These posts are based on an article by Philip Jenkins “12 Trends That Shaped U.S. Religion Since the ’70s.” Read the full article and then return here for the Church of Christ and my personal slant.
3. Shifts in family structure.
I graduated high school in 1972. My church of 200 or so members had exactly one divorced couple. None of my friends were from families where the spouses were divorced. The single-parent kids I grew up had lost a parent to death, not divorce.
Now, it’s hard to find a child with an intact nuclear family. Families without divorces are rare — the sort of thing that professors want to study, like albino rhinoceroses.
Just so, the idea of having a child outside of marriage was considered highly shameful in 1972. Get a girl pregnant, and you did the “honorable thing”; you married her so the child would not be illegitimate and so she wouldn’t have to raise the child without a father.
Now, many women intentionally have children while not only single but intending to raise the child as a single mother. The stigma of illegitimacy is not only gone, but delaying sex until marriage is considered odd.
As a result, churches have had to re-think their views on divorce and remarriage. The debates from the 1960s were not only steeped in false legalistic assumptions but dealt with a world that no longer exists.
Elders, preachers, and other church leaders now must confront pastoral issues that are very different from what their parents had to deal with — in churches where members will often have widely differing doctrinal views as to the significance of a divorce and remarriage.
Frankly, most church leaders have given up. I mean, the members don’t tell the elders about the divorce until after its final, making any effort at reconciliation or counseling a very long shot. The couple often doesn’t want the elders to intervene — and the elders aren’t real sure what sort of intervention would help. They aren’t trained marriage counselors, and they find out about the problem very late in the process.
On the other hand, many churches work hard to provide their members with marriage, parenting, and financial classes and counseling. There are churches that believe in an ounce of prevention. But it takes a serious amount of commitment to keep it going. We tend to assume that once we’ve hosted a marriage seminar, we’re good for 10 or 15 years, even though most churches turn over a lot of members in 10 years. So our biggest failing may not be a failure to train but a failure to train often enough.
4. Abuse and authority.
The Roman Catholic Church handled the pedophilia revelations of several years ago about as badly as imaginable. As a result, many people associate “church” with “tolerant of pedophiles,” even Protestant churches that have very clean records and that are very diligent to protect children. We’re at least a generation away from recovering from that blow.
Insurance companies now require churches to adopt formal policies designed to prevent sexual abuse, and state laws often impose mandatory reporting of suspected abuse — all while churches are more likely to host a weekday preschool and have children from homes where one spouse is in fact an abuser or likely to try to kidnap his child contrary to court orders. Things have quickly become much more about the law and less about teaching flannelgraph lessons.
Small churches are at a huge disadvantage, because they just don’t have the resources to train their members and to install security systems. But at least they will likely know on sight the custodial parent. Larger churches can install cameras and hire lawyers to write policies, but they often struggle to know which child is subject to a court custody fight.
Worse yet, for those in church leadership, the number of cases of child abuse and sexual sin by church leaders seems to be skyrocketing. Maybe it’s better reporting and less sweeping under the rug, but we hear about horrible sins by church leaders and volunteers routinely that were never mentioned in the 1960s. And maybe it’s good that we are no longer pretending that these things don’t happen. But it’s tough on youth workers and campus ministers who find themselve counseling young women who are being abused by their fathers. Meanwhile the number of ministers who have an affair despite being married is staggering. And few elders are trained to deal with these things.
The impact on the ability of a church to evangelize the lost is enormous. A scandal involving a child can break a church’s back. The rule is simple: obey the law and report suspected abuse just as the law requires. When in doubt, report. Adopt prudent policies to protect children and the church. Follow the policies. Second chances are almost always a mistake. Tell your staff in advance that they will be fired on the first violation. As much as you love that youth volunteer or minister, you love the church more. And can you imagine overlooking a violation by a youth worker only to later find out that the worker really is a pedophile? How do you defend that?
5. The rise of the “nones.”
The “Nones” are people without religious affiliation. Ed Stetzer’s research concludes that the “Nones” were once nominal Christians who now feel no social pressure to claim to be Christians when they really aren’t. Being a nominal Christian is not a good thing, and never has been. So people are now being more honest about their loyalties, and that is likely a good thing.
It’s bad that anyone doesn’t follow Jesus, but better not to pretend.
6. Diversification within Christianity.
Christianity has always been racially and ethnically diverse. The problem is that our congregations have largely been racially and ethnically segregated, which, in my view, is sin against the gospel.
The solution is not conferences on racial reconciliation and white papers. It’s church mergers. We should be as morally offended by a monochromatic church in a mixed race community as we would be offended at a “whites only” water fountain or restaurant. Period. All else is rationalization.
The NT could not be more clear that we are not to divide along racial lines. Therefore, we must merge some churches, some elderships, some deaconships, and all that. And, obviously, these mergers should be entirely voluntary and very carefully planned — as is true of all church mergers. But I long for the day when we are ashamed that our Directory of Churches of Christ in the United States needs to note which churches are black and which are white. It’s just wrong.