I hear a lot of hand-wringing about the decline in church attendance in western nations, and I have often shared that concern. But Brett McCracken has redirected our concern considerably by looking at the situation from a different perspective than the one I often hear. He is speaking specifically of Christianity in the US, but I think that his diagnosis applies more broadly. What he proposes is that we are observing “the dying away of cultural Christianity.” Consequently he argues that it is “a good thing” that “the number of people in the US who call themselves Christians is shrinking.” He concurs with Ed Stetzer, that “Christianity isn’t collapsing; it’s being clarified.” Commenting on Pew Research data, in 2015, Stetzer pointed out that “the surge in ‘nones’ is because nominal Christians are giving up the pretense of faith while convictional Christians remain committed (“Survey Fail—Christianity Isn’t Dying: Ed Stetzer,” USA Today, May 14, 2015).
McCracken describes what is happening in this way:
For most of US history, to be American was to be “Christian.” National identity was conflated with religious identity in a way that produced a distorted form of Christianity, mostly about family values, Golden Rule moralism, and good citizenship. The God of this “Christianity” was first and foremost a nice guy who rewarded moral living by sanctifying the American dream: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (i.e., a substantial 401(k), a three-car garage, and as many Instagram followers as possible). This form of Christianity—prominent in twenty-first-century America—has been aptly labeled “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a faith defined by a distant, “cosmic ATM” God who only cares that we are nice to one another and feel good about ourselves.
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What we are seeing in American Christianity is a healthy pruning away of the mutant and neutered forms of it that are easily abandoned when they become culturally inconvenient or unfashionable. As Russell Moore observes, “A Christianity that reflects its culture, whether that culture is Smith College or NASCAR, only lasts as long as it is useful to its host. That’s because it’s, at root, idolatry, and people turn from their idols when they stop sending rain” (“Is Christianity Dying?” Moore to the Point (blog), May 12, 20154).
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Rather than being a cause for alarm, the dying-away of cultural Christianity should be seen as an opportunity. It used to be too easy to be a Christian in America; so easy that one could adopt the label simply by being born in this “Christian nation” and going to church once or twice a year (if that), in between relentless attempts to swindle the stock market, accumulate beach properties, and build an empire of wealth and acclaim.
We should be worried when the church is unhealthy, but unless we diagnose its illness correctly, we won’t treat it with the right remedies. I find the diagnosis of Stetzer, Moore, and McCracken helpful.