There has been a spate of reports on disappearing churches, waning faith, changing religious attitudes, and the ways in which COVID has affected the religious landscape. The numbers reported are probably accurate; there probably are fewer people going to church these days, with the number decreasing even at this moment, and in all probability the decline is gaining speed. The question is: Why?
Here, academic and amateur sociologists rush in with glee. Reasons given for the decline of Christian attendance and identification include new avenues of social connectivity (civil, digital); priority given to individual choice that runs counter to parental influence; communal mobility; the desire for inclusive values (which deem religious commitment exclusivist); emphasis on diversity (in family, race, sexual preference). Some sociologically sensitive church spokesmen say, however, that we shouldn’t worry. We’re learning to adapt! And decline is for the best, because it spurs needed changes: digital worship, multi-faith teaching, getting beyond “membership,” finding faith in social justice, and personal expression.
I’m a great fan of sociology. Had I not become a theologian, it might well have been my academic field. But from a theological perspective, sociology’s value is mostly negative. At its best, the discipline functions as a secular “hamartiology.” This clunky Hellenic neologism refers to the “science” that outlines the contours of human sin. When it comes to religious belief itself—let us call it “faith”—sociology has little to tell us except what it looks like when faith frays and unravels; that is, what happens when sin gets the upper hand, and Satan roams to and fro upon the earth.
Sociology does this very well, which is why religious people should pay attention, in the same way that they should pay attention to the Books of Samuel and Kings. Durkheim on anomie; H. Richard Niebuhr on the social “sources” of denominational diversity (and animosity); David Martin, Steve Bruce, Pippa Norris, and Ronald Inglehart on secularization (or whatever it is about modern societies that squeezes out our faith); Don Browning on families and fathers; and Robert Putnam on isolated individualism—these and other fascinating scrutinies of our common religious or unreligious lives are mirrors to our weakness, ignorance, stubborn self-regard, anger, and more. They help us see more clearly things we are rightly compelled to repent of, or for which we should pray for mercy. They press us to consider how we are to guard what is good and oppose what is evil. So we hope.
But what sociology cannot do is give or renew faith. It cannot even help us to recognize faith or show us how to encourage it. And for a simple reason: Faith is a gift of God, whose grace is not in our power to manipulate. We should pray for faith: “Increase our faith!” the disciples petition (Luke 17:5). “Help my unbelief!” cries out the desperate father (Mark 9:24). Sociology can only tell us that this may be a good time to pray. (Though, perhaps, any time is a good time in this respect.)
It has always puzzled, indeed, disturbed many, to see how Jesus—and before him, Isaiah, whom Jesus and Paul quote—spoke of unbelief as a divinely providential destiny at certain times: “Make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (Isa. 6:10; Matt. 13:15; Acts 28:27). To be sure, the condition of unbelief is the product of earlier faithlessness, and to this extent is at least somewhat given over to the power of human decision. Even so, when it comes to our collective faith as a society, we will never discover the moment of our decision-making. For now, belief is simply grace: “To you it has been given to know . . . to them not” (Matt. 13:11). Why? The sociologists cannot say.
Perhaps at this juncture we are tempted to sit back and let the debate over free will and predestination unfold. But that is certainly not the discussion Jesus is encouraging in his statement about those to whom faith and faithlessness are given (as most proponents of divine election have recognized). His point is simply that we are to seize upon the gifts of God and to let go of the incessant drive to fix everybody, including ourselves. We are not given divine gifts for the sake of reversing social trends! Unbelief reflects a lack of thanks for, and faithful receipt of, the gifts that God has given; gifts like the written Word, the testimony of the prophets and saints, the sacraments of the Church, the praise of her children, the commands of God.
Sociology is perverted when it becomes a positive religious science. This happens when we get “missional” syllogisms. Here’s a contemporary one: If people have stopped going to church because they are more at ease with screens than people, then we need to offer them church on a screen. The idea is that if we get our sociology right, we can adapt—and then they will believe! Or, at least, “then we will have new church members.” In this way, unhelpful arguments unfold: if we speak in this language (and not that); if we offer these services; if we re-arrange these relationships; if we refashion this or that institutional context; if we talk about this and not about that—then unbelief will turn to faith. Or then at least unbelief will shed its filthy clothing and reveal itself as hidden religiosity.
I cringe as I think of the many clergy conferences, “missionary” workshops, and seminary faculty meetings I have attended where this line of argument has been superordinate. But the underlying assumption is false: Unbelief has no socially distinctive causation. “They will listen and not hear” (Jer. 6:10).
So how to speak of unbelief? It is a darkness: “Darkness cast across the peoples” (Isa. 60:2). Canada and other countries in the West are becoming darker every day, and not only during the winter months. Sociology tells us as much; or at least it can describe the darkness from the outside, as it were. But only the gospel can describe how “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Matt. 4:16).
The gospel is an “effective” instrument of faith, and it is so only in its enunciation. “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). The gospel must be proclaimed, given voice. But that enunciation produces effects that no sociology could ever make sense of. Consider the fact that the gospel’s articulation can have the odd effect of causing unbelief. Paul’s assertion that the folly of the Cross is the Wisdom of God marks out a mystery that sociology can never penetrate (1 Cor. 1:25). Even more so does Paul’s announcement that it is just this (sociologically bizarre) divine mystery of which he is not “ashamed” (2 Tim. 1:8).
Again, how are we to talk about unbelief? Let us be guided by the Scriptures. When it comes to belief and unbelief, Jesus chooses a very unscientific approach: He speaks in “parables” (Matt. 13:34), parables that the faithless are not able to understand, while those called somehow can. Those who come to faith are snared by the strangeness of Jesus, in whom are wrapped all the mysteries of God, including that great mystery of sin itself, the “mystery of iniquity,” which seems to stir up unbelief wherever it goes (Col. 2:3; 2 Thess. 2:7).
Unbelief, therefore, has a parabolic function. Faithlessness, growing and spreading in our midst, is a figure that takes us into the life of God through the breadth of the Word. For as we are thrust into an unbelieving world, we learn how divine punishment becomes, in God’s hands, a means to repentance; how rebellion becomes a place into which mercy pours; how the object of rejection is the very person of redemption. Read again the Passion of Christ and see how all around there is sin and unbelief, and yet the tremors of grace reshape the landscape and God’s conquering love drills its way to triumph.
Neither the study of history nor social analysis of the present can clarify the conditions of faith’s emergence and renewal. As the Scriptures tell it, human affairs are but one grand parable of God’s complete and comprehensive ordering of his creation (Heb. 9:9, 11:19; Matt. 13:35; Ps. 78:2). The Christian response to unbelief is thus not to manipulate social levers in the vain hope of conjuring belief in faithless times, but rather to follow the way of Christ, the Word who speaks the world. Simple obedience marks the great enunciation and untangling of God’s parables. “I have only done my duty” (Luke 17:10), says the servant who follows history’s Master to the parable’s mysterious end, where the light outlasts and banishes the darkness altogether (John 1:5). In the face of unbelief, we are called to one thing: “Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15).
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.