Our culture no longer defers to religious authority. But, increasingly, neither do people within the Church, says Sam Reimer. It is the biggest challenge our leaders will ever face


Source: Photo by Jessica Lewis Creative: pexels.com

Weekly church attendance has declined to roughly 5 per cent in Britain. Many former Christians are becoming “nonverts”, disaffiliating from Christianity to become religious “nones.” Clergy accurately sense that they are losing their authority in society; indeed, they are losing their authority among their own congregants. The Church used to critique society, and people listened. Now society critiques the Church. So what has changed?

Sure, one can make use of a church, but only as long as it helps them on their own personal journey

The “subjective turn” - the glacial shift from deference to external religious authorities to deference to the dictates of one’s heart - may be the most important religious change in Western countries over the last 70 years. Philosopher Charles Taylor calls it a “massive subjective turn of modern culture.” British sociologists Heelas and Woodhead argue that it “has become the defining cultural development of modern Western culture.” I call it a move from an external locus of authority to an internal one.

Great expectations

While the pre-boomers (born before 1946) largely accepted the expectations placed on them by clergy and other (external) religious authorities, boomers (born 1946-1964) and, increasingly Millennials and Gen Zs, do not. Societal expectations encourage them to be critical of external authorities and directed by their own inner compass - their heart. They are told to be “true to who they are” and “follow their own path.”

Typically, most church leaders focus on the ‘symptoms’ of this shift - declining church attendance, sporadic Bible reading and eroding moral orthodoxy. They talk about how hard it is to keep people in the faith, much less growing in their faith. The pressure from “the world” undermines their efforts in evangelism and discipleship.

Infiltrating the Church

When I started my research project in 2018, I wondered if the shift was ubiquitous and influential enough to make its way into evangelical churches, known most typically to defer to the external authority of the Bible. So I interviewed clergy from 65 different evangelical, Anglican, Pentecostal, Baptist and independent churches in England and Canada. I asked them to put me in touch with active church members, and interviewed those too. I spoke with dozens of academics and denominational leaders and attended services in over 20 different churches.

The “subjective turn” may be the most important religious change in the last 70 years

In spite of the best efforts of clergy, many committed congregants were also “following their heart.” When church members spend dozens of hours online, internalising messages that are often in opposition to that which is taught in the Bible or the pulpit, “you can’t disciple in one hour a week,” one pastor commented.

Evangelical church members often disagreed with the official positions of the Church, suggesting that individuals are often deciding for themselves. Here is a snippet from an interview with Micah (not his real name), a young, evangelical Anglican man:

S: How about co-habitation, premarital sexual relationships, how do you feel about that?

Micah: I don’t really care one way or another.

S: So it’s up to them?

Micah: Yeah, up to them.

S: For Christians – it’s fine for them to cohabit or live together before they get married in your view?

Micah: I haven’t exactly formulated my opinion on that, but in general I would say it’s up to them.

S: OK, and how about same sex relationships, like gay marriage?

Micah: Yeah, right, right, again role of the individual to decide…

Turning the tide

The point seems clear. The ‘pull’ of the cultural current toward an internal locus of authority is a pull away from external authority, including religious authority. Conformity to the dictates of a religion normally means that a person is not being true to themselves. The true self is found within. Thus culture pushes us toward being ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’. The spiritual are on their own personal journey toward wholeness. Since everyone is an original, you can’t find wholeness by following a well-worn Christian path. You need to find your own way.

So can someone with an internal locus of authority, directed by their own inner compass, ever find their way into a church? Yes, but culture prescribes that one should accept or reject what the church teaches based on their own intuition, or heart. Sure, one can make use of a church as long as it helps them on their own personal journey. But once their sense of wholeness or inner peace is no longer supported by the church experience, they should move on.

The greatest struggle for evangelical clergy (or parents) is to help those in their care become strong enough swimmers to resist the pull of the cultural current. It is not easy to follow God when you are told by all those around you to follow your heart.