Greg Garrett: The Problem of Contemporary Christianity, Part 1

[An excerpt used with permission from The Other Jesus: Rejecting a Religion of Fear for the God of Love (published by Westminster John Knox)]

One doesn't have to read the news (or watch it) too closely these days to begin thinking that something has gone badly wrong with American Christianity. While long-established Protestant denominations like the Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Methodist churches wrangle over questions of morality and continue to hemorrhage members (as they have done now for the past half-century), the Roman Catholic Church suffers horrible harm to its reputation for covering up priestly abuse and other misconduct and now pays for it financially-and by the loss of faith among the flock. Meanwhile, megachurches and Pentecostals continue to gain converts, but often at the cost of true engagement with the world-or even with God.

A major 2008 poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life quantifies some of the damage, which seems to be extensive: Over a fourth of Americans have left their original faith for another tradition-or for none at all; without the inflation provided by Catholic immigrants, for example, the Catholic Church in the United States would have suffered stunning losses of people who now no longer count themselves Catholic. Perhaps the most disturbing statistic for the future of the Church is that one in four Americans between 18-29 claims no religious affiliation whatsoever.[i] As The Atlantic notes,

Catholic and Protestant decline has coincided with the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, whose numbers have more than doubled in a decade-and-a-half. Being unaffiliated isn't necessarily the same as being an unbeliever. Many Americans who don't identify with any particular faith presumably retain spiritual beliefs of one sort or another. But what's long made America exceptional among developed nations is the strength of organized religion, and it appears that strength is weakening. [ii]


More recent polls verify this data, and the trend seems unlikely to change: among America's Buster and Mosaic generations (people aged 16-41), well over 30 million identify themselves as being "outsiders" to the Christian faith, and this number grows generationally (that is, each successive group of young people are even less likely than the one before it to be attracted to Christianity). [iii] It seems to be a mass movement away from the faith as it is currently practiced. Add to the mix the fact that many observers suggest that the culture is now going through one of those mammoth periodic readjustments in the way we think, see, believe, and act-Phyllis Tickle, for example, believes that we are going through a paradigm shift that occurs once every five hundred years-and the challenge to mainstream Christian perception, belief, and practice becomes that much more apparent.[iv] 

In response to the terrorist attacks of 9-11, some writers and thinkers have observed that religious faith in general is too dangerous in a multi-faith world, and the recent attempts to legitimize war, scientific, and policy decisions with reference to a particular strain of American Christianity has played right into the arguments of these so-called New Atheists. As Sam Harris writes in his book The End of Faith, "technical advances in the art of war have finally rendered our religious differences-and hence our religious beliefs-antithetical to our survival. We can no longer ignore the fact that billions of our neighbors believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom, or in the literal truth of the book of Revelation, or any of the other fantastical notions that have lurked in the minds of the faithful for millennia-because our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons."[v]

So the battle lines are drawn; critics see American Christianity as, at best, judgmental and irrelevant. At worst, it is irrational and even dangerous. And all around us, our culture and our world are going through monumental changes. How can Christianity possibly cope with these problems?

Some Christians and their traditions seek relevancy, and try to accommodate the changes by adapting to the culture they see around them: think, for example, of megachurches that seek to connect with modern audiences through an entertainment or self-help orientation, or by adopting the gated-community model of providing safety, privacy, and services to a select clientele. Others pull back entirely inside the walls, raise the drawbridge, and preach the old time religion. Religious fundamentalism (in every faith tradition) is a common response to the fast-moving changes we are experiencing, as Karen Armstrong notes: "Much of fundamentalism is a response to this painful transformation."[vi] Fundamentalists try to hold fast to the way (they think) things have always been done, to the things (they think) have always been core beliefs, even if they don't seem to be working well any more (or never have, if we are honest).

Christianity's reputation has taken what may be a well-deserved beating, although not all of this decline in respect is due merely to perceived scandal and observed contention. As I was just suggesting, it also has something to do with the kind of Christian faith represented by a vast number of American Christians. As my friend and former priest Greg Rickel, the Episcopal bishop of Olympia (Western Washington) told me,

Christianity has become the institution, rather than the message.  I hate to say it, but it often appears to me that those peering in from the outside know more about us than we know about ourselves. They actually do know the good things of Christianity but can't seem to find it much anymore within those who call themselves Christian. I realize that this sounds very harsh, but I think our situation demands some level of bluntness.

            Well, the Bishop of Olympia probably knows a few things concerning the institution-and the problems facing the Church. I agree with his assessment here: Even the lives of those who identify themselves as followers of Jesus are often defined more by church attendance and a few strongly-held opinions concerning personal morality than they are by a transformed life. Pollster George Barna, an evangelical who criticizes contemporary American Christianity, has done longitudinal studies that point out that those who identify themselves as regular church-goers do not carry their worship into their daily lives, and in fact, many do not even feel that they have connected with God during worship. Moreover, many American Christians consume, pursue, and value many of the same things as their secular fellows; Barna notes that few of the believers he surveyed define success in spiritual terms. Instead, they buy into many of our secular societal myths and success stories connected to professional achievement, family, accomplishments, and financial gain. So even those who describe themselves as very religious are sometimes not actually religious, at least in terms of life-changing spiritual practice; they are just people who happen to go to church twice on Sunday and, say, disapprove of homosexual marriage.[vii]


[i] You can download their report at My colleagues at the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion employ a slightly different methodology to account for our post-denominational faith, and get a slightly different-but equally disturbing-figure. According to their research, published in 2006, "people 18-30 are three times more likely to have no religious affiliation (18.6%) than are persons aged 65 or older (5.4%)."American Piety in the Twenty-first Century: New Insights to the Depth and Complexity of Religion in the US (September 2006).

[ii] "Survey Says: Hellbound," The Atlantic, Feb. 28, 2008, accessed at:

[iii] David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity . . . And Why It Matters(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 19.

[iv] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), 16-17.

[v] Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: Norton, 2005), 14.

[vi] Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God (New York: Ballantine, 2001), 33.

[vii] George Barna, Revolution (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2005), 30-35.