What does it mean to be “post-Christian”? Well, that depends on who you ask. According to a new study released by the Barna Group, post-Christians
I find this list baffling. Numbers one and two seem rather more foundational than, e.g., not participating in a house church (which most Christians do not participate in — note that “house church” is differentiated here from “religious small group” in number 14). Why are these points together in a single list? It isn’t at all obvious why these things belong together.
Even more baffling, the list never gives any place to sacramental practices such as Baptism or receiving the Eucharist (which most churches celebrate each week). The same is true of other devotional activities, whether crossing oneself (possibly before an icon), saying grace before meals, or reading some sort of devotional or theological work. What about religious artwork in homes, or having some sort of attachment to religious jewelry that one wears regularly? This list could go on, but it need not. Simply stated, being “post-Christian” entails lacking Christian commitments — but the Barna Group’s version of Christianity already looks remarkably thin, and very, very far from my own daily life as a Christian (and an Episcopalian, in particular).
Most baffling, however, is that according to this list I myself am a borderline “post-Christian.” Allow me first to cross through those things that I disagree with. This leaves nine points left to consider.
do not believe in God
identify as atheist or agnostic
disagree that faith is important in their lives
have not prayed to God (in the last year)
have not attended a Christian church (in the last year)
agree that Jesus committed sins
One problem presents itself: many of these categories are distinctly important to evangelicalism, but may not be of equal import to other Christian groups. Furthermore, other Christian groups might add practices to this list which evangelicals have little regard for. Allow me to take these in turn.
5. have never made a commitment to Jesus
I know what this statement means to evangelicals, but I left evangelicalism because I came to recognize that the evangelical emphasis upon personal commitment was (a) non-sacramental and (b) more often driven by emotion than sustained by discipleship. The Christian life is a converted life which entails converting throughout one’s life. And yet, conversion is preceded by grace, and that grace is always if not exclusively mediated through Baptism and Eucharist. Ignoring the sacraments means not understanding conversion in the first place. A subjectively willed commitment to Jesus is not the same as being a Christian.
6. disagree the Bible is accurate
Much depends on what is meant by this statement. I certainly wouldn’t turn to the Bible for scientific knowledge, and in some instances it isn’t very good for historical knowledge, either. It is one thing to say that all things necessary for salvation are in Scripture, but that is not what the Barna Group has asked. This is a terrible metric and should be revised so that it can actually encompass a wide variety of theologically sound views on the Bible. I deny that the Bible is simply “accurate” — something more needs to be said.
7. have not donated money to a church (in the last year)
I have given a little bit of money to the church, but I do not tithe. Might Christian charities count? I have given some money to them. I am not sure how to answer this prompt.
10. do not feel a responsibility to “share their faith”
Here again, it depends on what is meant. I don’t believe in handing out tracts, and I don’t believe in yelling at people (which seems to be an endemic evangelism “method” on every college campus that I have ever been on). The ancient world had plenty of evangelism by many different groups — Jewish, Christian, and practically every philosophical school. In the first century, Cynic philosophers could and did excoriate their audiences for not living virtuous lives (not unlike campus preachers do today). I am more than happy to discuss my faith with anyone who wants to discuss it. I do not feel a responsibility to argue or shout my faith at people.
The Barna Group is surveying a particular kind of religiosity — but it isn’t my religiosity. I suspect that on a global scale it is not the religiosity of many and perhaps even most Christians.
Lastly, there are five categories that concern weekly commitments. However, one could answer in the negative despite being a perfectly faithful, church-going Christian.
11. have not read the Bible (in the last week)
12. have not volunteered at church (in the last week)
13. have not attended Sunday school (in the last week)
14. have not attended religious small group (in the last week)
15. do not participate in a house church (in the last year)
It is good to read the Bible each week, but I fail to see why it is any more important than prayer or any number of other religious practices. The Barna Group asked about prayer in number four, but only with regard to praying in the last year. I’m not sure what this metric means; perhaps regular prayer is less important than regular Bible reading, or perhaps it is seen as more foundational — and thus not praying in a whole year is far worse than not reading one’s Bible in the last week.
The same could apply to the Eucharist; why is receiving it, whether in the last week or the last year, never mentioned? Here again we see that the Barna Group is looking at a particular kind of Christianity, and it has entirely ignored the sacramental life and devotional practices of the vast majority of Christians. Point 12 is variable depending on what one does in the church; for most churchgoers, however, volunteering will be occasional, rather than weekly. Point 13 may indicate a greater devotional fervor, but there is no requirement that one must go to Sunday school. Point 14 and especially point 15 are unique to evangelicals (and latter for a particular set of evangelicals). Small groups can be great if they are well run by people who know what they are doing, but house churches — in my observation — tend to be cults. Not participating in a house church is hardly a sign of being “post-Christian”!
There is a tendency in American Christianity to prophesy an imminent end amidst a growing godlessness. This has been a staple of revivalist rhetoric since the 18th century. But how should we think about this critically? The Barna Group certainly won’t help us because it doesn’t really understand what most Christians already do on Sundays. These 15 metrics have far less to do with being “post-Christian” than with being “post-evangelical.” If my own life is indicative, “post-Christian” and “post-evangelical” are inversely correlated. This probably isn’t true for the population as a whole, but it is one possibility within the shifting religious terrain. We shouldn’t be blind to this. Sensationalism may very well be defeatism by another name. At the very least, sensationalism is a poor man’s rhetoric; it sells even as it degrades and misinforms. Cynicism will chase people off. We shouldn’t be blind to any of this, either.