Christians in the United States today enjoy greater religious liberty than at any time in our nation’s history. Yet it doesn’t feel that way to many Christians because, at the same time, the influence of American churches is declining.
Not only is membership declining in the mainline denominations, Christians are now under-represented in our nation’s major institutions, including universities, government agencies and traditional media outlets.
As a result, Christians increasingly find themselves on the defensive, having to justify their beliefs and practices to strangers, friends and even family. It can be difficult to explain why you believe something you have always taken for granted and which, until recently, had widespread social acceptance.
It also can be hard to convince somebody who doesn’t already belong to a church that they ought to join one. This is especially the case with young people. Many have simply given up on the church. They just don’t see it as essential to their understanding of living a good life.
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One reason is the complacency of many churches: failing to focus on their mission, ignoring abuses and focusing more on politics than theology.
Many churches I have belonged to have had lively discussions about politically controversial topics regarding sexual orientation, abortion, evolution, climate change and vaccinations, but relatively few discussions about topics central to the Christian life, such as prayer, sin, grace, hospitality and forgiveness. If the church is just one place among many to discuss politics, why join a church?
Another reason is the privatization of spirituality. Many contemporary Christians regard their values and the beliefs that give rise to them as deeply personal. They do not feel a need for guidance to undertake what they think of as their own spiritual journey. If they do feel a need for the church, it is as a place to meet with people who share their personal values rather than as a place to form a set of shared, public values.
A third reason is that an increasing number of Americans feel that religion — especially the Christian religion — is a malign influence on society. Christians deny this, of course, but many have little understanding of Christian theology and history and little experience of other religious beliefs and practices. As a result, most Christians simply ignore the critics, while those who confront them often come off as angry and defensive rather than compassionate and wise. Both approaches end up bolstering the critics’ claims.
Nevertheless, I think churches, when functioning properly, are ethically important, both for the well-being of society and for the health of communities and the individuals who comprise them. I will try to explain this claim more fully in subsequent columns, but here I will briefly state why I think the ethical importance of churches is generally misunderstood by Christians and non-Christians alike.
A good life depends, first and foremost, on the formation of virtues developed in the context of a community with a shared understanding of what’s important. Communities develop such an understanding chiefly through the stories they tell each other, stories that give them an idea of where they came from, who they are and where they are going. This provides the basis for a hierarchy of values upon which the virtues rest.
Christians are people of the Book, a set of stories coming down to them through history. They argue interminably over the precise meaning of those stories, over the nature and extent of their authority, and about the relevance of those stories to situations that arise in their lives.
Christians mostly agree on the basic things their stories tell them, which is that all people are created in the image of God and, as such, have inherent, inestimable worth. Yet people are sinful, failing to live up to the standards of their intended nature. The stories tell them that suffering and death follow from those failures. Despite this, everyone is loved by their creator and owes love to one another. The stories reassure them that through love comes redemption, a release from suffering and death, and eventually some form of peace.
Many of the people I have known over my lifetime who lived really rich and meaningful lives have been devout Christians. They have not been perfect, by any means, but they have all shared a number of important virtues, including humility, patience, kindness and reverence. I don’t think these virtues are exclusive to Christianity; nevertheless, it is rare to see them combined in one who has not been shaped to a considerable extent by participation in a community of faith.
Life is hard work, and living a life one considers good, even using one’s own standards of goodness, is especially difficult. That is why we need deep, consistent, reciprocal relationships within a community of people who pledge to help one another.
But a church is more than that, otherwise it would be no different from any number of service organizations, in which people come together for fellowship and the furtherance of positive social ends.
Churches are primarily places of worship and reverence, where one is reminded of one’s relationship to the divine and where one’s beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors are shaped, examined and challenged in a community of mutual accountability.
In a world obsessed with self-glorification and the exercise of power, the best churches today are places of reverence, where we learn to see ourselves in the light of God’s love.