Church Attendance, Industrial Revolution, & Privatization of Faith

Recent polls on the religious landscape of the United States find that 75 percent of the population claim to be Christian.

However, when it comes to actually showing up to participate at relgious services, the numbers for Christians are not so favorable. David Olson, director of the American Church Research Project, says, "By using statistical modelings to calculate the frequency of attenders in the typical American congregation, the results show that 23 percent of Americans are 'regular participants'" (The American Church in Crisis, 29).

And Rodney Stark, the co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, lists the percentage of church attenders as hovering "around 31 or 32 percent" (What Americans Really Believe, 17).

Whether you use Olson's figure of 23 percent, Stark's figure of 31-32 percent, or even Gallup's figure of closer to 40 percent, the simple fact remains: there's a very large percentage of Christian people who don't attend church very often. Why is that?

I think there are several reasons, and each one has its own degree of validity; but I want to propose one particular theory that I'm developing:
Imagine you are working as a farmhand in the early 1800s. Do you think you would be able to read? You probably wouldn't. And what about your kids, do you think they would they be able to read? Probably not.

If you wanted to hear the Bible read and explained then you'd have to show up at church.

Meanwhile, in Europe the Industrial Revolution is in full swing. You hear about some new machines that are supposed to make your work easier and less time-consuming. The owner of the farm decides to get a few of these machines. A few months go by and the machines prove to perform just as advertised. But now there's a problem: a lot of farmhands have a lot of free time. So the business-saavy farm owner decides to cut costs by laying off a few of the farmhands. That scene is multiplied a thousand times over, and there's a mass influx of people (with their families) to the cities. They're all moving from the farms to the factories.

You, as a former farmhand, and your son(s) head down the newly created factory to work. Nine year olds and forty-nine year olds were working side by side in some of the most unsanitary conditions for almost 60 hours every week. The time for education was minimal.

Again, if you wanted to hear the Bible read and explained then you'd have to show up at church.

There are a lot of people who think that such working conditions are not good - especially for the children (go figure!). So, for decades, various groups attempted to get some laws in place to protect children from hazardous working conditions. Eventually in 1938, the United States passed the Fair Labor Standards Act which sets minimum ages on employment, minimum wages for workers, and maximum hours of work for children.

Finally the children are able to go to school and learn to read! And guess what? You don't have to show up to hear the Bible read and explained when you can read it yourself. And, sadly, because most people thought (had been taught?) that hearing someone read and explain the Bible was the sole function of the church in their lives, they saw no need to join together on a weekly basis.

Along with the advances in childhood education, one should note the impact of "revivalism" in the nineteenth century. On that movement, Gordon Smith remarks, "[T]he revivalist insistence was that one could be 'saved' without any reference to the church" (Transforming Conversion, 9). And Robert Webber adds, "Unwittingly, a wedge was driven between Christ and the church. In the worst-case-scenario of modern evangelism, a person can be a Christian without an active life in the church. This approach to evangelism contributed to the privatization of faith, to a personal, me-oriented gospel that undercut the role of the church" (Ancient-Future Faith, 143).

So the combination of education and revivalism shifted the measurement of "spiritual growth/maturity" from church attendance (where the text is voiced and discussed among the gathered group) to "personal Bible study and prayer time" (where individuals sit individually to read their own individual copy of the Bible and pray individual prayers for individual wants/needs). In that newly privatized setting, the plural "you" spoken in the text became the personal "you," and "we" simply became "me."

Take, for example, 1 John 2:27. This is the verse I hear most often from Christians who insist they don't need to attend a church. The verse says, "But you have received the Holy Spirit, and he lives within you, so you don't need anyone to teach you what is true. For the Spirit teaches you everything you need to know, and what he teaches is true - it is not a lie. So just as he has taught you, remain in fellowship with Christ" (NLT).

The modern reader almost always automatically assumes the "you" is for himself'/herself, when in reality the "you" is plural so it's more like "y'all" (to use a southern term). The verse isn't providing justification for flying solo in the life of faith. Just the opposite. The verse is exhorting the community to remain together, bound by the truth as it has been revealed in their midst by the Holy Spirit of God.

So my working-theory is this:
The punctiliar nature of salvation and a shrunken view of the church's role in the lives of Christians (that it was just supposed to read and explain the Bible) was acceptable as long as Christians needed someone to read and explain the Bible. But when children were sent to school instead of the factory, they learned how to read and grew up not knowing what the church was for because they could read for themselves and they had accepted the offer of a "personal" relationship with God (thanks to revivalistic-style evangelism) and had no place for the church in that model.

This might raise more questions than answers, but that's all right - it's just a theory I'm working on.


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