Let's prescind, for the moment, from the recognition that the phrase "non-ecclesial Christianity" is an oxymoron, and consider the demographics and beliefs of those who describe themselves as Christian, but without belonging to any given ecclesial community (much less belong to an actual church). To consider this, I will appeal to a study by a Protestant polling organization known as the Barna Group. See "Christianity Is No Longer Americans’ Default Faith."
The United States has well over 200 different Christian denominations, a testimony to the historic importance people have attached to doctrinal accuracy. But things have changed dramatically in recent decades. The Barna survey underscored the fact that people no longer look to denominations or churches to offer a slate of theological views that the individual adopts in its entirety.
By a three to one margin (71% to 26%) adults noted that they are personally more likely to develop their own set of religious beliefs than to accept a comprehensive set of beliefs taught by a particular church. Although born again Christians were among the segments least likely to adopt the a la carte approach to beliefs, a considerable majority even of born again adults (61%) has taken that route. Leading the charge in the move to customize one’s package of beliefs are people under the age of 25, among whom more than four out of five (82%) said they develop their own combination of beliefs rather than adopt a set proposed by a church.
Evidence of people’s willingness to part with church teaching was shown in other data from the survey regarding what people believe. Among individuals who describe themselves as Christian, for instance, close to half believe that Satan does not exist, one-third contend that Jesus sinned while He was on earth, two-fifths say they do not have a responsibility to share the Christian faith with others, and one-quarter dismiss the idea that the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches.
Among other conclusions that can be reached here, we find that many people who call themselves Christians are so only in a social, not in a theological sense. It would be as if a Jewish person were to label himself as a Mosesian or a Davidian or an Islamic were to label himself as a Muhammadan. Even a Mormon theologically regards Jesus as a deity worthy of his or her worship, not to mention honor, respect and attention. Even a Lutheran typically regards himself or herself as a Christian in that he or she follows Jesus, as interpreted by Luther. In the same way, a Shia Islam regards himself or herself as an Islamic as interpreted by Muhammad, the Prophet, and Ali, his legitimate successor1 . People who believe Jesus sinned during his life on earth or who do not believe Satan exists clearly do not accept the testimony of the Bible, particularly the Gospels, as authoritative. There is, obviously, therefore, a major cognitive disconnect among the 50% who, for example, do not believe in the existence of Satan and who yet do not number themselves among the 25% who do not accept the authority of the Bible.
It should be obvious that the 82% of young people who do not identify with the teachings of any given church (or ecclesial community) are not in communion with any such community or church. They are at best, therefore, clearly non-ecclesial Christians whenever they describe themselves as Christian at all. George Barna makes this more specific in his conclusions:
- The Christian faith is less of a life perspective that challenges the supremacy of individualism as it is a faith being defined through individualism. Americans are increasingly comfortable picking and choosing what they deem to be helpful and accurate theological views and have become comfortable discarding the rest of the teachings in the Bible.
- Growing numbers of people now serve as their own theologian-in-residence. One consequence is that Americans are embracing an unpredictable and contradictory body of beliefs. Barna pointed out, as examples, that millions of people who consider themselves to be Christian now believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the lessons it teaches at the same time that they believe Jesus Christ sinned. Millions also contend that they will experience eternal salvation because they confessed their sins and accepted Christ as their savior, but also believe that a person can do enough good works to earn eternal salvation.
- In the past, when most people determined their theological and moral points of view, the alternatives from which they chose were exclusively of Christian options - e.g., the Methodist point of view, the Baptist perspective, Catholic teaching, and so forth. Today, Americans are more likely to pit a variety of non-Christian options against various Christian-based views. This has resulted in an abundance of unique worldviews based on personal combinations of theology drawn from a smattering of world religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam as well as secularism.
- Faith, of whatever variety, is increasingly viral rather than pedagogical. With people spending less time reading the Bible, and becoming less engaged in activities that deepen their biblical literacy, faith views are more often adopted on the basis of dialogue, self-reflection, and observation than teaching. Feelings and emotions now play a significant role in the development of people’s faith views - in many cases, much more significant than information-based exercises such as listening to preaching and participating in Bible study.
In another survey, this one specifically of Catholics (see "Catholics Have Become Mainstream America"), the Barna Group discovered the following remarkable fact.
Sociologists have long noted the tendency of immigrant groups to work hard at embracing their new culture, with the group losing its distinctiveness in the process. One of the edges they often lose is their religious distinctive. That has happened to American Catholics over the past century. Today, they are a large and vibrant group, but one that is faith-aware rather than faith-driven. The survey data portray Catholics as people whose lifestyles and thought patterns are more influenced by the social mainstream than by the core principles of the Christian faith.
I would put this conclusion in a more specific form, namely, American Catholics, as an aggregate, are thoroughly secularized by the culture. Only a minority of those who claim to be Catholic actually are in a belief sense. Their dominant belief system would more correctly be described as secular humanist than Catholic. In effect, they belong to a different tribal system, not the Catholic Church.
These Americans may be described as non-Christian ecclesial secularists. Alternatively, they may be described theologically, if not institutionally, as Progressive Episcopalians.
In actual fact, their institutional affiliation is, at best, tenuous and specious. They are a specific subgroup of non-ecclesial Christianity, and like others in this group, their Christianity is a social artifact, not a theological one.
The progressive deterioration of society, as outlined in the 1st chapter of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, is the natural consequence of this growing secularization. Unlike St. Paul, secular humanists are increasingly "ashamed of the Gospel," because it is becoming increasingly evident, even to them, that it is incompatible with their hardening belief system2 . Among secular humanists, the overtly agnostic and militant atheists tend to be the most honest about this chasm. Ashamed of the Gospel, they come to revile its most difficult teachings, and they thereby, in scriptural language, "cleave to the flesh." As such they cast themselves adrift from the Barque of Peter, to fend for themselves against the powers of darkness that engulf them. As one who was an agnostic for 20 years, ended only by a conversion experience, I know whereof I speak.