Yet another Christian has offered up his ideas about fixing Christianity's decline. And as usual, he's missed the most important reason for that decline.
A recent Medium piece about Christianity’s decline has been making the rounds on social media. In it, a Christian makes three assertions about his religion’s decline. Two are partially correct. But the last reflects a beloved but completely untrue myth that Christians almost universally embrace. Let’s examine each of these assertions to find an answer to Christianity’s decline that makes a lot more sense.
Christians love to speculate about what’s causing Christianity’s decline
For almost ten years now, Christians have been aware that their religion is in a solid decline. Many even understand that no reputable researcher has given Christians a chance of ever regaining their cultural dominance.
But none of them really want to engage with the real reason for their decline. That’d be too painful. (We will explore that real reason shortly.) Instead, they make up more comfortable reasons that they think explain Christianity’s steady decline.
These guesses will always center on Christians who are somehow Jesus-ing incorrectly. They will never touch on fundamental problems within the religion, its overall ideology, or its adherents. It’s a blame game, nothing more, a rationalization that keeps Christians’ minds from getting too close to the truth.
It reminds me of something Buttercup does in the book version of The Princess Bride. A beautiful Countess visiting Buttercup’s family farm begins staring amorously at Westley as he does his chores. And Westley looks back at her. This bothers Buttercup enormously, but then she decides that the Countess was simply infatuated with Westley’s perfect teeth. Yes, that’s it, the impossibly gorgeous and wealthy Countess simply felt attracted to Westley because of his teeth!
That idea comforts Buttercup for a few minutes—until she remembers that nobody stares at anybody like that because of their teeth. That’s when she gives herself up to anguish over the idea of losing her Farm Boy to the Countess.
That’s what Christians are doing, except they haven’t had that realization yet that none of their guesses actually explains Christianity’s decline. It’s just a bandage they’re slapping over a painful truth to keep from seeing it for a little while longer.
Ten years ago, I thought they might still have time to fix things. But now, I no longer think so. They’re not even at the stage of accurately describing the reasons for their decline, much less finding real solutions to it.
Our latest set of guesses comes to us from Dan Foster over at Medium. I’d never heard of him before, but he’s apparently associated somehow with a pay-to-play online group called Backyard Church. It specifically seeks what I call churchless believers—Christians who still identify as such, but who have abandoned their church memberships for various reasons.
Assertion #1: Government favoritism is causing Christianity’s decline
“When churches start to cozy up to the state,” writers Foster,
they can get lost in the sauce of politics and forget about their mission to spread the good news, love God and love others, and serve the poor and unfortunate. Instead, the focus shifts from being all about love and kindness to being all about power and privilege. State-funded churches end up losing their soul and driving away those who actually have some spiritual integrity.
What is worse, when the church starts to throw its weight around and force its conservative beliefs on people who aren’t interested, it just causes resentment. Consider the church’s appalling treatment of the LGBTIQ+ community as an example.Dan Foster, Medium
He also cites research that supports the hypothesis that when a government shows favoritism to a religion, that religion goes into decline. Indeed, we’ve seen this happen in Europe for decades now. It also seems like the harder the Christian Right tries to usurp and hijack the American government, the harder they alienate not only existing Christians but potential new recruits as well.
Of course, politicization works in the opposite direction as well. I’ve heard about pastors who openly, vocally support liberal political causes and subsequently alienate followers who are either more conservative or don’t like the notion of politics mixing with their observance of religion. Indeed, that’s the entire basis of the classic 1969 book The Gathering Storm in the Churches by Jeffrey K. Hadden. It examines how pastors across Christianity dealt with the Civil Rights Movement, and how their congregations responded. (Spoiler alert: Congregations usually were not enthused at all.)
The truth about government favoritism
However, Foster is only half correct. Christianity has almost entirely lost its ability to hurt dissenters, heretics, and apostates. Their leaders also once had the power to force everyone to join and support churches, but they’ve lost that power in recent decades. In past centuries when Christians still had that power, nobody could have called Christianity a declining religion. It grew, and it grew precisely because nobody had a choice about joining and supporting Christian churches.
This religion gained power and cultural dominance through such coercion. The moment Christian leaders gained that kind of temporal power over other people’s lives, they began using it. They kept using it until governments wrested it away from them. And they still dream of getting it back again. Jesus has never, ever stopped Christian zealots from seeking power—or misusing it.
It was literally only in the past 50 years or so that people were finally free to reject Christianity—and only in the past 20ish years that anyone could safely raise the alarm about predatory, hypocritical Christians.
Coercion is the key element here that Foster can’t perceive. Government favoritism in an atmosphere of purely voluntary affiliation contributes to religious decline, not favoritism in and of itself.
Assertion #2: The Christian Right is causing Christianity’s decline by being completely repulsive
Here, Foster sees evangelicals’ literal idolization of Donald Trump as a major tipping point in Christianity’s decline:
Meanwhile, in the United States, conservative Christians have become involved in politics, fighting tooth and nail to uphold their precious “Christian values” and take America back for God. The only problem is that as Christianity has become more politicized, the country has actually experienced a decline in Christian belief, ironically achieving the very opposite of what these so-called Christians want to achieve.
Enter Donald Trump.
In the Evangelical world, whether or not a person was a good political candidate was dependent not on their policies but on their profession of faith — even if the content of their character was at odds with that profession of faith. They merely had to hold up a Bible and stand in front of a church, and they would get the Evangelical vote, much to the chagrin of those looking on. Yes, the more Christian nationalists with the Republican Party push their agenda for a “Christian” nation, the more Christianity is despised, and the less likely they are to ever obtain that which they seek. What is more, they will destroy the church in the process.Dan Foster, Medium
We’ve also already seen him mention the Christian Right’s bigotry as a turnoff to many Americans. Elsewhere in the essay, he discusses the distasteful way that these extremists seek to drown out competing religions:
Some Christians believe that their faith is declining because there are too many other religions being given equal footing. And when they feel threatened by those pesky minority religious groups, they turn to the state for help to implement laws and principles that protect their so-called “Christian values.”
And if that’s not enough, they can resort to trying to keep people of other faiths out of their countries altogether.Dan Foster, Medium
It’s very clear that Foster does not approve at all of any of this behavior or these political goals.
The truth about repulsive Republicans
Here, again, though, he is only half correct. This charge is true only because Christians have lost their former powers of coercion. Not only do people more easily and quickly find out about the hypocrisy and cruelty of the Christian Right, but we can talk about it in public spaces without fearing the vicious retaliation of “Christian love” or fears of our government’s retaliation. The most these control-hungry Christians can do to their critics, especially online, is whine about feeling totally persecuted fer jus’ bein’ KRISchin.
All too many Christian leaders are repulsive, hypocritical, and cruel. They always have been. Study the history of Christianity, and you’ll soon find endless uncomfortable essays about pederasty and other forms of hypocrisy. Jesus has never held back Christians’ hands from the innocent. And this degeneracy appears to have been an open secret among Catholic laity, with priests frequently showing up in secular stories about extramarital affairs and deceit. Thanks to Catholic leaders’ powers of coercion, however, people could only safely raise even the hint of an accusation in roundabout ways.
Until shockingly recently, it didn’t matter how Christians or their leaders behaved. Nobody would find out, and it wouldn’t matter even if anybody did. Nobody was allowed to reject them on the basis of their behavior—or for any other reason.
In an atmosphere of voluntary affiliation, though, Christians’ behavior matters a lot more. And now that their behavior actually matters, they steadfastly refuse to behave in ways that reflect their own stated beliefs. It obviously bothers them a lot that people reject them because of their hypocrisy, yes. But instead of cleaning up their behavior, they instead try to shame and police the boundaries of those who rightly reject them on that basis. Ironically, these attempts only confirm that people are right to reject them.
Assertion #3: Christianity’s rise occurred because Jesus grew it the right way
These past few decades, Christians’ recruitment attempts fail more and more often. Often, they even fail spectacularly—like when the Southern Baptist Convention’s leader asked for a solid one million baptisms for 2006. They only bagged about 360k baptisms that year. Worse, that number represents a slight drop for them.
So naturally, Christians see their recruitment failures and wonder how their lack of success squares with their belief about their religion’s early growth. They wonder what they’re doing that is so different from what the earliest Christians did.
That belief is a beloved and nearly-universally-embraced myth in Christianity. It leads them to glaringly incorrect conclusions that spark flawed plans in turn.
Illustrating this chain of errors, Foster writes:
One thing is certain. Jesus Christ was not interested in political power, or he could have had it. He arrived in human history precisely at the right moment to lead an uprising against the rule of his Roman conquerors. [. . .]
Yet, he did not.
The movement that he started required no armies, governments, or rulers to champion its cause. It can be practiced with or without the approval of any state and, therefore, can never be legislated out of existence. Neither is it threatened by those who believe different things. It is the movement of the human heart that takes place when one resolves to simply love God and love others.Dan Foster, Medium
To fix Christianity’s decline, then, Foster asserts that compassionate, loving Christians must start recruiting like Jesus did.
Combined with disavowing the Christian Right, this plan will end Christianity’s decline.
Tra-la! It’s that easy! Amazing how no Christian has ever thought of this idea before, isn’t it?
(Incidentally, Jesus may well have been seeking exactly that uprising. He just expected it to happen through divine aid, not through mortal war-making. This paper offers a tantalizing possible explanation for his absolutely bizarre behavior at the Mount of Olives, as described in the Gospel of Luke. (Archive))
The truth about Christianity’s apparent early explosive growth
Unfortunately for Foster and the many, many Christians who think like him, their belief about Christianity’s early growth is completely untrue. It’s not even half true. It just isn’t true at all.
For their religion’s first few centuries, Christian evangelists struggled hard to make and keep converts. They squabbled constantly among themselves, too. We see hints of these troubles even in the New Testament itself.
These people left our churches, but they never really belonged with us; otherwise they would have stayed with us. When they left, it proved that they did not belong with us. [1 John 2:19, New Living Translation]
Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons. [1 Timothy 4:1, New Living Translation]
Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following. [Acts 20:30, New Living Translation]
I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. For some members of Chloe’s household have told me about your quarrels, my dear brothers and sisters. [1 Corinthians 1:10-11, New Living Translation; this time, the fight involved how individual Christians described themselves as followers of particular leaders like Paul, Peter, Apollos, or others, rather than just as followers of “Jesus”]
But I will keep on doing what I am doing, in order to undercut those who want an opportunity to be regarded as our equals in the things of which they boast. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. [2 Corinthians 11:12-13, Berean Standard Bible]
I am amazed how quickly you are deserting the One who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is not even a gospel. Evidently some people are troubling you and trying to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be under a curse! [Galatians 1:6-8, Berean Standard Bible]
Even that question [of circumcision] came up only because of some so-called believers there—false ones, really—who were secretly brought in. They sneaked in to spy on us and take away the freedom we have in Christ Jesus. They wanted to enslave us and force us to follow their Jewish regulations. [Galatians 2:4, New Living Translation]
Even Jesus talks about the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13: If a farmer sows his seeds on barren, shallow, or rocky soil, then they can’t produce a crop. Even in 85 CE when this book is thought to have been written, its writer already knew that most people who heard “the good news” rejected it.
For that matter, the Book of Acts (generally thought to have been written around 80-90 CE as well, though it might have been written decades later) records early Christians lying to their communal groups (Acts 5) and the earliest evangelists having to deal with a sarcastic slave-girl who mocked them for days (Acts 16). This is the reality of Christian groups and evangelism today, in the same atmosphere of voluntary affiliation.
In the few surviving early extra-biblical accounts describing Christians, we see serious criticisms leveled against them as well. These criticisms cover the usual ground that modern Americans are used to seeing in the headlines: hypocrisy, sexual predation, cruelty, and more.
In recent years, some Christians themselves have refuted the entire concept of explosive early growth. In reality, Christianity grew about as quickly then as it grows nowadays. One can easily understand why, too. For those early decades and centuries, as they do nowadays, Christian leaders operated without coercive power.
Temporal power changed the entire game for the struggling early religion
Things didn’t really turn around for Christianity until big-name Roman rulers began using the religion like a political football. When the right horse won the right race, those rulers began to grant Christian leaders more and more temporal power. And once Christian leaders gained that power, they began to use it to its fullest extent. They used this power both to provide enough cover to themselves to act in flagrantly hypocritical ways, and to coerce other people into joining and supporting their religion.
And they didn’t stop until someone more powerful made them stop.
Christians love to imagine that Jesus had some magically delicious means of recruitment that worked wonderfully well, and that he perfectly set up his new religion. In other words, their religion began on the right foot. Over time, they believe, the passage of time and sinful maneuvering and politics (and possibly demons) have corrupted Christianity. So they have fantasized for decades that if they can only get back to that gauzy notion of Original Christianity, then they can set everything back to rights!
Except none of that is true. Jesus was so meaningless to the Jewish and Roman writers of his time that not one single contemporaneous document exists from the years 30-40 CE to tell us about a single thing that he or his followers did. His offshoot of Judaism took a long time to find root and become its own branch of the tree, and it struggled the entire time with exactly the same squabbles, power grabs, and backbiting we can see in almost every single church in the world.
(By the way: Go ahead and look for any such account. I did exactly that as a Pentecostal in college and recently again through my First-Century Fridays series. You won’t find even one contemporary account about Jesus or his followers written during those critical years of 30-40 CE. Incidentally, that discovery was a serious blow to my faith back then.)
The real key to Christianity’s decline
I get what Dan Foster’s trying to do here. He wants a Christianity that’s way better than anything these extremists are pushing. He wants a religion that grows, yes, but one that grows for the right reasons. He’s not even saying anything new or weird or different in his essay that his religion’s adherents and observers haven’t seen a thousand times already. So I’m not mad at him or trying to pick on him. He means well, and I’d certainly like to see more Christians practicing his best-case form of the religion that focuses on charity, loving community, service, and mercy.
He just doesn’t understand that Christianity itself does not have much appeal. It promises divine help that doesn’t ever manifest, a system of morality and ethics that somehow utterly fails to reliably produce decent human beings, groups that aren’t worth the price of admission, and a whole series of untrue claims that believers must embrace to belong to the religion. Almost the only difference between Foster’s form of Christianity and that of the repulsive Republicans he criticizes is exactly which untrue claims they each think believers must embrace to earn the title of “Christian.”
(Did you catch his attempt to invalidate his tribalistic enemies’ use of their shared label of Christian? “So-called Christians,” he called them. Of course, they’d try to do the exact same thing to him. It’s really too bad that they don’t have a universal membership guide that could unequivocally tell them what a Christian must believe and do to be considered a Christian. If they had such a thing, they could make sure every member had it. It’d be so grand!)
In centuries past, Christianity always suffered from that same lack of intrinsic appeal. Big growth always required an artificial external factor that forced consumers to purchase it. That factor was coercive power.
Loss of coercion is the key to Christianity’s decline. It’s not happening because of Republican repulsiveness, nor its lack of proper Jesus-ification, nor even the erosion of America’s wall of separation between church and state. All of those qualities existed in many countries for centuries, but Christianity wasn’t declining then. It only began to decline once it became safer for people to reject affiliation with the religion.
The trend of decline that we’re seeing now would have been over decades ago if evangelicals hadn’t engineered a series of moral panics aimed at gaining them more cultural and political power. But they only delayed the inevitable.
Unfortunately, I strongly suspect that control-hungry Christians have finally begun to understand this point.
Christianity’s growth had nothing to do with Jesus, and its decline has nothing to do with a lack of correct Jesus-ing
Ten years ago, I didn’t think the Christian Right yet understood the importance of coercive powers. But since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, I think they have begun to figure it out. They’ve all but given up the fight to regain cultural dominance. Their few attempts to grab for relevance are cringey and obviously driven by self-interest. Instead, they are fighting to keep and grow political dominance.
With political dominance, they can certainly maintain their feeling of having control over others. They’ll feel safe in their
Ignorant Tight-Asses Club authoritarian enclaves, thanks to Big Daddy Government protecting them. (The only moral Big Daddy Government is their Big Daddy Government, after all.)
As well, they can certainly try very hard to enshrine their rights-violating, spirit-crushing social rules into law—and then enforce them even against people who aren’t even members of their religion. I’m sure getting some anti-blasphemy laws into place would be among their first priorities.
And that’s all bad news. Nobody sensible, not even Christians, wants to see evangelicals or hardline Catholics get their dreamed-of theocracy. If human history is anything to go by, we know that a Christian theocracy in America would look more like the Republic of Gilead from The Handmaid’s Tale than any sort of Happy Jesus Fun Christian Land of authoritarian Christians’ dreams. It is of utmost importance that we continue to slap down their grabby little hands at every single sign of religious overreach.
But to reverse Christianity’s decline, political dominance needs to Christians regaining the powers of coercion that Christians once held. Just gaining political dominance itself is a half-measure if people can still vote with their feet and their wallets.
Unless Christians regain their lost ability to force everyone to join and support their churches, nothing will reverse their decline. That decline will eventually bottom out, of course. The number of Christians will settle at its natural point of market appeal. Growth past that point is very unlikely, though, without coercive powers re-entering the picture.