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

The Prodigal Church: The End or A New Beginning?

Written by: on March 22, 2014

The Church in America is in decline.  The question many recent books have asked is why and if there is any hope?  Diana Butler Bass’s Christianity After Religion provides a generous dose of statistics to illustrate the extent of this crisis.  She points out that in 1970, “some 95 percent of Americans said they were certain God existed, and 99 percent believed in God.”[i]  By 2008, a Pew Research Center poll determined that only 71 percent of Americans were certain that God or “a universal spirit” existed (note the much broader definition of God than found in 1960 surveys).[ii]  Another telling number is “44 percent of Americans have left their childhood faith in favor of another denomination or religion or by dropping any religious affiliation at all….”[iii] In short, Christianity in America is not doing well.

Ross Douthat presents an interesting thesis for cause of the decline of the Church in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.  He finds the culprit in what he calls “bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place.”[iv]  It is the lose of orthodox Christianity since the 1960s that allowed other Christianities to come into play, warping traditional Christian teaching, which resulted in the “justification for solipsism and anti-intellectualism, jingoism and utopianism, and selfishness and greed.”[v] The book is whirlwind journey through the social and political changes over last fifty years, outlining the forces at play that moved the church away from orthodoxy.  “Each crisis in American life, from our foreign policy disasters to the housing bubble to the rate of out-of-wedlock births, can be traced to the impulse to emphasis one particular element of traditional Christianity – one insight, one doctrine, one teaching or tradition – at the expense of the others. The goal is always progress: a belief system that’s simpler or more reasonable, more authentic or more up-to date.”[vi]  Each of these steps, Douthat claims, was a betrayal of historical, orthodox Christianity, suggesting that what society today finds unattractive and disdainful in Christianity is not really true Christianity but a “pseudo-Christianity” shorn of its roots.

What then this “orthodoxy river” that the Church has lost?  It is beliefs that have been handed down from the apostles but are “(n)ot the orthodoxy of any specific church…but the shared theological commitments that have defined the parameters of Christianity since the early Church.”[vii]  He goes on to claim that this “Christian center still exists—one that dates to the earliest centuries of the faith and that’s still shared by most of the divided churches of Christendom today.”[viii]

The tale told by Douthat is a rather sad story, much of it all too familiar, as I lived through and personally witnessed much of it.  However, in the end, Douthat is not without hope. His emphasis on a “Christian center” provides a hopeful outlook and a way forward.  His story suggests a wayward, prodigal Church but not the end of the Christian faith.  He sees the disaffection of many is aimed at a Church that has not lived up to being the Church. Because of the existence and strength of this orthodox river, there is hope yet for the Church to rise out of the ashes and become what she was  meant to be.  To do this, he suggests four areas that Christianity that must be recaptured to regain its balance and effectiveness. He suggest that a renewed Christianity should be:

  • political without being partisan – allegiance to principle over party.”[ix]
  • ecumenical but also confessional”[x]–a community defined theologically will find stability to stand for generations.
  • moralistic but also holistic”[xi]“rediscovering sources of the Christian past to address the needs of the American present.”[xii]
  • “oriented toward sanctity and beauty[xiii] – reclaiming aesthetic achievement as a witness of personal and cooperate sanctification.

There is much value in these directives that will act as correctives for the Church to once again be a positive influence in society.  For Douthat, there is yet hope. Diana Bulter Bass also has hope for the future of the Church.  She suggests that what we are experiencing today are similar disaffections with organized religion that lead to the Three Great Awakenings over the last three hundred years, that brought revival and a renewed expansion of the Church.  If this is so, then might we expect this crisis in the Church to usher in a renewed movement back to orthodox Christianity in new forms (maybe outside the mainline churches)?  According to Bass, the answer is yes. She suggests, “we are a prime suspect for a great awakening” because “each of the great awakenings there has been a perceived sense of out of balance, out of kilter, insecurity, change beyond our capacity to cope...”[xiv] (which is a perfect summery of Douthat’s description of the Church today).

The core question then is: Can a renewed, orthodox Christianity find its way out of the pits that led to such widespread disaffection and again provide a strong witness to draw the post-modern world back to Christ?  History seems to indicate the Church has an amazing ability to come back. Maybe Douthat is right, it is because of that orthodox core is never lost but simply awaiting to be resurrected.  So, this book, Bad Religion, is both a sad story about a Prodigal Church and a book

[i] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013), 43.

[ii] Ibid., 46.

[iii] Ibid., 56.

[iv] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2012), 3.

[v] Ibid., 4.

[vi] Ibid., 8.

[vii] Ibid., 6.

[viii] Ibid., 9.

[ix] Ibid., 284.

[x] Ibid., 286.

[xi] Ibid., 288.

[xii] Ibid., 291.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Bass, 244 (quoting Dr. James Forbes, italics added).

About the Author


John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

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