On the disappearance of Zion

Things change.

We know this to be true. Live long enough, and you see the world around you adjust and evolve. It is a fact of life. Some things appear to always push forward, like technology. While other things seem to move in circles, like fashion. (Enter the teenage girl with her side ponytail and “I love the 80s” fluorescent tank top fiddling with her iPhone.)

However, despite this simple truth of life, sometimes we forget it is the nature of things. Sometimes, the trends of change take so long to sweep across a culture that they do not seem to evolve at all. When a shift takes more than one generation to occur, the change occurs so subtly that most do not notice until some key event signals the shift’s arrival. Then, what was held to be a timeless reality, assumed to be unchanging, disappears and causes everyone to scramble.

In a recent article, Trevin Wax discusses this exact phenomenon in the life of the evangelical church in America. I strongly suggest reading his article. It’s called, Southern Baptists, I Have a Feeling We’re Not in Zion Anymore, and Trevin could not be more right.

In this article, Trevin discusses a major cultural shift away from one heavily influenced by evangelicalism to a pluralistic society where the religious crowd no longer posses the sway to dictate the contours of culture. In other words, your local Baptist church no longer sets the rules for their town. Now, Trevin is speaking to Southern Baptists specifically, but his article really applies to all of evangelicalism. At least, it applies to evangelicalism in the southeastern United States.

In truth, the evangelical (particularly Baptist) presence was so strong and so pervasive that it entangled its influence into most every aspect of southern culture. In the North, this was partly accomplished by Roman Catholicism, but in the South religion dictated culture to an unprecedented level.

Even in my lifetime, I can remember walking the streets of my neighborhood as a child and passing a small brick church building on every corner. Restaurants and stores were closed on Sundays. A local politician’s church membership was more important than his party membership. Indeed, any given family in a small town was identified by their denominational tribe. “Oh, they go to the Methodist church,” or “Well, they’re Baptists,” were typical labels everyone wore. And, my school days started and finished with a corporate prayer.

But all that has changed.

As generation after generation of the religious in the South sat on their cultural throne, their chokehold on culture slowly slipped out of their hands.

First, restaurants and stores began to stay open on Sundays, so as not to miss that after-church lunch rush. Then, prayer was forced out of schools. Soon, politicians quietly overlooked their religious affiliations, attempting not to alienate voters. Now, a whole generation has little to no denominational affiliation, even if they are believers.

Whole denominations began to scramble in order to grasp their slipping ground. The first to decline were the mainline protestant denominations. Episcopalians, Methodists, and Presbyterians began to see sharp declines in membership. Churches began to shut doors. The more conservative denominations claimed the mainline decline was because of their liberal theological and moral leanings. But then, it started to happen to them us well. Now, Ed Stetzer tells us that even the mighty SBC (the only major denomination still holding its ground in membership) is undeniably declining in numbers.

And for the first time in its history, the evangelical community in the South (and certainly the rest of the country) finds itself in a defensive posture.

For most, it came as a shock at first. However, in many circles, that shock was soon replaced with anger and the indignation of a people who felt as though something was taken from them.

The response was to fight back. We began to scream for our rights. The battle for American culture swelled. Denominations and parachurch organizations alike enlisted an army of lobbyists to fight fire with fire. Battles over moral laws were taken to court. Some would be won with cheers, others lost with sadness.

In the church, a whole barrage of church growth strategies was executed to bring people back through the doors. Programs were added, bands were brought in, lights were hung, and buildings were built. And despite the scramble to regain control, we stand more marginalized today than ever.

Our best-laid plans of church growth and winning the culture wars have produced a lot of light but unfortunately little heat. Perhaps, this is because we have spent so much time focusing on strategies to win back culture that we have neglected the one task to which we are called, the gospel.

In his article, Trevin talks about an appropriate response to this dilemma for evangelicals. First, he points out the temptation to either blend in to this new, resulting culture or just focus internally, both a certain death. However, his solution looks little like the mad scramble that has taken place for the last two decades.

“Let me be clear. It won’t do for us to bemoan the disappearance of cultural Christianity,” claims Trevin. As a matter of fact, he is quick to point out that our days of cultural dominance were not necessarily the “glory days” of Christianity at all.

To the contrary, the result of that dominance has, in many instances, been an unhealthy worship of the culture itself instead of the God of that culture. So, now as that culture changes around us, we lament it’s passing as though it was to be worshipped. For many, at least in the Southeast, that mixed Christian-American, God and Country culture became their God.

Our task really is to build a kingdom, but perhaps we have been focusing on the wrong one.

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