DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

It’s Not That Bad

Written by: on March 22, 2019

One of my favorite moments of the show M.A.S.H. is this time when a patient is brought before Hawkeye Pierce and for some reason they have run out of anesthesia. Hawkeye has to improvise and fast so he can do the work that needs to be done, so he distracts the patient by asking him about his hometown. The patient tells Hawkeye the name of his hometown then Hawkeye proceeds to talk about the soda shop on the corner and the church on Main St. and a half a dozen other things. The patient is so excited that Hawkeye knew his hometown that he had lost track of the procedure Hawkeye was performing. The patient asks Hawkeye when he was last in the town, to which Hawkeye responds that he has never been there, he was describing his hometown.

In his book Bad Religion, Ross Touthat declares that religion in the United States hit its peak between the time just after WWII and 1965. His book falls in a long line of other books that have come before it declaring the Christianity in America was better back then — ‘then’ being variable depending on the author — and somehow we have fallen from the peak of what we once were. It almost always has something to do with the sexual revolution, hippies, or a court case. In this way Touthat’s book is not unique. He attempts to be balanced, but generally just ends up putting the blame on everyone who does not share his perspective on everything that happened. And much like Hawkeye he knows what high points to hit and is able to make us think that he understands the struggles we all face as people of faith in the United States.

My biggest problem with jeremiads1 is that they assume that our best days are behind us. It is true that church attendance in the US peaked in the sixties and at some point in the late sixties or early seventies those numbers started to drop precipitously. While that could indicate that people started being more secular in their outlook, it could equally be a sign that people were not that connected in the first place. Christianity in the US has long been just as much about civil appearance as it is about doctrine. When the opportunity came to drop out, it seems a lot of people took that opening.

The other thing about jeremiads is that they often miss all the terrible things that were happening during there chosen period of nirvana. The fifties and sixties were the height of the Jim Crow south. Christians largely supported the McCarthy inquisitions of pretty much everyone they despised and fled urban centers for newer and ‘safer’ (meaning not black) suburbs leaving a wake of destruction along the way.2

The largest religious group in the United States are now the religiously unaffiliated.3 We are heading in the same direction Canada and Europe have headed. Rather than lamenting where we were and how bad things have become, why not look to our Christian siblings in those places to find out how great the church can be in a less welcoming society. Losing the civil religion part of the American church could be a good thing, but it also means we have to work harder and I think that is what people like Douthat are really upset about.

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1. Balmer, Randall. “Breaking Faith: ‘Bad Religion,’ by Ross Douthat.” The New York Times. Last modified April 27, 2012.https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/books/review/bad-religion-by-ross-douthat.html.

2. Oppenheimer, Mark. “In ‘Bad Religion,’ Ross Douthat Criticizes U.S. Christianity.” The New York Times. Last modified April 18, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/19/books/in-bad-religion-ross-douthat-criticizes-us-christianity.html.

3. Jenkins, Jack M. “’Nones’ Now as Big as Evangelicals, Catholics in the US.” Religion News Service, Last modified March 22, 2019. https://religionnews.com/2019/03/21/nones-now-as-big-as-evangelicals-catholics-in-the-us/.

About the Author

mm

Sean Dean

An expat of the great state of Maine where the lobster is cheap and the winters are brutal I've settled in as a web developer in Tacoma, Washington. As a foster-adoptive parent of 3 beautiful boys, I have deep questions about the American church's response to the public health crisis that is our foster system.

10 responses to “It’s Not That Bad”

  1. Hi Sean,
    I count myself among the Douthats of this post-Christian world. But unlike most pessimists (of which the author has self-identified as one) I am not a pessimist.

    I’ve heard many Evangelical leaders say it’ll get worse before it gets better. The reality is, we really don’t know. This is one of the reasons I’m such a fan of Os Guinness (great, great, great-grandson of the Dublin brewer) and his writings. He’s the only Evangelical cultural critic I know who is balanced in his views and is careful not to paint a gloomy picture of the future. His reason: We just don’t know God’s plans.

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      Meh… it all depends on how you define ‘bad’. If you’re expecting a world that is generally a specific breed Christian and it isn’t then I suppose that’s bad, but I’d argue your premise for the state of the world is invalid in that case.

  2. Mario Hood says:

    I think this statement is true, ” Losing the civil religion part of the American church could be a good thing”. I think we still have a part to play in “looking like” Christian but that is going to look much different than times past. People like easy and what is cool, especially in American culture, and if you were a “Churchgoer” for those reasons then when the s*** hits the fan you won’t stay a “church goer” and I think that’s where we are now. Making disciples is a long-game and the “end-game” not growing big churches or being in political power.

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      Mario, I think you’re right and we’ve all seen people when the fit hits the shan take off and don’t come back. Here in the PNW looking good going to church isn’t as much part of our culture as it is in the south, so thankfully we don’t see it as much. But I can imagine that being a real struggle as a pastor. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    If we are a people of resurrection don’t we have to believe that the best is yet to come? And that the collective “we” are beautiful, vibrant parts of the whole that are bringing to fruition God’s plan for the world?

    Great work Sean!

  4. mm Mary Mims says:

    Thank you, Sean! I am always amazed when people say how great the 50s and 60s were for America; it depends on who you were during that time. Since Douthat is not old enough to have been born during that time, he really does not have first-hand knowledge but is just going by stuff he has read or heard. He pretends to praise the Civil Rights movement while at the same time condemning it. I wonder what he has to say today about this president? I guess I’ll have to read some of his articles to find out.

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      Mary, I think we’re a mutual admiration society in our remembrance of how ungreat the 50’s & 60s were for certain groups of people.

      It’s strange I have been following Douthat on Twitter for a while. He’s a “Never Trump” conservative. I actually agree with him on a lot of things. This book on the other hand was a massive swing and a miss.

  5. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Sean,
    As usual, your thoughts are insightful and your writing is pithy. You stated, “We are heading in the same direction Canada and Europe have headed. Rather than lamenting where we were and how bad things have become, why not look to our Christian siblings in those places to find out how great the church can be in a less welcoming society.” Spot on! The Church in America needs to learn and adapt as the Church in Canada and Europe. I happen to coach many coaches in the Vineyard UK/Ireland and they are some of the most vibrant and hopeful pastoral leaders I know. The Church and the Kingdom are moving forward, we in America need to learn how to adapt and go with what God is already doing. Thanks again for your sharp wits and your plain speech!

  6. Thank Sean, Your post is full of useful observations that I agree with, especially on the tendency of jeremiads to assume that things were better ‘then’ instead of focusing on how good things can be in the future. The future of the church is in the hands of God and I believe there’re better days ahead, especially with more unaffiliated churches.

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