IN AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY
by Doug Ward
In the opening years of a new century, some writers and
scholars are asking serious questions about the future of Christianity in the
Recently I had the opportunity to think about such issues when I attended a
lecture by Dr. Charles H. Lippy on current challenges facing American
Christianity. Lippy, the LeRoy C. Martin Distinguished
Professor of Religious Studies at the
Religion in the Postwar Period
The years following the Second World War were a time of
widespread public religious expression in the
However, some social commentators were skeptical about this apparent spiritual boom, observing that American religion was disturbingly shallow and materialistic. There were indications that traditional religious culture was starting to unravel, even while it seemed to be flourishing. In particular, the foundation was laid for the first of the trends discussed by Professor Lippy-a disenchantment with traditional religious institutions and denominations.
During the Second World War, the soldiers who served together belonged to a
variety of religious backgrounds. Exposure to different religions continued
after the war at
After World War II many people moved to new places-especially the suburbs-as they started careers and families. In their new homes, people chose churches for many reasons other than denominational affiliation. A widespread switching back and forth between denominations further blurred the differences between them. People felt an allegiance to a local congregation, not necessarily to a denomination.
The children of the postwar generation left their parents' churches in droves during the 1960s. That is not unusual in itself, since young people often drift away from church for a time. But in contrast to previous generations, the baby boomers did not generally return to the churches in which they had been raised. Their challenges to authority during the Vietnam War years further weakened traditional religious institutions.
``Spiritual but not Religious''
The nineteen fifties also saw the beginning of a second trend: an increasing privatization of spirituality. The books of Norman Vincent Peale and others helped fuel a self-help craze. Billy Graham's crusades, which cut across denominational lines, called for a personal decision on the part of the audience. People watched Rev. Graham's sermons and other religious programs on television in the private spaces of their own homes.
In the years since, more and more Americans have come to see religion not so much as a long-term commitment to God and a community of believers, but more as an ongoing individual quest for personal spiritual fulfillment. Many people now describe themselves as ``spiritual, but not religious.'' Professor Lippy observed that the new symbol of American religion might be the revolving door rather than the church steeple, as people sample different relgious communities and experiences in search of ``what works for them.''
Lippy commented that ``spirituality as quest'' tends to be very idiosyncratic. He mentioned several examples of the individualistic nature of modern American spirituality, including
· a recent article in The Utne Reader entitled ``Design your Own God.''
· a study that included an interview with a woman named Sheila who described her religion as ``Sheilaism.''
· the popularity of New Age philosophies, with their syncretistic mixtures of various ideas from Western and Eastern traditions.
· the current fascination with angels. Lippy observed that angels have the advantage of providing direct access to the spiritual without the mediation of a minister.
A Growing Diversity
A third trend, related to the second, is an increase in
religious diversity in
In the suburbs of most major American cities, large megachurches offer ``seeker-sensitive'' worship services to crowds numbering in the thousands. These services feature contemporary music, as mentioned above, along with sermons that deemphasize doctrinal instruction in favor of practical application. As writer Marva Dawn has observed, the megachurches tend to blur the distinction between the outreach and worship functions of the church.
Another notable change on the American religious scene is a dramatic rise in the number of women attending Protestant seminaries and serving in ministerial roles. Professor Lippy cited the example of one Methodist conference in which the number of female ministers numbered four in 1965. By 1990, 8.2% of the ministers in this conference were female, and the number had grown to twenty per cent by 2000.
Along with these developments in American Christianity, immigration from
around the world has brought increasing numbers of Muslims, Buddhists, and
Hindus to the
The great diversity of religious expression described in
Professor Lippy's lecture is, in a sense, nothing
new. There have always been a plethora of religious groups in the
American Christianity has had an enormous impact on the rest of the world during the past two centuries, a trend that should surely continue in the years ahead. Will this impact be largely positive? In addition to those who are preoccupied with individual spiritual quests, will there be many others who spread God's love to the nations? I sincerely hope so.
In this time of accelerating globalization, it is probable that the
Christianity of the rest of the world will have a growing effect on
Funeral: What Will Keep Faith from Nearly Disappearing in
2``The Next Christianity,'' Atlantic Monthly, October 2002.
File translated from