The Common Good

Christendom, Bias, and The End of Religion

Yesterday the Barna Group offered up a very interesting analysis of post-Christianity in the United States. There's a nifty graphic as well. I follow their work for a variety of reasons, the least of which is their accuracy as social scientists. Sometimes they hit the nail on the head and sometimes they demonstrate a very interesting bias.

Infographic courtesy of The Barna Group
Infographic courtesy of The Barna Group

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Let me offer this one disclaimer: It doesn't bother me that they are biased. In fact, I love how clear they are in their bias. In itself, it is an intriguing expression of Christian faithfulness.

What are "The Most Post-Christian Cities in America?" Follow the link to see where your city ranks. Not surprisingly, the U.S. northeast and northwest are less Christian than the southeast and the Mid-Atlantic cities. There's nothing new, per se, in their findings. Various organizations have posted similar statistics. If you want to know how religious your state is, there's this handy 2009 study. Their criteria for Christian identity, however, captured my attention. 

Here are the criteria for post-Christianity according to Barna: 

1. do not believe in God
2. identify as atheist or agnostic
3. disagree that faith is important in their lives
4. have not prayed to God (in the last year)
5. have never made a commitment to Jesus
6. disagree the Bible is accurate
7. have not donated money to a church (in the last year)
8. have not attended a Christian church (in the last year)
9. agree that Jesus committed sins
10. do not feel a responsibility to “share their faith”
11. have not read the Bible (in the last week)
12. have not volunteered at church (in the last week)
13. have not attended Sunday school (in the last week)
14. have not attended religious small group (in the last week)
15. do not participate in a house church (in the last year)

As I read through the list I am struck by the evangelical bias. There are very specific practices included in this list (Bible study, house churches, sharing the faith, small group attendance, Sunday school) that reveal this bias. They are asking about practices they consider normative, their presence and their absence. There is no mention of receiving the Eucharist, charitable giving, or social outreach such as volunteering in a soup kitchen. 

Let me be clear, I am not judging them positively or negatively on their list. Instead, I'm intrigued ... deeply and profoundly intrigued, truth be told.

As we continue to attempt to measure and track religious participation in the United States, what criteria will matter to us? Will it be receiving the Eucharist? Bible study? If a Catholic-biased group were to fashion a similarly biased survey, how would their results account for those traditions who do not take receive the Eucharist every time they gather? "Do not receive Eucharist weekly" as a sign of a diminishment in Christian activity would be a very curious measure as many traditions celebrate Communion with much less frequency. Who is considered Christian and by what set of practices?

There are many self-professed Christian traditions that are discounted by the above list including progressive traditions, Catholics, and Orthodox.

There is a curious kind of entrenchment reflected in such questions. There is a goal inferred, a missional perspective that one can safely assume. I am reminded of the mission activites of the Southern Baptist Convention of a decade ago in Chicago. Catholics, Orthodox, as well as other religious communities such as Hindus and Jews were targets of this missional efforts. Why? Well, they aren't Christian by SBC definitions of Christianity. 

When we talk about the decline of Christianity, which Christianity are we actually talking about?

I infer some overlap with the debate about the Spiritual-But-Not-Religious as well. We're all showing our cards right now. "Membership in a congregation" might be a measure of Christian identity for progressive free-church denominations. Yet, the SBNR Christian (not necessarily an oxymoron) maintains no such affiliation.  

Responses to the changes in how individuals practice their faith in this country reveals a great deal about the people studying these changes. It reveals their biases of what is considered "normative." Is belief in the resurrection normative? One might thing so, but in many progressive traditions such belief is considered negotiable, a spiritual goal that may prove intellectually challenging and is thus not a prerequisite for membership in the community.

Is weekly celebration of the Eucharist normative? How about baptism? Quakers do not necessarily baptize nor do many Salvation Army communities. How are these traditions accounted for in our list of normative expressions of Christianity? 

Various Christian expressions may very well be coming to an end or diminishing in some way. New traditions are emerging, and we have yet to find ways to understand them theologically or sociologically. Barna's study is an invitation for all of us to reflect on our own biases. It's an invitation to humility and honesty. I'm grateful for their work. 

Tripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif. You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" at AngloBaptist.orgFollow Tripp on Twitter @AngloBaptist.

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