City skylines were once dominated by crosses atop grand cathedrals, and towns built up around the central church. But these days, when a solar eclipse represents “the most transcendent experience of the year,” the religious landscape has surely changed.
That’s the assessment of the Barna research group, which has developed a “Post-Christian” metric to name and measure the change. Based on a set of sixteen criteria that signal “a lack of Christian identity, belief and practice,” their recent survey identifies the most post-Christian cities in America, the majority of which are in the traditionally-religious Northeast.
Contrast this with the statistical representation that points to Christianity as the largest religious tradition in every state, with Catholicism identifiably the largest grouping in the most counties across the USA. The numbers are there, it seems, but belief put into behavior appears to be on the wane.
According to Barna’s survey results, 48% of Catholic respondents were post-Christian. One could quibble with the accuracy of the criteria, which appear broadly religious in scope, use a vocabulary unfamiliar to all, and conflate demographic gaps. But one conclusion remains inescapable: there’s plenty of mission territory right here at home. (With Philadelphia ranking at #11 on Barna’s list, the city where the Catholic parochial school system began still faces the challenge of forming people in the faith.)
Far from a siren song sounding the end of Christianity, the numbers are still numbing. If Christianity, or any religion, doesn’t motivate adherents to behave according to their belief, something is clearly amiss.
But first the message needs to be heard. For faith to be formative, the way the Church speaks needs to be re-considered.
Catholicism, in particular, has always relied heavily on words and texts to communicate its message. Jesus Christ, after all, is “the word made flesh,” and the books of the Bible necessarily remain foundational to the faith. But liturgical worship and Church teaching are also word-heavy. Unfortunately, the ritual forms and theological vocabulary familiar to previous generations resonate less with people in the digital era.
Before becoming post-Christian, the digital generation has been post-literate. More conversant with the “language” of sound and imagery, they aren’t accustomed to the Church’s use of words as a primary means of communication. Online-browsers and text-messagers don’t usually get siezed by missals and documents, no matter how religiously inspiring these may actually be.
As Bishop Paul Tighe once pointed out, the challenge for the Church in a digital culture is to discover a new language with which to speak. The richness of ritual and the profundity of theology certainly cannot be abandoned. But according to Tighe,
The new media undoubtedly offer the Church a greater opportunity to make known its teaching more widely and more directly to ever greater numbers and across all types of political and cultural boundaries. It is possible, using the new technologies, to reach new audiences, to invite them to a consideration of the great questions concerning the meaning and purpose of life and to offer to them the great wisdom of our tradition. We need to understand better how our message is being heard and understood by different audiences.
Then we can once again speak “the truth, and nothing but” that is our mission to proclaim in every age.
featured image from ncregister.com