America goes to pieces when the gross national product merely stubs its toe. Growth is success, success is our national creed, our creed shuns losers and exalts winners. Bigger and better confirms that creed. By no surprise, religious institutions have absorbed this standard and suffer mightily when they stop growing and, even worse, stumble downward.
My roots are in mainline Protestantism which has been losing ground for nearly 50 years now. During the first decades, everyone with a horse in that race denied the incontrovertible facts that the fortresses were crumbling. Institutions are rightly concerned with survival, of course, but the added anxiety came from that dread of entering the American doghouse for failing to live up to its creed. Some leaders were realistic and turned to the models of early Christianity to argue that numbers do not themselves make for holiness. The "smaller could be better" rationale was sandwiched into analyses that otherwise tried to refute or explain away the losses.
Meanwhile, Catholicism averted that crisis for a long time. Immigrants were streaming in to mask the downsizing of native born Catholics and church officials continued to count James Joyce's notion of "everyone" who had ever come near the church. But that bubble has burst now that Pew and other pollsters have noted the huge drift completely out of the church by nearly a third of all those born into American Catholicism. Hard realities have begun to protrude through the optimism that would be voiced by celebrants at youth rallies, congresses of Catholic collegians and stories of missions here and abroad by dedicated students. Notably, Pope Benedict began repeating the chant that a "leaner but meaner" church that, in effect, sloughed off the uncommitted might actually be better.
Christian Smith's essay (in the current NCR webpage) on the deep erosion of Catholic identity among young people superbly furthers the wake-up call. His studies go beyond the relatively shallow skimming of common surveying to the core of a pervasive aversion to church participation. The disaffection is profound and widespread, he concludes. It should correct illusions that the unhappiness is temporary or a hiatus in the spiritual lives of young people before they return to the fold.
Evangelicals, the other branch of American Christianity which has also believed itself impervious to decline, is in fact declining in smaller but symbolically significant degrees. Southern Baptists, for example, reported close to a two percent loss last year. David Kinnaman, head of the Barna Group in California, has jolted evangelical churches by documenting the sizeable drop-out rates among its millennials in particular.
Two inferences come to mind. One, that young people are disillusioned with all institutions save those that are equipping them to gain a solid place in the economy. Second, that American Christianity has become so entangled with that Dow Jones expansionist, entrepreneurial set of values that to win by those standards imperils its Christian authenticity. Should those growth spurt churches that do exist be considered the latest examples of embracing a marketing mentality prized on Wall Street but warned against in St. Luke's gospel? Can winning be losing? The danger is that such thinking can become an excuse for paralysis. Or the opposite, as it often turns out, a defensive reaction by which the church simply blames its sagging fortunes on a wicked world, refusing to look at itself.
If decline is the penalty for having idolized swelling numbers (profits) and/or forsaken the gospel for a mess of pottage, then perhaps this is a refining period when wheat can be separated from chaff. One thing has become crystal clear. To be Christian in any genuine sense will require a choice to be "odd," not proudly or arrogantly but in light of a winnowing what belongs truly to the faith and what merely latches on or conforms to the dictates of surrounding culture.