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‘How Church Shopping Is Polarizing the Country’

That’s the title of a recent column on CNN’s Website. I think the title’s somewhat misleading, but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, we’ll get to the substance of the column.

“In the ’60s, those showing up in church on Sunday might have represented a cross-section of American viewpoints,” say authors Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, citing relevant research. “Today, they are more likely to reflect traditionalist views, further driving modernists away from religion altogether — and intensifying what some have called the ‘devotional divide’ in American politics.”

The difference in viewpoints between traditionalists and modernists is profound — and has dramatic effects on today’s culture wars. David Campbell, a Notre Dame political scientist, explains that traditionalists believe in an eternal and transcendent authority that “tells us what is good, what is true, how we should live, and who we are.”

Modernists, on the other hand, would redefine historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life. They are less dogmatic, more tolerant, more open to change. Both might prefer that their 17-year-old daughters not sleep with their high school boyfriends. Modernists, however, would have an easier time saying, “But if you do, be sure you use a condom.”

In the era following World War II, both groups attended the same churches. They were likely to subscribe to their parents’ religion, to attend the church down the street, to include their children in community activities the church sponsored. Today, we are more likely to shop for churches that express our individual values, and traditionalists – those searching for “an eternal and transcendent authority” — are much more likely to attend church at all.

Important trends, and it’s good CNN decided to discuss them. But back to that title. I don’t think it’s intentionally misleading, and I understand it’s how a news organization talks. Still, it misses some points.

There’s such a thing as church shopping, but that’s not the best word here. To the extent that “traditionalists” are “much more likely to attend church at all,” we’re not talking about church shopping: We’re talking about church going.

And “polarizing.” OK, for a news site. But for Christians looking at this story, a better word is clarifying. If you’re not seeking the word of the Lord — AKA “an eternal and transcendent authority” — then what’s the point of going to church? If you want to embrace “the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life,” what do you need church for? You’ve got the rest of the world for that.

There are many ways a church can go wrong, and it’s regrettable when it picks up a spirit of combativeness or factionalism, including political factionalism. That said, the church isn’t supposed to be a big tent where people who reject God’s word can feel Godly. Better, perhaps, that they go to no church than to a mushy one which makes it easy for them to do that.

We go to hear the word of God, which must confront before it can comfort. That’s going to divide us from the culture, sometimes even from our own families. Just as Jesus said.

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About the Author

Matt Kaufman

Matt Kaufman has been a columnist for Boundless since the site’s founding in 1998, and did a stint as editor in 2002-2003. He’s also a former staffer and current contributing editor for Focus on the Family Citizen magazine. Matt is a freelance writer/editor who spent some years in Colorado, but gave up the mountains for the cornfields: He now lives in his hometown of Urbana, home of the University of Illinois. His house is a five minute drive from the one where he grew up, and he enjoys daily walks around the park where he used to play baseball.

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