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future of christianity

General Council of the United Methodist Church turns down gay marriage.

The Church is divided. The traditional line of division within western Christianity between Protestant and Catholic has receded. The Church is now divided between liberals and conservatives and between North and South.

The recent schism in the Methodist Church over gay rights illustrates the point. At its general conference in St. Louis this year 2019, the delegates rejected gay marriage and LGBT clergy. Much of the pressure to adopt the Traditional Plan came from delegates from the global South. To be sure, there are plenty of conservative Methodists in America who combined with representatives from Africa, Asia, and Latin America to defeat the inclusive One Church plan.

The balance of power is shifting to the South. While Western Christianity is in decline, Christianity is growing throughout Asia, Africa, and South America.

This is the future of Christianity. The balance of power is shifting to the South. While Western Christianity is in decline, Christianity is growing throughout Asia, Africa, and South America.

How should we face this future often referred to as “Post-Christendom?” Christianity is still the largest religion in the world and growing throughout the global South. Churches in the South are predominately Pentecostal or Catholic and socially conservative.

America is just as Christian as it has ever been but its growth is among migrant communities. These communities bring with them the versions of Christianity they practiced in their home countries. America has become a missionary field for Christians from the global South.

It’s Western Christianity that is in decline. The most common reason people give for leaving the Church is that they do not believe the theology anymore. The type of Christianity coming up from the South may not be to their liking either.

Christianity first split between East and West. Then Western Christianity split between Catholic and Protestant. While not a full-fledged division, there is now a corresponding split between North and South.

Protestant Christianity splintered wildly, but today’s division is not between Protestant and Catholic or between denominations. The division within Catholicism and Protestantism mirrors the division along geographical lines roughly drawn between North and South. The division in Christianity today is between liberal and progressive Christianity vs conservative and traditional Christianity.

While perhaps not a full-blown division, there are differences within progressive and liberal Christianity. Some are traditional in belief and practice but liberal politically while others entertain radical theologies. Even within Evangelicalism there is growing discussion of justice and God’s preference for the poor alongside their theory of salvation by grace and not by works.

There is a growing social justice movement in the Western Church. Along with this comes a retreat from politics by others. The later is part of the normal cycle for Christians when they feel under siege.

What role is Western Christianity to play in God’s mission to the world given its declining numbers and relevance, and how can it stem the gradual losses in participation? The Western Church is still a powerful force in the world, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. The question is what do we do now?

Both Mainline and Evangelical Christians have their own solutions. Conservatives commonly call for a return to traditional beliefs, something many young Americans have already rejected. These are the same things their compatriots in Europe left long ago.

Mainline churches took a different approach. They took the modernist turn and sought to explain the stories of the gospel scientifically. The Jesus Seminar with the likes of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan exemplified this approach.

The quest for the historical Jesus, the last in a number of earlier quests, assembled a group of multidisciplinary historical and biblical scholars and asked them to vote on which of the sayings of Jesus could be attributed to him and which of those sayings he probably didn’t say. Their critical historical examination of scripture added greatly to our understanding and interpretation of scripture in its historical context.

These scholars searched for Truth in the only way the knew how, using historical and scientific methods. In the stubborn conflict between science and religion, they took the side of science in an effort to modernize Christianity. As a result, they clung tightly to their presupposition that as scientists and historians they could not confirm or deny miracles.

Their over-identification with scientific principles lead them to reject the supernatural entirely. Some held open the possibility of life after death, but they all read the Gospel stories for their meaning regardless of their historical accuracy. In fact, historical accuracy was not the point of the Gospels.

The Gospel writers were evangelists. Their purpose was to spread the Word. The stories are more of a vehicle to that end then a factual retelling of the life of Jesus.

While there are historical facts in the Gospels, the stories serve the broader purpose of promoting a new vision of governance where there is only one God and our leaders are merely human. More than that, kings and emperors are actually servants of God. Jesus taught that the greatest among us are our servants (Matthew 23:11).

Christianity was a radical new social movement. Its leader became the God of the very empire that executed him. It would grow to become the largest religion in the world.

The truth these scholars revealed is something that many Christians did not want to hear: the miracles described in the Bible probably didn’t happen. This includes the resurrection and ascension. In fact, the whole idea of the supernatural is unscientific superstition that has no place in the modern world according to these overzealous scholars.

In their over-identification with their scientific training, they did the unthinkable and developed the concept of “strategic atheism.” This idea allows those who no longer believe to call themselves Christian. While we are right to question what we believe, we are wrong to cast the modernist-fundamentalist split as the central conflict in the Church today (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21).

Most Americans today have New Age beliefs, including nearly half of all Christians and many who attend church regularly. Belief in the supernatural is widespread across the United States. Like Newton practicing alchemy, Americans believe in science and the supernatural.

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Religion without the supernatural is philosophy, and spirituality without the supernatural is psychology. It doesn’t matter whether one believes in the supernatural or not. Americans see no conflict between science and the supernatural, and most probably think that scientists should be investigating the supernatural, too.

Interpretation, however, does matter. On this, there are plenty of differences between traditional and liberal believers as well as between Evangelical and Mainline churches. The overemphasis on substitutionary atonement and the obsession with “saving souls” needs to be balanced against a renewed focus on salvific action in the world.

The focus should be on doing justice. This is referred to in scripture as “faithfulness” and “righteousness” (Exodus 1:15-21). The Hebrew and Greek words for “Righteousness” mean acting or living justly.

It is important to recognize that the concept of religion as separate from politics didn’t exist in the first century. Kings and emperors were gods and sons of gods and every nation was a theocracy. The Old Testament is a collection of the historical and legal documents of the Jewish nation, and the New Testament is a collection of the writings of a social movement initially referred to as the “People of the Way.”
The Bible is just as much a political document as it is a religious one. The question isn’t whether people should mix their Christianity with their politics or whether religion should be a purely private matter or even how we should live personally as Christians or as spiritual or ethical people. (Assuming one doesn’t believe as I do in the feminist maxim that the “personal is political.) The question is: What will Christianity become?

Will the church be an institution that promotes discrimination and violence around the world, or will it be a faith of love and justice? In many ways it is both, but how can it become more compassionate, more liberating? The Bible is the fountain of Western culture and its roots run deep within us.

If you grew up in American, you’ve been Christianized. Christianity is still a powerful force in the Western world, particularly in the United States. It will remain a formidable institution into the foreseeable future.

What have Christians become, and what are they likely to become should current trends continue with or without significant resistance and change from within? By “institution” I refer not simply to the brick and mortar buildings but to the spirit, culture, and ideology of institutions. There are good reasons to believe that change only happens from within.

If we had something good to share with others one would think we would want to share it. The reason the Mainline Church has declined more quickly than Evangelical churches, Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses is that these churches have recruitment programs whereas Mainline churches do not. Evangelical churches are missional in orientation whereas the Mainline church is cultural and more about personal identity.

Both have a problem with young people leaving the church but Mainline churches are satisfied to rescue those leaving more conservative churches or to welcome those returning to their faith later in life in a quest for meaning. Many Mainline ministers are engaged in some form what I might characterize as “palliative care” overseeing the gradual, inevitable and in some ways not unwelcome demise of Western Christianity. Faith is thought to be personal and not political, and if it is political you would be hard pressed to find a congregation outside Universalism that is engaged to any significant degree in “justice advocacy.”

The unintended result of this approach is the increasing irrelevance of the Church in people’s lives and its failure to be missional in orientation. Many churches have grand missions but it’s difficult to see how they accomplish the Church’s larger mission outside their own congregations. Following Gushee and Stassen from their book Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, I distinguish between charity work and justice advocacy.

Many liberal churches categorize social justice broadly so that it includes charity work. While it may be true that social justice includes charity, charity work is what churches have always done. It’s easier to do something the church as always done rather than to do something new and different.

The result is that churches do a lot of charity work and little advocacy. Justice advocacy is neglected as the group becomes bogged down with organizing nearly every function at the church all broadly defined as “social justice.” I can see no better way to kill justice advocacy at church than to bury it in a workhorse group that takes on everything at Church.

Justice advocacy deserves its own committee. Dealing with politics at church is difficult. It requires the full attention of the church’s minister and governing body as it needs to focus on Christian ethics and public policy. It should work closely with the denomination as most mainline denominations have public policy guides and justice advocacy resources.

Churches should also work with the community so as to advocate with them and build coalitions. The Church is an organizing institution. Some believe religion and politics should be separate. but we cannot sincerely compartmentalize our lives when it comes to God.

As spiritual and religious people we cannot separate our spirituality from our calling to be compassionate and ethical. We must not sacrifice our social ethics on the altar of personal salvation or enlightenment. To choose not to be involved in justice advocacy is a political decision.

The Church goes through cycles of political involvement followed by withdrawing and regrouping when Christianity becomes too controversial and believers can’t take the heat. Evangelicals who advocate for withdrawal from politics are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. Their reaction is against the rise of progressive Christianity just as much as it is a refusal to address certain political issues at church. What they are really promoting is spiritual indifference toward impunity, corruption, and war.
Some may argue that we can do our justice advocacy alone or with other groups separate from our religious activities, but if we are called by our faith to engage in social justice activities, why should we not do them at Church? No one tells people to do charity work on their own outside church. Such a suggestion would be ludicrous just as it is ridiculous to suggest that we engage in justice advocacy alone. In the end, we fail to do God’s will and fail to fulfill God’s mission to the world.

The solution is to be missional. That mission is social justice advocacy. We are to bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly, feed the hungry and send the rich away empty, welcome the stranger and treat the foreigner as one native-born, and live and act justly as individuals, as the Church, as a community, and as a nation.

The Greek word for “nation” as used in the Great Commission in Matthew where Jesus commands us to “make disciples of all the “nations” is “ethne.” It refers to people groups like ethnicities, identities, and nationality. It is the same word used to describe the nations of Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria.

The translation for the word “ethne” does not refer to personal individual souls or isolated persons. Instead, it refers to people identified as members of a particular group and not as individuals alone. Jews, Christians, and Muslims, by virtue of their inheritance of God’s promise to Abraham, are called to be a light and a blessing to all the nations of the world, to bring God’s salvation to the ends of the earth (Genesis 18:18; Isaiah 49:6).

This is the calling of many faiths, to be a blessing to others and to be compassionate toward all of humanity and to all of life. We cannot do this unless we take action to end impunity, violence, exploitation, and war. Since we are called to advocate on behalf of others as Christians and as spiritual and ethical people, we should engage in these activities at church just as we engage in works of charity at church.

If it wasn’t for Pope Francis and the work of progressive Christians and liberal Evangelicals, the church could be headed south is more ways than one. Religious activists and reformers must work for a more inclusive Church enlivened by its mission to do justice. In this way, we “love mercy, act justly, and march with the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed—to walk humbly with God among us.

RichProcida

Rich Procida

Bibliography

  • David E. Fitch, The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission (2011).
  • David P. Gushee & Glen H Stassen, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (2nd ed. 2016).
  • Graham Hill, Global Church: Reshaping Our Conversations, Renewing Our Mission, Revitalizing Our Churches (2016).
  • Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming Global Christianity (2002).
  • Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (2006