A recent edition of The New York Times contained two stories that, at first glance, would not seem to be related. On the front page, an article titled “Old Church Becomes Mosque in Altered and Uneasy Britain” told of a former Christian church in Clitheroe, England, that was to become a mosque.
A second article, a bit more buried but still prominent in length, was titled “After Two Years of Work, An Updated Tabernacle,” revealing how the Salt Lake Tabernacle, completed in 1867 by Mormon faithful and home to the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir, was nearing the completion of its two-year renovation.
Yet the two stories are actually one story – and a very important one.
There is a new openness to spiritual things in our day, but that does not mean Christianity will benefit. If Christianity continues its long, downward slide in Western Europe, and increasingly divorces itself from constructive cultural engagement in America, the current search for the spiritual will result in even more mosques taking hold of formerly Christian churches, and the success of alternatives to traditional Christianity such as Mormonism continuing to rise. Indeed, Muslims are likely to outnumber Christians in Britain in just a few decades, and the Mormon church now claims 12 million members, including 6 million in the United States.
But the American challenge is somewhat distinct from that of Western Europe. The church in England seems to be in the last throes of a long, slow death (the stone Methodist church that became a mosque had already been used as a factory since its congregation dwindled away forty years ago). According to Christian Research, a group that specializes in documenting the status of Christianity in Britain, there are fewer than 500,000 practicing Methodists, and of its Christians, only about 6 percent are regulars at church.
In the United States, the evangelical church is as robust as ever, and there is great spiritual openness, but people are just as likely to explore Wicca as the Word, “The Secret” as the Spirit. There is a keenly felt emptiness resulting from a secularized, materialistic world that has led to a hunger for something more, but many go no further than the search for an experience. We have come to that point where the soul cannot be denied, but all we know to do is search for something “soulish.” So an extraterrestrial will serve as well as an angel; a spiritualist as well as a minister. Borrowing a phrase from Christopher Dawson, we have a new form of secularism that embraces “religious emotion divorced from religious belief.”
The challenge of the Mosque is still real to those of us in the United States. It reminds us that a religious vacuum will not be tolerated – it will be filled. But it is the Tabernacle that may be our more pressing concern, for it reminds us that even when there is not a vacuum, Christianity is now one choice among many. And the tenor of our current religious pluralism conveys that it is not simply that there are alternatives to the Christian faith, but that one alternative is as good as any other.
And how they choose is based less on what is true than on what is felt. So the looming crisis in America may not be an increasingly secular culture that wars against the church, as much as the increasingly secular nature of the church itself that has little to offer a seeking world that it does not already have.
All the more reason to take note of the sixteen-year-old girl who was quoted in The New York Times article as hoping to sing someday in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. “You can sing next to the prophet,” she said with the kind of enthusiasm others her age might feel at being in the presence of a rock star. “And in the tabernacle, the revelations are so strong.”
James Emery White
“Old Church Becomes Mosque In Altered and Uneasy Britain,” Jane Perlez, The New York Times, Monday, April 2, 2007, p. A1 and A6.
“After Two Years of Work, An Updated Tabernacle,” Martin Stolz, The New York Times, Monday, April 2, 2007, p. A17.
*The website for Christian Research is www.christian-research.org.uk.
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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