I teach broad surveys of religious history, so I have to pay a lot of attention to the frame and flow of the narrative. Unless you approach the subject topically, you have to decide upon some scheme of periodization, a series of “ages” and “turning points” that give an intelligible rhythm to the story. Old-fashioned church history tended to segment time by august councils or Big Movements like the Reformation or Modernism. American religious history, hesitant about privileging a single denomination or a cluster thereof, has often fallen prey to using landmarks of nation-state formation instead: the Revolution, the Civil War, World War I, etc. This is one place where we could use a clearer-cut separation of church and state, for it’s not evident that the organic development of religious thought and practice necessarily proceeds by the beat of a political drum. On the other hand, religious developments don’t spin off out there on their own either, but intertwine and unfold with and within other domains of human experience.
I’ve found it helpful to think about how religion ebbs and flows with big patterns of population movement. This approach might also help us understand today’s flows around—and out of—the church. By my reckoning the USA is approaching the end of a fourth age of population (re-) distribution; churches—evangelical megachurches in particular—which over-adapted to that era are now suffering the signs of its impending demise. By contrast, those bodies will survive and even thrive which find a way to follow the human flow where it is accumulating in new concentrations.
The first era in American religion can be designated that of colonial foundations and runs roughly from the 1640s, when both Massachusetts Bay colony and Jamestown (Virginia) took on their definitive shape. In this age churches defined by the English Reformation dominated the American scene, being either officially established or otherwise setting the tone in their territory. Think Puritans, Anglicans, and Quakers.
This era ended with the rise of evangelical revivalism around 1740. For the next century an exploding American population (doubling every 20-25 years) poured out into the rural hinterlands, pushing the frontier of white (and enslaved black) settlement ever further into the interior. Revival religion, with its lay-targeted urgency, its itinerant and often non-professional leadership, its increasingly free-will theology, and its charismatic yet eminently practical spirituality, was tailor-made for a dispersing, rebellious, and self-directed population of independent proprietors, self-conceived autonomous agents. Populist evangelicalism was a way to plant and spread a particular civilization; its starting and ending markers were the so-called First and Second Great Awakenings.
The champion of that Second Awakening, Charles Finney, famously declared to his Broadway congregation in 1834 that if the church would but do all her duty, the United States could achieve the millennium in three years. In fact, 1837 brought an economic crash that bankrupted Finney’s sponsors and propelled him to a professorship at Oberlin College, in a tidy Yankee-transplant colony tucked away in northeastern Ohio. This turned out to be a movement against the tide, however. The depression instigated by the 1837 Panic lifted six years later in what turned out to be the launch phase of American industrialization. For the next hundred years, down to World War II, America became steadily more urban and industrial, following centripetal force instead of the centrifugal pattern of the previous century. Religiously, this was the era first of all of the immigrant Roman Catholic church and of a newly minted Protestant “mainline”—the heirs of evangelical forebears now going citified, upscale, institutional, and efficiently organized in a quest to give direction to the burgeoning urban-industrial order. They built Gothic churches—even the Methodists among them—and Gothic seminaries and organized the Federal/National Council of Churches. Theirs in this age was the religious voice in the councils of state and high culture. Great Northeastern figures were their headmen: Roosevelts, Rockefellers, Dulleses, and Niebuhrs.
The crusade against totalitarianism done and won in 1945, Americans instituted a new era by moving outward again, this time to the suburbs. Protestant mainliners tried to follow along with their 1950s low-brand “community church,” but much of their leadership was trying still to give the nation direction, which became a problem in an era of great national turmoil. The divisions of the ‘60s claimed the Protestant mainline as a prime casualty. By the end of the troubles religious custody of the nation had passed to upsurging evangelicals who were eager to say what was right about America again, the rightest thing being that it was still God’s chosen land. The suburbs, and then the exurbs even farther out, proved to be evangelicals’ favored turf, and their genius at exploiting their market was evident in the architecture of their megachurches which replicated that of the center of suburbia, the shopping mall. The megachurch’s huge auditorium served as the anchor store; smaller rooms along radial arms were boutiques for the religious consumer’s special need.
It will take some time before this phase of American re-location is fully passed, but the signs of trouble are well advanced. Suburban poverty is up, way up; its properties high among the foreclosed; its automotive lifeline pinched by $4 going on $5 a gallon gasoline. The Kingdom of Roberts and the Cathedral of Schuller—monuments both to their age—have gone the way of all pride. The megachurch more generally is proving to be a true descendant of the ‘50s community church: low cost of entry breeding far too thin a loyalty and way too easy an exit. The suburbs’ children are opting for cool cities and no cars in place of the geography of nowhere and auto addiction; the creative edge of American life is re-gathering toward the center again. There, house churches, hipster communities, and Tim Keller’s kinder-gentler-and-intellectually-competitive evangelicalism vie with and for the rising tide of the “none’s,” people with no religious preference. The future of American religion belongs to those who can fathom, meet, and anchor these post-seekers on their new native grounds.