The holidays are a time of generosity, when those forgotten by the world meet those who want to forget that sadness exists and, out of the coexistence of the two needs, something good is born.

At Christmas time, like no other time of the year, the Christian faith is seen as a force for good. The traditions that are reborn year after year connect Christians to their ancestors and give them the feeling that they are part of something great, that they belong to a faith that can bring a beneficial transformation to the world.

This conviction, which is so strong during the holidays, contrasts sharply with a feeling that increasingly captures Christianity: the feeling of marginalisation. One of the most obvious trends in the world of faith is, according to the Barna group, the “significant pressure” that Christians feel when they perceive themselves in opposition to a culture that increasingly manifests itself against any religious conviction.

On the sceptics’ side 

A significant number of believers feel misunderstood, persecuted, and marginalised by today’s culture, although they also feel that their faith is essential to today’s world. “There is a shared sense that the cultural tide is turning against religious conviction, and people of faith are starting to feel the effects of this growing antagonism in tangible ways. But it’s encouraging to see how many Christians still feel optimistic about the positive role their faith can play in society today,” said Barna President David Kinnaman in a commentary published in Barna Trends 2017, a statistical compendium, which includes the most important current trends in culture, faith, and attitude towards life.

In the West, today’s culture is on the side of the sceptics, which means that believers are increasingly pushed to the spiritual periphery of societies. Today, religion and faith are increasingly perceived as deviations from the cultural norms of society, as I wrote in another article. However, the resulting picture is not monochromatic, and it is wrong to perpetuate the lament that “the world is secularising.” Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say “the world is also secularising.”

The influence of the political, economic, and social context on the willingness to believe in God or not plays an unsuspected and often ignored role. Often this influence does not directly set the tone, but modifies personal choices through noise and depersonalisation. This could explain, at least partially, a second trend identified by those from Barna: the fact that women have started to give up church.

Breaking down a cliché

The cliché of the “churchy woman” is currently going through a statistical decomposition, because surveys increasingly show that women are beginning to raise the numbers of the unaffiliated (those who do not consider themselves to belong to any church). If only 10 years ago the proportion was three unaffiliated men for every two unaffiliated women—that is, only 40% of the unaffiliated were women—today the statistics have increased the percentage of unaffiliated women to 48%.

The explanation invoked by sociologists for the fact that many women leave the church is that of the diversification of priorities. The status of women in society is undergoing changes that provide unprecedented access to fields that were previously reserved for men. This has made women face the need to choose between competing priorities. And not only that, the emancipation of women changed the role structure of the family, which also transformed the sphere of activities in which a woman can be involved. For many of them, this meant an increase in daily tasks.

These transformations, coupled with a lack of emotional involvement and support from the churches, have led to such a large withdrawal of women from the church that some observers speak of a “haemorrhage” that is causing the churches to lose an entire generation of women.

Christine Caine, evangelist, activist, and public speaker, believes that the blame for this situation would be, in the West, where “the landscape has changed dramatically… when it comes to their inclusion in and contribution to all sectors of society and decision making—but there has not necessarily been a corresponding shift in church.” Nevertheless, “not necessarily” includes a wide range of changes and controversies regarding the role of women in the church, arising at the intersection of theology and sociology.

What happened to mentors?

Not only women are renegotiating their relationship with the church. Men are doing it too, even if the terms of the negotiation are different. The role of church leaders is increasingly contested in post-Christian cultures or in those cultures in which the inclination towards scepticism is strongly manifested. The impact of scepticism is felt the most at the level of the leaders’ reputation.

Pastors, for instance—once deeply respected by their parishioners, seen as spiritual guides, as mentors to whom the faithful could turn for knowledge and advice—are less and less seen as spiritual landmarks. “Now people consult Twitter, search Google, or ask Siri,” say the people from Barna, without forgetting to mention one very important thing: the fact that many industries and cultural sectors are facing similar problems as a result of digitalisation, which has caused some imbalances that are still being worked on.

Every church should be present online, Ed Stetzer said in an article published by Christianity Today, after Pew Research found that 72% of adults use social media and that every age group continues to see substantial growth when it comes to presence in the online environment. Even Pope Francis once said that the Internet is no more and no less than “a gift from God.” However, he wanted to warn about the risk of creating online communities to the detriment of real life communion. That’s why he insisted that the digital world should be made up of a “network not of wires but of people.”

The decline of organised religion

Statistics document a decrease in the willingness of believers to aggregate in networks. Under the heading “the decline of organised religion,” a phrase which is very much on the lips of sociologists, there is not necessarily a religious decline, but rather a transformation of beliefs of this kind. This was supported, among others, by Edward Norman, an expert in the history of religions.

Barna researchers have made a list of the spiritual practices that endure despite the declining trend of participation in church life, and have discovered that prayer and Bible reading remain staple habits in the Christian devotion of practising believers. These are followed by the practice of silence and solitude, and only then by public worship, volunteering, communion, and evangelism.

Then, although the participation rate in church services has decreased significantly, the number of those who still consider themselves Christians has not decreased as much, say sociologists, which has given rise to a category of the “spiritual but not religious” who declare themselves to be Christians, but who do not go to church regularly.

We would be wrong, however, if we wanted to build the soul of Christianity today out of numbers, and statisticians openly admit this. Frank Newport, editor-in-chief at Gallup, points out that the numbers don’t tell the whole story, or rather, the story isn’t what first meets the eye. His statement, which was a comment on the statistics indicating a decrease in the number of American believers, is supported today by the existence of this special category of “unaffiliated,” recently declared “the third largest religion of the world.”

DIY (Do-It-Yourself)

In a Lausanne report on religious and non-religious spirituality in the Western world, sociologists observed an increase in interest and participation in spiritual actions, simultaneously with the increase in non-affiliation; a DIY spirituality. No mentors, no institutions, no gender barriers. One that cannot be sent to the periphery of society, because society needs its help.

However, despite the advantages with which it comes, it is not easy to say if this type of spirituality won’t be as volatile as individual intentions—and whether the intensity of its efforts for improved social welfare will not fluctuate in the rhythm of the emotions of unaffiliated believers. Despite the pitfalls that come with bureaucratisation, we have to admit that the arms of an institution extend further than the arms of a single person.

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However, the fact that there are also exceptions that shocked us with their strength pushes us in a much more useful direction for the present discussion—the power relations that govern our good—another antithesis of individual versus institution. If one individual can do so much good by themselves, why not insist that a multitude of individuals (that is, an institution) produce nothing other than a multiplication of good?

Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Signs of the Times Romania