The Booming Marketplace of Replacement Religions | Influence Podcast


Stories about the rise of the “Nones,” that share of the American populace which identifies with no religion, give the impression that religion in America is in steep decline. “What they fail to report,” writes David Zahl, “is that the marketplace in replacement religion is booming.”

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to David Zahl about the contours of this new secular religiosity. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influencemagazine, and your host.

David Zahl is the founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries, whose mission is “to connect the Christian faith with the realities of everyday life in fresh and down-to-earth ways.” He’s also editor-in-chief of the popular Mockingbird website and cohost of the Mockingcast. Most recently, he’s author of Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It, published by Fortress Press.

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The Myth of the Dying Church | Influence Podcast


Read the headlines, and you just might come to the conclusion that Christianity in America is dying. “Christianity Faces Sharp Decline as Americans Are Becoming Even Less Affiliated with Religion,” according to a Washington Postheadline. A BeliefNet story was titled, “Declining Christianity: The Exodus of the Young and the Rise of Atheists.” According to National Public Radio, “Christians in the U.S. on Decline as Number of ‘Nones’ Grows, Survey Finds.”

So is American Christianity really declining? That’s the question I ask Glenn Stanton in this episode of the Influence Podcast. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influencemagazine and your host. Glenn Stanton is the director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and author of The Myth of the Dying Church, just out from Worthy Publishing.

P.S. Check out my review of The Myth of the Dying Church here.

Seculosity | Book Review


American organized religion is declining. According to Gallup data, only one percent of U.S. adults claimed no religious affiliation in 1955. By 2017, that percentage had grown to 20. The younger the adult, the likelier the lack of religious affiliation. For adults ages 30–39, the percentage is 28. For those ages 21–29, it’s 33. If you’re looking for evidence of secularization in America, this rise of the Nones is Exhibit A.

And yet, David Zahl claims inhis new book that “the marketplace in replacement religion is booming.” Those replacements don’t look or feel religious, however — at least not in the capital-R sense of the term, which Zahl describes as “robes and kneeling and the Man Upstairs.” They don’t necessarily look like “folkloric beliefs” or “occult belief systems” either: things like charms, telepathy, or astrology.

Instead, replacement religions center around everyday concerns such as — to list the topics of the book’s chapters — busyness, romance, parenting, technology, work, leisure, food, and politics. Zahl calls each of these replacements “seculosity,” a portmanteau of “secular” and “religiosity.” Seculosity is a religious impulse “directed horizontally rather than vertically, at earthly rather than heavenly objects.”

Why does Zahl considers these secular concerns religious? And why should we do so too? Those are fair questions, good ones even, because they go straight to the heart of what our culture thinks religion is.

We typically think of religion in of capital-R Religion terms, that is, organized religion with its concerns for doctrine, ritual, community, and institutions. Those are the outward manifestations of an inward impulse, which Zahl calls “the justifying story of our life.” According to him, religion is “what we lean on to tell us we’re okay, that our lives matter.” It is “our preferred guilt-management system.” In other words, religion is what “we rely on not just for meaning or hope but enoughness.” This search for enoughness characterizes religious Nones just as much as it does the traditionally religious. It is a universal longing.

Take the everyday concern about busyness, for example. Ask people how they’re doing, and they’ll probably reply, “Busy.” I certainly would. Between work, marriage, parenting, and life in general, it feels like every moment of every day is accounted for…and then some. I tell myself to rest, but the moment I start to do so, the nagging suspicion takes hold that a book needs to be read, an article needs to be written, a chore needs to be accomplished, my kids need to be helicoptered over, my wife needs to be date-nighted, the latest blockbuster movie needs to be watched, etc. (Notice, by the way, that even our leisure activities such as dating and movie-watching become have become to-do items.)

These nagging suspicions arise from what Zahl calls “performancism.” He writes: “Performancism turns life into a competition to be won (#winning) or a problem to be solved, as opposed to, say, a series of moments to be experienced or an adventure to relish. Performancism invests daily tasks with existential significance and turns even menial activities into measures of enoughness.”

And woe betide those who fail at these tasks, because “if you are not doing enough, or doing enough well, you are not enough.” Zahl doesn’t quote Blaise Pascal at this point, but there’s a lot of wisdom in the latter’s statement, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” (Now that I’ve quoted Pascal, however, I’m feeling guilty that I’m not checking off that to-do item either.)

Performancism is “one of the hallmarks of all forms of seculosity,” their underlying assumption, affecting how we approach everyday life. It cripples seculosity’s practitioners with anxiety (Am I enough?), shame (Do they think I’m enough?), and guilt (Have I done enough?). “The common denominator [in all forms of seculosity] is the human heart, yours and mine,” Zahl explains, referring to what motivates our behavior. “Which is to say, the problem is sin.”

In theological terms, you see, seculosity is just the latest example of a “religion of law.” It is a form of self-justification or works-righteousness. And like all such schemes, it is doomed to failure because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We are not enough. We have not done enough. We cannot do enough.

The antidote to seculosity is a “religion of grace,” Zahl concludes. “Sin is not something you can be talked out of (‘stop controlling everything!’) or coached through with the right wisdom. It is something from which you need to be saved.” And that salvation depends on the sacrificial love of the One doing the saving. He is enough, and only in Him can you be too.

Book Reviewed
David Zahl, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What To Do About It (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is from the July-August 2019 print issue of Influence magazine and is cross-posted here with permission.

The Myth of the Dying Church | Book Review


The rise of the “Nones”—that share of the American populace that claims no religious affiliation—is one of the most important religion stories of the past decade. Unfortunately, its import is often misunderstood. Rather than portending the decline of American Christianity per se, the rise of the Nones portends the decline of certain kindsof American Christianity.

In The Myth of the Dying Church, Glenn T. Stanton presents a rollicking account of which forms of American Christianity are thriving and which are declining. The myth consists of two claims. The general claim is that “Christianity has been declining over the last decade, with people simply losing interest in it and going elsewhere.” This claim is the one readers typically come across in secular media. The specific claim, one that readers often come across in Christian media, is that “our children and their friends…are highly unlikely to hang on to their faith as they get older.”

Stanton debunks the myth’s general claim by pushing past headlines and pointing out details typically buried at the bottom of  news stories. Similarly, he goes beyond the topline summaries of leading statistical reports and pointing out the nuances of the numbers. While his presentation of the details has the feel of a blog article—Stanton writes for TheFederalist.com—his endnotes show a clear familiarity with the relevant literature.

So, how does Stanton debunk the general claim? By pointing out three statistical trends: “the greatest movement of growth within Christianity is found among the evangelical nondenominational churches. The nones are not a new or growing category, but merely a change in identity. And the greatest movement in decline within Christianity over the last fifty years, right up to today, is liberal Christianity.”

The first and third trends are mirror images: Evangelical Christianity is holding strong while the bottom is dropping out of mainline Christianity. Pew Research indicates that most Nones are coming out of mainline churches and Roman Catholicism, not evangelical—or more conservative forms of—Christianity. And statistically speaking, it would be more accurate to describe Nones as denominalizing rather than deconverting. In other words, it is people with weak ties to Christian faith and practice who are shedding their nominal affiliation, not people with strong faith and practice who are apostatizing.

What about the specific claim? It’s pretty common in evangelical Christian circles to hear that the vast majority of young adults raised in church will abandon that faith in young adulthood. Stanton concedes that most Christian young adults experience fluctuations in the intensity of their religious commitment and consistency of their spiritual practice during the college and post-college years. This is an almost inevitable aspect of passing from a faith you learned from your parents to a faith you own for yourself. It’s called growing up.

But studies from Vern Bengston, Christian Smith, and others demonstrate that traditional forms of Christianity are very effective at passing along the faith to the next generation. Moreover, attendance records demonstrate that, in Stanton’s words, “more young people are attending evangelical churches today than they have in quite a long time; more than twice as many who did forty years ago.” Both points call into question the notion that evangelical young adults in particular are leaving the faith in large amounts.

Of course, evangelical youth in general might not be leaving the faith, but your own kids might be doing so. Stanton addresses that problem by outlining the kinds of parental practices that help moms and dads help their daughters and sons own the faith for themselves. These practices are “neither a crapshoot nor rocket science,” as Stanton humorously puts it, and consist largely of “teaching and modeling spiritual disciplines” and helping kids form relationships with other “trust and dependable adults who function like additional parents, but in some uniquely influential ways.”

On the whole, I think Stanton’s reading of the statistical evidence is right on target. His advice to parents is also quite helpful. If you’re a Christian, you don’t need to be a “Chicken Little” about the future of American Christianity.

At the same time, though, I think Stanton may underestimate the impact of the decline of mainline Protestantism. Let’s stipulate, for the sake of argument, that a lot of people who used to identify with mainline denominations but no longer do so had weak ties with Christian faith and practice to begin with. Let’s also stipulate that mainline Christianity has gone off the reservation in terms of theological orthodoxy. (I have mainline friends who would dispute both points, but just go with me for a second.)

Even stipulating that, the fact that nearly one quarter of Americans now claim no religious identification—and even high percentages of younger generations—creates problems for those with active Christian commitments because it indicates that a growing share of Americans no longer consider Christianity a plausible alternative. In previous generations, evangelism consisted of turning nominal Christians into born-again Christians. Now, evangelism consists of converting people from post-Christianity back to authentic Christianity. It’s one thing to convert pagans to something new. It’s another thing entirely to convert people to Christianity when they’ve already rejected it culturally, even if only at a surface level.

Additionally, the rise of the Nones creates new difficulties for American public discourse. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr.—a Baptist minister, remember—was able to use biblical imagery to unite Americans around the cause of civil rights. This religious language united Americans across race, class, and region. When King cited Scripture, even his racist critics knew what he was talking about. The loss of even nominal Christianity, in my opinion, means that American culture no longer has that kind of unifying religious language that King was able to access in his monumental struggle.

It’s a bit unfair of me to critique Stanton for failing to address my concerns about the religious trends he writes about. His writing purpose is to debunk the myth that American Christianity is dying. It isn’t. If you don’t believe me, read Stanton’s convincing book. But don’t get too comfortable once you know the myth has been debunked. American Christianity isn’t dying, but its cultural context is changing, and those changes portend challenges that will only get harder in the near term.

Book Reviewed
Glenn T. Stanton, The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Thriving in America and the World (New York: Worthy Publishing, 2019).

P.S. If you like my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Thinking Christianly about American History | Influence Podcast


“Christians believe the kingdom of God is our ultimate commitment, and we should confuse no temporal nation with that kingdom,” writes evangelical historian Thomas S. Kidd in his new, two-volume history of the United States. “But we are also thankful for the ways God has moved in American history, redeeming untold millions of people and building his church in each generation.”

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, Influence magazine Executive Editor George P. Wood talks to Thomas S. Kidd about how to think Christianly about American history. Kidd is distinguished professor of history, James Vardaman Endowed Professor of History, and associate director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. A noted scholar of colonial America, he is author most recently of American History, a two-volume textbook just published by B&H Academic.

P.S. This podcast is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

The Challenge of Sharing Faith in America Today | Influence Podcast


“Almost Half of Practicing Christian Millennials Say Evangelism Is Wrong,” reads the headline of a storyabout a new report from Barna Group. Titled Reviving Evangelism, that report details the erosion of support for evangelism among next-generation Christians. In Episode 169 of the Influence Podcast, I’ll be talking about this report with David Kinnaman.

David is president of Barna Group, a leading research and communications company that works with churches, nonprofits, and businesses ranging from film studios to financial services. He is also the author of several bestselling books, including Good Faith,You Lost Me, and unChristian. He and his wife live in California with their three children.

P.S. This podcast is cross-posted form InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

The Creed of Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words | 2019 Edition


Today is Abraham Lincoln’s 210th birthday, in honor of which, according to the custom of my blog, I re-post this post about Lincoln’s religious beliefs, such as they were. Enjoy!

*****

In 1920, William E. Barton published The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, a now classic study of the development of Lincoln’s faith. “Lincoln’s religious was an evolution,” Barton wrote, “both in its intellectual and spiritual qualities.”

Lincoln’s religious identity seems to have moved through three stages: (1) a Calvinist Baptist in childhood; (2) a skeptical, freethinker in young adulthood; and (3) and a not-altogether-orthodox Christian in mature adulthood.

“Too much of the effort to prove that Abraham Lincoln was a Christian,” Barton wrote, “has begun and ended in the effort to show that on certain theological opinions he cherished correct opinions.” Lincoln didn’t. For example, he evidently believe in evolution and universal salvation, and he had doubts about Christ’s virgin birth.

“Abraham Lincoln was not a theologian,” Barton went on to say, “and several of his theological opinions may have been incorrect; but there is good reason to believe that he was a true Christian.” By this, Barton meant that Lincoln had “a right attitude toward spiritual realities and practical duties.” (In my opinion, Lincoln was neither an infidel nor an orthodox Christian, but something in between.)

Barton concluded his study with “a series of short quotations [of Lincoln’s] from documents, letters, and addresses, certified authentic and touching directly upon points of Christian doctrine.” He organized these quotations into what he called “The Creed of Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words.”

In honor of Lincoln’s birthday—he was born on February 12, 1809—I’ve posted that creed below, adding footnotes that link individual phrases to their sources in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. This is the online version of Roy P. Bassler’s authoritative series of the same name.

The Creed of Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words[1]

I believe in God, the Almighty Ruler of Nations,[2] our great and good and merciful Maker,[3] our Father in Heaven, who notes the fall of a sparrow, and numbers the hairs of our heads.[4]

I believe in His eternal truth and justice.[5]

I recognize the sublime truth announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history that those nations only are blest whose God is the Lord.[6]

I believe that it is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, and to invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon.[7]

I believe that it is meet and right to recognize and confess the presence of the Almighty Father equally in our triumphs and in those sorrows[8] which we may justly fear are a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins to the needful end of our reformation.[9]

I believe that the Bible is the best gift which God has ever given to men. All the good from the Saviour of the world is communicated to us through this book.[10]

I believe the will of God prevails.[11] Without Him all human reliance is vain.[12] Without the assistance of that Divine Being, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail.[13]

Being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, I desire that all my works and acts may be according to His will; and that it may be so, I give thanks to the Almighty, and seek His aid.[14]

I have a solemn oath registered in heaven[15] to finish the work I am in,[16] in full view of my responsibility to my God,[17] with malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives me to see the right.[18] Commending those who love me to His care, as I hope in their prayers they will commend me,[19] I look through the help of God to a joyous meeting with many loved ones gone before.[20]

 

Notes

[1] William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 300. This book is a reprint of the 1920 first edition published by George H. Doran Co. Chapter XXIII is titled, “The Creed of Abraham Lincoln.”

[2] “First Inaugural Address—Final Text,” March 4, 1861.

[3] “To John D. Johnston,” January 12, 1851.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “First Inaugural Address.”

[6] “Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day,” March 30, 1863.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Proclamation of Thanksgiving,” July 15, 1863.

[9] “Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day.”

[10] “Reply to Loyal Colored People of Baltimore upon Presentation of a Bible,” September 7, 1864.

[11] “Meditation on the Divine Will,” [September 2, 1862?].

[12] “To the Friends of Union and Liberty,” May 9, 1864.

[13] “Farewell Address at Springfield, Illinois,” February 11, 1861.

[14] “Reply to Eliza P. Gurney,” October 26, 1862.

[15] “First Inaugural Address.”

[16] “Second Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1865.

[17] “Message to Congress,” March 6, 1862.

[18] “Second Inaugural Address.”

[19] “Farewell Address at Springfield, Illinois.”

[20] “To John D. Johnston.”

The Color of Compromise | Influence Podcast


Racism has been described as America’s original sin. While great strides have been made in the journey toward equality between blacks and whites, there still is much work to do. In Episode 168 of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Jemar Tisby about the history of racism in American Christianity, as well as what steps need to be taken for authentic racial reconciliation to occur.

Tisby is author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American’s Church’s Complicit in Racism (Zondervan, 2019). He is president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, where he writes about race, religion, politics, and culture. He is also cohost of the Pass the Mic podcast. Tisby is a Ph.D. candidate in history from the University of Mississippi.

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influencemagazine and your host.

P.S. This podcast is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

P.P.S. Check out my review of The Color of Compromise here.

Demanding Liberty | Book Review


When religious freedom makes the news these days, controversy follows hard on its heels. Many believe that such controversy is a recent thing, a deviation from the traditional American respect for the “sacred rights of conscience,” but even a passing acquaintance with American history exposes this belief as nostalgia. Religious freedom has always been controversial.

“Nothing teaches like experience,” wrote Isaac Backus in A History of New-England, “and what is true history but the experiences of those who have gone before us?”

Brandon J. O’Brien’s Demanding Liberty tells the story of Backus’s decades-long fight for religious liberty in America in the mid- to late-18th century. It is, O’Brien notes, an “interesting” story, but it is also “useful”: “Backus’s experience in a generation of change may have something helpful to teach us.”

Backus was born in Connecticut in 1724, five decades before America declared independence from Great Britain. He experienced “new birth” in 1741 amidst the Great Awakening sweeping through the 13 colonies. Ordained a Congregationalist minister in 1748, he eventually became a thoroughgoing Baptist. From 1751 on, he pastored the Baptist church in Middleborough, Massachusetts, championing both evangelical religion and religious freedom.

Baptists in colonial America faced persecution. With a few exceptions, the colonies had established denominations — Congregationalism in New England, Anglicanism in the South. Ministers in these denominations were supported by public monies generated by taxation. Baptists opposed state imposition of religious doctrine and practice, and they refused to pay taxes to support the clergy of churches to which they did not belong.

The establishment — in Massachusetts, literally called the “Standing Order” — viewed Baptists as theological deviants, as well as a threat to public order, and punished them accordingly with fines, jail and confiscation of property. Backus used his voice to promote religious freedom throughout the colonies, but especially in Massachusetts, which did not disestablish Congregationalism until 1833, nearly five decades after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the passage of the Bill of Rights, both of which Backus had championed publicly.

What lessons can we learn from Backus’s story? O’Brien closes the book by noting that “Christians in America are facing serious issues we were able to avoid just a couple of decades ago,” such as “questions about sexuality and gender, liberty and equality, race and ethnicity.” Moving forward, he asserts, will depend on “how well we understand our history, how willing we are to confess our past sins, how able we are to learn from our mistakes.” Even more, it will depend on self-perception as either the “marginalized victim” or the “established elite.”

In other words, going forward, will Christians be more like “Baptists” or more like the “Standing Order”? Will we be a force for moral reform and political freedom, or will we use governmental power to enforce a unitary vision on a pluralistic society? The outcome of today’s religious freedom controversies depends in no small part on how we answer those questions.

Book Reviewed
Brandon J. O’Brien, Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2018).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. This article is cross-posted with permission from InfluenceMagazine.com.

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