A Century of “Churching” the Half Converted: A Well-Deserved Obituary

In the previous essay, I argued that modern American (and Western) society has been for quite some time unraveling the intimate bond between religious practice and personal morality forged by the prophets of ancient Israel, taught by Jesus, and maintained by the church. Whereas I am very concerned about the effects of this dissolution on American society—nothing short of its re-paganization with all the consequences thereunto appertaining—my concern in these essays is how readily the church is assimilating to this separation. The fact that this assimilation is happening to one degree or another is not in doubt. For me, understanding why it is happening and what we can do in response are the most pressing questions.

Why Now?

To answer this question I need to revisit a central argument I made in the summer 2020 series on Rethinking Church. After the persecutions of the early period ended (A.D. 313), the church in the Western world got used to peace, privilege, and power. The church in the United States of America, though not officially established as a state church, remained privileged and respected within the general society throughout the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. The church accepted and relished its implied responsibility to function as priest, conscience, and counsellor to society. It felt no great tension with the social consensus about what constituted the common good of the nation. After all, the church had been the tutor of Western society for nearly two millennia.

As society gradually disengaged morality from religion, it became harder and harder for the church to pursue its essential mission of witnessing to Christ while also serving as priest to society. The religious task of “converting the unconverted”—dominant in nineteenth-century revivalism—was gradually replaced in the second half of the Twentieth Century by the quasi-secular task of “churching the unchurched.” The church urged people to become actively involved in a church and attempted to influence general society to rise at least to the standard of moral decency. It could comfort itself with the thought that most people believe in God even if not everyone attends church regularly.

To achieve the goal of “churching” as many people as possible, churches sometimes “lowered the price of admission,” emphasized the worldly advantages of being church members, and in practice if not in theory treated members’ personal moral lives as private. As long as general society and the church shared certain basic moral standards that could pass—unless closely inspected—for biblical morality, it was not so obvious that “the churched” were more numerous in churches than “the converted.” However as American society gradually came to reject one Christian doctrine and moral teaching after another, it became harder for churches to ignore the distinction between the churched and the converted.

A Forced Choice

The church now faces a choice it cannot evade: will it continue to assimilate to the evolving secular culture in order to continue the project of churching the half converted at a discounted price or will it wholly renounce its supporting role to a rapidly re-paganizing culture and again take up the divinely-given task of witnessing to Christ? As the rhetorical form of the question implies, you know which alternative I recommend. For it is no longer possible to pretend that a truly Christian church can function as chaplain to a thoroughly pagan culture. We should have known this all along, because Jesus did not say, “Go into all the world and make people slightly better” but “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19).

5 thoughts on “A Century of “Churching” the Half Converted: A Well-Deserved Obituary

  1. ifaqtheology Post author

    Sadly this is true. But since there is a difference between the reviving paganism and the old one, it’s hard to figure out exactly what it means and how to respond to it. The pagan revival speaks with a Christian accent.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Jenell Yarbrough-Brinson

    Matthew 5:13-16. I won’t post it here, it is too long, it is easy to open in your own Bible.
    The theme of the passage to of text is Jesus speaking to his followers, believers, are to be the salt of the earth, and to be as a lamp set upon a hill. Jesus very clearly intended His followers to go out into the world to bear witness to the gospel and the fruits of the Spirit among those of the world. If we will let the light of the Spirit of the Lord touch and influence others, letting that light draw them and influence them.

    He also said that if the salt loses its savor, is worthless, and is to be thrown out. When the church draws into a closed circle with an attitude of those outside as enemies, trying to keep worldly influences out of the church, they have lost sight of the mission of reaching out to influence others that would be drawn to the Lord. That is the opposite to the mission Jesus called His followers to.


  3. ifaqtheology Post author

    I am trying to figure out the exact point of your comment. I looked at your blog. I agree that we need much more truth-seeking and use of critical reason in our culture. I’ve published over 275 essays on this blog. If you read the description you’ll remember that my blog is dedicated to “thoughtfulness in religion.” Incoherence, question begging, question-begging, and unnecessary appeal to mystery drive me crazy. I’ve found that these problems characterize critics of Christianity as much as they do its adherents.



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