lllustration Courtesy of Josh Fitzpatrick
Imagine life during the 1950's and 1960's. For some of you, you won't have to use any imagination at all. Remember when going to church was almost a cultural norm? Sure, there were people who chose not to be religious; but for many families in America, every Sunday was spent at church. Whether the faith of those individuals was genuine or not can only be determined by God. Either way, much of the country was very familiar with Christianity. As the years have gone by, however, fewer and fewer people have decided to make the act of going to church a priority in their lives. With more options than ever on Sunday mornings, families are now spending their day on soccer fields, tennis courts, or simply in the privacy of their homes. Times have changed.
In his book, After Heaven, sociologist Robert Wuthnow describes very interesting categories of spirituality to help think about this dramatic shift in the spiritual culture of America. He argues that the baby boom and expansion of suburbanization following World War II led to the centrality of the nuclear family in the lives of Americans. The picture of a father, mother, children and pets, all living together peacefully under one roof, became the guiding metaphor for peoples’ sense of spirituality. Referring to it as “dwelling-oriented spirituality,” Wuthnow suggests that pastors shaped their churches around this picture, creating churches that were “comfortable, familiar, domestic, offering an image of God that was basically congruent with the domestic tranquility of the ideal home” to make people feel “at home with God.” This central theme also shaped the mission of the congregation. Wuthnow says the goal of the local church, whether explicit or implicit, was “to provide a safe haven amidst the growing uncertainties of the world in which people live.” It would be wrong of us to judge this metaphor of spirituality negatively in retrospect. The approaches of church life that emerged during this time were effective for the context in which they existed.
The 1960’s, however, marked the beginning of the shift toward an era of exploration and “freedom.” Turned off by the denominational “claims to having absolute truth,” as well as “changes in the U.S. family,” the shape of dwelling-oriented spirituality began to change. As more and more families became dysfunctional and complex, the idea of a church reflecting one’s home life was no longer attractive. Wuthnow says that these “complex social realities [left] many Americans with a sense of spiritual homelessness.” Instead of finding comfort in the church buildings in which they grew up, people began to seek for experiences of the divine in a variety of places. This new seeker-oriented spirituality changed the congregation from a refuge to a “supplier of goods and services” in competition with the range of alternate voices. Again, for the context in which it existed, the practices of churches to attract seeker-oriented individuals were effective. American spirituality, however, has continued to change. The problem is that many of our struggling churches today are still operating with one, or both, of these guiding metaphors shaping their programs and missions.