 percent, and the percentage of congregations with no Latino members dropped from 43 percent to 36 percent.

"We're far from a color-blind society, in religion or anything else, but there is some movement in churches as well as elsewhere," said Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke University and lead researcher on the project.

While researchers found that some congregations that were previously all-white now have a couple of minority families as members, Chaves said mostly black churches did not report a comparable change. "If you look at predominantly black churches, we don't find more whites or Latinos or Asians in them," he said.

Other findings include: . . .

• Use of drums in church music rose from 20 percent to 34 percent, while people raising their hands in praise during worship services increased from 45 percent to 57 percent.

• The average age of the senior clergyperson in a church rose from 48 to 53. In 1998, 25 percent of the people in the average congregation were at least 60 years old; in 2006-2007, 30 percent were. (Catholic and liberal mainline churches were more likely to have older pastors than other churches.)

Also, ethnic diversity increased dramatically among Catholic priests leading parishes; in the most recent survey, 13 percent of Catholic churches were led by black or Hispanic priests, compared to only 1 percent in 1998.

The study was based on reports from leaders of 1,506 congregations[.]

At an international, ecumenical Christian forum held November 2008, leaders of several major Christian denominations expressed the fears their denomination members have of interdenominational Christian dialog and cooperation.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—which is very active in church councils—has "a fear of uniformity," said Sharon Watkins, general minister and president of the Disciples. "A fear of hierarchy, . . . that someone is going to tell us how to act . . . how to worship . . . or how to think," she said.

The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, according to Bishop Ronald M. Cunningham, fears that nonblack church partners do not sense "the scourge of silent racism that lives in many of us." He added: "We must talk it out, but we must make it incarnational."

"The fear of our dying" was named by Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "We have come to believe in the premature announcement of the death of denominations, and we are beginning to act like we are dying," said Hanson, who is also president of the Lutheran World Federation.

Hanson warned against misplaced fears: "The process of 'dying' depletes ecumenical imagination."

Also notably, while in American Christianity, expressive worship is associated with religious and political conservative leanings, the Smithsonian Magazine recently explained the important role of the mystical Sufi movement within Islam, as a moderating force vis-a-vis fundamentalist Islam which might be compared to the 17th Century Puritan movement in the English speaking world.

Evangelical Christians weren't always in lock step with proponents of torture, inequality, and hate. In Abraham Lincoln's day, an important subset of Evangelical Christianity were emerging as a progressive force in our society, even while other Evangelicals remains the cultural bulwarks of the Confederate South.

Maybe, the failure of Prohibition left them chastened, although few today would reckon their efforts in further of the abolition of slavery and women's rights to be failures. Maybe ,their fervor mellowed with missions accomplished under the demands of growing institutional scale, as in the case of the antecedents of what became the United Methodist Church. Maybe, it was the devil's bargain that most white Evangelicals made with the Republican party during the heyday of the Civil Rights movement, which continued to be affirmed and strengthened through President Reagan's Presidency, at least.

Will more progressive waves of Evangelical Christianity emerge again? Will Evangelicals, once burned, be twice shy about returning to the world of partisan politics?

While young Evangelicals remain opposed to abortion, the hate driven "family values" agenda that drove their parents seems to have less impact with them. Smart conservatives are embarrassed by and tired of defending willful ignorance of modern science in the name of religion. Evangelical environmentalism is emerging, a generation after it did in the rest of the American consciousness.

The embrace that Evangelical Christians have made, almost universally, of contemporary music and the use of informal contemporary language in their worship and practice, has undermined the ability of their clergy to set their members firmly apart as culturally distinct from the larger community and its values. It is tough to be a countercultural force while preaching the prosperity gospel.

In 1968, a large percentage of the population openly and proudly identified themselves as segregationists, and those individuals were not underrepresented in Southern political circles. In 2008, American churches are only slightly less segregated, but attitudes have changed dramatically. There are probably more openly gay and lesbian elected officials in the United States today than there are openly segregationist elected officials, and almost all of the formerly racist, segregationist and slavery supporting Christian denominations have formally disavowed their previous stances. Is it so unthinkable that the political and cultural agenda of Evangelical Christianity will quietly undergo equally great adjustments in the next forty years?

Will genuine ethnic diversity follow token ethnic diversity? Are Bishop Hanson's reassurances that ecumenical effort is not a sign of the death of a church right? Or, will the historical trend of ecumenical outreach, followed by denominational merger, followed by loss of fervor, aging congregations and shrinking memberships hidden by the mergers, simply repeat itself? Are mainline Christians diluting a core of their "brand" by departing from their role as custodians of ancient tradition?

There are big unknowns that have started to play out in Europe, but not yet made their way to the Americas.

In Europe, Islam has usurped Evangelical Christianity as the fastest growing religious movement and cultural driver. While the people of Kansas are fighting over teaching evolution in schools, the people of England and Germany and France are fighting over the role of the veil and Islamic law in their societies. It seems likely that this struggle will come to the United States and eclipse internecine Christian conflicts.

The other major trend in European Christianity, the rise of secularism as an alternative to Christianity, also seems to finally be making headway in the United States, after many decades when America's faithfulness seemed unshakeable, while Europe's crumbled. It is perceptibly more comfortable and respectible to be an atheist in the United States now than it was twenty years ago. The "New Atheists" who are making their rounds of the college campus lecture circuits and new release tables in book stores, have been militant and alienated many people. But, they have also made those who wish simply to live their lives quietly and be tolerated seem far more moderate. Evangelical tirades against secular humanism have led many of the accused to embrace the label.

If my speculation that adherents of historically conservative Christian denominations will dominate the future of the Republican party are right, then a lot of the future of this country boils down to the quesiton, "Will Christian Conservatives Quit Embracing Evil?" If the dark side of American Christianity is tamed, our nation's prospects may be brighter than they appear.

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