American religion pollster George Barna ‘s new book on U.S. Christians, Futurecast, tracks trends in the religious attitudes of Americans from 1991 through 2011. A main finding is reported in the 14 September 2011 USA TODAY article More Americans Tailoring Religion to fit Their Needs .
Barna notes that more Americans now count themselves among the unchurched than did in 1991 – 37% today vs. 24% then. The trend is not that fewer Americans consider themselves Christian, it’s that they no longer consider church membership essential to being a Christian. To some extent it is Americans living out their extreme individualistic attitudes.
“We are a designer society. We want everything customized to our personal needs — our clothing, our food, our education,” he says. Now it’s our religion.
I commented on this same idea in Which Christ do We Believe In? referring to the movie Talladega Nights, in which every character has their own personal Jesus. No longer are we Christ’s disciples conforming ourselves to His teachings, now we shape Jesus into whatever we want or need Him to be. Christianity is not a revealed truth but a putty whose plasticity we shape to fit our personal opinions. For a growing number of Americans Christianity maybe informational but certainly is not formational. In fact now the attitude is we are to form Christianity into whatever we want it to be. No longer is there the Lordship of Christ, what remains is how we exert our lordship over Christ to make Him conform to what we need from Him and His Church. Barna reports:
When he measures people by their belief in seven essential doctrines, defined by the National Association of Evangelicals’ Statement of Faith, only 7% of those surveyed qualified.
Barna laments, “People say, ‘I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.'”
Of course this trend isn’t something totally new. To some extent the very reason the American revolutionaries hung together was that following the ideals of the Enlightenment, they placed denominational differences as unimportant as versus the cause of a united American front against England. The particular beliefs of each denomination were made relative and unimportant. People could accept a general notion that they were all Americans, believers, even Christians as the bond which held them together as long as what they actually believed (their theology) was marginalized. It is a great compromise that Americans made in order for America to emerge. It is similar to the compromise the founding fathers made regarding slavery – ignore it because the issue was potentially too divisive.
It may be that the very partisanship which now paralyzes politics in America is the same issue: all the compromises, looking askance, winking and nodding, knowing smiles, avoidance and all other ways we used to pretend we were a united people no longer work as the glue to hold us together. The differences are emerging and we realize we are not such a united people after all. There are huge theological differences and diversities within the family of beliefs known as Christianity.
And since the differences are real, and since we have not created any open forums in which theological or philosophical differences can be discussed, people personalize religion and create their own. This of course is not going to help keep the nation united. It may for some mean the issue cannot be discussed since there is no point of agreement, but underneath the fissures in basic assumptions by Americans are widening. (In American politics we never seem to have an exchange of ideas, just mutual hurling of false accusations against each other in negative ad campaigns).
Sociologist Robert Bellah wrote:
“The bad news is you lose the capacity to make connections. Everyone is pretty much on their own,” he says. And all this rampant individualism also fosters “hostility toward organized groups — government, industry, even organized religion.”
When any one church makes its appeal to be “we are different” from all the rest and that all the rest are wrong and we alone are right, it actually feeds the problem. For that church begins to attract those people whose “designer religion” ideas say I want a church just like that. It is the individual which now affirms the “truthiness” of the church. The church appeals to the most individualistic thinkers who are happy to discover a church which conforms to their beliefs. It is the heart of sectarianism and the mind of cults.
The countervailing need is for Christians/ Christianity/ the Church to understand the cosmic nature of its truth. “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) – not just individuals, believers, the super-righteous, Christians, or Americans. The Christian message is for the entire cosmos. The Christian message is universal, a message for every single human being on the planet. The Christian message is meant to help us engage the world, not flee from it. Our task is to be a light to the world, not the fire that destroys everything in its path. It is in this universal as versus individualistic understanding that Christianity invites people to become part of the Body of Christ – become part of something greater than one’s self. Become part of something whose unifying bond is love, not alienating individualism.
None of this means people are to mindlessly believe and live a life of warm fuzzies. All of it demands great intellectual exploration and discovery. Are the claims of Christianity true? How are we to live if they are? What does it say about what it means to be human? What is the human role in and responsibility for the world? For one another? How do we deal with our differences – in perspective, in theology, in ethics, in science?
The test of love and faith is whether we can in fact discuss our theological differences and can overcome them in Christ. “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said (Mark 8:34). The embrace of extreme individualistic thinking is in many ways a rejection of the love which Christ lived and was the very basis of His willingness to die on the Cross. The opposite of the (self sacrificing) love of Christ is the self love of individualism.