The tales of bringing the gospel to the world and prosperity before all are hallmarks of American evangelical Christianity. However, what once seemed to be a reality has become but a fading dream, one which many churches are waking up to in a painful way.
Religious practice in America has steadily declined for the last half-century. While alternative “spiritual” practices have taken the place that Christianity once occupied, it is an amalgamated buffet of competing beliefs, philosophies, and views that one elects or disposes of at will. DIY religion has brought about the creation of DIY church, where in the tradition of the pagan world, the worship of the self through various forms of activity has taken the place of the worship of God, and with it the need for church. The proof has been in the foot traffic throughout America’s churches, which are closing rapidly across the nation, even in the Bible Belt, America’s heartland of Protestant Christianity.
In response to this change, and in an effort to make Christianity “relevant” to millennials and the upcoming Generation Z, churches have started holding worship services in bars, movie theaters, and homes:
Amid dozens of church closures in the heart of the Bible Belt, some in South Carolina are planting congregations in bars, movie theaters, and in homes.
South Carolina newspaper The State reported Thursday that across the traditionally conservative state, many churches have closed — 97 since 2011 — and others are slowly dying, reflecting a nationwide trend, yet there is new growth amid the decay.
Reflecting on the article Thursday, Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington D.C., noted that the South Carolina newspaper’s account of the unconventional ways of doing church shows that stories of decline are “more complicated than church shrinkage … as people leave old denominations, especially Mainline Protestant, in favor of newer churches.”
In West Columbia, New Brookland Tavern, a bar that features punk and metal bands on Saturday nights, hosts services on Sunday morning once per month.
“Everybody just goes, ‘What?'” when they hear about having church services in a bar, said Jody Ratcliffe, who had been a Southern Baptist pastor and now leads Church at West Vista.
The church is a network of home groups that worship in homes three times per month and meets in the bar on the remaining Sunday.
“And then they think and go, ‘Wait a minute, that’s really cool,'” he said.
This particular church speaks to people who have ever been hurt in the past and do not want to go to church ever again, he said.
“The traditional church has the mentality that everyone knows we’re here, and if we just open our doors, people will come if they want,” the pastor continued, explaining this is an ineffective approach to ministry particularly among the younger generations.
“Millennials don’t value legacy. … A lot of our older churches, they’ve been relying on legacy for decades.”
The Church at West Vista’s model for growth is relying upon people with whom members are already connected, such as their friends, neighbors, and work colleagues.
In recent years, considerable analysis has taken place among pollsters and political pundits concerning the rise of the “nones,” those who identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated. Some have suggested that with the decline of institutional religion in the United States, marrying “conversational” Christian gatherings with America’s favorite beverage, beer, in an unconventional setting, is the answer.
A recurring theme that seems to bolster the idea of doing church outside the confines of a traditional church is that the traditional setting has been an atmosphere where people have had negative experiences and crave a space where they can explore their questions and doubts more openly.
Though often regarded as a project of more progressive Christians, some distinctly evangelical initiatives, such as Fresh Expressions, “an international movement of missionary disciples cultivating new kinds of church alongside existing congregations” are engaging a growing post-Christian society and changing culture by establishing “expressions” of churches in unlikely places “primarily for the benefit of those who are not yet part of any church.”
The State also mentioned OneLife Community Church, also in Columbia, which in 2016 moved its weekly meetings from the local gym to a movie theater, complete with plush, reclining seats.
“You’ve never been to a church with a more comfortable chair,” said Derrick Boatwright, who is a member of the church’s leadership team. On on a “good” Sunday, they attract more than 100 people.
“We feel like it’s a safe space. … You’re less intimidated than you’d be walking into a typical cathedral building.”
For preaching, OneLife presently streams in sermons from the national Life.Church network, founded by Oklahoma pastor Craig Groeschel. They are looking for a full-time pastor to preach on-site.
2,132 churches are currently listed as “active churches” on the website of the South Carolina Baptist Convention’s website. (source)
At this point, one might imagine that one of these churches would take up the idea that, owing to the fact that many people are promiscuous today, that there should be a church of infidelity. However, they have already done that idea:
It does not help that upon inquiring into records about said couple, they appear not only to be divorced, but the man, Dean Parave, was recently arrested on firearms charges in Florida.
The curious point here is that American evangelical Christianity, far from attempting to distinguish itself from the culture, has attempted to evangelize it by becoming a part of it. This is a cross-denominational problem, and is not unique to the Protestants alone, but it does affect them in a particular way because as the Protestant Revolution itself was nationalistic in character, those churches who went with or came out of the revolution equivocated themselves to or subjugated themselves beneath the power of the state. This brought about the reduction of the role of the Church to an echo chamber for the social ethos as reflected in the laws, and hence the division which exists today between morals and ethics, as while it is ideal to possess both, one can be ethical but immoral or unethical but moral. Their reaction is thus as much an attempt at evangelization as it is an embrace of the nature of their philosophy itself.
Christianity is dying in the USA for multiple reasons, among which the most prominent are people do not believe and do not care to believe, as well as there is nothing which “church” offers other than a poor copy of the same garbage music and cultural ideals the masses already hold. With the allure of “free will” and a society whose culture and laws support license, unless on has strong, immovable beliefs, one naturally will be drawn into the void of contemporary life and consumed by it. While it is true that Christianity is meant to embrace and transform a society, there always has been a struggle even in the most Christian societies because to be a Christian will naturally mean, if not at the moment, then in the future, to struggle upward against natural trends of human degeneracy caused by Original Sin.
It is why one of the greatest obstacles to Christianity has been tribalism or identity politics, and why although the Church has always supported the development of individual and group identities, to place race or identity over the Faith always leads to the destruction of first the Faith and then the people involved through conflict. In the most benign cases, such views handicap the spread of the gospel because the Christian message will be packaged within and made immovable from the cultural millieu transmitting it, preventing its adaptation to other groups in both an intellectual and cultural manner while still maintaining sacred tradition. This is the “trap of tradition” in which some Christians do not preserve sacred tradition always because it is important to remember what was passed down, but in order to use it as a crutch to justify one’s reliance on identity politics, obstinance to legitimate authority, and with it a failure to evangelize significantly beyond one’s own racial group.
It is a balance that needs to be maintained, and it is balance which so many do not want because imbalance allows those with motives based in power and greed to exploit the divisions caused for their own gain just as a man climbs a tree hooking his feet into the grooves in the branches and trunk.
Christianity is not going to be revived in the USA for a while, because few now have a reason to seek out something beyond their own understanding and perceived needs, content with their state and choosing to pass their days in idleness. Likewise, the resurgence of “traditionalism” that is taking place, while good and notable, is likely not going to make a fundamental change in a majority sense because of the same reasons.
But then again, crises always have a way of waking people up and occurring when they are least expected…