What Our Journey from Cold Warriors to Religious Consumers Means for the Church

NYC late 70s

Mid-Century Modern

The religious context for most North American congregations in the second half of the 20th century was fairly clear.

  • Varieties of congregations that tried to live by the moniker “Bible believing”.
    • Debates between them were seen as “intramural”.
    • “Evangelical” was the “big Bible tent”. Issues like infant vs. believer baptism were a big deal to clergy and loyalists but increasingly seen as “negotiable” by much of the laity.
    • The African American church was part of the big Bible tent but often racially segregated launching the church racial reconciliation movement.
  • Mainline congregations had their heyday and their long retreat. “Bible believers” had their doubts and complaints but mainline folks were moral, well-meaning, do-gooding people.
  • Roman Catholics went from theologically suspect by “bible believers” to political allies as the culture war heated up in the 1980s.
  • Religious minorities like Jews, Mormon and Jehovah Witnesses were present but not major players unless there was a significant regional population.
  • The general population that wasn’t religiously observant was presumed to be “nominal”. “Nominal” meant a general belief in God, some reverence for the Bible and little animosity towards the Christian church and other religious institutions. “Godlessness” was something for communists and eggheaded atheists.
    • While there might have been tensions between science and religion it seemed mostly a problem for some strict evangelicals. Mainline and Catholics seemed to be managing the stresses one way or another.

Late Century Change

Whenever we’re standing in one spot imagining what the future will look like we seldom fully appreciate what makes up our present. If we had imagined the Cold War was a conflict between god-full-ness and god-less-ness we were mistaken. The end of the Cold War didn’t cause a sudden triumph of theism, increasingly it seems its moved us in a direction of spiritualism and atheism.

Mark Lilla wrote an important essay about how the end of the cold war has impacted American politics. We should probably do more reflecting on how it changed the religious landscape too.

  • Evangelicals went from targeting godless communists abroad to secularists at home and increasingly “Bible-believing” became associated with Republican politics.
  • Roman Catholics took a similar but slightly different ride. They became political allies but their multi-national platform and tradition of social activism that from a free market American perspective looked suspect or even “leftist” gave them a bit of a different look.
  • The mainline church continued to crater institutionally. To what degree did the cold war fuel the American mainline ethos? After the great enemy was conquered did mainline congregations with a less demanding, less specific god begin to feel like Wyoming missile silos?
  • Atheists and agnostics were no longer genocidal Maoists or Stalinists but kind, moral college-educated newspaper-reading neighbors who just wanted to make the world a better place without religious sectarian fighting or freedom infringing religiosity. So what if they didn’t go to church anymore?
  • The new national threat were not godless atheists wanting to make the world better through a utopian political solution but through a fundamentalist religious one. If during the cold war mainline and “bible believing” Christians could stand together against godless communism increasingly the two groups were divided. The children of mainliners were not really concerned about Islamists taking over American institutions but rather Christian fundamentalists. The enemies of freedom abroad used to be atheists, now they are fundamentalist theists, and its a short trip to seeing that fight at home as being against Christians rather than Muslims. American Jews (not the Zionist ones) seemed to be the safe exception among the Abrahamic religions.

The New Church Normal

The religious assumptions of the nominalists and non-practicing began to migrate in significant ways. Class and education increasingly impact where a person will align in terms of religious assumptions and towards which institutions they will gravitate.

  • Hispanics, African Americans, and less educated or affluent whites more often continue to possess religious assumptions that align with many Christian churches. They can more easily be engaged by traditional Christian churches and re-activated, must like the kinds of outreach programming churches did in the second half of the 20th century with the majority white population. People didn’t need to be converted as much as the needed to be re-activated or “churched”. The question “if you were to die tonight do you know what would happen to you?” made sense and caused an implicit fear response.
  • The Seeker movement tried to engage the white, suburban, college educated and non-college educated middle class. While the movement very intentionally tried NOT to disturb the theological consensus of big Bible tent evangelicalism (“a safe place to hear a dangerous message”) the movement implicitly accommodated the therapeutic and consumer assumptions that were shaping its target population. The movement transitioned a large segment of the evangelical population into this new ethos. Even though people still went to church, invited Jesus into their hearts, and many of them continued to vote “the right way” deep assumptions of “what Christianity and the church is for” continued to migrate under the surface.

Skeptical Emergents Looking for Solid Ground

While the seeker movement transitioned some of the suburban, more Christian, more conservative into a new type of fold, this new type of fold which has now become the new “normal” (contemporary music, large churches, multi-staff, etc.) a large segment of the white, educated population were having their doubts about the whole thing.

The Evangelical Emergent movement was a reaction to the Seeker movement. It fractured in two directions that can be tracked by following two celebrity pastors, born in 1970 who both founded mega-churches named “Mars Hill”: Mark Driscoll and Rob Bell.

When faced with uncertainty you often look for certainty somewhere:

  • Mark Driscoll and many other decided to double down on the Bible in the form of new emergent Calvinism or perhaps the new Puritanism.
  • Rob Bell decided to go deeper into intuition. “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.”

Mark Galli puts his finger on this in his piece on Rob Bell a year ago in CT.

In other words, Bell believes our knowledge of God is grounded not in doctrine, the Bible, the preached Word, the sacraments, our institutions, or even what Jesus revealed (all ways theologians ground our knowledge of God), but in our experiences and our intuitions—especially that sense many have that there is a deeper reality in, with, and under this life. This is an appeal to general revelation, how God makes himself known naturally to the world. Classically understood, these intuitions also include an awareness that we stand under divine judgment for our sin, but Bell does not go there. Nor does he hint that we might ever doubt our intuitions—he assumes we can trust them.

This may surprise readers who believe I wrote God Wins to refute Bell’s controversial theology. Only in part, though that part is not insignificant. I mostly stumble over his epistemology—his understanding of how we come to know what is true, and by what method we determine how to live authentic lives. As I argued in the book, this is precisely my concern about evangelical faith as a whole. The thesis in my book and in this essay is that in this respect, Rob Bell is not only an evangelical, but an evangelical’s evangelical, the evangelical par excellence.

In other words the emergent split is still a working out of the deeper fault-lines in the American evangelical landscape. Now, however, further from Christendom the institutional landscape continues to change.

Religious Pluralism

As I’m trying to map out what we are seeing is continuity and discontinuity. The world of the 2010s is very different from that of the 1950s but we keep working through the same kinds of issues.

  • We’ve seen a significant retreat in the trust of institution: government and religious.
    • Technology, power and affluence have strengthened individualism.
    • Overseas we are less concerned with enemy states than the failure of nation states and the chaos wielded by militia groups motivated by religious and ethnic demands.
  • We have access to so much more information so much more easily and cheaply
    • If you wanted to educate yourself on a subject you needed access to a library
    • We are bombarded by push-information mostly driven by the market place
  • If the second half of the 20th Century saw the decay of the city center the 2000s have seen its renaissance
    • The American dream moved from the Brady Bunch and Partridge Family (with Sanford and Sons and Archie Bunker still in the city) towards Friends and Sex in the City.
  • Immigration and people migrations have continued to impact the affluent, developed world. American and Europe are no longer dominated by “Protestant-Catholic-Jew”.

Religious Consumers in a Broader Marketplace

An increasingly secular culture doesn’t eliminate religion, it just changes it. Americans may not participate in institution of formal religion in the numbers they used to but they also don’t seem to be less religious. They just find their religion in different ways.

What secularism has motivated is the denial of religion. If you’ve found some ideas or lifestyle choices helpful and meaningful and you wish to share them with your friends the last thing you should probably do is call them a “religion”. This is an old trick that evangelicals have used before.

  • “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.”

When 1/3 of Americans can embrace the moniker of “spiritual but not religious” you should pay attention.

“Spiritual” has shifted of course. It probably used to mean

  • A belief in God that probably some recognition of Jesus in the mix
  • A presumption that if one decided to get more religious a church and/or a Bible would be the first place to start
  • An assumption of a persistent, everlasting self/soul and some idea of heaven and hell

Today it is more likely to mean

  • A rather impersonal God as a loving spirit in everyone, around everything, generally meaning and wanting good for all
  • That religions are attempts at articulating spirituality. Choice of religion is more of a lifestyle choice decided by whether it fits what the autonomous, consumer self finds meaningful or helpful in pursuit of their personal goals or vision for their life
  • Religious ideas are more like tastes: Coke or Pepsi. They should be evaluated along common assumptions about supporting life and happiness.

Tim Keller’s list of four assumptions about religion and spirituality are helpful.

  1. No moral authority other or higher than the self. My personal happiness is the highest good.
  2. In the end the good of the individual always trumps the good of the community.
  3. If God does exist he does for our benefit to make this a good world to live in (MTD)
  4. Whatever meaning or happiness there is must be found within this material world

American Yoga

For many of us the changes in Christianity are too close and emotional to learn from. If you want to get a sense of how contemporary American culture impacts a religion in this “spirituality/religion” conversation take a look at what is happening with Yoga in America. Check out this Huffington post piece: “How Yoga Became A $27 Billion Industry — And Reinvented American Spirituality

Yoga Journal tackles the question “Is Yoga A Religion?”

Perhaps it would be helpful to consider the difference between the word “religion” and another word commonly associated with it, “spirituality.” Spirituality, it could be said, has to do with one’s interior life, the ever-evolving understanding of one’s self and one’s place in the cosmos—what Viktor Frankl called humankind’s “search for meaning.” Religion, on the other hand, can be seen as spirituality’s external counterpart, the organizational structure we give to our individual and collective spiritual processes: the rituals, doctrines, prayers, chants, and ceremonies, and the congregations that come together to share them.

The fact that so many yogis report spiritual experiences in their practices indicates how we might best view the ancient art. While many Westerners come to yoga primarily for its health benefits, it seems safe to say that most people who open to yoga will, in time, find its meditative qualities and more subtle effects on the mind and emotions equally (if not more) beneficial. They will, in other words, come to see yoga as a spiritual practice. But, without credos or congregations, it can’t properly be regarded as a religion—unless we say that each yogi and yogini comprises a religion of one.

Implicit here are the working definitions of most Americans.

How Americans have appropriated yoga has not gone unnoticed or without complaint from Hindus. Words like “rape” and “theft” get thrown around. 

Repositioning Church

What is important to track here, however, is how our assumptions of “what religion is for” or “what is spirituality” changes how we approach the church and Christianity. These deep assumption have always been in play.

When a visitor comes to your church what “felt need” might they have in mind? What are their assumptions? What evaluative grid are they working to see if, as a religious consumer your congregation might “meet their needs?”

Most church growth thinking today will focus on growing your church based on “customer satisfaction”. This doesn’t critique the heart of the consumer.

What Must the Church Do Now?

  • We need to educate themselves about the classical content of the world religions. We need to be more familiar with Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam. The religious consumers “trying you out” will have been playing in the shallow end of the pond of the ideas of the great world religions. We should have a pretty good handle on the issues and how they relate to our own cultural matrix.
  • We need to figure out how to talks about the other world religions and their American expressions in the context of our communities. Blanket condemnation or denial will be interpreted as closed minded religiosity and tribalism. Why do we believe that God is personal? Why don’t we believe in reincarnation?
  • We need to figure out what church leadership and discipleship looks like in a day where “the religious customer is always right”. Just saying “theology is as real as math” doesn’t work.
  • We are going to have to be better listeners, to figure out what people are saying and why and how it works in their lives.

From Being Loved to Learning to Love

I think the heart of what we are going to need to figure out is how to critique this consumerist context in a productive way. The secular/spiritual consumer is how most will simply see themselves and they have no experience of seeing themselves in any other way. This isn’t anything you can talk anyone out of and yet it impacts every conversation we have.

The demands of the Cold War and the necessities of less affluent, more brutal life demands acclimated generations to the obvious need for self-sacrifice for their survival and the survival of those they loved. Our own success has brought us to a place where we are left to indulge ourselves and finally give ourselves some “me” time. I am the center of the universe and I will support with my allegiance and my money the spiritual vendor that best produces the me that I find desirable and attractive in the eyes of those that most matter around me.

At the heart of the Christian narrative is a God who is actually the center of the universe but freely decides at great cost to rescue the undeserving, the unlovely, the immoral and the hard to live with. He calls this glory. He calls this love. He calls this joy.

In his wake he invites those who have received this love to do likewise though it brings them hardship, suffering and death. It is the opposite of American consumerism and when expressed is too often confused with self-interested-driven duty.

As I learn to articulate it I find two interesting yet contradictory responses:

  • “Why would anyone want to live that way?”
  • “It’s too beautiful and idealistic to be true.”

The only response to these two questions is the resurrection.







About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in Culture commentary, Institutional Church and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What Our Journey from Cold Warriors to Religious Consumers Means for the Church

  1. Harris says:

    This is a bit too meta- for me. What you provided was the outline for a book, a very fine book, i might add. But as an overview? I dunno. There’s a whiff of desperation here, of trying to figure it all out, as if we need to figure it all out (this is all the matter of self, btw), an approach to the problem that leaves one basically on the surface, describing the problem and then trying to find some way around it. The turn to the Resurrection at the end feels a little too much like an easy Grace, an appeal to “the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord!” (cf. Jeremiah 7:4).

    At my age, these cultural questions seem a little small. Or rather, the question of faith, of purpose, of an end — that looms larger than ever. “Resurrection” feels small relative to that, even a bit of wishful thinking. the real questions (for me) are what to hope for, what to forgive, how to clear my life from the false consciousness of this consumer-saturated world.

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