Before he ditched his blog “The Dish”, Andrew Sullivan posted a quote and a comment that offers a fascinating suggestion about one of the forces that has profoundly shaped North American Christianity in the past fifty years.
Fred Clark laments the effects of sprawl on religion:
I believe that American Christianity has been shaped by the suburbs far more than the suburbs have been shaped by American Christianity. To borrow a word from the Apostle Paul in Romans 12, American churches have conformed to the suburbs.
The effect of this has been huge and pervasive. It has tended to favor forms of church and flavors of theology that fall toward the conservative end of the culture-war spectrum, but it’s misleading to therefore refer to this as a more “conservative” theology. Radical changes and a massive break with the theology, traditions and institutions of the past aren’t usually the sorts of things we describe as “conservative.”
The suburbanization of American Christianity has had a huge impact on institutional and denominational structures. Automobile-shaped development has produced an automobile-shaped ecclesiology. The car has abolished the possibility of the parish. And that, in turn, has helped to redefine “neighbor” as a matter of preference more than of proximity — as optional rather than obligatory. That redefinition is rather significant, since “Who is my neighbor?” is kind of an important question for Christians.
That’s a fascinating take on the new fundamentalism and the Prosperity Gospel (echoed, of course, by Mormonism). It’s a faint echo of how Islamist fundamentalism required the location-free Internet to take off. A geographically disassociated, global religion necessarily becomes an ideology, because, unlike the parish, it does not have to grapple with local reality, with differing views, with different temperaments. Obviously, suburban Christianity is not universally prone to these flaws; but it has its sodomistic dangers. And those are arguably as important to the content of Christianity as any labels of “conservative” and “liberal.” Certainly there is nothing conservative about Christianism; in many ways, its simplistic conflation of Biblical literalism and politics is anathema to conservatism as it has long existed in the Anglo-American tradition.
Whatever one thinks about Fred Clark’s thesis he suggests a critical insight for the church. The Christian church needs to understand that we are caught up in cultural trends and social forces over which we have no control. The church does not exist in isolation.
Whether we like it or not, it is foolish to deny the impact upon all social organizations of: the move to a suburban lifestyle, a challenging economy, rampant consumerism, changing norms in family relations, shifting demographic priorities, and dramatic developments in the world of technology.
The world is rapidly changing. Any organization ignores these shifts at its peril.
For the church, many of these vast cultural changes have produced a precipitous decline in membership, attendance, and societal influence. But acknowledging the reality of these changes is not counsel for despair. We must not throw our hands up and resign ourselves to our demise as helpless victims of changing realities we are powerless to control. What we must do is listen.
As Sullivan points out the church must “grapple with local reality.” We must pay attention to the world and how the changes taking place around us are calling us to do church in ways that may be different from the past. We must learn to respect the realities of the world we inhabit. Railing against change is not likely to endear the church to the cultural in which we seek to function.
This is no longer the 1950’s. What worked in the days of my childhood is unlikely to be effective today. If we insist on clinging to the attitudes, worldview, leadership models, and visions of a bygone era, we should not be surprised if we are taken less seriously than in the glory days of the past.
What does it mean to be church in a world where bonds of community have been made so tenuous by mobility? How can volunteer organizations do business when the pressures on the available leisure time are crushing? How can we build community when our addiction to technology makes us increasingly isolated? What leadership styles can be effective in a world where hierarchy is no longer tenable? What does the church have to offer in a society that provides numerous and often effective vehicles for compassionate action and engagement with social needs beyond the church? How can the church establish its credibility at a time when our integrity is constantly called into question?
These are difficult and challenging questions. But, putting our heads down and merely reasserting the ways that were tried and true in the past, is a recipe for continued demise in the present.