Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America

Pontification and a Vineyard
(This article forms part of the Journal that I am writing to describe my impressions of America since arrival in September, 2004. To begin reading this Journal from the beginning, click here.)
Kathy and I live in the famous "Bible Belt" of America. In fact, all of the states I've seen so far (with the possible exception of Illinois which is borderline) are within the Belt. I have checked on the internet and it seems that the Belt corresponds approximately with those states that formed the Confederacy during the Civil War. Whether this is significant is not for me to say, but it does give us an idea of the geographical limits of the Belt.

It may be that my impressions of the Church in America are influenced by only having seen what lies within the Belt; but I doubt it. The Belt is defined as "the area of America where Protestant fundamentalism is dominant". Which, to my mind, merely means that in other areas of the states other forms of Christianity are more influential. So my impression that there are churches everywhere, on almost every block, is probably true for all states.

This is understandable when one considers that about 82% of Americans are church members. In Britain the equivalent figure is 14% and only 7% for regular church attendance. These statistics also make it clear that I have moved from a country where Christians are in a small minority to one where the Church dominates the landscape. Now, don't shout at me, I know that many Christians do not attend a church (indeed, I have been one of them for many years); but, statistically, their numbers are not sufficient to be significant.

Now that I am living in America, I can see that the Church in Britain has been affected by its decline in numbers. Being the state church, the Anglican hierarchy still has a minor influence on political affairs, although this decreases all the time. Other denominations have no power at all. But there are more important effects than a lack of political muscle.

The Church, with its back to the wall, has begun to prepare itself for a determined last stand, perhaps even a re-conquest. Over the last thirty years, new, independent and radical churches have sprung up, apparently from nowhere, and are growing apace. A fresh spirit of evangelicalism and charismaticism (is there such a word? I wanted to say "pentecostalism" but the word is so fraught with unfortunate meaning in the states) has taken hold, even within the older denominations. And the net result is a Church that is leaner, more determined and more aware of the struggle it faces.

The plain fact is that the Church in Britain has been slimmed down by the desertion of the "nominals", those who are happy enough to use the Church for social events like christenings, marriages and funerals, but have no real understanding of or commitment to the faith they record on official forms. Those who remain tend to be much more militant, committed and sure of their beliefs. And they need to be, for it takes courage to be openly a Christian in the atmosphere of secular humanism that pervades Britain today.

This shrinkage in membership has also had the effect of drawing denominations together. Many formerly very independent churches and denominations have realized that the decline of Christianity in Britain is a more dangerous enemy to their survival than any threat to their particular interpretation of the faith. As a result, churches are increasingly willing to work together, ignoring previous fine differences. And many are prepared to experiment with new (although I would consider them ancient but revived) ideas and methods. The Baptist churches, especially, are leading the way in accepting fresh insights from the new churches around them. I mention this specifically because the Southern Baptists of America have a reputation (that I do not necessarily agree with) for severe and unbending bigotry.

All this may paint a picture of the Church in Britain that is somewhat more rosy than the truth. The fact is that the Church is still besieged and continues to bleed members in a slow but apparently incurable terminal disease. I am merely pointing out that there are signs of hope beyond what the bare statistics reveal.

Here in America the picture is very different. I have already mentioned the numbers of church buildings seen in every town. All of these churches seem to be flourishing and many of them have memberships that exceed a thousand. In Britain, any church with more than 300 members would be regarded as extremely successful.

There is an amazing diversity and range of denominations available as well. It seems that, whatever fine distinction of belief you hold to and whatever your taste in worship, there is a church for you somewhere in town. And there are so many First Churches here, too. First Whatever Church of Something-or-Other, First Church of This, First Church of That, what is it all about? Are they all claiming to be the first church of their particular brand and flavor? And, if so, where are all the second and third churches? It mystifies me.

The political importance of the churches is clearly apparent. In the recent elections, it seemed that any candidate, whatever his beliefs behind closed doors, must declare his Christianity to the world if he were to have even the slightest chance of election. The fact that some right wing church leaders now expect that Mr Bush will bow to their every whim (although I'm sure he won't) is also an indication that religion packs a punch in this country.

A natural result of this dominance by the Church is that there is no stigma attached to being a Christian. There is none of that bracing oneself for the onslaught that precedes any British Christian's profession of faith. People here are quite open and unashamed of their beliefs and will readily pray or say grace when the occasion arises.

So, on the surface, America comes closest of all to being a truly Christian country (actually, I don't believe there is such a thing but that is another story). Yet I am not convinced. It is hard to put my finger on it but I have the feeling that the Church here is, perhaps, a little complacent.

There are indications that there is another America fighting hard to break through and to destroy the power of the Church. A much-discussed (thanks to TV) battle for control in the schools is taking place right at this moment. Much ground has already been lost in this area. Political correctness (as it delights in calling itself) extends its influence into more and more areas of public life. And how the Church has meekly accepted that Christmas will now be referred to as "the holidays" is a complete mystery to me. Even in Britain we would laugh at the suggestion.

Many of these conflicts seem petty and unimportant but I know, from watching the decline in Britain, that they are just the visible signs of a deeper shift in the minds and hearts of the people. Although church leaders do make the occasional protest, it seems to me that the general reaction is one of apathy.

I should point out that I care little for many of the issues upon which the Church does choose to make a stand. As far as I am concerned, and as an example, Christmas is a cultural festival and has little to do with what I see as Christianity. But that does not mean that I do not see these matters as indicators of how things are progressing in the real battle. My personal opinions are irrelevant when considering the Church.

In conclusion then, I am saying that my impression of the Church in America is of prosperity and strength, coupled with a general lack of understanding of the coming onslaught from secularism. As usual, I could be very wrong. But I can do no more than report what I see the way I see it.

There are others, Americans, who might agree with some of what I have said. I know of one who would go much further (and has) in his assessment of the Church. That man is Jim Wallis, whose radical Christianity frightens even me. Yet I feel it would do no harm to any Christian to lend an ear to what he says. Do a search on Google for him and read a few of his articles.

This has been difficult for me, pontificating upon things way above my station. I am sure it has been hard going for you, too. As a relief from all these huge generalizations and unlikely postulations, we could have a look at how I came to choose which church to attend amongst all the possibilities on offer.

For a start, you need to know that I became a Christian outside any church and resisted joining one for fourteen years (yes, Jennifer, it is possible to survive and even grow out there in the big, bad world). All that I knew of churches was the dead, stuffy formality of the Anglican churches of my childhood and I wanted no part of that (I have since come to realize that all forms of worship are valid and I did not see because I had not yet been awakened). When I gave up and became a member of a church (He has a way of putting pressure on one), it was one of the new and non-traditional churches that I chose. These were originally called house churches but are now more often referred to as fellowships.

It was in this fellowship that I came to understand what was meant by Church and I learned a great deal about my own church and others. In the late eighties, a church very similar in its origin and beliefs to the fellowships arrived from America and began to grow. This was the Vineyard movement and it became very influential in its music. Most churches in Britain now use at least some of the Vineyard songs. I visited a Vineyard church and liked what I saw.

It was an easy matter for me, therefore, to choose from the multitude available in America. I opted for what I know (how unadventurous of me - but I am getting old). When I arrived in Lawton, I looked through the phonebook and was delighted to see that there is a Vineyard church here. And, of course, the rest is history.

I am happy with my choice.

(to go directly to the next entry in the Journal, click here)


It's my turn to turn green! I'm very impressed with your ability to see beyond the cross, so to speak. After you've been here awhile, I'd like you to write about the American churches again. I'd be very interested in your further impressions. But I seriously like this piece.
Date Added: 07/12/2004

(Owl poop. She got here twice before me already) Most excellent. Them Pommies can sure write! Now, go read my blog at http://wayfareingstranger.blogspot.com/
Date Added: 07/12/2004

Gone Away
Nice plug, Way! And thanks. :)
Date Added: 07/12/2004

I was going to comment but then I decided to go read Way's blog instead.
Date Added: 07/12/2004

First of all, according to scripture, "So the last will be first, and the first will be last." (Matthew 20:16)... so all these "first" churches might be suprised to find they are last, come judgement day! It was interesting to hear an outside viewpoint of the church in America; we Christians have felt oppressed for so long now, I forgot that things are different nowadays. I work in a public school, and the atheists are always winning court battles to remove the "Christ" from Christmas, remove prayer from school, etc. It is the whole misinterpretation of "separation of church and state," something I guess you don't have in England. Anyway, great observations! Look forward to reading more of them...
Date Added: 07/12/2004

Gone Away
Thank you Alicia - and God bless you in your work. The public schools are where the battle is right now. I just wish somebody would give me a clear explanation of why so many churches here are "The First..." ;)
Date Added: 08/12/2004

Gone Away
Well, that's a comment at least. Thank you Ned. :)
Date Added: 08/12/2004

The First simply means they were the first of their breed (denomination)in a particular town to hang up a shingle. In Ali's hometown she swears that there are two Baptists'; one calls themselves the Second. Next in line I might suggest a close examination of The Fifth Third Bank of Woodstock, Illinois.
Date Added: 08/12/2004

Gone Away
Ah, thank you Way - all becomes clear. Such a pity about that bank in Woodstock though - they really should be getting it right after their fifth attempt to be the Third Bank...
Date Added: 08/12/2004

Merr (Bubaker knows me!)
first of all I'm a friend of your son mathew but I call him the bubaker =D NEwayz america is a church country heh where I'm from (montana) my town only has a population of a 1,000 but there about 38 churches most of them baptist or christian only one catholic church heh you should go to salt lake its all mormons there. and by the way um...why may I ask did you move to oklahoma? its really flat ya know =D laterz
Date Added: 08/12/2004

Gone Away
Hi Merr and welcome to my blog. Actually, I was the first to call Mad "the Bubaker" and I even know how he came by the nickname - it's all my fault. ;) Oklahoma was chosen for us by the fact that both of Kathy's children live here. It was also a suitable choice as house rents are low here - we are not exactly well off (moving is an expensive business) and were always going to be limited to those areas where we could afford to live. As it happens, I am beginning to love Oklahoma and one of the reasons is that flatness that you mention (see an earlier post in this blog called "Landscapes"). But Montana is one of the states I've always wanted to see - you are very lucky to live there. Hope to see you again, Merr! :)
Date Added: 08/12/2004

Living in the buckle of the proverbial Bible belt, I am inlined to think on such things regularly. Around here, not going to church is almost as bad of a 'crime' as going to the wrong church. And wrong has little to do with denomination. You'll be pleased to here that our local Baptidome is Second Baptist Church. My favorite name by far, however, has got to be First Evangelical Free Church. A thoughtless title, imo, that leads one to believe that either grammar eludes the one who did the naming, or this particular church is free from all that pesky Evangelical stuff.
Date Added: 09/01/2005

Gone Away
LOL Actress, good point.
Date Added: 09/01/2005

Talk about a reflection! I'm the daughter of a Methodist minister who went to a church-related college and found a new religion, Judaism. I think of it like an innoculation that never took. Religion classes were required and I could already wipe out the Bible category of Jeopardy in 10 seconds or less, so I looked for something else. I took "Judeo-Christian Heritage" and "Great Living Religions" and learned a whole lot that has stayed with me throughout my life. Finding out about Judaism felt like a self-recognition. Unable to accept what I was being spoonfed growing up, I had basically invented my own idea of what the relationship between God and Man was, only to find out that it had already been invented! I think it's the scientist in me that likes the fact that Judaism is a grand debate: Here's what this wise man thought, and here's what this other one thought. Make up your own mind. Why do you think God gave you one? Also that there are some questions on which other religions have specific positions for which Judaism simply throws up its hands. The afterlife? Face it! Nobody is ever really going to know until they die. I could go on and am likely to in my own blog because the contrast between New York, where Judaism is as vibrantly alive as Christianity, and Great Britain is so evident. We have actually been told "I've never known a Jew before!" by people. We think Christmas shopping and decorations start early in the US?!!! Without Halloween and Thansgiving as buffers, they get started rediculously early here. And there's nothing available to celebrate Jewish holidays. No candles or cards for Hanakkuh. No menorrahs. There's some small awareness of the Eastern religions, including Islam, because of the various immigrant communities, but that's all. I guess I understand why. During WWII, if you did manage to get away from the countries where the Holocaust was taking place, you probably couldn't feel safe anywhere in Europe, particularly in Britain during the time of the blitz, so I guess you kept going if you could. Given all this, it's a little comforting to know how small a percentage of Brits are really serious about Christianity. I can think of Christmas a basically a secular holiday, here, and not feel oppressed by the kind of ignorant (of other religions) overwhelming Christianity of places in the US like Florida, where I spent a horrid year back in 1987.
Date Added: 14/11/2005

Gone Away
Interesting, ISAY. Many similarities to my own conversion experience, particularly in that I studied all the great religions to find out which was talking about the God I'd met and I liked what I read of Judaism at the time. But Christianity was the one that hit the nail on the head for me (much to my chagrin)...
Date Added: 14/11/2005

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