An Agenda for Recovering Christianity in America

See part one in this series, Why Is Christianity on Decline in America?

Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion attributes Christianity’s decline in the United States to:

  1. political polarization that has sucked churches into its vortex;
  2. the sexual revolution that has undermined the plausibility of Christian faith and practice for an entire generation;
  3. globalization that has made the exclusive claims of Christianity seem highly oppressive;
  4. materialism and consumerism that undermines commitment to anything higher than the self; and
  5. alienation of the cultural elites and culture-shaping institutions from Christianity.

What, if anything, can we do about the decline of Christianity? This question has triggered an entire generation of books and blogs. Douthat’s book is mainly descriptive and critical. He even admits that the book was “written in a spirit of pessimism.” Yet he rightly responds that for any Christian, “pessimism should always be provisional.” So in his last chapter he very briefly proposes four factors that could lead to the “recovery of Christianity.”

First, he speaks of the “postmodern opportunity.” The same relativism and rootlessness that has weakened the church is also proving exhausting rather than liberating to many in our society. Even in the academy, postmodern theory is now widely seen as being in eclipse, and there is no “next big thing” on the horizon. Douthat wonders about the possibility of a kind of revolution from above—that is, a revival of Christianity among cultural elites.

Second, he notes the opposite impulse at work, the “Benedict option”—a new monasticism that does not seek engagement with culture but rather the formation of counter-cultural communities that “stand apart . . . and inspire by example rather than by engagement.” Douthat suggests that these first two measures should not be seen as completely opposed and, indeed, could benefit by being paired with one another, otherwise engaging the culture can become accommodation and being an example can become separatism and sectarianism.

Third, he cites “the next Christendom,” meaning the explosively growing Christian churches of the former Third World could evangelize the West. Under the first two proposals Douthat can name some existing efforts that hold promise, but this factor is much more than a dream. In European and North American cities literally thousands of new churches and missions have already begun under the leadership of African, Latin American, and Asian Christians.

Finally, he proposes that “an age of diminished [economic] expectations”—along with the devastation of the sexual revolution and the exhaustion of postmodern rootlessness—could lead to the masses again looking to Christianity for hope and help. A church that could welcome them, he warns, would need three qualities. First, it would have to be political without being partisan. That is, it would have to equip all its members to be culturally engaged through vocation and civic involvement without identifying corporately with one political party. Second, it would have to be confessional yet ecumenical. That is, the church would have to be fully orthodox within its theological and ecclesiastical tradition yet not narrow and harsh toward other kinds of Christians. It should be especially desirous of cooperation with non-Western Christian leaders and churches. Third, the church would not only have to preach the Word faithfully, but also be committed to beauty and sanctity, the arts, and human rights for all. In this brief section he sounds a lot like Lesslie Newbigin and James Hunter, who have described a church that can have a “missionary encounter with Western culture.”

It is worth noting that each of these positive measures takes aim at one or two of the factors that have led to decline. The Benedict option seeks to break the hold of political polarization on the church. The postmodern opportunity aims to re-engage the cultural elites. The next Christendom has already strongly undermined the contention that Christianity merely reflects Western culture and imperialism. And if there is an “age of diminished expectations,” it could erode both the materialism and even the sexual licentiousness (which always works best in the midst of material plenty) that have undermined faith.

But how successful will these be? I don’t know, but I think these are the right strategies and responses. Why? First, each of the proposals addresses one of the five barriers to faith in our culture, so we should at least attempt to deal with them. Second, though treated briefly, these are essentially the same ideas that others such as Newbigin and Hunter have proposed. That confirms them in my mind. Third, as many readers know, I simply think these are features of a biblical ministry.

Near the very end of this book, Douthat (whom I have not met as of this writing) very kindly used our Redeemer Presbyterian Church as a good example of some of the things he proposes for the church in our time. When I read it I was startled, then humbled, then strongly overwhelmed by a sense that, for all God’s kindness to us over the years, we at Redeemer are so far from realizing our goals and aims. It actually discouraged me for several days until I noticed a little quote by G. K. Chesterton that Douthat cites near the end of his book. In The Everlasting Man Chesterton surveys the many forces over the last 2,000 years that threatened and should have destroyed Christianity.

“‘Time and again,’ Chesterton noted, ‘the Faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs.’ But each time, ‘it was the dog that died.'”

Editors’ Note: This is a cross-post from Tim Keller’s blog at Redeemer City to City.

  • purisomniapura

    I agree with what Mr. Keller is saying & right now the abortionists, the homosexuals, & the politically correct are reveling in a govt. sanctioned heyday. Proudly exclaiming the Christian church is dying on the vine, dwindling away into obscurity where it belongs. The bible is being mocked, ridiculed, called into question & anyone following it with any sort of real seriousness is being marginalized & branded as hateful, hypocritical bigots. Even more disturbing is how many people INSIDE churches are approving these secular victories & criticizing those in the church who don’t approve & labeling them ‘unloving & judgmental.’

    As troubling as all of this is, I cannot help but think what is happening in secular society will cause the cream to rise to the top within the Christian ranks & all those who are the true church will become even more serious & faithful to Christ, & those who are not, will crumble under the weight of it & fall away.

    The scriptures teach the true church is made up of each & every individual member. Every believer has got to understand the reality that their level of committment to Christ counts 24/7. Ultimately, the church’s efficacy in its witness to the world is essentially dependent on every Christian’s personal commitment to holy living & wholehearted, uncompromised obedience to Christ & His word … nothing less.

    May God help each of us live in a manner that glorifies Him!

  • April Van New Kirk

    May The God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus, be with you and bless you with His love.

    I read a statement on the Face Book Page of Christian Coalition. That is where I came across the article that I am leaving this comment on. The statement that got my attention was that they are a group for the next generation. When we share the love of Christ I we need to be available to all generations.

    After that experience, I read 85% of this post about Darthat, where I left it thinking there is a lot of hard work being put into writing about what we don’t have as the church. I saw no reference to the blessings of God on the church.

    I’m of the humble opinion,that that is the problem. The most studied of our church leaders are missing what God wants from His people. He wants us to focus on Him in our daily lives. God can change the world with a Word.

    I will do my best with His strength guiding me, to live a life pleasing to my God. Don’t worry, pray and follow the One who is your first love.

  • Arthur Sido

    Christianity is not declining in America. The religious culture of Christendom certainly is and that is not something to bemoan or seek to reverse. Just the opposite in fact, we should be hastening the decline so that the actual church will be more apparent to the world.

  • AStev

    It is easy for a church to avoid identifying with a political party, but it is much harder for them to avoid identifying with a political position.

    Leaving aside hot-button issues such as abortion and homosexuality, simply asserting belief in absolute, objective truth in this day and age is considered the mark of a dangerous fringe extremist.

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  • Frankinator

    Christianity is dwindling? RUH ROH! Perhaps it’s time to put down the bible and spend more time helping the poor or donating to charity or finding cures for cancer instead of trying to stop two men or women from getting married.

    • RN

      Or finding cures for cancer instead of trolling, Frankinator.

  • Marc

    The things that are happening today are nothing new and the bible has told us such things would happen. “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive,disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good,treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God–having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.” 2 Tim.3:1-5
    What many church leaders today are doing is approaching this from a purely pragmatic perspective thinking that the more people that are filling the seats in our church the better. This is not necessarily the case if you are compromising the message in doing so. Just take a look at what is happening with Andy Stanley and his apparent capitulation to the homosexual agenda. He like many others in church leadership these days seem to be a bit too concerned with what the world thinks and have thus attempted to soften the corners of the message we are called to proclaim. Instead we would do well as the early church did in the face of not just dwindling numbers but full on persecution to as Paul put it, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge:PREACH THE WORD; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” 2 Tim. 4:1-3

  • Christ Centered Teaching

    Dr. Keller,
    I am enjoying this series.
    Thank you for the discussion as well.
    I just finish reading, “The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World.”
    I believe you are right on the mark when you say we need the,”Gospelization of all our theology.”
    I believe that the Love of God is the context for all our theology,(speaking the truth in love).
    Since the cross of Christ was initiated entirely because God so loved, would you agree that both the act of the Gospel and the reason for the Gospel are both essential to the Gospelization of all our theology?
    That seemed to me to be what you and the other contributors where saying.
    That the supremacy of Christ also means the supremacy of His attributes.
    Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. John 13:1
    Do you agree and would you care to elaborate on that answer?

  • James

    This is why I enjoy this site. Insights like this are a valuable resource to our churches.
    -I agree. As Christians we should be mission minded even at home…engaging the world without conforming to the world…being wise but innocent like doves.
    -I’m also thankful for ministries like Redeemer church that is not only drawing people to Christ, but is also helping to shape the city. My friend of over 20 years came to Christ through Redeemer church and is now part of their church.

  • Daniel F. Wells

    Good analysis, Dr. Keller. I now want to buy Douthat’s book, especially if he reflects Newbigin and Hunter in a number of ways.

    I think your nuanced view of Christ of Culture (which encompasses all the perspectives/angles the Bible gives to the topic) is on target. Thank you for your writing.

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  • Bill

    He had me at, “political polarization that has sucked churches into its vortex;” If any of these points have direct teaching from Jesus, its this one.

    John 17:23 – I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

    Jesus realizes we can never agree on all things we believe, but for the sake of how we represent ourselves, he commands us to represent Christianity to the world as unified. we do no justice to Christianity with terms like:

    Conservative Christian
    social Christian
    Liberal faith
    Mainline protestant
    Bible believing Church
    and yes, “evangelical Christian”

    I understand how these terms came about so I need no clarification. I also want to add that some who say they are evangelical Christian also wrongly exclude others from that group.

    However, when we decide to use these terms for each other, we go against the comand in the verse above.

  • Christ Centered Teaching

    I have been pondering this line of thought. Childlike faith. If you have it, others may think you nieve. Yet Christ is the answer to literally all we face.
    Dr, Keller. You repeat over and over again that to the degree we let the truth of the Gospel permeate every aspect of our lives, to that degree we will experience joy, victory and lasting hope and satiation of our deepest longings.
    What is that if not the recipe for revival?
    What is the Gospel but that God so loved that He became a man to personally rescue us from eternal death?

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  • Gary Kelly

    The Foundation challenge: Many timid Christians have been deceptively silenced, because they are unsure of their foundation in Christ. Progressives have successfully used the ploy of false charges that Christians are being offensive, and intolerant, and worse, have fallen prey to the mistaken claim that Christians should not judge. This reveals many Christians are not founded on the Word of God, do not wear in the full armor of God, and are disobedient to their Lord’s call to be the Salt & Light of the earth to boldly preaching the Word of God and reproving the world of sin. Imagine if Jesus, His Apostles, and Paul were apathetic and did not “reprove the world of sin?” (2 Timothy 4:1-5) It is incomplete to only preach what Jesus said in John 3:16 and not what He said in the same breath through verse 21. Christians have become defensive which compromises the Word of God they are called to uphold.

    This is not 1776, when America was permeated with Biblical moral virtue. America is currently permeated with “progressive political correctness,” which requires relinquishing Biblical moral virtue. In order to restore the Republic as our Christian Founders intended, requires the core Biblical foundation which was the motivating factor in how America’s Founders confronted EVERY issue, whether social, fiscal, national, and international. In order to restore the “American Way of Life” for our descendants, American citizens, those who are also citizens of the Kingdom of God, must begin to honor and obey their Lord’s call to become the Salt & Light they are called to be, as “ambassadors” for their King. Also, instead of limiting “preaching” only 1 Timothy 2, they need to proclaim 2 Timothy 4 as well.

  • Christ Centered Teaching

    I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” John 17:26
    All our problems both before we are saved and after we are saved stem from some degree of a lack of the two things Christ prayed for us to have.
    God’s love in us,
    and Christ Himself in us.
    In fact, they are both the same.
    Loathing sin is not the answer, but a result of Christ in us and God’s love in us.
    Sin vainly competes for the heart of the one who truly knows Christ.
    “My heart belongs to another.”
    Those are not mere mushy platitudes without real meaning, or just sentimental reflections of rationalistic,liberal poet-apologetic.
    We are seeking a complex answer to a seemingly complex problem, one that we will never find, for the answer is simple.
    We can analyze the problem,build loathing for the problem,speak of how God hates the problem to such a degree He is angry at it.
    All we are doing by conjuring hate for unrighteousness is adding to the problem, and going in the wrong direction.
    The light of Christ in us dispels the darkness of sin in us.
    The Gospel makes literalistic and moralistic Christians mad though, because they try to fit it in their own categories. But the Gospel is it’s own category.
    God open our eyes to your Gospel!

  • Will

    I will say this: If Christians do not hold firm on the issue of abortion, we are no church worth attending. That is a holocaust in our midst. If speaking against baby murder (as the Didache did in the early days) is something we need to stop doing to regain our influence in society…..color me un-influential.

    Read Bonhoeffer by Metaxas. In the midst of madness and murder, he stood alone and against the popular culture. Christians, stand alone if needed. Don’t be afraid to be called a radical.

  • Christ Centered Teaching

    I agree that is our second greatest sin.
    Our greatest sin is not acknowledging the answer to everything!.
    Only in His power will our labors even matter.

  • Christ Centered Teaching

    Even when we stand alone we are closer to God inChrist.
    I agree. I just finished a review of Lamentations.
    Jeremiah was a hero for that reason. He loved God and would rather struggle with oppression and human loneliness than suffer alienation from God.

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  • Christ Centered Teaching

    We are suffering from a Christ-less Christianity.

  • Christ Centered Teaching A Simple Rule to Help Avoid A Christless Christianity

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