The ardent Atheist or devoted Relativist might view the decline in North American church attendance as signaling the death of Christian religious fever. The Atheist or Relativist who measures success in numbers would politely suggest that we are witnessing the secularization of America, similar to trends in Western Europe as church attendance declines. Even the North American Christian faithful would quietly agree with this trend. However, as history has been here before at the beginning of the last century, perhaps both the religious and secular should ask themselves if their assessment is correct. Is more going on than can be reconciled by church attendance?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian executed by the Nazi regime for his role in a plot to kill Hitler, was particularly disturbed by the decline in German church attendance after WWI. As the social gap widen between the poor and the social elite in the Weimar during reparation payments, he saw a society ripped apart. He observed that the Protestant church had become bourgeois, a place for the artisan and merchant class, but lacking common people. For the elite, faith was private, church attendance casual, and the working class no longer attended, so the question Bonhoeffer asks is, has Christ been divided? Since WW2, Europe’s religious narrative identity has moved towards secularization and the decline in church attendance validates this observation, and that of Bonhoeffer’s, especially in the Western academy. For those opposed to religious fever, the trend is the right one. For the faithful, it’s disturbing and problematic. What went wrong? Perhaps the answer and elucidation lies in Bonhoeffer’s study, Sanctorum Communio or the communion of saints.
What was Bonhoeffer’s observation? It was in his PhD thesis, Sanctorum Communio, written at the age of twenty one, a paper that the theologian, Karl Bart called a theological miracle. Karl Bart’s own examination was that WWI was a disaster for the Church in Europe with each of the warring nations claiming the Christian God to be on their side. Christianity had become a tribal God. When Germany fell, so did its faith in the Church. Bohofeffer’s analysis was that the Protestant church had become bourgeois and lost touch with the poor. The German church had traded its relationship with the deprived for the merchant class and lost the masses. He argues, from the New Testament, that for Christ to be present in the church, it cannot be divided and must maintain a real connection and relationship to all people regardless of race, class or belief.
During the Nazi oppression of the Jews, Bonhoeffer realized the practical implication of such commitment to community. When the right of the church to preach the gospel was challenged by the Nazi’s, Bonhoeffer rethinks the position of the church. The real issue of the church is to stand with the victims of oppression, regardless of their beliefs, race, or economic circumstances. This is the gospel. Not only was church attendance down, but the very meaning of the gospel was at risk, and Bonhoeffer could clearly see how it had been compromised. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer states that the Protestant gospel proclaimed a “cheap grace.” Cheap grace let Christians believe they are forgiven and accepted by God even if they did not battle injustice in a world around them. Grace is costly for the believer and God. For Bonhoeffer, grace in the bible was a “costly grace.”
Peter Berger, Resurgent Religion
The conundrum today is that in spite of declining church attendance in NA and Europe, the world is not becoming less religious, but more! Peter Berger, one of the original contributors to the secularization thesis that modernity leads to secularization has with his colleagues rejected this thesis after 40 years. Instead, Berger maintains that modernity leads to pluralism (The Desecularization of the World, Resurgent Religion and World Politics, edited by Peter Berger). Not exactly the expected outcome of the enlightenment and technology, the tools that would lessen our dependence on religious belief. So what’s all this noise about declining church attendance?
As Berger notes, religious fever and its growing numbers in the Protestant church is coming from among the poor and uneducated. Church attendance is down in the both western Protestant and Catholic churches, but significantly up outside the western world. For those of us in the NA church, it begs hard hitting questions. Why are they growing and not the traditional homelands of the Protestant and Catholic faith? When growth can be seen as blessing and decline as God displeasure, this is particularly disturbing.
Peter Berger affirms that like Islam, the Evangelical upsurge is breathtaking in scope. He comments:
“Geographically that scope is even wider. It has gained huge numbers of converts in East Asia – in all the Chinese communities (including, despite severe persecution, mainland china) and in south Korea, the Philippines, across the south Pacific, throughout sub-Saharan Africa (where it is often synthesized with elements of traditional African religion), apparently in parts of ex-Communist Europe. But the most remarkable success has occurred in Latin America, there are now thought to be between forty and fifty million Evangelical Protestants south of the U.S. border, the great majority of them first-generation Protestants. The most numerous component within the Evangelical upsurge is Pentecostalism, which combines biblical orthodoxy and a rigorous morality with an ecstatic form of worship and an emphasis on spiritual healing. Especially in Latin America, conversion to Protestantism brings about cultural transformation – new attitudes towards work and consumption, a new educational ethos, and a violent rejection of the traditional machismo (women play a key role in the Evangelical churches).”
Sanctorum Communio, The Communion of Saints
Perhaps, in light of the worldwide growth, we , the NA religious should ask, “What is it that Evangelicals in other countries have that we don’t?” Certainly the Protestant and Catholic religious in NA and European would acknowledge that service to the poor is a priority and engage in a variety of tactics to reduce poverty. But the wider church has something that its NA and European breather don’t — a relationship with the poor. We know of the poor, but lack a direct relationship with the poor. The growing churches have this unique relationship, bound by a common vision of man, the Imago Dei (Image of God), and in this relationship Christ is found, Sanctorum Communio, the communion of saints. Here, Christ is not divided along between people of means and those without. For example, you’ll find in Africa, small church communities helping 20 or 30 or more victims of AIDs with far less resources than any of their counterparts in North America. With less means, on a church to church comparison, the African church’s do more. What does this say about we who are religious in NA?
Bonhoeffer’s assessment, diagnosis and remedy for the post WW1 church decline echo’s the Biblical prescription for a much purer form of Christianity. Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners Magazine, makes this exacting point when he as a young seminarian cut out every passage in the Bible about poor people, wealth and poverty, and oppression. He found several thousand verses. It was the second most prominent theme in the Old Testament. And in the New Testament, the Synoptic Gospels, the first three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, one of every 16 verses dealt with the issue. In Luke, it was one of every seven verses. When he was done, his Bible was in shreds. It was full of holes, falling apart. When he would take it out to preach, he would say, “Brothers and sisters, this is the American Bible. It’s just full of holes.”
Whatever our churches become, it has foremost to be a gospel in relationship to and for the poor. This is the communion of Saints. So I ask myself, who are the poor in my neighborhood? I, like most NA Christians, find them hard to see, but here is a partial list:
- Woman suffrage and unwanted pregnancy. It may be established that the legality or illegality of an abortion does not affect the rates of abortion. However, we have to ask why do so many women seek such a traumatic remedy and risk so much. In China, abortion has probably more to do with a single child family standard and the desire that the child be a boy. The abandonment rate of female babies would support such a cultural norm. But at home, in NA, abortion has probably less to do with a women’s right to her body as with economics, like health care or the lack of affordable or universal care and the costs of raising children given a single mother financial dilemma. A pregnant mother who knows she will be taken care of is less likely to abandon her child. This plight of the helpless, the unborn child, and financial or social anxiety of the mother is very solvable at the level of the local community or church. Statistically, given the millions of children aborted annually, it may be the largest target for the development of communion of saints around us. Would our church look differently if the mark of the NA religious is their unconditional and long term assistance for mothers of unwanted pregnancies, no matter the cause or social situation? Our intent may be good, but our time, sense of priorities, and what we are willing to risk are challenged to meet the need.
- The Elderly or so call retired. Many come to our churches, but many more fall thought the cracks of any relationship of being wanted, cared for, and the objects of the financial help, as modernity has broken the bonds of the extended family and cast them into the consumerism of care. How different our alter calls might be if the call to accept Christ was tied to a responsibility to help the elderly?
- Additional victims of financial bankruptcy due to a health crisis, those children who long for a big brother or sister, or family’s wounded from predatory lending who’s homes are at risk of foreclosure, or the forgotten casualties of hurricane Katrina. How do we liberate them? What energies do we bring to our confession?
The Confessing Church
Maybe a return to the movement of Bonhoeffer’s “confessing church” along with “costly grace” is the prescription for church growth in America. The “confessing church” was to oppose the Nazi-sponsored German Christian Church of the 1930’s. Major church leaders of the time acquiesced as the German Protestant church was made subservient to the Nazi state. This included Nazi reinterpretation of basic teachings of the church — for example, stressing “the Jews” as the enemies of Jesus and all Christians. In May 1934, the Confessing Church set up an administration and proclaimed itself the true Protestant Church in Germany. The church was forced underground after the arrest of many of its ministers.
Like Bonhoeffer’s “costly grace,” Charles Finney, the 18th century evangelist of the great awakening in Britain, pioneered the alter call and tied it social justice. The reason he did so was he wanted to sign up his converts for the antislavery campaign. So faith and church growth in the 18th century got directed immediately to justice for the poor.
The poor as the center of the church, the focus of the gospel itself is where Christ is found. Protestant and Catholic church growth outside the west would validates this claim. Conceivably, this is our trouble in the NA churches. It has become bourgeois to varying degrees and Christ is not as easily found and in many ways not appealing to the secular side of the house. Learning to risk our own stereotypes of faith, and ask what our freedom means to “be” as opposed to “having.”
In an address delivered by Bonhoeffer in Fanö, he challenges us take the path of peace, of the Jewish sense of Shalom, well being with my neighbor.
“There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture, and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war. To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.”
The church grows when it risks a direct connection or path to the poor. Perhaps this is the trend that should be measured as the real indication of future church growth, or as Bonhoeffer framed it, the Communion of Saints.