Is This truly our future?”

TWO MAJOR TRENDS SEEM TO COMPETE IN TODAY’S CULTURE. One is a flight away from God as evidenced in recent reports that about twenty percent of Americans claiming no religion. The flight away from God has resulted in an apparent disinterest in “organized religion,” which has led to a decline in both church membership and attendance numbers. Then there is another competing trend, it is the rise of a variety of religious or spiritual expressions such as personal spirituality, the Pentecostal megachurch, and the increase in eastern religions.

Sociologists tell us further our culture is changing generally. The change is the result in the increase in instant communication and the social media. Additionally, according to sociologists and other pundits, the nature of the family is changing—the rise in divorce, more single parent homes, same sex marriages with children, and of course, blended families. Also communities are changing.  People are returning to the cities and moving away from suburbia while rural America loses its population.

Those who keep track of such things tell us the cultural changes resulting from progress in communication technology—smart phones, smart tablets, and instant messaging—have impacted society in ways never anticipated. Despite people friending each other through the social media, people are more isolated than ever. Clubs and lodges are losing membership; people do not join with others in face-to-face experiences. Add to all that the demise of newspapers—people get the news over the Internet through their smart phones. The trend seems to be people are living anonymously.

The future looks bleak. Because of the inability of the “organized” to adjust, civic groups are predicted to dry up, churches will disappear, and families will become even more dysfunctional. Those who continue to want to live in community and depend less on instant communication will become the new minority and be shunned by the technically savvy population. Shunning is probably the wrong descriptive word of what will happen to the outsiders who want to live in a world of human interaction. The technically savvy and new age people will simply ignore the outsiders and become totally unaware the needs of others for companionship, love, and care. In other words, indifference prevails.

My question, “Is this truly our future?” Change is always at work in the world. This is especially true of technical change and has been since the industrial revolution. Nevertheless, human needs have not changed. There is still a need for shelter, food, and personal security. There is still a need for a sense of well-being. There is still a need for engagement. Regardless of the technical advances there is still in human beings a gregariousness requiring attention.

What is all this chatter of cultural and religious change about? Is there truly a change in human nature that predetermines personal isolation, the end of face-to-face communication, to newspapers, and to religion?  To me it seems as though we are going through another twentieth and twenty-first century cultural and religious fad. If we are, those not making the adjustments to the new cultural phenomenon may ultimately be the ones who will have long term stability.

Soon after I accepted my first call to serve as a vicar, I was inundated with all sorts of ideas about cultural change and notions to build the parishes I served. If only I and all the clergy adjusted to the “baby boomers” unique outlook on life, parishes would grow; in fact, they would be “megachurches.”  The term “megachurch” was a part of the new lexicon of the new culture. Priests dreamt of building megachurches. All that was needed was a marketing tool, some new idea to catch the imagination of the unimaginative. However, just a few weeks ago, I heard that the megachurch is passé. The new trend now is the coffee house church, the meet-in-the-park church. I remember the beat generation from the 1950s, the coffee houses from the 1960s and the flower children of the 1970s—so, what is new? I suppose at a coffee house or in the park people can gather together to stare at their IPhones and IPads, and communally communicate by texting each other.

In order to understand the future we should look to our past. The culture of the United States has not really changed. Because we are a nation of immigrants and settlers, Americans are people of the frontier often living in isolation. Americans, regardless where they live, want to be rugged individualists setting out to explore new spaces and new ideas. My belief is that Americans of a frontier culture—the “rugged individualists”— are not likely to belong to anything that does not have an individualistic pay-off.

For two centuries Christianity has had a dominate place in our country (and in Europe for many centuries). If they were not, people claimed, out of fear of social sanction, to be Christian. Some made the church their base from which to exercise power and control. If we look back at the church as far removed as the eighteenth century, we probably will find, because of frontier isolation and the demands of the established church in several colonies, church membership and attendance numbers were not high in this country.

The Great Awakening of the 1720s and subsequent religious revivals led increased spiritual feelings and to parts of the Northeast United States to be classed as Burnt Out areas; that is, they had been evangelized so thoroughly that there were no new outlets for religious experiences. New religions were invented. In the 1820s and 30s mysticism was a vital part of the life of the frontier. It was out of such a culture that new religious expressions were born.[1]  In order to build these new religions converts had to be found outside the United States or a fear of the apocalypse had to be so thoroughly generated people joined out of fear. Eventually, these new religions begin to look like the main stream faiths that originally came to North America from Europe. The point is humanity is always in the throes of changes and challenges. That is especially true of our country where everything is new—even the old becomes new again.

Because of the dominance of the religion, despite the fact that churches were rarely full, Christian leadership became like the rich man Jesus encounters.[2] He has everything, he claims superiority because of his religion, but he lacks the one thing that will have an everlasting impact on his life and the life of his society. He holds too tightly to his personal possessions. Even in the question he asks about his eternal life, he is tied to his personal well-being. This is a good description of the character of “organized” religion today. Most of the denominations are rich in resources and worry about their loss. They ask the question, “What must we do to inherit eternal life?” That is, what must they do to remain in business?

Does adjusting to the new cultural challenges assure their longevity? Probably not—as soon as one adjustment is made another is required. The Christian religion, in order to survive, must be true to its origins; that is true to the words of Jesus. That may require a change. The church must see that God, through Christ, wants human dignity upheld. The church must recognize it is called to preach justice, seek peace for humanity, and assure that the world is cared for in both human and ecological terms. Christianity must be the continuing ministry of Jesus and truly be his body on earth. Its failure to be the full reflection of Christ is the reason the church struggles so much with the challenges of the culture. Being the true ministry of Jesus and being his body in fact means that the cultural challenges have little impact and numbers are not the essential part of the church’s continuing life. Whether the organized churches in the forms of the Protestant Church, Roman Catholics, or Eastern Orthodox continue, is not the issue. The issue is, will the teachings of Jesus continue—will humanity seek kindness of spirit and generosity of heart?

[1] An interesting discussion of the 19th century religious fervor is found in Brandon G. Kinney’s book, The Mormon War: Zion and the Missouri Extermination Order of 1838, Westholme Publishing, 2011.

[2] Mark 10:17-31.

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