|Who is that guy, and why is he kissing Jesus?|
Sometimes a single detail captures and gives flesh to something much larger. For instance, today a person of my acquaintance (a non-Catholic Christian) told me with evident disgust that he recently saw a television quiz show in which not one of three contestants could name the betrayer of Jesus. Just think about that. What do you think the odds were forty years ago of picking three reasonably well educated adults in the United States at random and finding that none of them could name Judas Iscariot? We might in fact have been mildly surprised (at least) to find even one such person, because the Christian worldview, and the Christian story, had been so deeply embedded in the culture for so long that even the non-religious and non-Christians generally had a pretty good idea of the major players in the Biblical drama. No longer.
Lest you think I’m just another old-timer pining the “good old days” that never were, take a look at this recent report, “Five Trends Among The Unchurched”, from the Barna Group, a Christian-oriented research firm. Barna’s five trends are that 1) “Secularization is on the Rise”, which is to say that each generation is not simply less religious in terms of numbers, but also more radically separated from religion; 2) “People Are Less Open to the Idea of Church”, as measured by the number of unchurched who are open to appeals from their believing fellow citizens; 3) “Churchgoing Is No Longer Mainstream”: the percentage of Americans who have never attended church regularly increased by more than 50%, from 15% of the adult population to 23% of the adult population, from 1993 to 2013; 4) “There Are Different Expectations of Church Involvement”, or more simply people are much less clear on what “church-going” is all about, including the importance of Sunday worship, or staying in a particular faith community; 5) “There Is Skepticism about Churches’ Contribution to Society”, as Barna explains:
Although many of the churchless hold positive views of churches, a substantial number also have no idea what Christians have accomplished in the nation, either for the better or for the worse. When the unchurched were asked to describe what they believe are the positive and negative contributions of Christianity in America, almost half (49%) could not identify a single favorable impact of the Christian community, while nearly two-fifths (37%) were not able to identify a single negative impact.
Overall, Barna’s report paints a picture of a society that is increasingly “indifferent” to religion, comprised of a growing number of people who live unaware of any religious dimension to their lives, and who don’t perceive any need for it. Moreover, while most unchurched people today have at least some knowledge of, and experience with, Christian belief, the report shows that with every generation we are seeing more and more people with no direct connection to Christianity at all. As I said a few years ago in an essay I wrote for Catholic Exchange:
Our civilization has been shaped by Christianity for almost two thousand years. Christian beliefs, attitudes, and moral convictions (commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian worldview) are woven into all of our customs and institutions . . . anyone raised in the West over the last two millennia has been formed, to a large degree, by that Christocentric worldview, whether they consciously embrace it or not. More than one commentator has remarked that even the “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have not jettisoned principles such as the dignity of the human person (not a universal value by any stretch) or a Judeo-Christian concept of justice – they employ these very ideas, in fact, as weapons against Christianity . . . Without its source and foundation of Christian belief, however, the worldview itself will quickly wither . . . a society that abandons faith will soon be resubmerged in paganism.
The loss of that worldview will have a profound impact (what we have seen so far is just the beginning). In his eye-opening book Who Really Cares Arthur C. Brooks copiously documents the fact that believing Christians are not just more generous, but much more generous, of both their time and their treasure than other people, and correspondingly more honest, courteous, etc. Any objective observer would have to conclude, based on the data, that a less Christian society would be proportionally less generous, honest, and courteous. Not only that, but people who are so disconnected from any experience of religion at all, and perceive no need for any religious dimension in their life, are going to be much harder to evangelize. At the same time, greater efforts at evangelization will be necessary, because our Western Society, which at one time could with some amount of truth be called Christendom, is quickly reverting to Mission Territory.
Evangelizing a neo-pagan culture presents a very different challenge than did the conversion of the original pagans. The ancient pagans found Christianity to be strange, and sometimes counterintuitive (“love your enemies” [Matthew 5:44] is still tough for us to swallow), but the neo-pagans believe that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, and most of what they hear from the media and popular culture is negative, which is why barely half of the unchurched people cited above could think of a single good thing the Church has done, while almost two-thirds could think of something bad. We need to work as never before at being “wise as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16), to be that city on a hill (Matthew 5:14) without looking like hypocrites, to preach without “preaching”. How to do that I don’t know, except that we’ll get nowhere without prayer, the sacraments (especially Confession and the Eucharist . . . and Confession), and a firm reliance on God’s Providence. Lord, have mercy on us.