Diana Butler Bass’s new book (Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, HarperOne, 2012, $28.99, ISBN: 978-0062003737) states what many secular and religious commentators have been saying for the past decade: Institutional Protestant mainline religion is in dramatic decline across North America, but so are many evangelical and conservative churches. Even Roman Catholicism is hemorrhaging badly. If former Catholics were their own denomination, they would be the second largest religious group in the United States.
So why are mainline churches declining? One reason commonly given is that birth rates among mainline Protestants tend to be quite low. There are other factors, however, such as an inability to adapt to a changing culture, disillusionment with institutional religion, the rise of personal spirituality as a replacement for religion, the dominance of secular values such as autonomy, choice, freedom, consumerism and self-actualization, the refusal to accept hierarchical solutions and answers to personal problems and questions, and the willingness to explore life’s meaning without religious authority.
Bass suggests the church needs to come to terms with three important questions, reflecting three trends that are no longer possible to ignore.
Believing: What do I think? People’s understanding of God is all over the map, from belief in a personal God to a life force. There is no single way of thinking about God anymore, if there even is a God.
Behaving: How should I act? People no longer attend church in the large numbers that characterized former generations. Even church members are now more likely to see church attendance as optional and dependent on their lifestyles.
Belonging: Who am I? Today people pick and choose their faith or spirituality as they would toothpaste or cereal. As an older generation fades away, diehard or cradle mainline church members are becoming increasingly rare. What especially characterizes our culture are people choosing more than one religion at the same time-Jewish-Buddhists, Anglican Quakers, Hindu Catholics, and every conceivable mix. Consistency doesn’t matter -personal preferences and the ability to meet needs trumps all. Religion today is more a way station than destination.
This eclectic religion isn’t really religion at all. For lack of a better word, social commentators term it “spirituality”-a nebulous word that means whatever a person wants it to mean. People say today, “I am spiritual but not religious.” However, Doug Todd of the Vancouver Sun has suggested that, at least in the Pacific Northwest, people are “spiritual but secular”-meaning that religion is no longer on their radar screen as a possible life option.
Yet, even in highly secular environments, as Bass notes, spirituality continues to attract people. Bass makes some helpful distinctions between religion and spirituality to demonstrate the shift that is taking place: For instance, while those who connect to religion may value dogma, those who consider themselves spiritual may value intuition. Similarly, the religious may value organization over connection; buildings over nature; and order over searching.
Religion is no longer a positive word. People think of it as cold, outdated, rigid, hurtful, authoritarian, narrow, controlling, embarrassing and mean-spirited. Even church members sometimes use these words to describe religion. As Bass admits, “…even religious leaders know that the old church institutions are unsustainable and are failing.” Sadly, the business of keeping the institutional church functioning has replaced mission, vision and purpose.
Despite the rather negative appraisal of organized religion, Bass, as a committed Episcopalian, insists, “What the world need is better religion, new forms of old faiths, religion reborn on the basis of deep spiritual connection-these things need to be explored instead of ditching religion completely.”
For the remainder of her book, Bass articulates a framework for developing renewed forms of religion. As a church growth strategist, I am not sure she succeeds in her goal, but I respect her underlying theology.
· Experiential Belief (Believing). Bass calls for a return to “faith in Jesus” and not just “belief about Christ.” In other words, she wants an experiential (more than intellectual) faith that reaches people at the core of their being rather than off the top of their head. She wants the church to give priority to experience rather than rules, regulations and traditions that have become outdated. She yearns for communities that are vibrant places of faith that inspire and empower members to live the Christian life faithfully and fully. She wants a return to the spiritual experience underlying the creeds-the connection with a personal God who enters into our human experience, brings us back to wholeness and calls us into fellowship.
· Intentional Practice (Behaving). Bass calls on Christians to be authentic and credible witnesses in the world, transforming lives with enlivening communities. She identifies the gap in the church between belief and behaviour, creed and conduct, lip service and life. She wants churches to become “sacred locales for spiritual experience.” She suggests churches cultivate once again the practices of faith that allow for us to imitate Jesus in how we live in the world as his disciples.
· Relational Community (Belonging). Bass wants Christians to know themselves through their community of faith. She calls for a re-identification with the church as community where we are nurtured and formed as disciples of Jesus. She wants the church to help its members know God personally, deeply and in such a way that lives are transformed and empowered for service. She wants us to see God in ourselves-the Christ in us who meets the Christ in the world.
The Great Reversal
Finally, echoing what many other commentators have been suggesting for over twenty years, Bass recommends that the church reverse its traditional order of making disciples (believing, behaving, belonging) to belonging, behaving and believing. In other words, we no longer believe the right things and behave the right way in order to belong to the church, but rather we belong to the church in order to behave in the way of Jesus and eventually come to believe in Jesus.
Bass is, of course, correct in this reversal. As she says, “People no longer join; instead, they join in. And when we join in, our hearts lead the way.” We grow as Christians by belonging to a community of faith that nurtures and supports us in our spiritual journey. In fact, it is impossible to even conceive of being a Christian apart from community. So belonging, entering into community, is the first step in our journey to discipleship.
Next comes behaving or following in the way of Jesus. In today’s world, there are many people interested in following the way of Jesus that are not yet ready to place their faith in Jesus. Bass would welcome such people into the church with open arms, because if they want to follow in the way of Jesus they may eventually come to believe in him. “Behavior opens the door for believing,” she says.
Last comes believing. “In the biblical pattern of faith, believing comes last,” she writes, and in this, she is surely correct. Through living in community and following in the way of Jesus, we come to believe in Jesus. This is developmental, organic faith – faith that grows and matures as we experience the Christian life in community. It is a far cry from institutional religion that sets boundaries and imposes rules and regulations for every step we take in the Christian life. Bass wants a church that lives and breathes the Spirit rather than stultifies and stifles to death. As she approvingly quotes Bonhoeffer, “Jesus does not call men to a new religion, but life.”
A Fourth Great Awakening
Bass concludes her book by writing about the Fourth Great Awakening in American religion, a phenomenon also known as the “Next Christendom” or the “Great Emergence.” Peter Wagner, the church growth specialist and retired Fuller Theological Seminary professor has written of the rise of the “New Apostolic Churches” that are seeking to move beyond religion while retaining a lively Christian faith. Bass characterizes this Fourth Great Awakening as a movement of “romantic realism”-“facing the world’s challenges head-on to take what is old-failed institutions, scarred landscapes, wearied religions, a wounded planet-and make them workable and humane in the service of global community.”
However we term the phenomenon, something new is happening among Christians that the mainline church ignores to its peril. As Bass puts it, “The old religious world is failing, but the Spirit is stirring anew.”
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.