American Christians have long taken comfort in the apparently persistent religiosity of the United States - especially in comparison with Europe and Canada. Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) memorably extolled the vitality of American religion in his 2-volume classic Democracy in America, American religiosity has rightly been recognized as one of the distingushing hallmarks of a specifically American experience of democracy and modernity. And certianly much of this conventional wisdom remains true still.
Recent trends, however, may warrant soem re-examination of our automatic assumptions. Granted that religion remains very strong in the U.S. and that many Americans - including many younger Americans - are seriously committed to relgious faith and practice and are active members of churches, still something certainly seems to be changing. It is not that the churches have changed (although there is certainly some of that too). It's mainly the world - in particular the world as experienced by the younger generations - that has changed, and changed in particularly problematic ways. (Whatever else one may have read in 2011, I think anyone seriously interested in these issues would do well to read Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood by Christian Smith et al., and - with a more specifically religious focus - You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church ... and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman).
This Christmas week USA Today took up the question in a more popular culture way. An article, "For many, 'Losing my Religion' isn't just a song: It's life" by Cathy Lynn Grossman, highlights the growing group of Americans (not necessarily all young) who seem to answer a collective "so what?" to the spiritual dimension of life. Not atheists, and not very interested in atheism either, an increasing number "simply shrug off God, religion, heaven or the ever-trendy search-for-meaning and/or purpose."
The Church has had a long history of surviving and out-lasting overt hostility and brutal persecution. The blood of the martyrs, as the ancient saying goes, may indeed be the seed of the Church! But a world in which religion - and the kinds of concerns religion cares about, the kinds of ultimate questions religion tries to help people respond to - a world in which little or none of that matters much anymore, a world in which issues of ultimate meaning no longer concern, such a world is a relatively new chllenge for the Church. Focused as we in churches tend to be on day-to-day ecclesiatical concerns and programmed by our history and experience to respond to conventional challenges to faith, this may be not just new but something we are radically ill-prepared to understand or respond to.