May 11, 2023

Living in None-Land: How the Rest of the West Can Help American Christians in Their Decline

Post-religious America is somewhat like the angry teenager who, in seeking to self-identify in what seems like a suffocating household, becomes self-aware.

Do you get what I mean?

Self-aware of how transgressive they are. Self-aware of what the house rules are. Self-awareness is akin to an enlightening of the soul. The teen, bless his little cotton, mismatched socks, is struggling in what we might call the “conscious-incompetence” stage. He or she (“they/them”?) now knows their dilemma. They see the issue. They fret the issue. It’s sitting on their shoulder like that 500 pound gorilla.

As with teenagers in the house, so too with America in the post-religious house. In a fascinating article article in The New York Times, “Christianity’s Got a Brand Problem”, columnist Jessica Grose, points out the rising tide of “Nones” partially explained by down to the off-putting Trump factor in the US, and the evangelical alignment with his politics.

But not all of it. Which is why the article is prescient. Grose highlights other factors giving rise to the “Nones”. These include the culture wars of the sixties off the back of the 1950s religious boom, and the failure and betrayal of the Moral Majority. She also points out the fact that it’s not all one-way traffic. For instance, secularisation theory doesn’t hold up well in the most advanced nation on earth. People, it turns out, don’t necessarily become less Christian the more tech, electric toasters and self-serve ice-cream they get.

But a couple of observations: First the title of the article – which accurately reflects its content – reveals that “branding” is a major issue. And this in a country in which so many “brands” fall foul of public opinion.

The great beauty of American religion is that it was not state-sanctioned. If you start a religion or church it has to fly under its own steam. If it crashes and burns, well that’s on you. No wonder branding became important in those first heady days of no state religion. No wonder you had to shout louder, be more attractional, and provide more services – literally – than the competition. And by “competition” I don’t mean Jews, Muslims, Hindus etc, I mean the church down the road.

But a second observation: The 500 pound gorilla of religious self-awareness still sits on America’s shoulder. Like the teen in the house, there’s a sense of transgression felt by that that shift towards “Nones”, – or what we might call “None-Land”, even if it is celebrated at the same time. By transgression I don’t mean that people think it’s bad to be a “None”, but that, despite the dramatic drop off in church attendance, and the corresponding rise in nominalism, “None” is not yet considered normal. More to the point, “None” is still curious enough to point out.

Grose states that when…

Religion became less tightly connected to nationalism… it was no longer seen as treasonous if you “wouldn’t show up on Sunday at church.” (Though, judging from the number of respondents to my query who wanted to remain anonymous because they were afraid to offend their neighbors, atheism is still anathema in parts of our country.)

There’s a lot packed into that first sentence. And an awful lot packed into that parentheses. This could only happen in the West in America surely. In what other secular nation is there a sense that treason and anathema are linked with being a “None”? “No longer seen as treasonous”, and “anathema”. For the rest of us outside the US, it never has been seen as treasonous or anathema. Never. Not once.

In fact here’s what’s linked with being a “None” in other secular Western nations. Nothing. Which non-church-attender in Australia, or the UK, or New Zealand or Canada ever positions themselves around that self-conscious category? That an opinion piece in the most progressive newspaper in one of the most progressive cities still grapples with this idea of “Nones” indicates that the vestiges of religiosity remain tightly embedded there. The teenager may be a rebel, but someone else is still doing their washing, folding their ironing and grocery shopping. That teenager still feels like part of the house. He hasn’t packed up and moved to “None-Land” yet.

What does this vestige of self-awareness mean for those in the US who are still church-going Christians? What does it mean especially those of my evangelical tribe and their intentions going forward? Here’s what it means: It means they don’t truly get what it means to live in a secular nation. They don’t get what it means to simply assume “None-Land”, and they constantly define themselves, and the vision they are pitching, over and against it. And that means that they don’t truly get what it might look like to take a cultural, sociological and psychological “None-Land” posture. Or as we might put it, they haven’t figured out how to play an “away game”.

This struck me recently when US missiologist Ed Stetzer tweeted about his stay in Melbourne, the most hostile-to-Christianity, most progressive city of Australia. He rightly pointed out to his large US audience, that this was their future. And he’s right. The secular frame of a city like Melbourne is the future of most cities there, although that might take some time.

And it’s helpful to know that. Ed’s insights, based off his experiences here in Australia this year, will help him – and others – think about mission in America in the future. But in reality, Ed is a spiritual tourist in Australia. He’s coming from a land replete with the language and imaginary of “Nones”, And no amount of tourism or paid overseas research can prepare him, or those who listen to him in the US, what it feels like to be a spiritual citizen of Australia.

Simply put, the implications of living in “None-Land” hasn’t sunk to the core of his bones. “Nones” is still a self-aware category, even for many secular people, as the article in The New York Times indicates. But until “Noneness” is a default, an unspoken, unexamined category, then rebellious teenage you may be, but you haven’t moved out of home yet. Therefore as a Christian with missional intent, you’re always going to be surprised – or angered and dismayed – at its presence.

It’s high time our United States brothers and sisters stop reporting back “from the front line” about what it’s like to live in “None-Land”, and high time they invited a few more of us over there to give them the “feels”. Because, as Rory Shiner memorably observes, the secular discipleship program is caught not taught. In other words, Ed can’t just rock up to a church back in the US and give his people the equivalent of the dreaded 1970s slide show from Aunty Joan and Uncle Trev’s trip to Europe. Uncle Trev was right: You actually had to be there!

To move from tourist to citizen, you need to start preaching the Scriptures as if “None-Land” was the default, rather than the curiosity. As if it were your reality, not a set of grainy, sepia-toned slides and an old projector. You need to start conversations assuming you’re playing an away game. You need to read the Scriptures through the lens of cultural losers, not the lens of those who are losing their grip on the controlling narrative. You need to stop assuming moral and ethical categories that “None-land” no longer recognises. You need to resist the urge to think that there’s common ground in “None-land” in terms of a collective vision for human flourishing. And lots more besides.

But the point is this: The best missionaries for any up-and-coming “None-Lands”; the best trainers of those who have to grapple with the “Nones” and their ways, will be those who have, for some time, been citizens of “None-land” for as long as they can remember. Only once the Christians in the US lose the memory of having lived in any other land , will they be as effective in missional evangelism and contemporary apologetics as those of us who are “None-Land” natives.

The only question is: Are there enough American Christian leaders who will take the plunge and start to listen to those who have been playing a “away-game”. It still feels like the vast majority believe a tourist trip to “None-Land” will equip them to equip others who then equip others. “None-Land” is coming sooner to the US than many think. I hope they’re ready for it.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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