The End of Church

The past February, Diana Butler Bass published her new book, Christianity After Religion. Her book is on my must read list, but I have not read it yet. However, in anticipation of the release of her new book, Ms. Bass wrote a column for the Huffington Post, titled, “The End of Church.” My post is based on that article.

Ms. Bass begins the article by stating, “Something startling is happening in American religion: We are witnessing the end of church or, at the very least, the end of conventional church. The United States is fast-becoming a society were Christianity is being reorganized after religion.”

Over the past several years there have been a number of studies that have shown the decline of mainline denominations and church attendance in the United States. In future posts I will highlight some of those studies, but for this post, let’s assume Ms. Bass is correct.  What evidence does she use to support her position? Here is what she writes:

  • “In a 2008 survey, Pew research found that 1 in 10 Americans now considers themselves as ex-Catholic.”
  • “For decades, mainline Protestants have watched helplessly as their membership rolls dwindled, employing program after program to try to stop the decline.”
  • “In the last 15 years, conservative Protestant denominations have witnessed significant erosions in membership, money and participation – with some of the greatest drops in groups like the Southern Baptist Convention that once seemed impervious to decline.”
  • “In a typical week, less that 25% of Americans attend a religioius sevice, down from the half of the population who were regular churchgoeers a generation ago.”
  • “…the institutional structures of American religion – denominations of all theological sorts – are in a free-fall.”

Ms. Bass continues, “The religious market collapse has happened with astonishing speed. In 1999, when survey takers asked Americans ‘Do you consider yourself spiritual or religious,’ a solid majority of 54% responded that they were ‘religious but not spiritual.’ By 2009, only 9% of Americans responded that way. In 10 years, those willing to identify themselves primarily as ‘religious’ plummeted by 45 percentag points.”
Thus, by “the end of church”, what Ms. Bass means is the end of institutionalized religion. 
And that is possibly good news!
She concludes the article by writing:
“Americans are searching for churches…that are not caught up in political intrigue, rigid rules and prohibitions, institutional maintenance, unresponsive authorities, and inflexible dogma but instead offer pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world. Americans are not rejecting faith – they are, however, rejecting self-serving religious institutions. The end of conventional church isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Christianity after religion, a faith renewed by the experience of God’s spirit, is closer to what Jesus hoped for his followers than the scandalous division, politics, and enmity we have now. Will there still be Christianity after the end of institutional religion? Yes, there will be. But it is going to be different than what Americans have known, a faith responsive to the longings of those who are expecting more spiritual depth and greater ethical integrity rather than more conventional church. Indeed, I suspect that the end of church is only the beginning of a new Great Awakening.
I pray Ms. Bass is right in her analysis. I pray for revival. For several years now I have been concerned about our North American version of Christianity; a Christianity based on materialism, capitalism, individualism, and celebrity worship. I wonder if our desire to be culturally relevant has made us more secular than we realize. A few years ago I started writing an academic journal article about what I think the problem is with our version of Christianity. I never finished that article. But what I would like to do over the next several days, or weeks, is post portions of that article and get your feedback.
Thanks for reading.
I will post more soon.

One thought on “The End of Church

  1. Good Post.

    My only concern is that there will be a problem with a breakdown of accountability, that some teachers will go charging off into “Strange Fire,” and drag the souls of followers into false teaching,

    Oh, that happens anyway, doesn’t it?

    I do believe in the umbrella concept of spiritual protection, but I have seen (as have you) the hierarchy of denominations squelch the movement of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately too often the denominational/parish government is filled with those who are more politically astute than spiritually aware, and are motivated more by accumulation than service.

    So, yes, Out with religion! In with the Holy Spirit!

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