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More than bedrock

Those who value Christianity only for its social benefits are missing the Rock

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MISS BIRCHER, MY FOURTH GRADE music teacher, often ended class by playing the triumphal march from Aida, meanwhile calling us to line up according to birthday month or some other category. One time, she sorted us by the church we attended. “Methodist!”—four or five kids. “Baptist!”—half the class, or better. “Catholic!”—mostly Hispanic. She called my denomination last, possibly because it was also her denomination and she didn’t want to play favorites. No one appeared to be church-less, though, because no one remained sitting. If their families didn’t attend church, they would have been ashamed to admit it.

Back in that day and place almost everybody claimed to be part of some established church. Even Christmas-and-Easter Christians, backsliders, and unbelievers belonged somewhere. If not an actual church, then the fellowship of Masons, Elks, Lions, or the local golf club.

That was then; this is now. Church loyalty began unraveling even before I graduated from high school, with growing scorn toward “organized religion.” College students of the baby boomer era sloughed off church attendance along with other restraints, even though many of them came back with their babies. But family bonds were loosening too, as divorce rates shot up in the ’70s. More Gen Xers grew up in broken homes than any generation before and went on to perpetuate single parenthood with their own divorces and breakups. Millennials are eschewing marriage (and babies) altogether, and Gen Z isn’t even dating.

Did the family dissolve first, or the church? Writing in Work in Progress, an Atlantic newsletter, Derek Thompson examines “the true cost of the churchgoing bust.” As an agnostic, he once considered the drop in church attendance as a net positive, but now he’s reconsidering. The precipitous decline (one-quarter of Americans identifying as atheists, agnostics, or “unaffiliated,” according to a large survey by the Public Religion Research Institute) coincides with a decline in all public engagement. What if church community was the bedrock of all community? “Many people, having lost the scaffolding of organized religion, seem to have found no alternative method” to build a sense of belonging.

Thompson spoke to NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who agreed that one is probably related to the other. “It’s hard to know what the causal story is here,” Klinenberg admitted, but regular churchgoing remains the one constant in family stability, social engagement, volunteerism, and general satisfaction. This was especially true in the United States, where upward mobility replaced the ethnic traditions and static villages of older societies. Now that mobility has stalled, technology fills the gap. Thompson references Jonathan Haidt’s book The Anxious Generation, where Haidt compares the “disembodied, asynchronous, shallow and solitary” experience of smartphones with the physical, temporal, deep, and communal experience of church.

Across the water, renowned atheist Richard Dawkins is missing some of that experience as well. In an Easter Sunday interview with Rachel Johnson of the London Broadcasting Company, he was “slightly horrified” to see Ramadan promoted over Easter in the United Kingdom. Even though he welcomes the decline of actual Christian faith, “it would be truly dreadful” if another religion replaced the cathedrals, hymns, and Christmas carols he values as a “cultural Christian.” He, among other Brits, doesn’t seem to understand that Islam would not merely replace those artifacts; it would outlaw them.

Thompson’s concerns are utilitarian and Dawkins’ are aesthetic, but both seem to recognize the church as a building block of society—a more crucial one than they thought. As cracks begin to break it down, they don’t like what they’re seeing. But they don’t see the Rock.

Social trends should concern us but not defeat us. Whether the church continues to shrink or bursts out in revival—for which we fervently pray—its relevance will stand as a rebuke or rescue for this crooked generation. If Egyptian bondage and Babylonian captivity couldn’t forestall God’s purpose, neither will smartphones. For the Rock is Christ.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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