Painting by Nicholas Poussin: Institution of the Eucharist (1637)

Sustainable Religion

Painting by Nicholas Poussin: Institution of the Eucharist (1637)
Nicholas Poussin: Institution of the Eucharist (1637)

Christianity will save the world again, as it has in the past. But how are we to save Christianity?


One of the most important components of a “sustainable” culture is religion. Religion helps to sustain and keep stable a culture by exalting mankind beyond his political and economic context. It gives him an ultimate perspective by proposing ends for human desire and effort that are outside of and transcend society, but which are pursued through virtuous and even sacrificial actions within society. Religion encourages compassion for other human beings and creates support networks of other people who share common commitments, habits, and aims.

Religion fosters institutions to care for those inside and outside the faith, especially those members of society who are most vulnerable. Religious institutions found hospitals, shelters, and kitchens; operate family support agencies; and offer counseling, rehabilitation, and reconciliation.

Religious belief sustains society by causing a person to act more virtuously than he needs to in order to placate society at large, since he compares his behavior to a standard which exceeds the morality of society. Civil laws, though necessary to curb evil, are poor substitutes for the transcendent standard of Judeo-Christian morals and ethics. A religious person considers himself to be accountable to a higher power.

We suspect that not all religions–or all sects within any particular religion–are equal in these beneficial effects, and some may also introduce harm to a society through false and wicked beliefs which prompt people not to be concerned for the well-being of others or act justly with a mind to right standing before God. I write as of Christianity, the only religion of which I have any first-hand experience, though other religions exhibit some of the same beneficial and harmful effects. Here, though, I do not propose to judge various faiths and religious movements according to their effects on society. Rather, within the context of Christianity, I will attempt to show what religious practices tend to preserve a type of religious faith most likely to sustain itself over generations, and secondarily, exert the most beneficial influence for a sustainable and stable society.

“Mainline decline”

We’ve heard a lot about “mainline decline.” Membership in the historic American “mainline” Protestant churches (United Methodist, Episcopal, ELCA, PCUSA, UCC, and others) has been diminishing for decades. The membership of these churches is failing to renew itself either by raising children in the church or evangelizing their neighbors. Conflict over liberalization of theological and moral teaching is also driving many members away. As the mainlines wither, a wide variety of evangelical and charismatic churches have gained numbers and influence. Many of these are independent congregations or small alliances of churches. Others, like the Southern Baptist Convention, are huge denominations. What they have in common is a commitment to the truth of the Bible and a desire for a real experience of God which seems to be lacking in the “mainline” churches.

Is evangelical Christianity sustainable?

Evangelicalism has benefited, one might say, from the decline of the mainline churches. But the sustainability of evangelical Christianity has also been a topic of concern in the religious press for some time. Their concern is the next generation of Christians, particularly adolescents and young adults. The National Association of Evangelicals said, in 2006, that there is “an epidemic of young people leaving the evangelical church.” A New York Times feature that same year quoted youth discipleship pioneer Ron Luce as saying that in spite of all efforts to retain Christian young people, on the whole, “we’re losing.” Also in 2006, The Barna Group issued a study claiming “that despite strong levels of spiritual activity during the teen years, most twentysomethings disengage from active participation in the Christian faith during their young adult years – and often beyond that.” If evangelicalism is losing the interest of young people, it may end up being the transient religious expression of the Baby Boomers.

What are the characteristics of young evangelical spirituality? The NYT article features a kind of event which may represent the most significant religious experience of many young evangelicals, “a Christian youth extravaganza and rock concert” organized by Ron Luce’s Teen Mania Ministries. The two-day rally featured pyrotechnics, performances by Christian rock bands, symbolic destruction of “worldly” items such as CDs to show commitment to Jesus, and all sorts of glitzy Christian-themed paraphernalia. The purpose of all of this was to persuade Christian teenagers to devote their lives to Christian belief and behavior and become separate from the world. So how’s it working?

In 2010, the Pew Forum published a comprehensive statistical survey, “Religion Among the Millennials,” comparing various indicators of religious affiliation and practice across generational lines. One interesting feature of their charts is that each generation considered by itself tends to increase in most statistical indicators of religiosity as it gets older. But reassuring as this may be to the parent whose child has abandoned the faith, the Pew study also clearly shows that among members of “Gen X” and the “Millennial” generation, spirituality has ebbed much lower than in previous generations. Across measures such as “strong” religious affiliation, attendance at religious services, personal prayer, perceived importance of religion, belief in God, belief in the Bible as the literal word of God, and views on moral issues, the “Millennial” generation (born after 1980) ranks as the least religious, though not much less religious than Generation X (born after 1964).

What is the cause of this decline in religion among American youth? Why are children leaving the faith of their parents more now than ever? According to Kenda Creasy Dean, author of Almost Christian, their parents’ faith is the problem: “…for the most part we have traded the kind of faith confessed and embodied in the church’s most long-standing traditions for the savory stew of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Dean suggests that evangelical children are not abandoning their parents’ religious beliefs, but remaining faithful to their parents true religion, which is not authentic Christianity but a sort of indefinable niceness.

“The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe: namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people focused primarily on “folks like us”—which, of course, begs the question of whether we are really the church at all.” (Dean 12)

An experiment in social criticism

C.S. Lewis, who in his day was best known as a literary critic, suggests in An Experiment in Criticism that instead of judging people’s taste by the books they read, we might try to judge books by the people who read them and the way in which they tend to be read. Lewis asks whether the reader’s approach to a book is one of ‘use’ or ‘reception’ : “The ‘user’ wants to use this content–as pastime for a dull or torturing hour, as a puzzle, as a help to castle-building, or perhaps as a source for ‘philosophies of life’. The ‘recipient’ wants to rest in it. It is for him, at least, temporarily an end.” (Lewis 89)

The question then becomes, regarding a particular book: In what way do the people who appreciate this book enjoy it? Is it for them an aid to what Lewis calls “egoistic castle-building,” or a means to pass the time on the bus or in the waiting room, or do they believe the book has value beyond its usefulness? An instruction manual, for instance, may be useful, sufficient, even excellent, but it is not literature. Nobody would contest this. Where the question becomes more difficult is when a literary claim is made on behalf of some new work which, say, appeals to the prurient interest. Some works of great literature are sexually explicit. One might perhaps say that such a book is pornographic and should be avoided; but that is the work of the censor, not the critic. It is a question of moral, not literary judgment. The critic should instead ask whether the readers of this book seek it it out because of the sexual thrill it excites, or for a different reason.

To put it another way, what sort of readers does the book attract? Are its enthusiasts people who seek out books as a means to visceral excitation and the alleviation of boredom, or for the love of excellence in words, stories, and craft for their own sake, for the sake of impartial enjoyment? The highest passions are eventually also the strongest–eventually–but they cannot be experienced by those who are always chasing after immediate sensory gratification.

Lewis’s experimental framework can be adapted to social criticism. Regarding what seems to be the predominating mode of contemporary American religion, something that I will here for convenience call ‘big evangelicalism’ to differentiate it from more traditional churches and denominations, we can ask the same kind of questions:

  1. In its discipleship of young people, does big evangelicalism treat the Christian faith as something primarily useful to accomplish a function, or primarily to be received for what it is? Is Christianity a functional life-philosophy that helps you get through life and beyond, or is it something that attracts you for its own sake?

  2. What sorts of people tend to be the leading lights of big evangelicalism? What are the religious, moral, and cultural characteristics of its adherents? How does it affect them?

  3. Does big evangelicalism attract a broad, non-homogenous group of people, who share not external characteristics but a desire for the thing itself?

  4. Does big evangelicalism have cultural staying power? Is it distinct enough to become, in the terms of literature, “classic?”

Much of the religious teaching offered to young evangelicals is oriented around presenting Christianity as a functional philosophy of life, a “worldview” with tangible benefits for the individual. While Christianity does serve these functions, they are its side effects rather than its main purpose, which is to bind people to God through Christ as part of a covenant community, the Church. Unfortunately, religious devotion among evangelical teens–and, to be fair, in these settings it is often fervently expressed–tends to be emotionally intense but shallow in thought and extremely individualistic.

The leaders of big evangelicalism are an interesting bunch. Of Time magazine’s 2005 list of “25 most influential evangelicals,” at least twelve of the featured leaders founded or operate a parachurch organization not affiliated with any church or denomination. Only seven of the 25 (27 counting Franklin Graham and Beverly LaHaye) have been pastors of churches, while only six of the 25 are affiliated with a traditional denomination–and two of these are Roman Catholic (Rick Santorum and Richard John Neuhaus). At least ten are politically influential. From them, big evangelicalism takes on a character of cultural concern not united to the teachings of a particular church or, in most cases, any church body at all. Church recedes into the background of social and political activism.

Big evangelicalism has middle-class values and markets itself strongly to the middle class. The megachurch is a properly suburban phenomenon, and evangelical Christianity largely reflects suburban values. (Where else could you have acres of free parking going mostly unused except on Sundays, yet with a large enough local population to fill the stadium seats?) It caters to consumerist values, generally placing a high premium on “customer” satisfaction and personalization of experience. It is much like a modern business, offering a religious product as competitively and efficiently as possible with large economies of scale. Architecturally and in terms of its business model, the megachurch is the religious equivalent of the Target Superstore, complete with in-house Starbucks. If Christianity is a subculture because the surrounding culture has serious problems, that’s a fair reason for it to be a subculture; but if a particular church is a subculture because it only attracts people with certain cultural characteristics or of a particular socioeconomic class, it is likely not fulfilling its Christian purpose.

Is big evangelicalism here to stay, or is it a transient religious fad? Can it pass itself on to the next generation of Christians, or will they, like their parents, end up looking for a different way to be Christian, or leave the faith altogether? Too often the religion taught to evangelical young people follows the contours of what Kenda Creasy Dean calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:”

  1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.

  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most major world religions.

  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

  4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.

  5. Good people go to heaven when they die. (Dean 14)

These do not suffice for a sustainable Christian faith.

Fundamentalists encounter a different problem. The fundamentalist movement began as a reaction to liberalizing churches (such as the mainlines) which were compromising the historic Protestant faith traditions by surrendering to German skepticism and other intellectual acids. Fundamentalists recognized that truth was at stake, and founded denominations based on the strong affirmation of Biblical truth. Unfortunately, fundamentalists today are marked less by courage than by fear. One may identify this in fundamentalists’ continual worry over political problems and secularism. But fear is also apparent in the tendency of fundamentalists to teach and behave in ways that isolate them from their fundamentalist and evangelical peers because of disputes over minor issues. Religion, for many fundamentalists, is a matter of loyalty to a text, a moral system, and a set of propositions about God and the world. All of these things are true and good, and should not lightly be abandoned. Yet, many fundamentalists have allowed themselves, while holding on to these things, to drift away from the authentic experience of Jesus Christ, which alone enlightens and sustains the Christian religion. In evangelical protestantism, the true corporate experience of Jesus Christ in the liturgy has been replaced by unsatisfying and infrequent substitutes: individual conversion experiences as a test of faith, non-sacramental “altar calls,” family-friendly radio, and spiritual emotionalism instead of mature spiritual depth–all of which foster an individualized faith that even for the most devout can be seen as separate from the church’s corporate and true life in Jesus Christ.

How can a church pass on the authentic experience of God in Jesus Christ to another generation of young people? We recognize of course that the process depends on God’s favor and that there is no infallible method for making teens grow up Christian. But surely there are better ways to do it than 3-day Christian music festivals.

A sustainable faith

The following description of young people in a traditional religious setting strikes a contrast with accounts of young adult attrition in American churches. Richard Rymarz and Marian de Souza studied Coptic Christian immigrants in Australia, and found that, rather than straying, Coptic youth tended to continue to practice their faith throughout their teen and young adult years. Statements drawn from interviews with twenty Copts between the ages of 24 and 32  indicate a firm faith. Young Copts have a high regard for their clergy and involve them in major life decisions like getting married, which means they tend to marry within the Coptic community. They have a high regard for the particular religious traditions of the Coptic community, including the ancient liturgy and the discipline of fasting, and see them as a source of spiritual life. Their professional and social lives are not isolated from the world, nor do they entirely abstain from alcohol, but they take care to surround themselves with Coptic peers who can hold them accountable to Christian behavior. They believe strongly in the authority of Scripture:

Here is how a young Copt links the Bible with the problems of everyday life:

“We also go by the Bible a lot.  We use it in practically everything we do, not as a storybook, not as a myth, not as a metaphor but as pretty much the answer to everyday life. So looking at somebody in a bad way, the Bible says that is exactly the same as committing adultery. That would be exactly the same as committing adultery . . . and it is not symbolic or just a fairy tale or something like.”

Evangelical youth ministers would be jealous of such an articulate yet spontaneous answer, a far cry from “benign whatever-ism.” Rymarz and DeSouza suggest that the cohesiveness and generational integrity of the Coptic community is due to various aspects of their religious practice, and not just a result of living in an immigrant community. Some of these strengths include:

  • A high degree of support for church hierarchy, its leaders and clergy

  • Close relationships with clergy, who are viewed as spiritual fathers and consulted over life decisions

  • Identification with and loyalty to the church’s history and traditions

  • Practice of prayer and fasting

  • Opportunity to take on appropriate formal ministry roles, such as deacon

  • Belief in the truth and importance of Scripture

  • Memorization of creedal formulas encapsulating core truths

Rymarz and DeSouza’s description of the way these young Christians live suggests that they see no disconnect between Christianity and their everyday lives, even as they live and work in a society which does not, as a whole, share their values.

How religions come into being

I believe religions, broadly speaking, originally come into being through an authentic encounter with reality. Pagan pantheism, one might say, is authentic in that it results from the cumulative encounter of ancient peoples with the unexplainable mystery of the natural world and, it may be, the spirits and forces which inhabited it. Monotheistic Judaism surpasses paganism because it stems from a personal encounter with a God who, having created all things, is beyond and outside of nature. He cannot be known through observation but only his self-revelation. Classical philosophy did perhaps knock at the gates of Heaven, but the divine being of Plato could not be personally known in the same way as the God of the Hebrews. God’s special and ongoing interaction with Abraham and his descendents made them into a unique people who were united not only by family ties but also a common relationship with God.

Christianity inherited the Jewish tradition, but reinterpreted it in light of an even more stunning revelation of God: the incarnation of God the Son as a man. Rather than revealing himself as something wholly separate, God went so far as to identify with us, to become a man and participate in our life, and even, through his death, participate in the curse of our first parents and redeem us from it. This action of his atoning death is the nexus of history and the source of the Christian faith. The Christian religion at its core exists to make the  work of Jesus a reality for everyone, and the central action of Christianity is the action which brings his saving death and life authentically into the present, uniting all believers to him and to one another. This action is of course Holy Communion, or the Eucharist.

If people’s connection to the divine is not renewed, they will look for alternatives. The religion of the mainline churches is “empty” inasmuch as many practitioners no longer believe that what they are doing is authentic. Scriptures to them are profound human documents, or records of religious experience, but are not divinely inspired or infallible, and do not themselves communicate grace to readers. Holy actions they regard as traditions that are meaningful in some way, but not sacred in themselves and subject to alteration be altered if they see fit. So our parents’ generation, the Baby Boomers, got tired of inauthentic mainline Christianity. Many found a more authentic experience of God in charismatic or evangelical fellowships. But evangelical, charismatic, and fundamentalist churches, though they are more likely to believe the words of the Bible, regularly teach the fundamental truths of the gospel, and practice evangelism, give too much emphasis to the individual and not enough to the Body. The evangelical churchgoer is left without a clear sense of his place and membership in the corporate unity of the Church, the Body of Christ. Evangelical protestants also tend overwhelmingly to overlook the sacraments which bind Christians together in Christ. Megachurches raise the individualistic tendency of evangelicalism to an ultimate preoccupation with their focus on delivering a worship product tailored to the individual consumer. If church is really all about the needs of the consumer, he loses the sense of being a member of a larger body. He chooses to attend a church only because it delivers the religious products he wants. What he does not get is a sense that he belongs to the church in any way other than a merely voluntary membership, as in an interest group of some kind.

Young people are perhaps always preoccupied with authenticity, perceiving a general lack of it in themselves and in society. An authentic and true connection to Jesus Christ, then, should be the number one priority of those involved in youth ministry. And I don’t think this means having more altar calls, Switchfoot concerts, or endless guilt trips about frequency of personal devotions. I believe we need to teach children, teenagers, and young adults how to eat Christ as part of a worshipping Body. This can be accomplished with or without a praise band, cool graphics, or edgy haircuts. These things are mistaken for relevance, but to the main issue they are completely irrelevant. The Body of Christ is the central and eternally relevant element of a sustainable Christian religion, because by this He himself sustains the church.

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THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

7 thoughts on “Sustainable Religion”

  1. Very well put and very well written. I thoroughly enjoyed this post and will be passing it around, because it gets to the heart of the matter:

    “The Christian religion at its core exists to make the work of Jesus a reality for everyone, and the central action of Christianity is the action which brings his saving death and life authentically into the present, uniting all believers to him and to one another.”

  2. Admittedly, I skipped some sections, but I think I like what I read here. I’ll be checking back!

    However, would you mind clarifying if, in the next to last paragraph, the third and fourth sentences are your words or words you’re using to summarize the thoughts of a former generation? Thanks!

  3. As one of those who was captivated and enchanted in my teenage years with born again Christianity, but fell out of it in my 20’s, (during my university years), I can only offer my experience as an example. (Note: Today I am agnostic, and have no regrets.)

    The powerful worship services were indeed state altering events, and it was easy to enter into states where the awareness of the presence of Jesus was palpable and potent. These ecstasies are tremendously beautiful states to occupy, but they are also the cherry on the desert, not the substance of the meal. It is the problem of mystical experiences that they can become the end in themselves, and that is essentially the problem. To bring about deep commitment requires that the practices of love as spoken about in the gospels are put into effect. Get young people involved and committed to practices of charity and involvement which build a foundation of meaning, not just worship services that give them the ecstatic payload. The one thing that people will quickly discover is that induction of states of ecstasy can be brought about by many means, and not only the worship service. Hence, it is not the anchor which will bind them to a Christian community. But, doing something which makes a difference, in which they can see that the practices of Christian love bears good fruit will over time creates a much stronger attachment. The involvement with the Christian community must also not be an easy once-a-week suit that is put on and taken off with great ease and little regard. Regular and sustained involvement builds commitment, and just as going to the gym once a week does not a bodybuilder make, the same is just as true for members of a religious community.

    My university years exposed me to many competing traditions, philosophies, and types of knowledge, (including science.) A religious community that was unwilling or afraid of the competing narratives, and which said, “We don’t ask those questions”, essentially left me no choice but to become more post-modernist in my views. I expect that my experience is not unique, and will be an ongoing and complex issue for many orthodox, fundamentalist and evangelical forms of religion.

    One other thing, get the politics out of the religious community. I have seen what happens when politics and religion become too friendly with each other, and it is not a pretty sight. There are general exceptions, but they are not tightly bound to particular political parties. (e.g. emancipation movements in the 19th century, religion as a basis for civil rights movements in the 1960’s as per Martin Luther King.)
    It is too easy for a religious community to become sullied by the machinations of the political world.

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