In this article I want to make an observation and provide a hypothesis. Give this the epistemic status of a hunch, a blog post, or an energetically defended position over drinks with friends. In short, if you don’t agree, no harm, no foul. We can still be friends.
First, the observation. In the last decade or so, there have been a spate of books, articles, and resources encouraging Christians (and non-Christians) to resume what we might broadly call spiritual disciplines—prayer, sacraments, liturgy, personal devotions, intentional community, and general churchiness.
Consider the following titles:
A Common Rule; The Benedict Option; The Imperfect Discipline; The Liturgy of the Ordinary; 12 Rules for Life; Finding Quiet: My Story of Overcoming Anxiety and the Practices that Brought Peace; You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, and Religion for Atheists to name a few.
All books written in the past ten or so years. Many by evangelicals. Some by unbelievers.
They point, I think, to a wider trend both in the Church and beyond it: a trend of exploring and embracing a life of discipline, habits, patterns, and liturgy.
The way this plays out across the generations is ironic (in the broadest, Alanis Morissette sense of that word). It’s the younger generation who are leading the charge back toward liturgical forms, whilst the older generation watch on (slightly aghast) as the cool kids start to re-create church in a form baby-boomers largely rejected.
That’s the observation
My question is: Why? Why now?
Well, as with any historical phenomenon, the causes are multi-faceted and complex. The true answer will be a rich potpourri of genuine longing for God, affectation, consumer choices, historical cycles, economic realities, generational preferences, signalling, and aesthetic sensibilities.
But, for what it’s worth, here’s my theory: This change reflects the fact that the main threat to the gospel in the west is secularism, not nominalism.
The Post-1960s Battle for Relevant
As I have argued elsewhere, Australia has moved from being a “roughly Christian” nation to a post-Christian nation. What this means, in short, is that most people used to nominate their religious identity as “Christian”. Now a majority do not.
For evangelistic purposes, the most important distinction used to be between nominal and active Christians. We were trying to explain to culturally Christian people that they needed a personal relationship with Jesus—people who cheerfully said they were Christian but had no living faith. They didn’t understand the gospel. They needed to be born again.
In a “roughly Christian” context, the liberal application of the sacraments to the wider population made the evangelists’ task harder. When we called on people to repent and believe in Jesus, they could simply say, “Hey, ease up there! I’m Church of England. I’m baptised. My uncle was a bishop. I’ve been confirmed, I went to St Cuthbert’s Anglican School for Girls.” And so on.
Changes in Australia
After the cultural revolution of the 1960s a new generation of Christian leaders saw that the relevance of Christianity was under threat. Edwardian modes of church life began to come unstuck in a rapidly changing culture.
Movements such as the Jesus People, the Seeker-Sensitive Movement, the Church Growth Movement, the homogenous unit principle, and the missional community movement, church planting, and evangelistic tracks like Two Ways to Live were all, in one way or other, coming to grips with the new culture. Part of that process was de-churching the language we used in evangelism. This was important work.
It’s always hard to assess things in a historical vacuum. Consider anti-alcohol movements such as prohibition and abstinence. From the perspective of 2019 they look judgemental, legalistic, exegetically unhinged, and world-denying.
But before we condemn, we should ask: “What were they responding to?”
It’s always hard to assess things in a historical vacuum. Before we condemn, we should ask: “What were they responding to?”
The answer, in the case of abstinence movements, was a massive and pervasive abuse of alcohol in the wider society.
Drinking rates in the nineteenth century were by some estimates five times higher than they are today. In Australia, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, the abuse of alcohol was ubiquitous and costly, especially for women and for girls, and especially in working class communities.
Drinking rates have dropped dramatically in Australia in the last fifty years. This, as much as reading our Bible’s, is crucial context for the relaxation of evangelical attitudes toward drinking.
Did that previous generation sometimes mishandle scripture on this issue? Sure. Was it legalistic? Often. But the next time you sit down to a glass of Pinot Noir, spare a generous thought for that generation and the context they were in. The effects of alcohol were horrific. The cause was noble.
Liturgy: the Battle for Relevance and Context
I think we need to apply a similar generosity on the liturgy question. The post-war generation was fighting a crucial battle. They saw the threat nominalism posed to the gospel.
But today, it would not occur to the average younger Christian that reciting the Lord’s Prayer might be inauthentic, precisely because no one they know outside the church knows the Lord’s Prayer at all. Going to church in a building that looks like a church doesn’t illicit a PTSD response in the under-40s. They find it at least neutral, maybe even attractive. They are not shadow boxing with nominalism. In fact, they’ve often never met a person who is nominal. By the time you’ve bothered to say you’re a Christian in this culture, chances are you are serious about being on Team Jesus.
Currently, the great threat to the gospel is not nominalism, but secularism.
The fact that the wider culture is in some ways interested in Christian practices is fascinating. It’s a vote against the listlessness, the disorder, the aimlessness, and the sheer loneliness of secularism.
It’s a vote against the listlessness, the disorder, the aimlessness, and the sheer loneliness of secularism.
In 1950s Australia, Christianity gave our culture a rhythm of work and rest. We had a universally observed Sunday, an expectation of shared family meals, and a deep sense of connection with the local neighbourhood or parish. Now we live in a world of 24-hour shopping. Sunday looks suspiciously like Every Other Day. Secular life is disordered life. You can be watching cat videos at 2pm on a Monday in your office, and replying work emails from the bath at 10pm on a Saturday.
Productivity literature is now full of advice that sounds suspiciously Sabbatarian. Young urbanities choose walkable neighbourhoods. They want to know their locality, buy from the same shop, know the name of the grocer, and so on. My grandma would find it all strangely familiar.
Or consider the rise of atheist churches in London. Young, secular Londoners gathering in churches to sing bad John Lennon songs and share fellowship. They have turned on its head our assumption that people like Jesus, they just don’t like the church. It would seem the other way around. They like church, they just don’t like Jesus.
So, there it is…
Observation: There is a move toward re-embracing of what looks like, in some ways, fairly traditional church forms and disciplines of life.
Hypothesis: This trend is a response to the end of the Battle for Relevance (1963–2011) in the churches on one hand; and the listlessness, meaninglessness, and disorder of secular culture on the other.
If this is in any way correct, it means that (if we are older) we should not immediately understand any interest in liturgy as a move toward nominalism, a shirking of evangelistic duties, or a step toward crossing the Tiber.
As Lauren Winner has brilliantly argued in The Dangers of Christian Practice, traditional practices are not a silver bullet. Far too much is claimed for them. All Christian practices are affected by the fall. They all have attendant and predictably de-forming effects.
But historical context for why distinctive Christian practices are seen differently by the older and younger generations will help us understand each other, and our context, better.