In “Remnant Christianity”, the author offers solutions on how Christianity can adapt and adjust in a postmodern world

Further evidence that American Christianity continues to sabotage itself emerged in the latest Pew Research Center survey of the religious composition of the American population.

Further evidence that American Christianity continues to sabotage itself emerged in the latest Pew Research Center survey of the religious composition of the American population.

It showed that almost a third of Americans now identify as unaffiliated with religion. And though Christians remain the majority of the U.S. population, “their share of the adult population is 12 points lower in 2021 than it was in 2011,” the report said.

This downhill rush, a statistical landslide that began more than 50 years ago, continues to gather pace — and now includes not just mainline Protestants, but Evangelicals and Catholics as well. (Yes, some of these categories overlap).

In his latest essential book, Residual Christianity in a Post-Christian World: The Fate of the Modern Church, PW Paul Jones — once a United Methodist minister and seminary professor, now a Trappist monk and Catholic priest — deftly unpacks why the Christian church in America seems to want to hurt itself. Then, it suggests long-term strategies.

As Jones points out, American Christianity acts as if the way to rid the church and culture of various poisons is to swallow those same poisons or pretend they don’t exist. What poisons? Sexual abuse scandals, advocacy of a predatory economic system that crushes the poor and exalts the rich, a wild insistence that criticizing the government is unpatriotic, a preference for cheap grace over costly discipleship, a inability to communicate sine qua non of the gospel, a habit of lying down in power. And more.

Any hope for the church, he insists, hinges on forming a faithful remnant amidst a shaking church and culture. Facing reality is key, writes Jones, because whatever residual model of Christianity, if there is one, “there will continue to be church closings, congregational mergers, building sales churches, shrinking translocal faith-based agencies, corporate downsizing, online training of clergy, part-time local pastors, and a growing reliance on lay leaders.”

Jones’ analysis of the problem is concise and compelling: “Our churches, like our secular society, are tempted to defend themselves in ways that threaten to sacrifice the very fabric worth preserving. The Americanization of Christianity turns out to be a tailor-made process of diminution.”

He praises a Christian understanding of the Sabbath because it “symbolizes the Christian’s ability to do nothing and feel no guilt. Contrary to society’s obsession with doing it, the Christian’s doing is tied to the sacred leisure of worship, when all is declared forbidden except the imagination, ways of frolicking with God in the wonders of the seventh day of creation, anticipating the eighth.” But the fact that “it all seems insane to the modern mind speaks to why the church is shrinking.”

Because this decline shows no signs of stopping, he writes, it is time to turn to what may seem like a radical solution: a series of remnant Christian groups that can live on and preserve the faith for a time when at less some members of the rest of the culture (including parts of the church) realize the emptiness of the idols they have worshiped and seek, instead, the life-giving, redemptive and healing approach that the spirit of the living Christ offer.

Jones’ proposed solution is perhaps less important in its detail than his recitation of the current demoralizing conditions on the ground. It may therefore be wise to see his ideas on a residual Christianity as an open proposition that the church – ultimately surprised by its vulnerability and potential demise – can adapt and adjust in a postmodern world in which no answer seems definitive, no definitive truth, and none of the solutions convincing or effective enough to be considered guaranteed successes.

Jones’ own life clearly reveals an openness to hearing God’s call to adopt new ways of living based on divine calls. Whether as a Methodist teacher of seminary students, a monk in a silent community, or a priest offering the Eucharist to the spiritually hungry, Jones is committed to living, as he puts it, as if Christian history was true by betting on the Christ event – partly because he believes it is, in fact, true and partly because he does not wish to live otherwise even if his bet is wrong.

An American church – whether Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox or otherwise – that cannot hear the noisy stunts its craft is hurtling towards sometimes seems not to be serious in its attempt to save itself. Jones doesn’t want to be part of that. He wants and proposes solutions. And I suspect that once readers understand his persuasive arguments, they’ll also be thirsty for regenerating answers.

Comments are closed.