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CURRENT TRENDS

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 United States. For example, in a recent Christianity Today column, Philip Yancey asks whether America is heading in the direction of the ``post-Christian'' culture of Western Europe. 1 And in a major article in the Atlantic Monthly, Penn State historian Philip Jenkins asserts that liberal Catholics and mainline Protestants in the United States are profoundly out of step and out of touch with global developments in their denominations and in Christianity as a whole. 2

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 University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is a historian and seasoned observer of the contemporary American religious scene. His lecture did not include any bold prognostications about Christianity's long-term health in the United States, but it did pinpoint several current trends that are likely to continue into the future. Lippy traced the development of these trends over the past fifty years.

Religion in the Postwar Period

The years following the Second World War were a time of widespread public religious expression in the United States. The percentage of Americans attending a weekly religious service reached its peak during the nineteen fifties. Many houses of worship were built and others were renovated. The Billy Graham Crusades drew huge crowds. The words ``under God'' were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and a prayer was offered at a presidential inauguration for the first time.

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 America's universities as a result of the GI Bill. This diversity of experience led many to see different faith communities as functionally equivalent. In addition, there were an increasing number of marriages between people of different denominations and faiths. As those families worked out their own compromises, denominational differences were further deemphasized.

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 America, both within Christianity and without. As mainline Protestant denominations have declined in membership, there has been tremendous growth in conservative evangelical and charismatic groups, which uphold the authority of the Bible and offer stability in the midst of a fast-changing world. In particular, the intense individual experience of Pentecostal worship has become extremely popular, largely transforming Protestant worship in recent years. In many congregations, traditional hymns and hymnals have been replaced by contemporary praise choruses featuring simple, repetitive lyrics that are projected on screens at the front of the sanctuary.

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 United States. Lippy predicted that in the presence of such religious pluralism, Christian churches will face more ``competition'' in the religious marketplace of the future.

Concluding Thoughts

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 United States, nurtured by a tolerant climate of religious liberty. Movements and revivals continue to come and go in America, including some that may seem eccentric or bizarre and others that may be great moves of the Holy Spirit. In any case, there is rarely a dull moment for the scholars who study American religion.

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 America as well. Today the majority of the world's Christians live in the southern hemisphere, in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Christianity in these regions tends to be very conservative and traditional. As a result, denominations with an international membership will probably become more conservative in the years ahead, perhaps reversing the liberal trends that have caused some of these groups to decline in the United States. Immigrants-e.g., Latin American Catholics and Korean Presbyterians-are already helping to revitalize the American branches of some international denominations. As the world continues to become smaller, the increasing interaction of the world's Christian communities may prove to be even more significant than the trends discussed in Professor Lippy's lecture.


Footnotes:

1``God's Funeral: What Will Keep Faith from Nearly Disappearing in America?'', Christianity Today, September 9, 2002.

2``The Next Christianity,'' Atlantic Monthly, October 2002.

ISSUE 13

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