Church Realities and Christian Identity in the 21st Century

by Robert Wuthnow

Robert Wuthnow is a Century editor at large and a member of the faculty at Princeton University.

The article appeared in The Christian Century, May 12, l993, pp. 520-523. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


The author argues that in the 21st century, churches as institutions will remain essential to nurturing and shaping Christian identity. They will do this as they serve as communities of memory, denominations that help people act locally with thinking globally, or as support groups.

At the beginning of the 20th century, religious leaders in the U.S. confidently looked forward to a "Christian century." At the end of that century it seems more appropriate to ask whether the next one will hold any place for Christians at all. I do not mean that values long associated with the Christian tradition, such as love and peace, will disappear from the continent. But will it be likely or possible for people to call themselves Christians?

The term "Christian" indicates an identity-something we attach to ourselves to define who we are. But it is generally conferred upon us. To ask about the future of the identity "Christian," therefore, is to raise questions not so much about individuals as about social institutions. The likelihood of "Christian" having any place in the next century depends, then, on the continuing power of the church to confer this identity. I want to consider three ways in which the church confers a Christian identity and focus on the challenges presented in each of these areas: the church as a community of memory, the church as denomination, and the church as a supportive community.

The church as community of memory. In their widely discussed book Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his colleagues suggest that part of a genuine, sustaining community -- which in their view we desperately need in our otherwise individualistic society -- is a strong conception of the past as provided by a community of memory. That the church, along with neighborhoods and kin groups, is an important community of memory goes without saying. The claim that communities of memory are essential to the formation of an individual's identity has also become commonplace. Part of what is implied here is the importance of tradition as opposed to detached rationality -- a theme that philosophers Hans-Georg Gadamer and Alasdair MacIntyre, among others, have asserted with particular force.

Maclntyre underscores the point about identity being conferred by social institutions when he states that any conception of moral action must be accompanied by a sociology of the same. His treatment of tradition, moreover, explicates the mechanisms by which communities of memory and individual identities are linked. In After Virtue he writes:

A living tradition ... is an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition. Within a tradition the pursuit of goods extends through generations, sometimes through many generations. Hence the individual's search for his or her good is generally and characteristically conducted within a context defined by those traditions of which the individual's life is a part.

Unlike the authors of Habits, who give the impression that individualism simply leaves people without communities of memory, MacIntyre correctly perceives that everyone lives within these communities, if only because our personal narratives always depend on a sense of history and tradition. Variations emerge when we consider the "goods" that constitute different traditions. In considering churches as communities of memory, therefore, we must ask how strong this tradition will be and what goods it will convey.

One can start answering these questions by observing that the church's role as a community of memory is being emphasized by thinkers like Maclntyre and Bellah and by many church leaders precisely at a time when an increasing percentage of Americans are not being born and raised in churches, or if they are, they are. not being reared in the churches of their ancestors, and are probably not attending churches that their children will attend. In other words, memory is being emphasized because memory is increasingly problematic.

The church is also being regarded as an important community of memory because the other sources of a rich narrative tradition -- families, ethnic groups, residential communities -- are also subject to the growing pressures of change, while more recent institutions, such as business firms and the mass media, are believed to have only shallow ties to the past. As many of the other functions of the church erode, the memory-preserving function may gain in relative importance.

What does it mean to say that the church functions as a community of memory, especially at a time when so many of its actual historic links are being weakened? It means that the church must, among other things, be backward-looking; it has a special mission to preserve the past, to carry on a tradition. The church must be a community of memory by perpetuating the narratives of the past, by telling stories that bring the past into the present. The idea of church as storyteller may seem to diminish its importance, but this function has utmost significance. The very likelihood of anyone in the future retaining the identity "Christian" depends on it.

At first glance, telling stories seems easy. This, after all, is what the church does: preaching relates stories, and the liturgy re-enacts them. But, as modern literary theory demonstrates, storytelling is complex. Decisions must be made about which past to memorialize, how to make it contemporary, and how to evoke identification between the listener and the characters in the text.

The storytelling tasks are made all the more difficult by the institutional settings in which the stories are told. One institutional challenge facing the church is that it has often robbed itself of the authority to tell its stories. In the interest of demonstrating its scientific, historical and theological sophistication, the church has talked in these terms instead of telling its stories. People who go to the theater, we must remember, want to see a play; they do not come to hear theories about a play. A second challenge arises from the fact that increasing numbers of people are transient and infrequent participants in religious communities. At one time churches could do more than tell and enact stories; they could also embody stories. The past was understood not as the universal past of Christians everywhere but as the past of Christians in this place: our forebears, our ancestors, our elders. Now churches shy away from such stories because they know newcomers will not understand. A third institutional challenge is the increasing competition the church faces as a purveyor of stories about the past. Consider the extensive indoctrination children receive in school about the past; or perhaps more important, consider how powerful the motion picture industry is as a source of stories about the past. A fourth challenge involves the continuing emphasis our society places on progress, novelty, innovation. Stories about the past are desperately needed, but we also want them to help us fantasize about the future, and we want them related in innovative ways.

At best, then, the church may be able to create temporary pasts in which people can participate for short periods of time, like they do when they see a movie based on a historical novel. Some churches may be able to present their stories as The Story, the story around which all of history revolves, the "greatest story ever told." But even that kind of story will not instill a deep Christian identity unless it is told and retold, related in innovative ways, and intertwined with the other individual and collective pasts that are part of every person's tradition. Paradoxically, the church must diminish the particularism of its various local, regional and national histories, but at the same time include them in the stories it tells, reinforcing its own authority as it does so. This does not mean a return to triumphalism, but it does mean facing squarely the history of the church and redeeming what is unique about its past. It also means that the church must be a place where discourse about the past, present and future is actively encouraged. Memory comes alive and is renewed only when it is discussed.

The church as denomination. In the past century denominationalism was a very large part of what it meant to be Christian. People were Baptists or Presbyterians as much as they were Christians. They were Catholics or Orthodox, and their Christian identity was inseparable from these traditions. But denominationalism has declined in many ways. Fewer people remain in the denominations in which they were raised, fewer people think that their own denomination has a better grasp on the truth than other denominations, and fewer denominations impose creedal tests that people must meet in order to become members or participate. Growing numbers of churches might be characterized as open systems, attempting to embrace everyone while imposing little on anyone.

Listen to what Tom Haskens, a devout Christian in his early 40s, has to say about his denominational affiliation: "I don't care whether it's called a Methodist or a Presbyterian or a Community Bible church. I don't care what the nameis on the front.... I don't think I have to be a member of any particular religion to be a Christian. I don't look at a name on the front of the church. I look for a fellowship that is committed to serving Christ. That's where I am now." Haskens identifies himself as a Christian; he is not like Bellah's character Sheila, who had her own private religion named after herself. Haskens is deeply involved in his local church, but it is also clear that denominations don't mean much to him. He is happy now because the preaching and the fellowship appeal to him. In a few years he and his family may switch to a different church.

There are probably lots of people like Tom Haskens who think of themselves simply as Christians rather than as Baptists, Presbyterians or Catholics. But a vital element is lost in the process. Imagine what it would be like if all the people in the U.S. thought of themselves as Americans, but had no sense of themselves as New Yorkers, San Franciscans, Virginians, Midwesterners or Itatian-Americans. That prospect raises the specter of mass society that was so much discussed in the 1950s: no identity stands between the atomized individual and the nation state. Everyone sinks into boring sameness.

Is this the destiny of the church as well? I think not. I suspect that Christians and modern people in general will retain more than some vague, universal identity. The slogan "think globally, act locally" comes to mind. The Christian identity will become more global as denominational boundaries erode and as Christians realize their kinship with fellow Christians around the world. This global identity will be significantly enriched and strengthened, however, if it is accompanied by a local identity. And this local identity will still come about chiefly in churches associated with various denominations.

The key point is that denominational identity will in practice mean a local identity. We see virtually the same development in every other sphere of social life. People identify themselves as New Yorkers because this helps to locate them in a geographic space. When they identify themselves as Italian-Americans they also evoke a local neighborhood and kin network, not an affinity with an organization in Washington. Truly national organizations, such as political parties, are losing their ability to retain people's loyalties, just as denominations are. But local civic clubs and community organizations are flourishing. The same thing is happening in the religious sphere. People belong to the Presbyterian Church not because of deep loyalty to the denomination at large but because they like the pastor, they feel comfortable with the people, the building fits their architectural tastes, the church is not too far away and it provides activities for their family.

The challenges here are all too familiar. When the church functions mainly as a source of local identity it must compete with all the other civic associations that provide identity at this level. School programs and athletic teams serve the same function for children, and are often far more attractive than the local church youth group. Voluntary associations, neighbors and the workplace constitute the local identities of adults. Church leaders are deluded if they think people are desperately seeking a "community" and will attend church in hopes of finding it. Despite the individualism of our society, most people have all the community associations they can stand. If they attend church, it will have to be for reasons other than that.

Another problem arises from the church's increasingly local identity: If laity care less and less about the denomination as a larger entity, then clergy will be the guardians of denominationalism. Perhaps this has always been so to a large degree. But clergy are the ones who will more and more care for the bureaucratic structures built up over the past century which are now in serious decline.

Were there a way to cover the financial costs of these structures, they might well serve as an outlet for the surplus numbers of clergy currently being trained in many denominations. A more likely outcome, though, is an increasing separation between clergy and laity. Clergy will sit on denominational committees, read denominational publications, worry about the policies and public pronouncements of their denominations, and look to denominational networks for new jobs and promotions. Laity will register their extreme lack of interest in these activities.

The church as support group. Personal identity is always shaped most decisively through firsthand interaction in intimate groups, the family of origin being the most significant. With the heightened responsibility we now accept as individuals for our own personal growth and self-realization, we are more oriented than ever toward the continuing resocialization of ourselves beyond our families of origin. Concepts of mid-life crisis and slogans such as "it's never too late to have a happy childhood" attest to these heightened responsibilities. These quests are intensely personal, but they do require institutional support -- support in the form of a language that confers legitimacy on the outcome, and support for the deep emotional work involved in any process of reshaping identity.

The hunger for such support is perhaps best evidenced by the explosion of 12-step groups, self-help groups and support groups of all kinds. In a national survey conducted in November 1990, 29 percent of Americans said they were "currently involved in a small group that meets regularly and provides support or caring for those who participate in it." Another 12 percent said they had been involved in such a group in the past, but were not currently involved.

The connection between these groups and spirituality has often been noted, particularly because 12-step groups generally acknowledge dependence on a higher power, but also because many such groups are in fact sponsored by churches. Founding small groups has been one way in which megachurches have been able to meet the need for intimacy among their members, and in some cases these groups appear to have generated further growth in their sponsoring organizations. This spiritual dimension was also clearly evident in the survey. Among those currently involved in small support groups, 73 percent said their faith or spirituality had been influenced as a result of their involvement, and of this number 70 percent said their faith had been deepened a lot. In more specific ways the spiritual influence of group involvement was also apparent: of the people currently involved, 90 percent claimed they were better able to forgive others, 79 percent said they had been enabled to share their faith with others outside the group, 78 percent felt closer to God and 66 percent had experienced answers to prayer.

Spirituality in its generic sense may be reinforced by these groups, but the evidence that a specifically Christian identity is being nurtured is less compelling. On the one hand, those who were involved in support groups were more likely to say that their church had become more important to them during the past five years. We don't know, of course, whether group involvement was the source of their increasing interest in the church, or whether they were already becoming more interested in the church and this interest spurred their group involvement. On the other hand, 40 percent of the people involved in support groups said these groups were not part of the activities of any church or religious organization. In other words, many of these groups may be cultivating a spirituality that is not associated with anything specifically Christian or linked to any specific religious tradition. If so, then the churches will need to confront another challenge: either incorporate these groups more closely into their traditional structures or watch the new structures become functional alternatives to the church.

Support groups are problematic given the church's traditional task, which I stressed at the beginning, of transmitting identity to new generations and maintaining identity across the life cycle. Support groups are not suited for this role. They do not for the most part provide anything for children or for parents and children, and they are often deliberately designed for adults experiencing crises at particular transitions in their lives. They do not provide a community that encompasses the individual from cradle to grave in the way churches have traditionally done.

The identity of "Christian" is very likely to continue in the 21st century, but the vitality of that identity will depend on the ability of churches and other religious institutions to perpetuate it. Whether they serve primarily as communities of memory, as denominations that help people to act locally while thinking globally, or as support groups that nurture the reshaping of personal identity, churches as institutions will remain essential to nurturing and shaping Christian identity.