A Faith Imperiled
By Gerald L. Sittser
Professor of Theology & Senior Fellow Office of Church Engagement
This story appears in the latest issue of Whitworth Today.
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I grew up in the 1950s and '60s. I remember how visible and influential Christianity was, especially mainline Christianity. It was the peak period of church life in America: big numbers, big budgets, big buildings and big influence.
Since then the mainline church has declined precipitously, and so has the Catholic Church. Evangelical Christianity has now become the dominant religious force in the nation, though there are signs that it, too, will suffer decline, and for probably similar reasons. Though 26 percent of boomers identify as evangelical, only 8 percent of their children do, though these polls apply only to white Christians. They are the "nones" and "dones" in American society.
The United States is not post-Christian. It would probably be better if it was, for that might create the conditions for a fresh start, like new growth after a forest fire. This country, however, has certainly become post-Christendom. Christianity is fast losing its place of cultural privilege and power.
The worst pathway for Christians to follow – but also the easiest and widest, as Jesus put it – is to strive to gain or maintain cultural privilege and power at the expense of faithfulness to the gospel, which inevitably leads to massive compromise. We already see ample evidence of this with the rise of white Christian nationalism, the popularity of the prosperity gospel, and the compelling power of social causes that, however just, can all too quickly replace Christianity, becoming their own secular religion.
Christianity in America is imperiled because many Christians don't know how to respond creatively to this new post-Christendom phase of Western history. It is at just this time that the church needs to rediscover its original message and pattern of life. Jesus provided a new way to life through his death and resurrection, and he modeled a new way of life too, which set in motion a movement that, though outside power for several centuries, changed the world.
I write this not out of panic and despair but out of hope. Failure can lead to renewal and creativity. The American church needs to return to its first principles and rebuild its foundation, making disciples. The early Christian movement faced challenges far more difficult than ours. Yet it grew steadily for more than 260 years, until Constantine assumed the throne and set a trajectory for the gradual emergence of a cultural Christianity. If growth happened then, it can happen again.
In the Beck & Calling podcast, Whitworth President Beck A. Taylor interviews Jerry Sittser about his new book, Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian "Third Way" Changed the World.