If things continue unchanged and unchallenged, then the death of institutional Christianity is precisely what will happen. And believers won’t have to imagine it. They will be forced to live through it.– Brian McLaren, Author/Speaker/Activist
Editor’s Note: This article is a review of Brian McLaren’s “Conditions for the Great Religion Singularity,” which in turn is a review of Ken Howard’s research paper, “The Religion Singularity: A Demographic Crisis Destabilizing and Transforming Institutional Christianity.” We almost titled this blog post, “The Church’s Frightmare,” given the coincidence (if you believe in such things) that it would post on Halloween and the fact that the death of institutional Christianity can be a scary thing for we who are its adherents to consider. Indeed, after reading the original article, one clergy colleague quipped, “I’m so glad I’m retiring this year: this is just depressing and scary.”
You’ve heard of the “Great Schism.”
You’ve heard of the “Great Awakening.”
You’ve heard of the “Great Emergence.”
The Institutional Christianity now has entered a new era of
dramatic destabilization and deinstitutionalization…
THE GREAT RELIGION SINGULARITY
Can you imagine the death of Christianity? Can you imagine a world without the Christian Church? For many anthropologists, the death of Christianity is merely an eventuality like it has been for most human religions throughout time.1
For many believers, the death of Christianity is an impossibility. They are incapable of imaging the total annihilation of the Christian Church. And why not? New research suggests that the human brain is quite literally incapable of imagining (or even preparing for) its own death and annihilation, though it can easily conceive of other people’s demise.2 So, the death of something as integral to one’s identity as religion is likely to be just as hard to imagine. Yet, this may prove extremely problematic for the Christian religion, especially since the Pew Forum just announced that Christianity is still in rapid decline while religious “nones” are quickly increasing.3
Since the publication of Kenneth Howard’s 2017 article, “The Religion Singularity: A Demographic Crisis Destabilizing and Transforming Institutional Christianity,” there has been an increasing demand to understand the root causes and historical foundations for why institutional Christianity is, in a word, dying.4 What Howard’s research indicates is that the percentage increase of new Christian denominations and worship centers is actually outpacing the plateaued percentage of Christian believers around the world. The inference being that churches and denominations are fragmenting (i.e. internally dividing due to conflict or other factors) faster than they are growing.5 At its current rate of disintegration, institutional Christianity will have fragmented itself into near extinction by the end of the twenty-first century, having been reduced to miniscule and, thus, financially unsustainable and culturally uninfluential congregational tribes (the “religion singularity”). 6
Activist and author, Brian McLaren, has termed this era, “The Great Religion Singularity,” in his 2019 article, “Conditions for the Great Religion Singularity,” which provides a contextual explanation for why the demise of Christianity is directly linked to the Church’s moral failures.7
Here, McLaren employs the Buddhist “law of interdependent origination” to discuss ten factors that have led to institutional Christianity’s religion singularity. Each condition falls under two main categories: either a lack of rapid adaptability in religious institutions or the moral failure of institutional leaders. The ten conditional factors include authoritarian centralization, betrayal of the religious founder’s non-violence, a history of unacknowledged atrocities, military imperialism, white supremacy, scandals, reaction against scientific inquiry, doubling down on dualism, integrated and change-averse institutional systems, and paralysis and nostalgia.
These factors in large part reveal that it would be hypocritical for present-day Christians to be judgmental toward others. According to Ron Sider’s research, by most traditional Christian indicators of immorality – such as divorce, premarital sex, adultery, and self-centered materialism – “born again Christians” are no better than the general population, and more likely to express racial bias and spousal abuse than the average American.8 Sider’s findings are confirmed by PPRI’s more recent releases of the American Values Atlas, which finds significant numbers of conservative white evangelicals holding racial stereotypes of African Americans9 and denying that white nationalism is problematic. 10 As McLaren writes, the moral failure of Christians and Christians leaders “has made claims of one religion’s spiritual supremacy over others literally incredible and ethically reprehensible.”11
To read McLaren’s full article on “The Great Religion Singularity” in Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry, click here or on the image below:
To read download and read the full article on “The Religion Singularity” in International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, click here or on the image below:
Darren Slade is research director for FaithX and general editor of Socio-Historical Exploration of Religion and Ministry. Darren curates relevant research for the FaithXperimental blog and the FaithX website.
1 See for example, Jack David Eller, “Is the Disintegration of Christianity a Problem—or Even a Surprise?,” Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry 1, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 29-38, https://doi.org/10.33929/sherm.2019.vol1.no1.04.
2 Y. Dor-Ziderman, A. Lutz, and A. Goldstein, “Prediction-Based Neural Mechanisms for Shielding the Self from Existential Threat,” NeuroImage 202 (August 2019): 116080, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.116080.
4 See for example, Darren M. Slade, “Religious Homophily and Biblicism: A Theory of Conservative Church Fragmentation,” The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society 9, no. 1 (2019): 13‒28, http://dx.doi.org/10.18848/2154-8633/cgp/v09i01/13-28.
5 Cf. C. Kirk Hadaway, “Is Evangelistic Activity Related to Church Growth?,” in Church and Denominational Growth, ed. David A. Roozen and C. Kirk Hadaway (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1993), 169‒87.
6 Kenneth W. Howard, “The Religion Singularity: A Demographic Crisis Destabilizing and Transforming Institutional Christianity,” International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society 7, no. 2 (2017): 77‒93, http://dx.doi.org/10.18848/2154-8633/cgp/v07i02/77-93.
7 Brian D. McLaren, “Conditions for the Great Religion Singularity,” Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry 1, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 40‒49, https://doi.org/10.33929/sherm.2019.vol1.no1.05.
8 Ronald J. Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 27‒28.
9 See the statistics in Robert P. Jones, Daniel Cox, and Rachel Lienesch, Who Sees Discrimination? Attitudes on Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Race, and Immigration Status: Findings from PRRI’s American Values Atlas (Washington, DC: PRRI, 2017), accessed April 5, 2018, https://www.prri.org/research/americans-views-discrimination-immigrants-blacks-lgbt-sex-marriage-immigration-reform/; Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, 24‒26; Christian Smith, Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 209‒12, 221‒22; Douglas R. Sharp, “Evangelicals, Racism, and the Limits of Social Science Research,” Christian Scholar’s Review 33, no. 2 (Winter 2004): 240‒45; and Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Pbk. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), esp. 69‒91.
10 See the statistics in Robert P. Jones, Natalie Jackson, Diana Orces, Ian Huff, Oyindamola Bola, and Daniel Greenberg, Fractured Nation: Widening Partisan Polarization and Key Issues In 2020 Presidential Elections: Findings from PRRI’s American Values Atlas (Washington, DC: PRRI, 2019), accessed October, 2019, https://www.prri.org/research/fractured-nation-widening-partisan-polarization-and-key-issues-in-2020-presidential-elections/.
11 McLaren, “Conditions for the Great Religion Singularity,” 41.