Wednesday, May 27, 2009


"Isn't That Special?" -- Demise of the Church Lady

Whatever became of the Church Lady?
In 1986, [Dana] Carvey became a household name when he joined the cast of NBC's Saturday Night Live ... His breakout character was The Church Lady, the uptight, smug, and pious host of "Church Chat." Carvey said he based the character on women he knew from his church growing up, who would keep track of his and others' attendance.
Carvey's character was both funny and tragic because she was a caricature. During the height of the Moral Majority political movement, the frumpy, pharisaic Church Lady was just identifiable enough to be almost plausible. The character "worked" because she represented an over-the-top rendition of the church's worst, most sanctimonious impulses. Everyone loved to hate the Church Lady!

Over two decades later, the bit probably wouldn't work quite as well, as the stereotypical Church Lady's church has receded. American Christianity has become increasingly diffuse and diverse, and the old church buildings are gradually emptying. "Good!" you say, "Leave that garbage behind!" But what is replacing it?

George Barna recently calculated that 66% of the American population is made up of what he calls "Casual Christians", which he describes as "minimally active born again Christians and moderately active but theologically nominal Christians". It won't come as a surprise that this squishy group vastly outnumbers Barna's "Captive Christians", who compose just 16% of the population:
The lives of Captive Christians are defined by their faith; their worldview is built around their core spiritual beliefs and resultant values. Casual Christians are defined by the desire to please God, family, and other people while extracting as much enjoyment and comfort from the world as possible. The big difference between these two tribes is how they define a successful life. For Captives, success is obedience to God, as demonstrated by consistently serving Christ and carrying out His commands and principles. For Casuals, success is balancing everything just right so that they are able to maximize their opportunities and joys in life without undermining their perceived relationship with God and others. Stated differently, Casuals are about moderation in all things while Captives are about extreme devotion to their God regardless of the worldly consequences.
So there you have it: we are a nominally Christian nation inhabited by comparatively few true believers. So what of the church as an institution--is it time to blow it up and start over?

Unfortunately, it's much easier to dismantle the old than it is to build up the new from the ashes. We all pine for a 21st Century version of the Acts 2 church, but in 2,000 years, how often has that actually happened? Does the evidence not suggest that instead of a fresh and spontaneous spirituality, the demise of the American church will bring about a future that resembles today's post-Christian (and increasingly Muslim) western Europe?

Faced with such a prospect, should our impulse be to join in celebration of the wretched institutional church's demise? Perhaps we ought to instead redirect our energy toward re-energizing and refocusing the faithful, many of whom may still be found laboring faithfully away in the obsolete buildings with the quaint little steeples.

Sanctimony travels in both directions, and while there are still many Church Ladies (and Men) polluting the landscape, judgmentalism may also be found among the "enlightened" among us. Rather than trashing and abandoning the church, I recommend we use our energy to heed our Lord's command to the "dead" church at Sardis: "Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die ... what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent".


  1. This is a great post, Jailer! I have a thought or two about it. I started working in church ministry in the 70s and became a pastor in the very early 80s. At that time in the denomination of my heritage, the average tenure for pastors to stay in a church was something less than two years! One of the reasons, I believe, was because pastors saw each church as a stepping stone to something bigger (and more prestigious?). We used to have a joke that the pastor received a call from a larger church offering a bigger salary and said to his wife, "Honey, you go upstairs and start packing which I stay down here and pray about if it's God's will!"

    I have come to believe over the years that the hearts of the people long to be led by a pastor who fits Barna's "Captive Christian" description. When that happens (and, no, I don't claim to have this together all the time), I have seen the people start rising our of their "casualness."

  2. Excellent observation! It dovetails with the distinctions I've made between pop Christianity and serious Christianity.

  3. I see it all around and call it "glorified shallowness." I continue to pray and grieve about it. Because I catch it even in me.

  4. Great post. I've been praying as well for the Lord to revive His church throughout the world, raising up a people sold out for Him, and showing a love for all other peoples so that finally, the world can recognise believers by the love that they have for each other. So much division and dissention, so much liberalism, it is heartbreaking.


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