America’s churches came back into the media limelight a few weeks ago after a well-publicized Pew study showed a meteoric rise of Americans claiming no religious affiliation, shooting up from seven percent in 1990 to 16 percent in 2010. The percentage more than doubled for those under the age of 30, reaching almost 35 percent. The group is now being referred to as “the religious nones.”
There has been no lack of theorizing to account for the numbers. Some chalk it up to a more visibly secularized society, others to doctrinal confusion, and others to the social media-fueled culture of distraction among today’s youth. Some dismiss the charge as alarmist, claiming that young people have always had a distaste for organized religion. The list goes on.
Many inside the church have responded to the decline in attendance by attempting to “remarket” Christianity by updating worship services and unwittingly playing into consumerist biases, presenting themselves as one more product in the spiritual marketplace. By and large, these tactics have backfired. There may be noble intentions at work, but the collective impression is that these Christians are trying too hard to be “cool.” No wonder “authenticity” has become such a buzzword. Young people are not finding it at church.
In a recent column for CNN, Rachel Held Evans opined that, “what millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.” Speaking as someone who has spent the past forty plus years in the bosom of American Evangelicalism, she is certainly onto something. The “what” is the issue, not the “how.”
You don’t have to be a sociologist to know that we live in a culture of asphyxiating “performancism.” Performancism is the mindset that equates our identity and value directly with our performance. It casts achievements not as something we do or don’t do but as something we are (or aren’t). The money we earn, the car we drive, the schools we attend, aren’t merely reflective of our occupation or ability; they are reflective of us. They are constitutive rather than descriptive. In this schema, success equals life, and failure is tantamount to death.
Performancism leads us to spend our lives frantically propping up our image or reputation, trying to have it all, do it all, and do it all well, often at a cost to ourselves and those we love. Life becomes a hamster wheel of endless earning and proving and maintenance and management, where all we can see is our own feet. Before long we are living in a constant state of anxiety, fear, and resentment. A few years ago, Dr. Richard Leahy, an anxiety specialist, was quoted as saying, “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.”
Sadly, the church has not proven immune to performancism. An institution theoretically devoted to providing comfort to those in need is in trouble because it has embraced the same pressure-cooker we find everywhere else.In recent years, a handful of popular books have been published urging a more robust and radical expression of the Christian faith. I heartily amen the desire to take one’s faith seriously and demonstrate before the watching world a willingness to be more than just Sunday churchgoers. The unintended consequence of this push, however, is that we can give people the impression that Christianity is first and foremost about the sacrifices we make rather than the sacrifice Jesus made for us — our performance rather than his performance for us. The hub of Christianity is not “do something for Jesus.” The hub of Christianity is “Jesus has done everything for you.” And my fear is that too many people, both inside and outside the church, have heard our “do more, try harder” sermons and pleas for intensified devotion and concluded that the focus of the Christian faith is the work that we do instead of the work God has done for us in the person of Jesus.
Furthermore, too many churches perpetuate the impression that Christianity is primarily concerned with morality. As my colleague David Zahl has written, “Christianity is not about good people getting better. It is about real people coping with their failure to be good.” The heart of the Christian faith is Good News not good behavior.When Sunday mornings become one more venue for performance evaluation, can you blame a person for wanting to stay at home?
As someone who loves the church, I am saddened by the perception of Christianity as a vehicle of moral control and good behavior, rather than a haven for the discouraged and dying. It is high time for the church to remind our broken and burned out world that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a one-way declaration that because Jesus was strong for you, you’re free to be weak; because Jesus won for you, you’re free to lose; because Jesus succeeded for you, you’re free to fail.
Grace and rest and absolution with no new strings or anxieties attached now that would be a change in substance.