This past July David Brooks wrote that Covid-19 is “the national humiliation we need.” Those of us who love the church are asking whether it’s our spiritual humiliation as well.
I’ve thought long and hard on what I’m about to say. Brooks’ July 4 column, The National Humiliation We Need, planted the seed. He said the US has been humiliated by stumbling so badly in Covid-19. Our fixation on the awfulness of Trump the past four years distracted us from larger societal problems.
We’re familiar with them. Isolation. Depression. Suicide. The list is long. But why are these things happening? Brooks lists the usual suspects – individualism, atomism, selfishness – but thinks they’re downstream. The core problem is what Irving Kristol described in 1970, a sense of spiritual meaninglessness creeping into our individual lives. Kristol was right.
But what most pastors miss is this is happening in their church. For years they’ve read about religious “nones.” Almost 80 percent have a church background. They’ve left the church because they find it spiritually meaningless. It seems that most pastors have ignored this.
They’ve ignored how this depopulating of the church has been accelerating over the last two decades. Close to 50 percent of millennials now report being nones. It is estimated that 80 percent of gen-z are nones. Yet most church and ministry leaders have ignored this.
They’ve ignored why nones find the church meaningless. For me, it started in 1987. I was a church planter. I was attending a conference where the speaker, a well-known pastor, came off as arrogant. And his staff knew it. I remember one of them saying, “Yeah, _____ is prideful but our church would collapse without him.” So they accepted it. I found this humiliating.
So do nones. They read of yet another pastor resigning over sex allegations. Or evangelists exaggerating academic credentials. Or evangelical divorce rates equal to the general population. Or 50 percent of evangelical men (20 percent of women) being addicted to pornography. Or 37 percent of pastors reporting porn addiction. Or youth being slightly more promiscuous if part of a youth group (rather than not being in one at all).
All of this undergirds why an increasing number of folks say they feel closer to God by not going to church. Which brings us to Covid-19. The pandemic has given many of them an opportunity to do what they’ve privately longed to do for years. Leave.
I was recently talking to another friend about this. He’s a pastor, part of the largest network of mega-churches in the US. On a recent zoom call, pastors reported that, on average, they expect only one-third of parishioners – 33 percent – to return after the pandemic is over. The highest percentage in any church was 41 percent. These pastors are scared.
They’re scared because giving levels are holding for the moment, but when the 33 percent return, they’ll look around at their cavernous auditoriums – one-third full – and wonder where everyone went. Some will leave. Donations will drop as these churches are depopulated.
If you’re thinking No way, consider that God does humiliate his people from time to time. For 500 years the Judeans had been idolatrous. They ignored prophets who warned them that God was going to “depopulate the land and devastate it” (Isa.6:11; 24:1). That’s humiliating.
For at least 200 years, America Christianity has been idolatrous, the result of our “comfortable cohabitation” with the Enlightenment. This yielded a faith tradition that rode the coattails of American isolation, patriotism, individualism, consumerism, and anti-intellectualism. But now it seems that God is depopulating our churches. They’re being emptied out. It’s humiliating.
Dallas Willard saw this coming. In 1995 he told a group of us pastors that American Christianity is a “lost cause.” God was going to humiliate us. It’s happening. Covid-19 is accelerating it. What would have taken ten years has happened in 10 months. It’s our spiritual humiliation.
The hope is that we become humble. A humbled people recognize the way forward is returning, what the prophet Joel wrote. Return to God and he will not make a mockery of you. For Americans, we’d be wise to return to pre-Enlightenment faith traditions. It can be done.
We can help. We generally don’t toot our horn here at Clapham Institute, but if you (or your church) wants to return to the faith that changed the world, we’re ready to help. In fact, it’s what we’re planning on doing for the rest of our lives. Please contact us.
 Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Eerdmans, 1995), 33.
 Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America (Oxford University Press, 1976)