American Christianity has a particular flavour that is distinctly, well, American. The sentiment that has driven the nation to seek global influence has had significant impact on the church which has thus sought to influence the global church. Non-American churches are left to either receive or react to this influence. From Rick Warren’s sermons forming the foundation of teaching in churches as far flung as Hong Kong to Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit being translated and offered in 135 countries , the world is on the receiving end of America’s version of Christianity for good and for ill.
Ross Douthat’s jeremiad, Bad Religion: How we Became a Nation of Heretics, explores what he identifies as the golden age of American Christianity before highlighting what he sees as the four key heresies that have corrupted the church (biblical criticism, the prosperity gospel, therapeutic individualism and American nationalism) . While his construction of this idealized age of Christian cooperation and unity is formulated by praising respected Christian figures influential beyond the church, the fact that they didn’t support each other is quietly left unnamed.  He celebrates that “the intertwining causes of democracy, civil rights, and anti-Communism provided orthodox Christians and secular liberals with a set of common purposes and a temporary common ground.” Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr “supplied a compelling vocabulary for thinking about the relationship between morality and politics in a fallen world.” There was no need to argue that the world was in a broken state in the wake of World War II. Even particularly doctrinal positions were made palatable to the general public by charismatic personalities such as Billy Graham and Fulton Sheen. They were able to make specific doctrine accessible to all and seem like a natural platform for a pluralistic society.  Orthodox faith provided the bedrock for American morality. The hight of public faith came alongside the writing of the Declaration of Human Rights where Christians were readily received as key co-creators. American Christianity was truly having a favourable global impact.
However some key strategies of this halcyon age also provided the space for it’s own demise. Faith provided the nation with a moral life which married Christianity to American Nationalism. Modernist theology’s “great project was the Social Gospel, which urged believers to embrace an “applied Christianity” that would put Jesus’ commandments into practice here and now, through legislation as well as conversion, law as well as grace.” But the emphasis on practice began to neglect the scriptural storytelling of orthodox faith and slowly replaced faith with therapies and goals of self actualization. The stories were forgotten. “The goal of the great heresies…has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and non contradictory Jesus.”  But Jesus was contradictory. And orthodox faith demands unattractive, unmarketable sacrifice. In an age of peace and comfort, the authentic ways of Jesus seem unnecessarily demanding. But there is a pattern to revival and we may well be fast approaching such a time. Douthat observes that often “(a)n age of crisis is swiftly followed by an era of renewal.”
Today, isolation has replaced the life giving unity of church community. In an era of unprecedented digital connectedness, research shows that “the more someone use(s) social media, the more likely they (are) to be lonely.” We are staring down unprecedented global environmental catastrophe spurred on by unrestrained consumerism all the while inter-religious terrorism plagues our nations.
So how do we nurture renewal? I appreciate Douthat’s suggestion that “(t)he boast of Christian Orthodoxy…has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus.” Perhaps we might reclaim the role of the church as a space of refinement as we do life with people who are different than each other remembering that “friendships across political polarization can form across a shared common primary identity in our Christian faith.” We might reclaim Sunday’s for retelling the story that speaks against consumerism and capitalism and reclaim potlucks that build community out of the indigenous people of the neighborhood; communities that use consensus building in order to make decisions which undoes the impetus of business model and institutional . It’s time to “(r)eclaim the conversation we need to thrive.” We might find hope in the emergent church strategy of “conversation rather than in Sunday preaching, in house churches and small groups rather than in archdioceses and mega churches, in prayer and storytelling rather than in explicit apologetics.” Perhaps if our unity would extend far enough, and we in the west were humble enough to receive from the developing world rather than simply exporting to it, “the new global Christianity could help restore orthodoxy’s vitality, and the next Christendom could help revive the old one.” There is great value in creating space for learning and community building. And in a loud world rediscovering the gift of silence, that the marginalized might find their voice would be a unique contribution indeed.
While there is imminent global crisis, perhaps the decrease of the American church is a blessing that true global renewal and revival might just be possible. The global church“casting the faith as a lifeline for an exhausted civilization” might be received in a similar way that America received Douthat’s golden age, but in a much broader context. Lord have mercy.
1. “Hong Kong Campus Pastor Stephen Lee,” Saddleback Church – One Family, Many Locations. Help. Healing. Hope., accessed March 21, 2019, https://saddleback.com/zh-HK/visit/locations/hong-kong.
2. “Who We Are,” Global Leadership Network, , accessed March 21, 2019, https://globalleadership.org/who-we-are/.
3. Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How we Became a Nation of Heretics. (New York: Free Press, 2012).
4. Randall Balmer, “‘Bad Religion,’ by Ross Douthat,” The New York Times, April 27, 2012, accessed March 21, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/books/review/bad-religion-by-ross-douthat.html.
5. Douthat., 24.
6. Ibid, 26.
7. Ibid., 41.
8. Ibid., 24.
9. Ibid., 32.
10. Ibid., 27.
11. Ibid., 153.
12. Ibid., 278.
13. Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019), 139. Kindle.
14. Douthat, 153.
15. Christina Cleveland, Disunity in Christ as quoted by Colin Mathewson, ‘Friendships Kindle the Spirit’ in geez: Contemplative Cultural Resistance Winter 2018 Issue 51 Geez Press Inc. Manitoba
16. Stanley Hauerwas and Jason Barnhart. Sunday Asylum: Being the Church in Occupied
Territory. (United States: House Studio, 2011). (Bluefire Reader)
17. C. Christopher Smith, and John Pattison. Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient
Way of Jesus. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014). (Bluefire Reader)
18. Newport 145.
19. Douthat, 279.
20. Douthat, 282.
21. Parker Palmer, “On Creating a Space: An Interview With Parker Palmer.”Interviewed by William E. Powell. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services 82, no. 1 (2001): 13-22. Accessed November 5, 2018. http://dx.doi.org.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/10.1606/1044-3894.237
22. Douthat, 279.