Baptist pastor and theologican David Gushee offers an interesting analysis of how Donald Trump’s supporters who self-identify as Christian evangelicals attend church less frequently than other evangelicals, particularly those with a college degree who tend not to be Trump supporters.

The point here is not why some Christians are drawn to Trump, though that is a fascinating subject and has been covered well elsewhere.

Rather, Gushee’s point is that these people embody changing conceptions of how Christian identity is lived out in a way that has less and less contact with church membership and worship.  When regular church attendence is now defined as once or twice a month on Sunday, he argues, then Christian identity is attenuated as formation, discipleship, and the influence of the pastorate become hollowed out.

 It becomes very hard to pastor a flock when the flock always changes. It is hard to feel deeply spiritually connected, hard to want to become vulnerable, to a group that is not stable in its membership. The mere whiff of conflict can terrify church leaders because it can accelerate the churn and potential loss of membership that is always a possibility anyway.

Perhaps most germane to the politics of the moment, it is hard for church leaders to teach anybody anything in a sustained manner if hardly anyone is present in a sustained manner. The more technical way to say it is that Christian spiritual and moral formation weakens because fewer congregants commit to that formation in any particular place. And pastors have reason to fear that just as soon as they say anything challenging — like about racial prejudice, greed, or violence — congregants who don’t like that message can drift out just as easily as they drifted in.

So, America has a whole bunch of half-churched Christians, some of whom would answer “evangelical” on a survey. This, I think, explains a lot about what is happening in our churches, and in society.

It is worth noting that Gushee is writing s a US Baptist, so he is describing a phenomenon that is not confined to mainstream Protestant denominations.  The basic point is that wherever the denomination,  when the church loses its stickiness, its capacity to attract and form the faithful through the weekly discipline of word and sacrament, then the integrity and depth of Christian identity suffers.

This is not necessarily to say that evangelicals who align politically with Trump are necessarily deficient in their Christianity (though others, including Pope Francis, have suggested this), but it does suggest that termscasually invoked by pollsters and pundits, such as evangelical, are far more complex than many think. 

Having just returned from a three day retreat at the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA, a community shaped by prayer, a shared identity in Christ and a rule of life, I am reminded of why the faithful need the church to shape and sustain our lives.

0 Responses

  1. Interesting article. I think you need to look at how Sunday's have changed in the past 20 years. (Or at least in the US.)

    When I was a kid, no stores would open before 1pm. And then it was mostly restaurants to handle the after church crowds. We joked about which denomination ended service early to beat the others to lunch at the cafeteria.

    Fast forward to 2016. Everything is open on Sundays. More importantly, sports teams hold games and practices on Sunday mornings. It used to be football games that caused parishioners to duck out early. Now they are just not even coming because little Jimmy has a game that morning.

    Working at a large church, I see exactly what you are talking about. In the children's ministry we see kids once or twice a month. Our elementary ministry still has close to 200 kids for second service but they are not the same kids from Sunday to Sunday.

    There did not used to be such competition for our time on Sundays as there is today. Christianity is becoming less mainstream. Denominations are trying to redefine themselves to adapt to the change in culture.

    We have always had the existence of Sunday Morning Christianity. Now there is a greater excuse to make even that part time.