American Christianity could use a fresh infusion of hope, and publishers are stepping up to provide one.
It’s been a summer of discontent about the state of the church on these shores. May brought signs of decline from the U.S. Religion Census, which found membership in mainline Protestant churches dropped an average of 12.8 percent between 2000 and 2010. Catholic churches lost five percent over the same period. Even the ambitiously evangelical Southern Baptist Convention has had five consecutive years of falling membership numbers.
Sobered by these findings, commentators have groped for explanations and antidotes. Leading the charge has been New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, whose book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, April) sees a need for revival. His provocative question in a July column, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?,” touched off weeks of debate in the press as religious progressives proffered evidence that might portend better days ahead.
Into this anxious stew come several new books in which authors serve as guides to revived faith. They navigate a world where Christianity is seen to be increasingly marginal, outside the mainstream--much as it was in the first centuries after Christ. The situation calls for new approaches, these authors argue, though their prescriptions vary.
Catechism, or didactic instruction in what Christians believe, gets an intuitive makeover in Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice a Common Faith (Zondervan, Aug.). Rather than start with beliefs, he examines Christian practices: eating together, fasting, serving the poor in forgotten neighborhoods, and standing for peace in war zones. As readers naturally ask why Christians do these peculiar things, he re-presents doctrines that make such countercultural habits comprehensible.
“Many of the ‘unchurched’ are folks who consider themselves post-Christian,” says Wilson-Hartgrove, a North Carolina pastor. “They've rejected a religion that they think they've moved beyond. In many cases, I think they are right to have rejected the form of Christianity they experienced. The Awakening of Hopeis an attempt to translate the heart of [the faith] into the 21st century vernacular.”
In Wilson-Hartgrove’s assessment, beliefs alone don’t change lives or inspire others. A society reconsidering its relationship to Christianity needs to see concrete examples of faith in action.
That’s a sentiment shared by journalist David Aikman, author of One Nation Without God? The Battle for Christianity in an Age of Unbelief (Baker, Sept.). He’s less convinced than Wilson-Hartgrove of the need for catechism, but he’s on board with the need to ponder concrete examples of inspiring faith in action.
“There is nothing that the churches in general are doing that will reverse the decline, but there are some bright sparks among some specific churches,” Aikman says. “Catechism is much less important than authentic Christian lives lived out in humility and sensitivity. It doesn't need a huge number of authentic Christian testimonies to have major impact on society.”
Canada offers a cautionary tale, according to Regent College (Vancouver, B.C.) theologian Ross Hastings, author of Missional God, Missional Church: Hope for Re-Evangelizing the West (InterVarsity Press, Nov.). Canadian Christianity is giving way to secularism on the order of what’s happened in Europe, he says. Even pockets of church growth are costly: they come at the expense of other churches, who are losing members to growing ones.
Yet Canada offers hope, Hastings argues, where churches get involved in humanitarian work among marginalized people. His book gives a theological framework for witnessing beyond church walls through acts of mercy and justice.
In the quest for fresh hope, one theme resounds: there’s no shortage of faith professions in the United States. But talk rings hollow when it’s not accompanied by acts that illustrate why faith matters. The chronicling of such acts has begun.