If I were to write about the burdens of the preacher as I have experienced them and as I know them," declared Martin Luther, "I would scare everybody off."

A glance at 21st-century headlines about religion and the church would not have made Luther feel any better than he did in the 16th. We live in a context of ominous bulletins about the value and place of religion in society. Many people still believe in the classic secularization theory, that modernity inevitably entails the steady decline of religion.

With magazines like Newsweek announcing "The End of Christian America," it is easy to give in to fear and the perception of decline. Not only can worries like that become self-fulfilling, more often than not, they also blind one to the enduring nature of the visible church in our world.

It would be hard to find a century when the church and clergy have not faced challenges in ministry and concerns about decline. Just counting the number of historical studies detailing the "crisis" and "anxiety" of ages past suggests these labels are too worn-out to be descriptive anymore.

Consider the decline that challenged Christianity during the last phase of imperial persecution in the early 4th century, when Christians lapsed or were martyred and churches and Christian books destroyed. The faith ultimately spread and flourished in response. But though imperial persecution ceased with the Edict of Milan in 313, unity was elusive. The church was coming to grips with an ecclesiology of wheat and tares in a fallen world. Some, like Augustine of Hippo, welcomed lapsed Christians back into the church, while the Donatists rejected them.

The church also has dealt with its share of moral decline. The medieval church confronted financial corruption and clerical immorality. Reform efforts starting in the 10th century at the Benedictine abbey in Cluny, France, flourished but eventually led to the same patterns of corruption. Subsequent centuries saw further attempts under the Cistercians and other religious orders. In time, however, the Observant Movement sought to call back even the mendicants to their original rule, regarding themselves, as Reformation historian Heiko Oberman put it, "as the green branches on the languishing tree of the Church."

The pope did not escape condemnation either. "Here reign the successors of the poor fishermen of Galilee; they have strangely forgotten their origin," observed Francis Petrarch while the papacy was in residence at Avignon. "Instead of holy solitude we find a criminal host and crowds of the most infamous satellites; instead of soberness, licentious banquets; instead of pious pilgrimages, preternatural and foul sloth; instead of the bare feet of the apostles, the snowy coursers of brigands fly past us, the horses decked in gold and fed on gold, soon to be shod with gold, if the Lord does not check this slavish luxury."

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Schism erupted on the heels of the Avignon papacy, when three popes attempted to rule at the same time. One papal official responded, "Today there is a disappearance, nay, a complete abandonment, of good moral practices, for simony, avarice, the sale of benefices, tyranny, and cruelty hold sway, approved as it were by wont amongst the ecclesiastics."

Even eras of reform and revival, such as the movement in 16th-century Geneva, saw periods of great turmoil. Though John Calvin found himself welcome when he returned to Geneva in 1541 after a three-year exile, he still faced substantial opposition from congregants. In July 1549, Calvin's preaching caused a public riot, which historian William Naphy attributes to the spread of xenophobia within Geneva in response to the influx of French refugees. This was not a first-time experience for Calvin. In March 1546, protests interrupted his sermon when he critiqued a group of congregants who had danced at a wedding and lied to the authorities about it. For years, scholars questioned the success of the German Reformation based on similar evidence that parishioners were unable—even unwilling—to live up to the Reformers' ideals.

Many regard Jonathan Edwards as America's foremost theologian. But as biographer George Marsden observes, Edwards's opponents called him a "tyrant" and ousted him from his Massachusetts church in 1750. Edwards had gained international recognition for his role in the spiritual awakening that began in 1734, but tension simmered over questions of inadequate salary, clashing personalities, and theology. Edwards's insistence on greater restrictions over baptism and alterations of church polity strained relationships even more.

Coloring in the Picture

If greats like Calvin and Edwards can be expelled from their congregations, maybe religious success does not always look the way we expect it to.

The language of decline has served many purposes. Scholars like Margot Todd have shown the complexity of measuring and analyzing the nature of clergy complaints. In the Church of Scotland of the early modern period, Todd wrote, "complaint was a usual route to improvement."

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E. Brooks Holifield's study of the history of Christian clergy in America persuasively challenges the decline narrative by revealing "the tendency of priests and ministers in almost every period of American history to view their office as a calling in crisis." He offers 400 years of examples of "clerical worries about ineffectiveness, vocational weakness, declining cultural status, powerlessness, and failings of one kind or another." With that in mind, Holifield concludes that "from the vantage of the gospel, success can be failure and failure can be success."

My own work on the 18th-century Genevan clergy has also highlighted the complex ups and downs of church life. Concerns over clergy salaries, for example, are perennial and do not necessarily reveal a decline in clerical status, as some have argued. Calvin advocated higher salaries before Geneva's government on behalf of the underpaid 16th-century clergy. Later, Jacob Vernet argued on behalf of Geneva's underpaid 18th-century clergy. Likewise, Enlightenment figures like Voltaire described theological divergence in the church, but critical study shows that 18th-century theology and worship life was far more orthodox than they acknowledged.

Pastors in Geneva did push the bounds of convention now and then. Esaïe Gasc, for instance, received a reprimand in 1773 after addressing the crowd at a public festival while wearing a dragon costume. And Pierre Clement renounced his position to write comedies for the Parisian theater. More often, though, one finds pastors like Jean-François Martin, who served faithfully for 32 years until passing away in the pulpit during worship.

There is no simple picture of steady and inevitable decline. Rather than allowing only negative examples to paint a monochromatic picture of Christianity, we should equally consider evidence of positive service and growth. Milestone years like 2009—the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth—seem to bring a sense of vitality even beyond the walls of the church. That year, Time magazine listed "New Calvinism" as third in its list of the ten most influential ideas changing the world. In the author's words, "Calvinism is back."

Conflicting messages in the media as well as in academic scholarship reveal an ongoing discussion in the West about the true state of religion. While living in Britain, I came across a report on Yahoo! UK & Ireland News: "Secularists meet in London to defy rise in religion." Organizers had established an award for the purpose of preventing what was described as "an alarming rise in religious meddling in public life."

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Apparently, while Christians have concerned themselves with the decline of the church, secularists have been busy worrying about the growth of religion.

Subverting Decline

Scholarly opinion about the state of the church eludes consensus. Even common pronouncements that secularization grew during the Enlightenment era are being questioned in such works as David Sorkin's The Religious Enlightenment. Sorkin argues that during the 1700s, "religion lost neither its place nor its authority in European society and culture."

Those who lack knowledge of Christian history sometimes assume the past was a golden age of belief, and that the church has faced decline only in the current, postmodern age. Sociologist Rodney Stark has sought to overturn this perception in his response to the secularization theory, going so far as to argue that the piety of the past is a "myth." Stark's conclusion may be questioned, but not his trajectory. We need to adjust the interpretive lens of "decline" to accommodate history's complexity. The great cloud of witnesses suffered no less and often much more than we do today, and humanity has faltered in its commitment to God in the past.

Even periods of perceived decline contain evidence of growth. The persistent narrative that considers the 18th century the beginning of the church's downward spiral neglects the concurrent "meteoric rise" (as David Hempton calls it) of movements such as Methodism. What began, in Hempton's words, as a "tiny religious society within the Church of England in the 1730s" matured into "a major worldwide denomination." By the end of the 19th century, Methodism had grown to include more than 30 million people on six continents.

If greats like Calvin and Edwards can be expelled from their congregations, maybe religious success does not always look the way we expect it to.

The spiritual awakenings of the 18th century were in no way separate from what happened in the 19th. While traditional work has advanced a narrative of two awakenings, each followed by decline, Thomas Kidd's The Great Awakening highlights the longevity of the awakening period: "There was, really, no Second Great Awakening, but rather a long-term turn toward Baptist and Methodist piety from the American Revolution to the Civil War, punctuated by new revivals like the one at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801." We should no longer ignore the 18th century's legacy of positive religious developments.

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Revising the narrative of the Enlightenment, of course, leads to a new understanding of what came later. Many historians have focused on the "crisis of faith" as a consequence of the Enlightenment. Few have appreciated what Timothy Larsen has described as the concurrent "crisis of doubt" within Victorian secularism: "Despite the way that the narrative of the Victorian loss of faith has loomed so large in the existing literature, the Secularist movement lost a far greater percentage of its top leadership to reconversion than the Christian ministry lost due to a crisis of faith."

Memories of Christianity over the ages are valuable assets in a culture prone to expecting the worst about the future. Christianity has undergone periods of rise and fall in every century, with documented success and concerns of decline. The noteworthy story of the Christian church is that despite all challenges and shortcomings, the church has survived, blossomed, and been transformed, sometimes against all odds. It has been restored and revived, it has changed, and it has overcome. In short, the church has endured.

Vigor in the Winter

As Luther highlights in one treatise, the outcome of the church is not ultimately in our hands.

"We are not the church's guardians," he wrote. "If it were up to us, the church would perish before our very eyes, and we together with it …. But it is another who obviously preserves both the church and us."

Perhaps the most notable truth of the history of Christianity, then, is the endurance of the church despite our efforts. On this point, Calvin offers helpful insight in his commentary on Isaiah 6, in which he compares the restoration of the church with the seasons of a tree. The leaves wither in autumn, then blossom in the spring, he notes. This "could not happen, did they not retain some vigor during the winter, though to outward appearance they are dead." He says the church often endures "numerous afflictions" and appears "utterly ruined." But "there is still some concealed energy, which, though it be not immediately manifest to our eyes, will at length yield its fruit." That hidden energy is supplied "by the word of the Lord, by which alone the Church is sustained."

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Buying into the message of decline, then, is not only historically shortsighted, it is self-defeating, particularly when a tradition of endurance is the true history of the Christian church.

Sometimes it is easier to assume decline rather than affirm endurance, when in fact God is at work in the world through the power of the Holy Spirit, preserving the life of the church. Elijah illustrated the human tendency toward despair during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel, when he thought he was "the only one left," the last faithful servant of the Lord, though there were seven thousand who had not bowed before Baal (1 Kings 19:14, 18).

John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress points the way toward a new attitude. When Christian and Hopeful were being held captive by Giant Despair in the dungeon of Doubting Castle, Hopeful responded to Christian's despair: "My Brother, let's be patient, and endure a while; the time may come that may give us a happy release." Their endurance is ultimately rewarded when they escape.

When we move beyond decline, empowered to overcome the pessimism of the age, we may take comfort in the assurance of Paul's words in Romans 15:4, that "everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope."

Jennifer Powell McNutt, Ph.D., is assistant professor of theology and history of Christianity at Wheaton College. Her book, Calvin Meets Voltaire: The Clergy of Geneva during the Age of Enlightenment, 1685-1798, is forthcoming from Ashgate Press.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous stories about Christianity, decline, history, and the future include:

Curing Christians' Stats Abuse | The statistics we most love to repeat may be leading us to make bad choices about the church. (January 15, 2010)
The Only 'Christian Nation' | There is no single best way to run a country. (August 7, 2009)
The New (Evangelical) Mainline | American evangelicalism is displacing the old mainline. How do we keep from suffering the same fate? (May 12, 2009)
European Christianity's "Failure to Thrive" | Why Christendom, born with an imperial bang, is now fading away in an irrelevant whimper. (Christian History, 2003)

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