The Decade in American ChristianityEssays, Featured — By Jordan Green on December 31, 2009 at 12:35 am
If you’ve been exposed to any sort of media the last week or so, you’ve likely seen a number of year and decade recapping lists. Lists are generally fun to write, allow the composer to bask in the genius of their own opinion, and can be prepared to run in the dead week between Christmas and New Year’s. It’s a perfect storm of narcissism and laziness.
So, saying that, we feel like we might have a slightly more noble reason for this list. The decade we’re about to put behind us has been a tricky one to define on a number of fronts. While the events of September 11th are probably what we’ll frame the decade by, otherwise, it’s been a slightly confusing time as we try to make sense of what happened. We can’t even come up with a singular name for the 2000-2009 time period as a culture, so maybe we shouldn’t expect to be able to wrap things up with a cheerful bow. The end of any semi-definable span of time should be an opportunity to learn from the past and American Christians, in general, tend to have a short term memory, focusing on the now or the coming soon. We’re trying to remedy that a little bit, spending some time looking back, re-considering what we missed, what we’ve forgotten.
In compiling this list, we polled Burnside contributors and consulted our friends on Facebook. We asked a simple question: “What were the most important events in Christianity this decade?”
One suggestion rolled in that threw us off: the rise of Christianity in China, and the shift of Christian cultural centers from West to East.
Even as the world gets smaller through outsourcing and social media, the truth is the typical American Christian knows precious little about our brothers and sisters across the world. To us, the Ted Haggard scandal and Prop 8 are infinitely crucial, the 2000 and 2008 elections of supreme importance. In the international view of our faith, these events were nothing. Our lack of knowledge of the explosion of Christianity in China rivals our ignorance of the AIDS crisis in the ’90s. Would we have cared about Prop 8 if we knew Palestinian Christians were under siege in Ramallah? Would we have invaded Iraq if we’d known the removal of Saddam Hussein would result in unprecedented persecution of Iraqi Christians?
Still, they say “write what you know”, so rather than a crash course on what the Church faced across the world, we decided to to go with what happened here. It was a big decade for the American Church, after all, one of triumph, soul-searching, reactionary shift, and emerging faiths. We asked a number of contributors, old and new, to submit their thoughts on these past ten years. Without further ado, we present the decade’s trends and events in American Christianity.
Just remember: for all that strife and change, compared to our fellow believers around the globe, we had it pretty easy.
If your God is too small, or He’s a little too vague, you might just need New Calvinism.
A groundswell of New Calvinism has risen in recent years in response to the ongoing secularization of culture, seeker-sensitive Evangelicalism, and the emergent church movement. Leaders like John Piper, CJ Mahaney, Al Mohler, and Mark Driscoll have helped to revitalize a theological tradition sometimes described as stodgy, and have infused it with passion for the truth and the mystery of God. Even Time Magazine called it one of the “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.”
New Calvinism has its roots in the Protestant Reformation, specifically with the teachings of John Calvin, although any New Calvinist will tell you they believe the theology is eminently Scriptural. As Mohler says, “The moment someone begins to define God’s (being or actions) biblically, that person is drawn to conclusions that are traditionally classified as Calvinist.” Sentiments like these sometimes drew accusations of arrogance for Calvinists, but New Calvinists believe Biblical accuracy and humility can and should co-exist.
At its core, New Calvinism emphasizes much of what Calvinism taught: a high view of the authority of Scripture, an emphasis on God’s sovereignty, a belief in divine election, and an acknowledgment of human depravity. But, as with any label, New Calvinism cannot strictly be called Calvinism, as many New Calvinists depart from their reformed forefathers on matters of infant baptism, covenant theology, and whether or not all the gifts of the Spirit are still around today.
But holding such a high view of God doesn’t mean these New Calvinists are white-tower intellectuals. Today’s New Calvinists do much to shed the less flattering labels of their past: they are highly missional, working to contextualize the gospel in areas that are outside many existing churches’ spheres of influence. And they’re more apt to be theologically ecumenical, believing deeply, and unrelentingly, in their understanding of God but seeking to build bridges of community within Christian orthodoxy.
In looking back on this New Calvinism’s rise within Christianity, the movement has done much to return the church to God-centered, gospel-driven mission to the world, both locally and abroad. It has instilled a soul-deep passion for God’s glory and man’s joy that has gone missing in mainstream Evangelicalism for decades. Which is why we should expect this resurgence in a high view of God to continue on well into the future. After all, if Mohler is right, as long as people take the Bible seriously, this kind of theology will always find a prominent place in Christendom.
This decade, there was no Christian movement more discussed and still misunderstood than the emerging church. With roots internationally from as early as the late 1980s, the emerging church in the US developed through informal meetings of youth pastors organized by Doug Pagitt, then working for the Leadership Network. Always described more as a conversation than a movement, those within the emergence represented a diverse set of denominations, conservative and liberal, mainline and evangelical. Founded greatly in reacting to and embracing elements of postmodernism, these leaders sought to re-develop the method of delivering the gospel to a new generation.
Completely separate from this informal group, perhaps no individual has had a bigger impact than Brian McLaren on the emerging church. A forward-thinking pastor, McLaren wrote A New Kind of Christian, a book that detailed a friendship between a recently-fired pastor questioning everything he believed in within organized Christianity and former pastor turned science teacher who discovered and lives out a new dimension of relationship with God. Many readers who had been questioning organized and traditional Christianity found solace and hope in this new perspective, and McLaren became the rock-star author of the movement. At the same time, he also became the poster boy for critics of the emerging church, branded as a heretic or relativist rather than Christian or follower of Jesus.
While difficult to define theologically, key distinctions of the emergent church movement include a breakdown of traditional worship, a conversational method of the gospel, a higher emphasis on social justice, and a flattening of the historical hierarchy of church leadership. The Emergent church is often the label given to churches somewhere along the emerging stream, in contrast to the Emergent Village, which is an organization of leaders who have committed to the national and international discussions of emerging Christianity.
There are three publications I believe most authentically convey the story of the emerging church and Christianity. Phyllis Tickle presents the emerging church as the next reformation of Christendom in The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. Tony Jones, former national coordinator of Emergent Village, presents the historical narrative of the emerging church, leaders, and stories of those on the emerging church frontier in his book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. Scot McKnight, professor of religious studies at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois, presents a six-page article called The Five Streams of the Emerging Church for Christianity Today. McKnight describes the key elements of the emerging church in an attempt to clear misunderstandings about the movement.
Despite the confusion and controversies, the emerging church has made a huge impact on Christianity and the American Church. The breaking down of political ties between evangelicals and the Republican party, the significant drop in membership of mainline denominations, the apathy of traditional church hierarchy and authority, the infusion of art and alternative mediums of worship, the growth of communal/missional living or new monasticism, and the outpouring of social justice activities (organized or not) are all reactions, if not initiated, by the emerging conversation.
On Monday October 2, 2006, an Amish community in Pennsylvania, intentionally separated from our worldly culture, came face-to-face with the world through a horrific, tragic event. Charles Roberts, a local milkman whom this community would have known, entered a schoolhouse, released the boys, teachers, and other adults, and bound the ten remaining girls. When police arrived less than ten minutes later, Roberts shot the girls, killing five of them as well as himself.
To those outside their community, the Amish are ancient and set in their ways; strange with their disdain of technology; an amusement or tourist attraction when a horse and buggy is passed on the road; or a curiosity of life and how they still make it work. Most of us will never understand their choosing to remain cloistered away from the rest of the world, but at least once in our life we wonder what they have which we lack. In the midst of this great tragedy, the Amish clearly showed us the Gospel like we’ve rarely seen.
The same day of the shootings, Amish neighbors of the Roberts family arrived of their house to comfort, console, and forgive. While they suffered a great loss, they grieved with Roberts’ wife and children just as they grieved for their own innocent children. They provided food for them and opened a charity fund for both the victims and the Roberts. The World Net Daily quoted columnist Rod Dreher closely paraphrasing an Amish midwife, who delivered many of the murdered girls, about this outpouring of grace to the Roberts family, “This is possible if you have Christ in your heart.” Journalist Tom Shachtman, added to the New York Times: “This is imitation of Christ at its most naked.”
When the world generally seeks justice, revenge, and retribution, the Amish community stood up, went into the world, and lived out the love of Jesus. In contrast to a typical, organized church or denomination, there was no doctrinal argument of what the reaction should be, no mention of questioning or debating of how the reaction should appear to others, and, most importantly, no excuses about how to react based on the different cultures involved. This is Love, pure, simple, and of God.
This is the gospel – the kingdom of God is indeed here, manifested and incarnate through the love, forgiveness, grace, and mercy of the Amish.
The last decade has seen a continued growth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, Mormons), especially in South America. In 2000, there were over 11-million members and nearly 61,000 missionaries, according to the LDS Church. In 2008, there were 13.5-million members in a decade where many Christian denominations saw flat growth or even decline. 1
While challenging to document, the LDS Church’s growth might be, in part, a result of the mainstreaming of the Mormon faith. In the past ten years, more Mormons have risen to public positions than ever before. This decade, Mormons have followed the Osmonds into the entertainment spotlight, appearing on nearly every reality television show in primetime, landing on best-selling author’s lists, and singing to the masses. Sixteen Mormons presently serve in the US Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from Nevada, and Orrin Hatch, who ran for the Republican nomination for the US Presidency in the 2000 election. Mitt Romney, one of a handful of Mormon Governors, also ran for the US Presidency, thrusting the LDS Church into the public eye even further. And, of course, let’s not forget conservative talk show host Glenn Beck.
In 2002, Salt Lake City, the international headquarters of the LDS Church, hosted the world during the Olympic Winter Games, resulting in added publicity, and front pages stories in Time Magazine and Newsweek. Before the coming cameras and attention, the Church adjusted its logo so “Jesus Christ” is larger and more prominently displayed. Mormons were discouraged from calling themselves Mormons, in favor of “members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
The LDS Church also made concerted effort to associate itself with the term “Christian” without sharing much of the same theology as its Protestant, Catholic and non-denominational counterparts. The move was a marked departure from most of LDS history, when Mormons readily differentiated themselves from mainstream Christianity. Missionaries are now more more likely to include a copy of the King James Bible with the Book of Mormon, church discussions place greater focus on Jesus Christ (though many, including the late LDS Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, argue that Mormons do not view Jesus the same way Evangelicals do.), and two of the three Evangelicals ever to speak in the Mormon Tabernacle did so in the latter half of the decade: Ravi Zacharias and Nic Vijucic were guests of Standing Together, a Christian organization attempting to bridge the divide by focusing on the similarities. Some Christian groups, such as Mormon Research Ministries are opposed to mainstreaming without discussions on the differences in theology.
Only time will tell if the mainstreaming efforts will favor the Mormons. The LDS Church had less full-time missionaries in the field in 2008 than in 2000, down to about 52,400. The new convert rate has remained flat over the past decade, around 265,000 per year, with the remaining growth coming from births. More recently, the LDS Church almost seemed surprised that many Evangelicals opposed Mitt Romney for the Presidency, and the backlash at the Mormon Church’s support of California’s Prop 8 is lingering with little sign of letting up.
In April 2005, a shockwave rolled over the world as the soul of Venerable John Paul II, affectionately known as “the Great”, left his body and left our world greatly saddened. This man, whose young life was caught up in such pivotal events as the Nazi occupation of Poland and the subsequent Communist oppression, rose to play one of the most pivotal roles in the last quarter of the second millennium.
Elected the successor of Peter in 1978, John Paul II has been credited for the fall of the Iron Curtain. He was visited by personages of such opposing views as Putin and Bush II. He met with Castro, Pinochet, Reagan and Thatcher, to name a few. He was loved and hated by many. He upheld the dignity of every human person from conception to death. He opposed the invasion of Iraq and the use of contraceptives. He propped up and supported Mother Teresa, and challenged both the poor and rich to live the Gospel morality. He touched the lives of countless youth with his international “World Youth Days” held throughout the world, not to mention his more than 100 distinct official visits internationally.
His actions spoke to more people than his words ever could. He was sprite and fit when elected pope, and enjoyed lifting weights, skiing and hiking. When he was shot, he forgave his would-be assassin and obtained clemency for him. He grew old and suffered with Parkinson’s in front of the entire world, yet maintained hope and even a joy in the midst of agony. When, in his last days, he could no longer speak, his mannerisms expressed his longing to communicate to the people he loved.
Millions from around the world flooded Rome to attend his funeral. It was presided over by his soon-to-be successor, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, and attended by both Presidents Bush, President Clinton and over 40 heads of state. Such a man walked, spoke and was recognized, on both sides of the political aisle, as the single greatest moral authority in the last quarter of the second millennium.
Bill Haley is a writer who studied English literature in college and lives in Phoenix. He is a Director of Religious Education for a Catholic parish in Scottsdale. He is married to Maureen and they have been seven times blessed with children.
If you are ever in a group of people who identify themselves as Christians, and want to start some type of heated discussion, bring up the topic of homosexuality. In the ’00s, this issue was often at the forefront of both the nightly news and the pulpit. Homosexuality moved from being a taboo subject to something that the majority of people, especially Christians, had a firm vocal opinion and belief on. One of those people who had a publicly held firm belief against homosexuality was former Colorado pastor Ted Haggard.
In 2005, Time Magazine listed Haggard as one of top 25 most influential evangelicals in America. He, along with notable Christian leaders Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and the late Jerry Falwell, were active in their political support of former President George W. Bush. Haggard was the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an organization that has had three Presidents address it during conventions, including Reagan and George H.W. Bush. His church in Colorado, New Life Church, had over 10,000 members at the time the scandal broke.
In November 2006, prostitute Mike Jones came forward with allegation that Ted Haggard had engaged in homosexual acts with, and bought methamphetamines from him. At the time, Haggard was a vocal supporer of a Colorado amendment banning same-sex marriage, and when Jones allegedly learned of Haggard’s true identity, exposed him. At first, Haggard denied all claims by Jones, but eventually admitted to buying the crystal meth (not using it) and receiving a massage from him. Later, on one of the numerous talk show appearances and interviews he made, Haggard admitted that he had masturbated with Jones. After resigning from his position as President of the NAE and being fired as the pastor of New Life, Haggard entered “intense counseling” with the goal of removing/curing himself of any homosexual desires. Haggard has recently identified himself as a “heterosexual with issues.”
Exactly two years later, an online organization, ProtectMarriage.com, sponsored the initiative that would become California’s Proposition 8 (California Marriage Protection Act.) The proposition was simply worded, containing only two sentences, and by legally defining marriage as between one man and one woman, sought to overturn California’s Supreme Court ruling that legally recognized the right of same sex couples to marry. Huge campaigns both for and against the proposition were raised. The proposition’s supporters raised $39.9 million to the opposition’s $43.3 million, making this the highest funded campaign on any state ballot ever, barring the Presidential race. There were countless commercials, political and celebrity endorsements, and bumper stickers utilizaing pink and blue mathematical equations to define marriage. Numerous churches and religious figures backed the measure, including the Roman Catholic church, the Mormon church, Rick Warren’s Saddleback church, and Focus on the Family. Despite powerful opposition, the proposition banning gay marriage passed with over 7 million votes and 52% of the electorate.
Proposition 8 finished what Ted Haggard started. No longer hidden and stigmatized, homosexuality became the American church’s new battleground, for better or worse.
While every President since Washington could ostensibly be labeled Christian, few were as outspoken in their faith as George W. Bush.
Fresh off three years of Slick Willy’s sex scandals and inept military strikes, right-leaning Christians finally found hope for regime change in a plain-speaking, unabashed Evangelical with an impressive resume. As the US entered a new millenium, George W. Bush’s supporters believed he would return dignity to the nation’s highest office, and build on the unbridled economic growth of the ’90s. Bush edged Al Gore in a controversial election, and conservative Christians across the land rolled up their sleeves and prepared to practice what they’d been preaching since Reagan’s term ran out.
Perhaps in a different time. Shortly after the bursting tech bubble revealed much of America’s economic explosion to be overinflated, terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The veneer of peace Americans had enjoyed since the collapse of the Berlin Wall was fractured, and the Evangelical-in-Chief was quickly mired in two wars, outrageous government spending, and a Keystone Kop-like search for an old bearded Muslim guy. Presidents throughout history have faced satirical imagery…Clinton was a philanderer, Ford was a blunderer, and George Sr.’s lips turned out to be lying about no new taxes…but it’s never good when a President’s go-to characteristic is his lack of intelligence.
Four years later, faced with an even weaker opponent, even those doubting President Bush threw up their hands and blurted, “Well, we may as well give him four more to figure this out.” In his second term, George W. distanced himself from his hawkish, neo-conservative staff, but the damage had been done. As the years crept by with Osama Bin Laden still at large, a mounting death toll against a demoralizing insurgency in Iraq, and finally a realization that the war in Afghanistan was being lost, the hope bled out. Americans were left with the sneaking suspicion that the DotCom era might just have been America’s pinnacle.
George Bush’s election might have been most damaging to Evangelicalism itself. Young believers raised on conservative Christianity were suddenly faced with the realization that the political realm wasn’t as effective in spreading the Gospel as they’d been told. Maybe Bush’s failures weren’t solely to blame, but the disillusionment of the Moral Majority seemed to coincide with young Christians splitting from the Evangelical church in favor of New Calvinism, the emergent movement, or even returning to traditional forms of worship in Anglican and Catholic services.
These divisions came to a head during the 2008 election, as the conservative Christian remnant turned a cliche-spitting Alaskan with uncommon ambition into a figure on par with Mary and a youthful and newly liberal batch of Christians sought political salvation in the Gen-X cool of Barack Obama. By the time the votes were tallied, it was clear the last eight years had dealt a serious blow to the political might of the Religious Right.
Through the first year of the Obama administration, the fear of history repeating is palpable. Once again swayed by the hope of dignity returned to the nation’s highest office, President Obama’s Christian supporters, particularly those who backed George Bush 8 years previous, are still nervously awaiting great things.
Fortunately, we are remembering some of the lessons of the Bush administration: Christians don’t need political strength to change the world.
When Oral Roberts died this month, the prosperity gospel essentially lost its founder. “Seed faith” – the idea that donating a sum of money to a church/preacher/etc. would return investment like dividends – was a major theme of Roberts’ preaching, and the university bearing Roberts’ name was once the academic home of Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen, among others. While Roberts had disappeared from the public stage in recent years, his death was part of the up and down decade for the prosperity gospel. Senator Chuck Grassley spent the end of 2007 trying to understand the finances of big spending televangelists like Joyce Meyer and Creflo Dollar, and a television expose of Benny Hinn’s lavish lifestyle would come up every few years on Dateline NBC or a show of that sort. More recently, the Atlantic Monthly posed the idea that prosperity Christianity might have been the cause of the real estate crash.
On the other hand, however, there’s Joel Osteen, whose spiritually-themed life coaching framed the decade, with his first service succeeding his late father in 1999 kicking off a decade where Osteen would appear in nearly every news outlet with his giant grin, fill a former sports arena several times each Sunday, and sell a ton of books. Osteen had enough sense to not directly promise inflated bank accounts to his followers, but instead a “best life now”. God only knows what that means, and clearly most people would prefer their “best life” to include the trappings of luxury, but at very least, his particular take on prosperity seemed a little less tacky, with Osteen more of a first-class-on-commercial-flights type guy than jetsetting on a Gulfstream. At very least, Osteen replaces the plea for tithes with a corny joke on his ever-present television broadcasts. Osteen seems like he’ll be doing well for sometime (especially since he seems a bit too dorky to be into the sort of temptations that took down Swaggart and Bakker), but some reports give the impression that his more obviously offensive peers are having a bit of trouble making ends meet in the current economy. One would think that a near total economic collapse might throw a wrench into the works of the televangelism machine, but there they are on networks like TBN, 24 hours a day, telling people Christians deserve to be wealthy. The names change, shuffled out by scandal and trends, but the message stays the same, surely with someone calling the 1-800 hotline right now, checkbook in hand.
It’s difficult to say what changed. Perhaps it was the hangover from winning the political wars of the ’90s. Maybe it was the economic downturn, or 9/11. Maybe it was when we realized AIDS wasn’t just a disease for gays and NBA superstars. Maybe we just woke up one day, looked around at our massive churches, and realized how good we had it. Most likely, it was the Holy Spirit.
Whatever it was, the American Church woke up and loved their neighbors with a vengeance. Christian charities fought poverty and disease in Africa, lead the charge in supporting those victimized by Hurricane Katrina (while government assistance faltered miserably, I might add), and aided regions devastated by the tsunami that ravaged the Indian Ocean in 2004.
While leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson earned press with inflammatory statements in the early part of the decade, and political leaders became Christian celebrities in the latter half, the truth of the American Church in the ’00s was one of compassion and unheralded service. Only history will tell if we’ll be remembered for the loudmouths or the truth.
- These statistics do not reflect the number of members who have gone inactive or left the Church without removing their names from the records. ↩