Anyone who has traveled to Europe may have experienced surprise at finding the pews of its beautiful, ancient churches occupied only by tourists. Europeans are commonly regarded as living in a 'post-Christian' age, contrasted with the relative religious enthusiasm of their American cousins. However, the thundering roar of American Bible-thumping may be drowning out the patter of footsteps leaving the pews. America may be trailing Europe, but it seems be on the same path.
Travel a few minutes from downtown Houston on the endless lanes of the Southwest Freeway and you'll find the arena where the Houston Rockets won their World Championships in 1994-95. The last jump-ball was thrown there almost two decades ago and the Rockets have moved on to a gleaming home downtown. A new star graces the old arena, bringing in more than 40,000 fans each week. Houston's Summit is now home to Lakewood Church, one of the flagships of the megachurch phenomenon in America.
Churches like Lakewood might seem to represent America's immunity to the religious decline evident in Europe, but look carefully and you'll see a more complex story. Ask what denomination Lakewood belongs to and you'll get an interesting and increasingly typical answer -- none. Lakewood was an entrepreneurial effort by "venture-pastor" John Osteen back in the '50's. His heirs own the enterprise. Scan the charismatic religious landscape in America and you'll see that pattern repeated over and over again.
Attendance figures make clear that churches in America are overall in steady decline, just a few decades behind Europe. The growth of fundamentalist congregations has not arrested the slide. They seem to act as the exit foyer of organized Christianity, swelling for a time as people leave. Even charismatic denominations like the Southern Baptists which had benefited from earlier declines in mainline Protestantism are beginning to see their numbers fall off.
What's emerging in the wake of this decline is a uniquely American brand of post-religious spirituality. The Big Round Church that is replacing America's Little White Churches incorporates Christian themes into an unapologetically consumer-oriented experience. The receding authority of a religious denomination is being replaced by the magnetism of a charismatic pastor, attracting a hardened remnant of fundamentalist believers unconcerned about the moral implications of commercialized faith. Organized Religion is giving way to Disorganized Religion.
Disorganized Religion is replacing traditional religious identities with a model in which the customer is always right. It drives an uncompromising line on popular, crowd-pleasing propositions -- fiercely condemning broadly unpopular things that 'other people' do. Claiming to embrace strictly literal Biblical interpretations these congregations often take a literalist approach on homosexual rights, abortion, and the notion that only born-again Christianity can offer a path to truth. On the other hand they employ subtle, almost tortured scriptural contortions to avoid being stuck with the less commercially viable byproducts of literalism.
Women, who make up half the market after all, aren't required to "remain silent" as the Apostle Paul explicitly demands. Instead they are popular television preachers and authors. Old Testament admonitions which are perfectly useful to support a hard line on gay rights are toned down where they require the optically unpleasant stonings of disobedient children and blasphemers.
Divorce gets a carefully nuanced treatment since a literal line on that subject would be market suicide. Born-again Christians divorce at a far higher rate than the broader population. The Bible's disappointing failure to make any mention of the vital issue of abortion is overlooked entirely. And Jesus' unreasonable demand that his followers give up their worldly possessions to pursue a life of service is, well, rendered a bit more reasonable.
Thomas Jefferson used a razor to carefully remove all the passages from his copy of the Gospels that mentioned miracles or elements of the fantastic. He discovered in what was left behind a deeply inspiring guide for life, freed from delusions and superstition. Fundamentalists recoil from such a heretical exercise while refusing to put down the knife.
The process of religious devolution creates anxiety for many, anxiety that's often displayed in the shape of fanatical extremism and desperate efforts to shore up a disintegrating religious culture by political mandate. America seems unwilling to give up that olde time religion as gracefully as the Europeans, but one day the dominant branches of Christianity in America may be as philosophical in outlook as the bulk of Western Judaism. The mainline Protestant denominations are, for the most part, already on their way. Catholicism may not be far behind.
Even the Big Round Church Movement, as it begins to grow older, is starting to show some signs of maturity. Megachurch pastor and author Rob Bell recently drew anger (and lost his job) by embracing a relatively rational interpretation of Hell. Other figures are beginning to think more critically about Biblical approaches to environmental issues and the culture war.
Regardless what else happens to our culture, Christians will likely for the foreseeable future continue to gather to discuss the meaning of their faith and build our communities. They still do this in Europe, though on a much smaller scale than in the past. A mature disorganized Christianity might grow less enthralled by the fantastic while still remaining a significant cultural force. We'll see.
Perhaps one day tourists will quietly marvel at the architectural splendor of our great glass megachurches while token services are carried on in the background. They'll make much better site-seeing stops than European cathedrals since they are already equipped with coffee houses, restaurants, and book stores.
Be sure to stop by the gift shop on the way out.