The city, the church, and the future
City to City Europe held a conference in Paris in October with over 500 in attendance from dozens of countries. Besides me, one of the other speakers was Professor Grace Davie, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Exeter in Great Britain. Professor Davie’s lecture on “Religion in Modern Europe” was a great encouragement to European Christian leaders who are incessantly told that religion on their continent is dying out and that a Christian mission there is a hopeless cause. I think it also should be encouraging to us here in New York City.
She explained that for centuries in Europe religion had been inherited — that is, most people were born into their church and remained a member of it unless they did something quite drastic to end the association. Most European countries had one national church that was a part of the racial-national identity. So if you were Polish you were Catholic, if you were Swedish you were Lutheran, if you were Scottish you were Presbyterian. We could add that in past times even in the US, where there has never been one dominant church, you were not considered a good American unless you went to a church of some kind.
It is this inherited religion that is declining rapidly, especially in Europe. Our late modern culture is marked by what Robert Bellah called expressive individualism — the belief that identity comes through self-expression, through discovering one’s most authentic desires and being free to be one’s authentic self. This powerful belief has weakened all institutions in society, not only the church, because it insists that no external authority has any right to tell the individual what is right and wrong or how to live. Because of this individualism, the numbers of people in Europe who go to church and who identify as Christians are declining. Those figures are also declining in North America, because even here inherited religion is losing its influence.
However, Davie pointed out that this is by no means the whole picture. Yes, “nominal” or inherited Christianity is declining. This is why overall fewer people attend or belong to churches. On the other hand, against all expectations, even in Europe other forms of Christian faith have grown and re-entered public life. One reason for this is the influx of Christians from the global South. In China, Africa and other places in the world, Christianity is growing rapidly as those societies are modernizing. As people immigrate to Europe and the U.S. from Africa, Latin America, and Asia, they plant new churches or strengthen other churches that are growing and reaching Europeans as well.
Why? Because while inherited religion will decline in the modern age, religion that is chosen need not do so. The growing Christian churches are evangelical and Pentecostal and they emphasize the biblical call to “choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15) and the biblical teaching that we must confess our own faith, not the merely go along with the choices of our family or community (Ezekiel 18). These churches teach that nominal, formal religion is not enough, that there must be a radical, inward conversion (Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 9:25; Romans 2:29). Christianity that highlights these important biblical concepts and lifts up heart-changing personal faith can reach many contemporary people.
Davie, drawing on her sociology background, also observed that it is in cities that much of the religious growth can be seen in western societies. While cities, she says, have in the past been seen as the “beacons of a more irreligious future” now it is in the cities that religion in general and Christianity in particular is thriving, because they are more multi-ethnic and globalized and because “new forms of religion” that reach out to modern people are being deployed there. (Davie added, for example, that London is now has more growing churches than anywhere else in Great Britain.)
In short, in the western world — including North America — our societies are becoming both more secular and more religious at the same time, and this is, as Davie says, “a challenging combination.” The reality is neither that belief in God is inevitably disappearing, nor that in some simplistic way “God is back.” Davie says that the religious landscape is now “paradoxical.” What is going away is inherited, institutionalized Christianity — what many would call “nominal Christianity.” Yet new patterns of orthodox Christian faith (and of other religions) are growing too. Contrary to the confident predictions of its death, religious faith “is an increasing presence in the modern world order.”
Grace Davies’ message is both exciting and challenging for Christians in cities today. It means that we should expect increasing skepticism and perhaps greater opposition. Gone is that great “canopy” of nominal Christians who were not personally devout but who thought religion was a good thing and important for society — and who were not very difficult to draw into Christian churches. On the other hand, contemporary people have the same intuitions of God and sin and spiritual longings for love, meaning, and grace that their ancestors did. People will hear the same message and some say, “You are mad!” (Acts 26:24) while others will be cut to the heart and ask, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).
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