Since the Fourth Century, the church has functioned within Western society in the role of a supporting player. It became a teacher of morals, pastor of souls, and guarantor of the overarching worldview that made sense of life and the social order. The church accompanied you through all of life’s passages with her sacraments: at birth with baptism, passage into adult with confirmation, transition into the married state with holy matrimony, and in your journey through death with last rites. And along the way she helped unburden your conscience through the sacraments of penance/absolution and Eucharist. The church was involved in education and ministry to the poor. Feast and fast days, Sundays, Saint’s days, and holy days of all sorts marked out time and gave rhythm to life.
The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation did not fundamentally reorder this symbiotic relationship between church and society at large. Looking back with benefit of hindsight at the late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries we can see some early indicators of the coming change, but it was not until the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries—after Darwin, Spencer, Dewey, Freud, and Marx—that the exponential growth of cities and rapid industrialization produced the beginnings of secular society in the United States. There had always been a large minority that were unchurched. But even the unchurched thought of themselves as Christian and viewed the institutional church as a social good.
The current institutional form of churches in the United States—despite all the doctrinal and organizational differences among them—derives from the Nineteenth Century, the era after disestablishment—that is, after the separation of church and state—and before thorough secularization. Churches of today do not expect to be financially supported by the government but still present themselves to society at large as serving the common good. And they expect to be treated as a social good. They want to speak to the moral, social, and political issues of the day. They wish to retain all their traditional privileges.
However in the early Twenty-first Century a significant, but disproportionately powerful, secular minority in society—especially within journalism, education, and entertainment—no longer thinks of the church as a social good. This minority is especially critical of traditional Christian morality. They no longer view the church as a reliable teacher of morality. Indeed, the church is viewed by many as institutionally sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and racist. Its critics portray it as a purveyor of hate and a hindrance to social progress.
What is to be done?
Since I am speaking in this series autobiographically and from experience, I don’t want to generalize. However, from what I see I do not think that the status quo can be maintained for much longer. Some secular progressives would like to destroy the church by using government power to tax and regulate it into oblivion. Others hope to cancel its speech with interruption and protest. But I think the greatest threat to the church’s Christian character is its own unwillingness to rethink its centuries-old role in society at large. As a whole, society no longer looks to the church as its moral conscience, teacher, pastor, and guarantor of a meaningful worldview. Consequently, the church stands at a crossroad. On the one hand, the broad road beckons. It can try to prove its continued relevance to society at large by adapting to society’s progressive morality while deceiving itself into thinking this new morality is thoroughly Christian. Or the church can give up its vain ambition to be recognized as chaplain and advisor to an increasingly pagan culture and take up its original mission as a countercultural witness to Christ crucified and risen from the dead. Remember what Jesus said about our anxious desire to survive:
“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35).
This truth applies to churches as well as to individuals.