In 1998 Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong offered a clarion call for the church saying in his book (by the same name) “Why Christianity must change or Die.” In the second of his two successive subtitles the cover also read, “A new reformation of the Church’s faith and practice.” In this call Spong set out a new agenda for Christianity and the Church, namely to dispense with its so called outdated and “literalized propositional” views. Simply put, Spong suggested that Christianity could only survive if it abandoned its historically held teachings like the deity of Christ and the physical resurrection of Jesus, what typically falls under the label of “orthodoxy.”
But What Do the Social Sciences Say?
Spong was not standing on any hard sociological research when he made this suggestion. He was more or less imagining the world as he wanted it to be. In fact, he turned out to be dead wrong. His own Episcopal Church USA uncritically imbibed modernist liberalism and has henceforth paid dearly for it. In the last few decades the ECUSA has continued to systematically implode closing and consolidating parish after parish as it gasps for its last breaths. Those among them who still held a to a historically Christian (and Anglican) system of beliefs left in mass to form what is now Anglican Church of North America.
The shrinking Episcopal Church USA can be contrasted with the budding expansion of Anglicans around the world, especially in Africa. As of 2005, sub-Saharan Africa boasted over 43 million Anglicans and growing still. This is only part of the picture. Christianity is expanding rapidly in Asia, the middle east and more. And this does not account for other religious systems which are growing too.
Is the World Becoming More Religious?
A recent article by Naomi Schaefer Riley in the Wall Street Journal heralds the publication of Rodney Stark’s newest book The Triumph of Faith: Why the World is More Religious than Ever. Her article “The God Profusion” begins as follows: “God is not dead. Despite the predictions of academics and liberal religious leaders, the world is becoming more faith-filled, not less. According to Rodney Stark, the co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, there has been no rise of the “nones”—no increase in the number of the world’s self-professed atheists and no triumph of reason over revelation.
For some time academics and liberal clerics, as well as those who have uncritically accepted their opinion as Gospel, worked with a faulty social theory called “secularization theory.” To express it in the most simple way, secularization theory held that as people became progressively more educated, they would likewise abandon religion. Much to the surprise of everyone, it turned out to not be the case. In fact, as education has increased, so has religious commitment and also social opportunity. In fact, according to some sociologists, this has always been the case with Christianity. There is significant evidence that in the Roman empire, Christianity spread the fastest and most prolifically among the educated middle and upper class, not the poor and disaffected.
Is the Future of the Church in Adaptation to Secularization?
Leading sociologist Peter Berger remarks in The Desecularization of the World, that “religious communities have survived and even flourished to the degree that they have not tried to adapt themselves to the alleged requirements of a secularized world. To put it simply, experiments with secularized religion have generally failed; religious movements with beliefs and practices dripping with reactionary supernaturalism (the kind utterly beyond the pale of self-respecting faculty parties) have widely succeeded.”(1)
Spong’s book evidences that he had swallowed adaptation and secularization theory whole, that is for Christianity to change, it had to begin adapting to the agenda of secularism. But adaptation theory has been proven wrong. In fact, it has now been shown that the success of faith groups is centered in their theistic beliefs and practices. The rationalist of course balks at this while at the same time stammering in frustration that faith and religious belief is nearly as pervasive and indelible among the human race as eating and sex. There is good reason why Medieval and Reformation theologians spoke of the “sense of the divine” in every human heart. It is a package deal.
Does Faith Make Life Better for All?
So do faith commitments actually improve life for people and culture? According to Rodney Stark, the answer is yes—especially for women! In his book What Americans Really Believe, Stark provides hard sociological data on how family religious involvement has been shown to create lasting educational and vocational advantages to their children, and especially young women. He says, “Feminists and other critics often accuse religion of being oppressive toward women, even brainwashing women into accepting diminished roles in the home…” But he continues to the contrary saying that,
“religion in the United States has positive effects. When Mom and Dad go to Church and take their kids with them, the kids get more education, especially the daughters. Taking the kids to church also provides a key to high-education jobs. Far from putting them in the kitchen against their wills, as critics might say, when Mom and Dad take daughters to church, they open up the future for them.”(2)
So Does the Church Need to Still Change?
Well I believe that the answer to that question is both Yes and No. The hemorrhaging Episcopal Church USA only serves as one example of many Mainline Protestant Churches that have followed suit. The resulting conclusion is that if the modern Church remains faithful to its historic and creedal truths, the best sociological data suggests that it will become anything but irrelevant. This new data, plus the example of the ECUSA serves a warning to us that success and compromise are just not compatible categories.
Does this mean there is nothing that needs to change about the Church? I am not suggesting that at all. I feel strongly that there are many ways in which the Church in its many forms today does in fact need to enter serious reflection leading to big changes. I would say we probably have far more that needs to change than stay the same. However these things have less to do with her confessional heritage, and much more to do with returning faithful practice. Perhaps most is the need to think and live more patiently, compassionately, and nonjudgmental with a broken and non-believing world. I think we have perhaps just become all to comfortable in “believing” the right things and are just not restless enough toward praxis—doing right things.
Please Share Your Thoughts!
(1) Peter L. Berger, The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, (Eerdmans, 1999), 4.
(2) Rodney Stark, What Americans Really Believe, (Baylor University Press, 2008), 189.