by Chris Ritter
Jesus promised: “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Two thousand years later some 2.2 billion people call themselves Christians. In between, there have been any number of advances, retreats, deformations and reformations. We live in a time when Christian faith seems to be receding in America. Will America’s “cathedrals” soon be empty like those in Europe? Something thrills me when yet another armchair pundit licks the point of their pencil to write the obituary of the Church in America.* This has proved a reliable prelude to yet another surprising eruption of the Holy Spirit.
There is a sense in which America began as a project of the Enlightenment. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Monroe were deists who accepted the existence of a creator on the basis of reason. They rejected, however, belief in Christianity’s interventionist, relational deity. A secular national life seemed inevitable as America broke from a Christian empire. Jefferson went so far as to literally take a pair of scissors to the Bible and remove any reference to events that thinking people could not reasonably believe. He saw this as a kindness to salvage the moral teachings of Jesus from their superstitious casing. But while Jefferson was denying the supernatural, God was demonstrating the same in the First Great Awakening. The character of our nation was forever changed. Over 35 years, some 80% of Americans personally experienced a sermon by Methodist George Whitefield on one of his seven Georgia-to-Maine preaching tours. Although the revival featured emotional conversions, the movement was in no way anti-intellectual. Whitefield was Oxford educated and Jonathan Edwards, another key “new light” leader, was an early president of Princeton. Ironically, the revival (arguably) did as much or more to shape America’s intellectual legacy as the Enlightenment. Rutgers, Brown, Princeton, and Dartmouth universities were institutions founded from the revival.
As America ventured out into the Western wilderness, some argued the pioneer spirit was incompatible with Christianity. Historian Fredrick Jackson Turner offered his thesis that the American frontier spirit had no place for established churches and their association with monarchies, aristocrats, and nobles. Although established churches did fare poorly on the American frontier, Christianity flourished. Newer, nimble, and energetic groups like the Methodists and Baptist bred a new mold of Christian leadership that needed no more than a horse and a Bible. Denominational credentials were, if anything, a hindrance. Leadership by laity, women and minorities flourished. Camp meetings gathered isolated settlers for a unique experience of the holy. This faith was personal, but in no way private. Religious fervor was channelled, for instance, against the institution of slavery. The Second Great Awakening coincided with a Golden Age of Christian Mission. American became the worlds greatest missionary-sending nation. Christian women touched by the revival led the charge for suffrage.
As the 20th Century dawned, there was new optimism about the ability of science and technology to solve human woes. Modernists advocated the adaptation of Christianity as German higher biblical criticism made its way into the English-speaking world. The Methodist Episcopal Church flirted** with social engineering concepts like eugenics. Although Fundamentalism was an unhelpful Christian reaction, modernists, too, faced their own crisis of faith. By the First World War, it was becoming clear that advance technology would result in more efficient ways for humans to kill one another. All the while, today’s fastest-growing expression of Christianity was being birthed among the poorest of the poor. The Azusa Street Revival, led by African-American preacher William J. Seymour, broke out in Los Angeles. A new generation of evangelicalism was also being forged through the ministries of figures like Billy Sunday. Its mature form would be reached in the ministry of Billy Graham.
The 1960’s were a time of tremendous cultural shift in America. The church was lumped with the institutions that youth culture no longer trusted. Nearly every denomination saw a decline in church attendance. On April 8, 1966, the Times Magazine cover read “Is God Dead?” The article explored a trend among theologians to write God out of theology. One leader is this movement was Thomas Altizer of the Religion Department at Methodist-related Emory University who joined with others to construct a theology without God. The effort was to salvage a scrap of Christianity in the ethical teachings of Jesus, since the concept of God was found untenable. But God skipped his own funeral. The Jesus Movement broke out among the hippies and gave rise to expressions like the Vineyard Movement. As in previous revivals, a new era of Christian music was born. Pentecostalism matured and it found its way into mainstream culture and mainline denominations. The Charismatic Movement spawned revival in some churches and division in others. New models of churches and denominations were forged. By the 1980’s atheism seemed almost extinct.
Today, a trend toward “deconstruction” and rising levels of atheism have caused many of the faithful to worry. While Christianity is growing strong in all the parts of the world where the population is also growing fastest, many American churches are closed or will soon be closing. Church buildings, it turns out, make nice micro breweries and apartment buildings. As stated in Part One, I hold no optimism that current denominational expressions will survive the shift. But Christ is risen. While he has given no assurances of propping up our expressions of church, he has a surprising way of making good on his promise to build his church. Gates of hell, be warned.
*I offer no theological claim of American exceptionalism. Jesus is not American. We are not his favorite. Christian Nationalism is not only wrong but dangerous. (It invariably results in one type of Christian persecuting other types of Christians… all while Jesus reminds us his Kingdom is not of this world). The church in America is not special. But we have been exceedingly blessed beyond all deserving. God has every right to be done with us. The two-thirds world seems the primary locus of the Holy Spirit’s work at this time. I rejoice in this even as I pray the Holy Spirit will continue to be gracious to the church in America.
**Lewis Archer has documented how, in the early 20th Century, Methodist churches hosted events in support of eugenics, the idea that certain genetic traits should be selectively bred out of the human race. Bishop Francis McConnell, president of the Methodist Federation for Social Service, served on the Committee on the Cooperation with the Clergymen for the American Eugenics Society. The Methodist Review published “Eugenics: A Lay Sermon” by George Huntington Donaldson in 1929 in which it was argued that “the strongest and the best are selected for the task of propagating the likeness of God and carrying on his work of improving the race.” Adolph Hitler eventually demonstrated to the world the danger of this ideology. Methodists and other mainliners also flirted with communism in spite of its overt atheism.