Below is the beginning of Chapter One in that book - which begins to build the case. Hope you enjoy!
What Is the World Coming To?!
The first time I heard about post-Christianity was when a fellow youth worker told me something he’d overheard. He said a friend of his asked a young pregnant woman if she and her husband had thought of any names for their baby. She answered with this little bomb: “We really haven’t thought of a name yet, but one thing we do know is that it won’t be a biblical name.” This took him aback, so he asked her why. She responded matter-of-factly, “Oh, because we live in a post-Christian world.”
When I first heard this story, that term kind of troubled me. “Post-Christian world” sounded apocalyptic, like something from Mel Gibson’s Mad Max film from 1979. Was I going to have to wear a sleeveless leather jacket and swimming goggles while driving my hopped-up VW Beetle through the desert wasteland? It sounded like the end of the world—especially the way people were talking about it. In describing the future, they said things like, “There will be no moral compass, and within 50 years the faith will be lost. The world will be like Sodom and Gomorrah.” It was quite the dramatic sentiment, and it caused youth workers and parents alike to purchase lots of books about the future doom.
As a young youth worker, I attended the National Youth Workers Convention and heard a speaker tell us to look to Europe. He said we were about 20 years behind them; so if we wanted to know where America was headed, we needed to look that way. Then the speaker described a world that a young and forward-thinking youth guy like myself couldn’t fully grasp. It wasn’t doomsday or end-of-the-world type stuff; it was just something I couldn’t instantly apply. I was working in the trenches with American teenagers in Southern California, and they weren’t post-Christian at all. So I went back to work with my students and did the best I could.
But as the years went on, from time to time I’d notice things. Like how the Christian faith wasn’t having as much of an impact on students’ thinking. The biblical stories were either lost on them or, more importantly, just didn’t matter to this new generation. And so as any thoughtful youth worker would do, I started researching how I might stay effective in my ministry to students. You see, when what you’ve always done has worked just fine, why should you change anything?
However, if you happen to notice that what you’ve always done is no longer sticking or completely resonating with your students, then this realization should cause you to go back to the drawing board. And it will keep you humble. I felt like I was living on a different planet than my kids. I was standing in the old modern world, and my kids were living in a world where the Christian story no longer mattered. Oh sure, I had a cool goatee and dressed like a member of Pearl Jam, but I was no longer traveling the same road as my students.
It wasn’t that I suddenly noticed these teenagers were horny or they wanted to party and get drunk. Students have always wanted to do those things. (I still do.) But their mentality was changing. We youth leaders weren’t as effective, the gospel wasn’t making as much sense to them, and culturally the faith was no longer having an impact in centering our community. Before I knew it, I was working with post-Christian students.
Stuart Murray defines post-Christianity (or “post-Christendom”) as “The culture that emerges as the Christian faith loses coherence within a society that has been definitively shaped by the Christian story and as the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence.”[i]
The Christian faith losing coherence? Check.
Christian institutions declining in influence? Check.
It’s a difficult shift to perceive when all the people you hang out with think just like you do. But if you get outside the bubble and really listen, you’ll discover that things really have changed in the world, and they continue to change. You see, a post-Christian world is one in which Christianity is no longer the dominant religion or even the dominant mindset. An evolution has occurred over the past 50-plus years. Slowly and gradually over time, our society has begun to assume values, cultures, and worldviews that aren’t Judeo-Christian. At that youth workers’ conference 20 years ago, I was told this was going to happen. But I didn’t listen. And now that time is upon us.
America is in the midst of this transition from a Judeo-Christian value system into a post-Christian mindset. Oh, you can bet the church is doing a lot of kicking and screaming right now. That’s what happens when the top dog is no longer the top dog. It’s called a power struggle. And when something that’s been dominant within a culture starts to lose its voice, power, and influence . . . well, it can get pretty ugly. Watch the news and you’ll see that it’s not just ugly; it’s downright toxic.
Some of you might be thinking, No way, Brock! You’re wrong. I’ve read the stats and I’ve seen the research. The majority of people in America and around the world are Christians.
To that I say, “Really? That’s what you think?”
Most youth workers are very familiar with the work of Christian Smith. He’s done the most extensive research on teenage spirituality in America called The National Study of Youth and Religion. What he and his colleagues found was that the most pervasive religious beliefs of teenagers is not Christianity, but what he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD):[ii]
Moralism = Be good.
Therapeutic = Feel good.
Deism = God is just in the background.
It’s fairly obvious that the dangerous, radical, die to self, pick up your cross and follow Jesus kind of faith has lost steam in our culture. Our students aren’t growing up in that world.
In the summer of 2010, I took a new job at Trinity Church in Greenwich, Connecticut, just north of New York City. People tend to move to Greenwich once they’ve “made it” in The Big Apple. It’s a small city full of successful artists, actors, musicians, and Wall Street money people; it’s also a melting pot of cultures, ideas, and worldviews. For the better part of the previous 23 years, I’d worked with students on the West Coast. So going to New England was a huge move for my family. And while post-Christianity is alive and well on the West Coast—especially in the Northwest—moving to Greenwich provided me with some visible evidence of what’s happening in youth culture today.
When I arrived in this new town, word had already gotten out amongst the students in our church that I was really into Jesus. Initially, I took that as a compliment. But I soon realized, um, not so much . . . . See, the church had recently hired a lead pastor from England who was very “Jesus-y.” And now the church had hired me, another “Jesus-y” bloke except worse—I was from California, and I have a couple tattoos.
Granted, the students’ rebellion toward me was partly because of the transition. They of course loved their previous youth pastor, and I represented change, which teenagers don’t like. But I also represented conservative Christianity, which is very offensive to them.
If you want to see post-Christianity in full swing in America, just look to New England where the church is either dying or dead. Beautiful old buildings stand empty in the centers of towns. It reminds me of the old children’s poem that says, “Here is the church, and here is the steeple, open the doors, and where are all the people?” Well, the people are long gone. They left many years ago.
To keep their churches “alive,” pastors and congregational leaders have become property managers, turning their buildings into rental facilities where music lessons, choirs, AA meetings, acting troops, and exercise classes can rent out space. But there is barely any Christian community life happening inside of those four walls. The post-Christian world is now in full force, and the church is not even a blip on the screen.
While I was speaking at an amazing youth camp in Michigan, I met the worship band that had been brought in for the weekend. When they learned that I’m a youth pastor in New England, they were amazed. They’re from Canada, and they tour all over the United States. But they said when they get to New England, they just drive on home because there are no gigs in sight.
Now back to my initial arrival in Greenwich. Picture my wife and me sitting in a living room with about 20 students. I asked them, “So tell me, what do you guys love about the youth group?”
Here’s where they drew the line in the sand for this “Jesus-y” youth worker. One student stood and spoke for the rest of them, saying, “What we love about our youth group is that no one preaches Jesus here, and we can believe whatever we want to believe.”
Huh. Okay. After that, my wife and I got in our car and drove back to California, never to return. No, not really. We got in the car and sat quietly for a moment. Then I blurted out, “What in the hell have we gotten ourselves into?!”
[i] Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom (Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster, 2004), 19.
[ii] Christian Smith, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
If you'd like to read the rest of this chapter, why not by the book =) You can get it here.