We are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg and a long-buried gospel was unleashed into a waiting world.
That’s the story I grew up on at any rate; but there are other ways to view the matter.
For instance, we could say that the Protestant Reformation was the first symptom of Christendom’s ultimate demise. By “Christendom” I mean the close identification of the Christian Church with the powers that be.
Martin Luther survived by hiding behind the skirts of Frederick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony. Frederick was a friend of popes and a power broker within the Holy Roman Empire. So long as Luther holed up in Frederick-controlled Saxony, he and his reformation were safe.
Without Frederick’s protection, Luther would have been a flickering candle snuffed out like a common Anabaptist.
After Luther, the Holy Roman Empire began a centuries long decline and hundreds of German-speaking principalities began a gradual assent, slowly consolidating into what is now called Germany.
Christians, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, continued to play important roles in the life of emerging nation states, but Christian influence has been on a downward trajectory for at least five hundred years and, in these early days of the 21st century, the process is all but complete. Check out church attendance figures in Germany, France, Great Britain and my native Canada, if you doubt me.
Thing look considerably brighter when observed from Arlington, Texas, mind you. The DFW Metroplex is a kind of informal Jerusalem for the megachurches of America. But even here, the crackup of Christendom is unmistakable.
In my role as a hospice chaplain, I have asked hundreds of people, most of them advanced in years, about their religious affiliation. Folks who sign up for hospice come as close to a random sample as you are likely to find, so I think my experience is significant.
Privacy laws prevent me from sharing specific stories, but when I ask the “what is your religious background” question, two responses are commonplace.
First, a solid majority of the folks I interview grew up as evangelical Protestants or Roman Catholics.
Second, most of them haven’t been to church in decades.
So, while local pastors like Robert Jeffress, Jack Graham, Robert Morris and James Robison comprise about one-fifth of Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory board, the political climate grows ever more secular.
My clients who are sixty-five and older typically identify as nominal Christians and many tell me, as if to explain their disinterest in Sunday morning church, that they watch folks like Jeffress, Charles Stanley and Jimmy Swaggart (yes, he’s still a thing) on television.
This generation typically want Amazing Grace and The Old Rugged Cross sung at their funerals.
The very fact that men like Jeffress, Morris and Graham can attach themselves to a sacrilegious narcissist like Donald Trump demonstrates the weakness of Christianity as a cultural force.
But the Christian embrace of Antichrist is nothing new. If you can sell Christians on imperial conquest, the final solution, white supremacy, the bomb and trickle down economics, the religion of Jesus is pretty much a dead letter.
My younger clients either attend non-denominational churches or, more commonly, they view religion with a combination of incomprehension and derision. Most know next to nothing about the Bible and only enter a church for weddings, funerals and the occasional Christmas Eve service.
And this is in Dallas, the most conventionally religious city in the Western world.
What happens when those currently over 65 are in heaven with Jesus and the present crop of thirty-somethings is eyeing retirement?
America will look less like Dallas and more like Seattle.
Politicians will ignore the remnants of American evangelicalism.
And I suspect the decline of Roman Catholic and Protestant mainline churches will continue.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that Christianity, understood as the religion of Jesus, will witness a startling revival. The numbers may not be large, but preachers will start sounding more like Jesus and less like Donald Trump (who will be, by this time, remembered as the greatest political embarrassment in American history).
Does Christendom have to die before Jesus-style Christianity can live?
I don’t think so.
American evangelicalism will change radically in the next quarter century, but the complementarianism, obscurantism and anti-science biblicism that presently define, and confine, conservative Christianity will be hard to jettison. Preachers will continue to call America back to her pristine religious and moral roots, but no one who matters will be listening.
The red letter Christianity so many of us long for will never supplant traditional varieties of American religion; the old and the new will grow up together, kind of like the wheat and the tares in Jesus’s parable.
But I have a hard time imagining existing churches abandoning the spirituality of Christendom. It’s too big a leap, especially for those with little access to serious Bible study (and that’s just about everybody). I predict that mainline and moderately evangelical churches will dabble with heavily domesticated versions of Red Letter Christianity, but that little of substance will come of it..
Our churches need to re-think everything from the ground up, and the vast majority of our congregations aren’t up for the task. The slow motion implosion of Christendom will continue unabated. In fact, the process appears to be accelerating. And that’s okay. Christendom has served us very well in many respects, and dreadfully in others. But whether good or bad, Constantinian Christianity is in its dotage.
We need to from scratch. We need to form small, high-expectation communities dedicated to in-depth, Jesus-centered Bible study and deep identification with the oppressed minorities of the world.
We won’t evolve in that direction; a clear break is needed. If existing congregations can make the leap, that’s terrific. A few will. But that won’t be the dominant model.
Two final predictions. First, the post-exilic bits of the Bible (Daniel, Second Isaiah, Proverbs, most of the Psalms, Ezra, Nehemiah, Jonah, Ecclesiastes etc.) will prove more profitable than texts reflecting the glory days of David and Solomon. This is the literature of exile, written by men and women who lived under the thumb of empire and knew they weren’t calling the shots.
And we will soon realize that the New Testament was written, and lived, by people under the heel of a brutal Roman occupation. Forget that and you we radically misread Jesus, Paul and the book of Revelation.
I’m guessing, of course. But the next quarter century (which is about all I’ve got left) will be a time of stunning change. Buckle up, folks, we’re in for a rough ride.