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Janie B. Cheaney: More than cultural scaffolding


WORLD Radio - Janie B. Cheaney: More than cultural scaffolding

When society shifts or crumbles, the Church withstands because of its firm foundation

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MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, May 29th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Up next: the decline in church attendance across America. WORLD commentator Janie B. Cheaney says it’s true that we’re seeing cracks in America’s foundation. But numbers or not, the foundation of the Church is doing just fine.

JANIE B. CHEANEY: In the old days, when I was in elementary school, 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.

But 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—divorce rates shot up in the seventies. More Gen-Xers grew up in broken homes than any generation previously. Millennials are eschewing marriage (and babies) altogether, and Gen Z isn’t even dating.

Did the family dissolve first, or the church? In his newsletter, Atlantic writer Derek Thompson examines “The True Cost of the Churchgoing Bust.” As an agnostic, he once saw the drop in church attendance as positive, but now he’s reconsidering. The rise in Americans identifying as atheists, agnostics, or “unaffiliated” coincides with a decline in public engagement generally. What if church community were the bedrock of all community, all sense of belonging? “Many people,” Thompson writes, “having lost the scaffolding of organized religion, seem to have found no alternative…”

Thompson spoke to NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who agreed that one was probably related to the other. Klinenberg admitted, “It’s hard to know what the causal story is here.” But regular churchgoing remains the one constant in family stability, social engagement, volunteerism, and general satisfaction. This was especially true in the U.S., 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 Haight compares the “disembodied, asynchronous, shallow” and “solitary” experience of smartphones to 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 UK. Even though he welcomes the decline of genuine Christian faith, “It would be truly dreadful” (he says) if another religion replaced the cathedrals, hymns, and Christmas carols he values as a ‘cultural Christian’.” He doesn’t seem to understand that Islam would not merely replace those artifacts; it would outlaw them.

Derek Thompson’s concerns are utilitarian and Dawkins’ are aesthetic, but both seem to recognize the church as a foundation of social order. They don’t like what they’re seeing as cracks begin to break it down. But they don’t see the Rock underneath.

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.

I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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