The Self-Destructive American Church

by Martin Thielen

August 1, 2021

As creator and author of DoubtersParish.Com, I talk to a lot of people who grapple with religious doubts. Many of them harbor doubts about traditional faith, including a personal, supernatural, providential, and interventionalist God. An even larger number of them express doubts about institutional religion. For example, one reader in his mid-forties recently explained why he quit the ministry. He said, “A lot of people think I’ve lost my faith. But that’s not the case. I don’t have a God problem. I have a church problem.”

The Rapidly Shrinking American Church

He’s not alone. Throughout most of the twentieth century, over 70 percent of Americans held membership in a local church or synagogue. By 2020 that number plummeted to 47 percent. Sixty-five million American adults alive in the United States today have already dropped out of active religious attendance, and that number grows by about 2.7 million every year. It’s not difficult to project where this trajectory is headed.

People hold numerous theories about why institutional religion is collapsing in America. Some point to growing secularism, others to low birth rates. But clearly one of the primary reasons the church finds itself in free fall is bad behavior among Christians. People look at our arrogance, ignorance, judgmentalism, intolerance, pettiness, self-righteousness, exclusivity, and hypocrisy and think, If this is Christianity, I don’t want anything to do with it. In short, much of our decline, perhaps most of it, is self-inflicted.

This isn’t a new problem, of course. Church history includes many dark chapters including corrupt alignments with the state, power politics, the inquisition, witch burnings, religious wars, and the crusades. American church history includes support for the genocide of native Americans, unyielding defense of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, child abuse at (church-run) indigenous residential schools, resistance to the civil rights movement, the toxic rise of religious right fundamentalism, the pedophile priest scandal, and hostile fractures in the mainline church over human sexuality. This sorry behavior has caused massive numbers of people, especially young ones, to lose faith and/or leave church.

American Christians Behaving Badly

Sadly, the beat goes on, especially in the United States. Over the past several months, we’ve seen numerous examples of the church—Catholic, evangelical, and mainline—behaving badly. For example, a large number of Catholic bishops in America want to deny Holy Communion to President Biden and other politicians who support abortion rights. However, they don’t plan to withhold Communion from politicians who support the death penalty. Last year, when Attorney General Bill Barr (a Roman Catholic) reinstituted the federal death penalty and people were rapidly being executed, the Catholic Church gave Barr the Faithful Christian Laity Award.

This highly selective condemnation or affirmation of politicians by Catholic leaders reeks of hypocrisy and partisanship. If U.S. Catholic bishops really want to go down this road of denying Holy Communion to sinners, perhaps they should withhold Communion from themselves for their complicity in the pedophile priest scandal and cover-up. When the most sacred act of Christian worship becomes a political weapon by top religious leaders, it’s a sad day indeed.

But I’m not just picking on the Catholics. Evangelicals have done no better. For example, in recent months the Southern Baptist Convention resisted admitting the reality of systemic racism in America, deeply disappointing their black members. They also resisted full transparency and accountability for SBC clergy sex abusers, wounding the victims even further. In response, Russell Moore, former president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (before being pressured out of the job) said, “When God called me . . . to serve him in ministry, he called me to stand for the truth, to point the way to the kingdom, to die to self, and to carry the cross. He did not call me to provide cover for racial bigotry and child molestation. I will not do that.”

Of course, problems in the evangelical world extend far beyond the Southern Baptist Convention. Large numbers of American evangelicals resist COVID vaccinations, harshly condemn the LBGTQ+ community, deny the reality of climate change, reject women in ministry, require women to submit to their husbands, disparage science, and foster hostility toward immigrants. They also tend to be highly partisan. As David French recently noted in Time magazine, “White evangelicals are often more partisan than they are religious.” It’s no wonder evangelicals have shrunk from 23 percent of the U.S. population in 2006 to 14 percent today, including the loss of two million members in the SBC alone.

Unfortunately, it’s not just evangelicals and Catholics who’ve lost their way. The mainline church is also guilty of bad behavior. My own religious tribe, the United Methodist Church, is currently gearing up for schism over the issue of LBGTQ+ rights. The only reason we haven’t already split is because General Conference has been postponed (twice) due to COVID. But the split is surely coming. There’s no way to stop it now. The conservative branch has already named and designed their new denomination. At this point the UMC is simply waiting for a formal dissolution agreement that preserves pension funds and allows churches to choose sides and still keep their property. This schism is and will be ugly, creating an ecclesiastical civil war in most every UMC conference and congregation in America and beyond.

Ironically, in one of his last actions before he died, Jesus prayed that his followers would be united in love. Therefore, it must break his heart to see the Un-United Methodist Church (and other mainline denominations) engage in hostile denominational conflict, prepare for schism, and demonize one another in the process. The sad reality is that every major segment of the American church—Catholic, evangelical, and mainline—by its toxicity has earned its bad reputation and current demise.

A Glimmer of Hope

In spite of everything said above, I’m fully aware that the church has done—and continues to do—good things in the world. But that doesn’t change the fact that the church has never lived up to its values and never will, at least on a large scale. It constantly jettisons the example, teachings, and spirit of Jesus. It continually wounds people, including its own clergy. And it consistently fails to advance the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” Clearly, today’s church is not what Jesus intended. Not even close. If Jesus came to America today and looked at the religious landscape, I’m not exactly sure what he would say. But he most definitely would not say, “Yes, this is exactly what I had in mind.”

Given the overwhelming failures of the American church, the current demise of institutional religion in our country may actually prove a blessing in disguise. Christianity in its present form will likely need to die before resurrection can occur.

Although it’s still in embryonic stages, the death of organized religion as we’ve known it is quietly inspiring the birth of alternative, authentic, and fresh expressions of the church. Brian McLaren calls these “stage four” faith communities. Stage-four communities minimize doctrines, budgets, buildings, bureaucracy, and institutional survival. Instead, they embrace theological ambiguity, celebrate mystery, exude humility, welcome diversity, pursue the common good, care for creation, and seek to live out “faith that expresses itself in love.”

While some stage-four communities are emerging from traditional churches that are willing to make major changes, most of them are being created as new wine in new wineskins. Although these nontraditional stage-four churches represent only a tiny fraction of American Christianity at this time, they hold hope for the future. So my prayer for these emerging faith communities is simple. May their tribe increase. Quickly. Before it’s too late.


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