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February 4, 2011

Looking at American Christianity in 2011

February 4, 2011
Las Cruces Sun News

The overall focus of American churches shifted dramatically in the last 50 years. I've been in ordained ministry for 45 of those years, and I have experienced these changes in a close, personal and sometimes painful way. Here's how I see it from my perch.

This shift has two parts. I will consider only the first one this week. This is the shift of focus from spiritual growth to social concern. That's a broad stroke, but I think it is accurate. This shift is subtle and tricky to deal with because we are entranced by the idea that the church is in business to "help people." Many friends I had in ministry in the 1960s thought they could better serve God by leaving the church and becoming social workers.

I think this shift is not only wrong, but it has so beguiled the churches that it has now become an uphill battle to oppose it. Once you allow the world to write the agenda for the church everything else becomes a rear-guard action. The world has won; active opposition to the church can end. The so-called "new Atheism" is not needed. Someone tell Sam Harris.

Many churches focus on political or social concerns, not spiritual growth or struggle; social concerns are what you see and hear when you come through the door. People chose churches on the basis of social positions. So long as I agree with the positions of the church, it's OK. If not I'll continue shopping around. Doesn't anyone notice that this means you're making up your own faith agenda as you go along? You're not being challenged to live up to a faith that is hard and edgy and demanding, a faith that precedes any ideas you might bring to it. Once the mask comes off, and you recognize that this is a self-made faith not much remains. It's another form of entertainment, only on a spiritual plane.

Today some churches endorse popular social or political positions and then scramble to invent a theological posture to substantiate the positions. In any sensible world, this would be called pandering. It has also proven a losing strategy. You can't fool all the people all of the time; they see through this ruse.

Perhaps some churches are so fearful of losing members in this era of Christian diminution that they kowtow to positions unthinkable a mere 75 years ago. Look at abortion as a key example. Not one Christian church would have supported an open position on abortion, even 50 years ago. Jesus' path was never easy. It led to a cross, on a rather direct route. After the end of his earthly life, the church followed that pathway as faithfully as it could until recently. No wonder the idea of spiritual struggle was quietly laid aside. It's too difficult, and it's too austere, in a society that has made its peace with materialism and greed covered with a veneer of religiosity. Movements like "the prosperity gospel," for example, are an abomination. Someone tell Joel Osteen.

Don't misunderstand: Christian faith has social implications. No question about it. But the implications grow from the faith; the implications do not determine the faith. Much less do our wishes and fantasies determine our faith. Historically the church's social positions were hammered out of spiritual and theological contemplation. Once it was grounded, the church focused on teaching the faith and becoming a community that would be compelling and inviting so that people would come in, one by one. These dramatically changed persons would, in turn, change society. This is true Christian conservatism.

Fr. Gabriel Rochelle is priest of St. Anthony of the Desert Orthodox Mission. See the web site at He also teaches New Testament Studies at St. Sophia Orthodox Seminary, South Bound Brook, N.J.