Is a Mass Exodus from Christianity Underway… or is a Revival Just Getting Started?
And what does it have to do with the United Methodist Church right now?
The world of social media is a solid source of news, right? (Insert eye-roll here). So, you’ll understand my consternation when I ran into conflicting “headlines” while scrolling through my Facebook feed one morning last week:
“A Mass Exodus from Christianity is Underway in America. Here’s Why.”
Which was followed by:
“Asbury University Revival Spreading Nationally and Globally.”
So, which is it: The Collapse of Christianity or a Jesus Revolution? Either/or, neither/nor, or maybe something else?
A recent conversation with a young Methodist pastor helped me see beyond the Facebook clickbait.
Conflicting Facebook Feeds
Much of the religious press recently has focused on the “Asbury Revival” (or “awakening” or “outpouring”), the Jesus Revolution movie, and the smash live streaming hit, “The Chosen”. You might begin to expect that, despite years of hand-wringing over declines in Christian religious affiliation, the upturn is just around the proverbial corner. Postings of the “Asbury Revival Map”, that shows where the people praying in Wilmore, KY over a two week period came from, would easily lead people to conclude that it has been either a global gathering of religious groupies OR it has been the ignition point in a revival/awakening/outpouring that will have long-term impact through the lives of those who have been personally touched by it. Student Map Project Shows Global Impact of Asbury Revivial
But another posting on Facebook has a completely different and, for people who value the role of the local church in our larger society, a much more sobering view of our existential reality: the rapid, 21st Century emergence of the “nonverts”, that is, the dramatic rise in the number of people, particularly GenZ (born 1997-2013), ditching Christianity altogether. The article, carried in the “collective and contextual publication GRID”, summarizes an interview with Dr. Stephen Bullivant, a British professor of philosophy who himself went through a conversion from atheism to robust Roman Catholicism. His personal story might be of interest to you (you can google him and his publications). More recently Dr. Bullivant has written that America is going through a whiplash change from religion to secularism at breakneck speed. He describes the 20th Century in America as nonconducive to atheism and culturally conditioned toward Christian faith. Three events, from his perspective, changed all of this for the 21st Century:
- The ending of the Cold War, with its focus on “godless communism” versus Christian America.
- The rise of the internet, meaning that people, particularly young people, have been exposed to a much “larger world” than their culturally conditioned “neighborhood.”
- The 9/11 attack which raised the question of why a good God would allow such hatred, violence, and evil.
My doubt about the contentions in the article, with no disrespect to Dr. Bullivant, took hold when it became apparent at the conclusion of the interview that he had just recently released a book (December 1,2022) titled, Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America. I won’t respond here to his three hinge-points. These are all, in contemporized versions, reheated leftovers from longstanding issues addressed by Christ-followers in various cultures across many centuries (atheism vs. state sponsored religion, a bigger view of reality, and the problem of evil). But I believe Dr. Bullivant did miss something critically important about contemporary mainline Protestantism in America, which I’ll take up briefly below. Here’s the GRID article from December 17, 2022 if you’d like to read it yourself: A Mass Exodus from Christianity is Underway. Here’s Why.
I’m more interested here in getting a bead on whether rampant atheism is sweeping across our culture, or a religious revival is warming up just offstage. And, honestly, it is hard to press for either of those two options on the warrant of either a British philosopher’s latest book or the experience of two-weeks of prayer at Asbury University.
Ah, but the conversation with the 35-year-old Methodist pastor…
A couple of weeks ago I was at a conference. The tablemate sitting next to me was a 35-year-old pastor who has left the United Methodist Church and is now serving as pastor of a Global Methodist Church (GMC). His new congregation is made up of Methodists who have left the United Methodist church in that town and are forming a new congregation aligned with the GMC. This is a river town in the Midwest with mixed racial demographics, 40% of the population age 40 or under, and roughly 20% of the population living below the government-established poverty line. (And no, this town is not in Illinois.)
I was, of course, interested to meet a 35-year-old ordained Methodist pastor, since only 6% of UMC pastors are that age or younger. Even more, I was interested to know how he would approach his ministry context in which approximately 40% of the population is under age 40. If Dr. Bullivant is right about the breakneck speed of America shifting from religion to secularism, well, this good brother should probably pick up a couple of shifts a week driving a school bus or Amazon delivery truck. Clearly his new effort at planting a church would falter because of the tidal wave of “nonverts,” right?
He briefly reviewed the young adult landscape with those of us sitting at the conference table: record high rates of depression, suicide, and drug use. Movies, television, even comedy (!) paint a dystopian, nihilistic future with no possibility of hope. Then my seatmate eloquently and simply explained what the Christian gospel and a gospel-centered community of believers offers: something older, wiser, and more durable than the present moment, the possibility of redemption and transformation, the existential reality of a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
He went on to say simply that he was moving to the Global Methodist Church because it is that kind of Christian community: anchored in the reliability of Scripture and the foundation of the ancient ecumenical creeds. The UMC, as he experienced it, is chasing the latest trends in cultural accommodation hoping to attract people through some imagined relevancy. As it turns out, the people in his community have all the “cultural relevancy” they can handle; they need gospel hope, real transformation, and Christ-centered community.
Okay, okay…I’ve embellished his comments a bit. But only a bit. Actually, he captured all of that in a few sentences. He pretty much silenced the old-timers at the table. I felt maybe like the religious teachers who peppered the boy Jesus with questions at the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-47).
So, what does Dr. Bullivant dismiss that the Asbury Awakening highlights?
Dr. Bullivant explicitly eschews the impact of contemporary American politics on matters of faith. I think he is wrong on two related counts:
- Politics, in many ways, has attempted to take over the role of religion. That is, our politics are arguing over the definition of being human, what it is to have a soul, what is means to be conscious and sentient. This is not just a contemporizing of the faith for the current moment, but the idolatry of politics. The language, symbols, liturgies, and institutions of mainline Protestantism (including United Methodism) have been co-opted in the service of whatever is trending in national politics. (More on this in a future post). Dr. Bullivant is correct to observe that these denominational efforts to be relevant, whether for the Roman Catholic Church or the mainline Protestants, have not in any way succeeded in attracting more people to the churches. My hunch is that the population at large generally knows already that the Christian faith is something other than a political agenda.
- The political answers on offer in mainline Protestantism are much too weak and too transparently rigged to meet the deep, human desire for, as my 35-year-old table-mate put it, something older, wiser, and more durable than the present moment. H. Richard Niebuhr, in his classic work of nearly 80 years ago, pointed out the powerless nature of the liberal Christian “gospel”: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” (The Kingdom of God in America, originally published 1937). I would simply, and inadequately summarize it for today, that mainline Protestantism is a religion without redemption advocating a moralism without end. The influence of contemporary mainline Protestantism has been reduced to who has the most votes at a denominational convention and how much unilateral power denominational leaders, in our case bishops, wield.
The numerical decline of organized religion in America is indisputable. Dr. Bullivant is right on that score. The Asbury awakening demonstrates and my recent table-mate, now Global Methodist pastor, witnesses to an experience of the Christian gospel that personally redeems, transforms, and provides living hope. Maybe the decline, at least in organized religion, is due in part to the fact that the religion we’re promoting isn’t a religion old enough, wise enough, and durable enough for the needs of the people we seek to serve.