The Rise of the 21st Century Spiritual Theologian
Their audience was secular as much as religious. And so, they were going for the big bite. They were going to influence the whole culture and not just people within their church. It was hard to talk about public life without talking about the moral implications because they were so overwhelming. And I think all those things invited the creation of all these big figures who were public theologians and now, we basically don’t have them anymore.
David Brooks, NY Times1
David Brooks is one of the most influential columnist of the 21st century. Although he eschews the Public Intellectual designation it fits him perfectly, which is why his commentary on the rise and extinction of Public Theologians in the documentary “An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story” is consequential.
“An American Conscience” is more than a documentary about Reinhold Niebuhr. In truth, it is a commentary about a time of deep thinking, post-World War II, an Atomic Age, when as Andrew Finstuen of Boise State University says, “Americans are dizzy. They’re dizzy with opportunity and they’re dizzy with sadness, with what has just come to pass over the last few years, and as a consequence you have people searching for answers, searching for meaning, and the church has become an area that, boom. By the 1950s it is the highest it has ever been in the United States both before and since.”2
These are the times that gave rise to “religious leaders like Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Norman Vincent Peale, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Joshua Heschel,”3 America was turning to a different type of writer. These writers were thinkers called Public Theologians, who no longer exist today as defined by Mr. Brooks. Religious leaders whose “audience was secular as much as religious,” who sought to “influence the whole culture and not just people within their church,” and who were created because the moral implications of the time were so overwhelming.4
When Mr. Brooks says, “we basically don’t have them anymore,”5 in describing the relevance of Public Theologians today, it is not because the moral implications of our time are underwhelming, because they are overwhelming in different but equally significant if not more dangerous ways. In the 1950s, only a few nations had access to weapons that could destroy humanity, today there are many, including the possibility of rogue terrorists obtaining them and wreaking indiscriminate destruction. We have the violence of mass shootings, moral complexities of genetic science, global warming, and the destabilizing impacts of globalization driven by the interconnected and deeply integrated world brought into existence through the “Invisible Continent”6 we call the internet.
I would argue we are living in a time of deep need for our own version of Public Theologian, but with a more spiritual emphasis, which is why I call these new 21st century thinkers “Spiritual Theologians,” because they must avoid the fate of Niebuhr, about whom Duke Divinity Professor Stanley Hauerwas writes, “In spite of Niebuhr’s personally profound theological convictions, many secular thinkers accepted his anthropology and social theory without accepting his theological presuppositions. And it is not clear that in doing so they were making a mistake, as the relationships between Niebuhr’s theological and ethnical positions were never clearly demonstrated.”7
Professor Hauerwas explains the spiritual void in Niebuhr this way, “What is missing in Niebuhr is any account of the church. The Christian account of the way things are is always going to rely on the fact that there is an alternative to the way things are, called “the church.” Niebuhr had no account of that.”8 This failure to account for the church, or place God and scripture at the center rather than periphery of their work, makes the Public Theologian influential in the secular world but not transformative.
The Transformative Difference of the Spiritual Theologian
The Public Theologian is essential as are the entire category of people who inhabit the theological realm, but they are involved in a transactional relationship with the secular world pursuing a goal of change. While having a similar theological foundation, the “Spiritual Theologian” inhabits the sacred space of the spiritual realm, placing him or her in a transformational relationship with the secular world pursuing the goal of transformation.
James McGregor Burns brings clarity to the difference between the transactional leadership of the Public Theologian and the transformational leadership of the “Spiritual Theologian” in his book “Transforming Leadership.”
We must distinguish here between the verbs “change” and “transform,” using exacting definitions. To change is to substitute one thing for another, to give and take, to exchange places, to pass from one place to another. These are the kinds of changes I attribute to transactional leadership. But to transform something cuts much more profoundly. It is to cause a metamorphosis in form or structure, a change in the very condition or nature of a thing, a change into another substance, a radical change in outward form or inner character, as when a frog is transformed into a prince or a carriage maker into an auto factory. It is change of this breadth and depth that is fostered by transforming leadership.9
Public Theologians have changed the world. Reinhold Niebuhr gave secular leadership a conscience in his time and in our time as well, a fact evidenced by former President Barack Obama identifying Niebuhr as his favorite philosopher.10 In a similar and perhaps near transformative way Martin Luther King Jr. forever changed race relations in America through his leadership of the historic 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
One might ask, “How is the effort of these Public Theologians different from what a “Spiritual Theologian” might do?” This might best be explained by Martin Luther King, who sought to change the laws to prevent a person from acting on their prejudice and lynching a black man.
There are those who contend that integration can come only through education, for no other reason than that morals cannot be legislated. I choose, however, to be dialectical at this point. It is neither education nor legislation; it is both legislation and education. I quite agree that it is impossible to change a man’s internal feelings merely through law. But this really is not the intention of the law. The law does not seek to change one’s internal feelings; it seeks rather to control the external effects of those internal feelings. For instance, the law cannot make a man love—religion and education must do that—but it can control his efforts to lynch. So in order to control the external effects of prejudiced internal feelings, we must continue to struggle through legislation.11
The 21st Century State of the Christian Church
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.  Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.  Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.
Revelation 3:1-3 NIV12
Reputation has a way of deceiving us. In the case of the church in Sardis, their reputation made them think they were alive when they were dead. They are called to “Wake up!” and “strengthen what remains and is about to die,” because their deeds or the purposes for which God had called them remained unfinished.
Revelation 3:1-3 (NIV) is written to the church in Sardis, but the message crosses the centuries to speak to the church today. These verses teach us that if we do not wake up spiritually, then Jesus will come like a thief and take away our designation as those called to give voice to the heart of God.
The empirical data supports the application of Revelation 3:1-3 (NIV) to the church of the 21st century. Pew Research reports that by the year 2050 “the number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world.”13
Pew reports that, “As of 2010, Christianity was by far the world’s largest religion, with an estimated 2.2 billion adherents, nearly a third (31%) of all 6.9 billion people on Earth. Islam was second, with 1.6 billion adherents, or 23% of the global population.” According to the current demographic trends, “Islam will nearly catch up by the middle of the 21st century. Between 2010 and 2050, the world’s total population is expected to rise to 9.3 billion, a 35% increase. Over that same period, Muslims – a comparatively youthful population with high fertility rates – are projected to increase by 73%. The number of Christians also is projected to rise, but more slowly, at about the same rate (35%) as the global population overall.”14
This demographic change will result in “near parity between Muslims (2.8 billion, or 30% of the population) and Christians (2.9 billion, or 31%), possibly for the first time in history.”15 Setting aside both the western religious and secular bias against Islam, we can resist the temptation to excuse the decline of Christianity because of birth rates (choosing instead to assume the strength of Muslim marriages and families are the truth behind these numbers), then objectively embrace the truth that Christianity is losing its influence on the world.
Christianity may have a reputation for being alive, but from a data perspective we are dying or dead. What may finish the job and move Christianity from dying to dead is the relatively new religiously unaffiliated category, the people commonly called “the nones” because of their selection of “none of the above” when asked for their religious affiliation.
While the share of the religiously unaffiliated is supposed to decline worldwide, these “unaffiliated are expected to continue to increase as a share of the population in much of Europe and North America. In the United States, for example, the unaffiliated are projected to grow from an estimated 16% of the total population (including children) in 2010 to 26% in 2050.”16
This data about the unaffiliated has important implications for Christianity because “Over the coming decades, Christians are expected to experience the largest net losses from switching. Globally, about 40 million people are projected to switch into Christianity, while 106 million are projected to leave, with most joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated.”17
Why in a time of global terrorism, which many erroneously but commonly associated with the religion of Islam, are we beginning to see an increase in the number of Muslims but a decrease of Christians? Again, set aside the bias infused judgment this is merely the result of differing fertility rates or oppressive and controlling theocratic governments, since these conditions do not account for the nearly 106 million people projected to switch from Christianity to the unaffiliated. Are we as Christians humble enough to consider the idea that the Islam of the 21st Century undistorted by terrorist influences is simply more attractive than Christianity?
What the data along with anecdotal evidence like blacks leaving white churches after the election of 2016 provide18 is evidence for the indictment of Christianity as a one dimensional, demographically segregated, socially marginalized, and culturally irrelevant force. The aggregate impact of these qualities is being seen in the United States, arguably the most significant Christian leaning country in the world. Christianity, as manifested in the churches within the United States, is largely responsible for respondents who answered this Gallup poll question, “At the present time, do you think religion as a whole is increasing its influence on American life or losing its influence?” with a resounding 73 percent saying, it is losing its influence.19
Among these same Americans Gallup reports only 24 percent believe the Bible is the literal word of God, while a greater number of 26% see it as a “book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man.”20 What is most sobering about these two numbers is that, “This is the first time in Gallup’s four-decade trend that biblical literalism has not surpassed biblical skepticism.”21
Taken together an honest look at the current and approaching trends lead us to one conclusion, Christianity, Christians, and our attendant churches have a set of problems we must solve. In my opinion, we are becoming irrelevant because of our “Biblical Humanism,” “Focus on People Instead of God,” “Superficial Religiosity,” and a “One-dimensional Change Resistant Mindset” making us incapable of attracting anyone except the already convinced and converted. In short, though there are a number of exceptions, the 21st Century Church, as a general rule, lacks the God-Centeredness with its resultant dynamism and attractiveness to inspire anyone outside the Christian ecosystem to search for faith there.
The 21st Century Work of the Spiritual Theologian
There it was, an old term with new urgency: post-Christian. This is not to say that the Christian God is dead, but that he is less of a force in American politics and culture than at any other time in recent memory. To the surprise of liberals who fear the advent of an evangelical theocracy and to the dismay of religious conservatives who long to see their faith more fully expressed in public life, Christians are now making up a declining percentage of the American population.
Jon Meacham, The End of Christian America22
We may be approaching or currently living in a post-Christian America and world, but as Jon Meacham wisely observes, “This is not to say that the Christian God is dead, but that he is less of a force in American politics and culture than at any other time in recent memory.”23
God remains alive and well in the 21st Century, but for his people to reflect the force of his presence in our daily lives and influence the lives of others, we must address the size, growth, and most importantly spiritual condition of our churches.
According to the 2006-2007 National Congregations Study directed by Professor Mark Chaves of Duke University the average American Congregation has just 70 regular participants.24
Since Megachurches, which are defined by The Hartford Institute as churches having 2000 or more participants,25 receive the bulk of media coverage, it is easy to overstate the size of churches, number of Christians, and their influence on Americans not to mention the world.
The sobering truth I discovered about megachurch size and growth is no small part of is derived from “the movement of people from smaller to larger churches.”26 “The largest 7% of congregations contain about half of all churchgoers,”27 because people are leaving smaller churches to take advantage of greater resources in larger ones. This is called “Transfer Growth” in “Evaluating the Church Growth Movement.”28
Transfer growth is the fifth kind of church growth experienced by many churches. Some object to this kind of growth, calling it “sheep stealing,” but others realize that mobility is increasingly a part of Western society and prefer to call this kind of growth “finding lost sheep.”29
Regardless of how one chooses to view “Transfer Growth” one thing is certain, it is not the result of an increase in the total number of Christians, but a mere “shuffling of sheep” between congregations, and as already mentioned, these “on the move believers” are increasingly choosing the religiously unaffiliated category called “the nones.”
These “nones” are considered among the fastest growing religious groups in America and Millennials are increasingly choosing this category to describe their religious beliefs.30 In the years to come the Millennial generation will increase their share of the total U.S. population, and if they continue to make the religious choice of ‘none of the above,’ then we are going to be looking at older, shrinking, and less relevant churches, which will result in the diminishing influence of Christianity.
Despite these sobering facts about Christianity and the Christian Church in the 21st Century, neither our spiritual or organizational conditions limit God.
The 2014 Pew Research Religious Landscape Study found 63% of Americans believe in God with absolute certainty, while another 20% are fairly certain, which means that approximately 83% of U.S. citizens still favor God even if they don’t think Christianity does a very good job representing him.31
What does this mean for Christians and their churches in the 21st Century? We must restore God to his rightful place in our hearts as well as our churches, because both data and scripture support the idea that God is what makes Christianity, Christians, and their churches attractive.
This means addressing Biblical Humanism the same way Jesus did in Mark 12:24 (NIV), which says, “Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?”32 Paul did the same in II Corinthians 4:5 (NIV) with his emphasis on Christ not ourselves when he wrote, “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”33
The problem of Biblical Humanism is one where we place our human judgment of scripture ahead of obedience to scripture, something addressed in James 4:11 (NIV) which says, “When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.”34 This problem of Biblical Humanism, the placement of man’s analysis ahead of God’s meaning is one identified by Soren Kierkegaard as having a destructive effect on Christians and the church.
The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.35
Christians and churches will grow when we restore scripture and God to their rightful place at the center of our individual hearts and collective churches. This will take the focus off people and place it where it belongs, which is squarely and singularly on God.
When we focus on God instead of people we will produce more unified and healthier churches. Interestingly enough, this was Paul’s first step to helping the deeply unspiritual church at Corinth get back on track.
My dear brothers and sisters, I have a serious concern I need to bring up with you, for I have been informed by those of Chloe’s house church that you have been destructively arguing among yourselves.  And I need to bring this up because each of you is claiming loyalty to different preachers. Some are saying, “I am a disciple of Paul,” or, “I follow Apollos,” or, “I am a disciple of Peter the Rock,” and some, “I belong only to Christ.”  But let me ask you, is Christ divided up into groups? Did I die on the cross for you? At your baptism did you pledge yourselves to follow Paul?
1 Corinthians 1:11-13 (TPT)36
Paul was acting as a “Spiritual Theologian” when he wrote I Corinthians challenging their Biblical Humanism manifested in their focus on people instead of God. He exposed and corrected their “Superficial Religiosity” revealed by their focus on, consumption with, and desire to follow people instead of God.
Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ.  I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.  You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans?  For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?
1 Corinthians 3:1-4 NIV37
I Corinthians is an extraordinary look at the work of a “Spiritual Theologian” sans the apostolic gifts possessed by Paul but not by us. He confronts and deals with “Biblical Humanism,” the “Focus on People Instead of God,” and the resulting “Superficial Religiosity.”
After he has dealt with these things he takes aim at the reason for their lack of influence and impact on the world around them, which was their “One-Dimensional Change Resistant Mindset.” He challenges them with his own example of being change receptive in order to win the world around him.
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.  To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 NIV38
Paul writes these words under the inspiration of God with heart piercing accuracy detailing the importance for the Christian and Church to become multi-dimensional, all things to all people. This means being “change receptive” instead of “change resistant” with the willingness to continually rethink, redefine, reinvent, rebuild, and rebrand ourselves as well as the church, until the secular world around us is inspired to do good and hopefully love God.
This is the work of the “Spiritual Theologian,” and if we imitate this pattern of teaching by building God-focused and multi-dimensional churches, then whether our churches are small or large, the number of Christians in America and the world will increase as well as the influence of God on the doing of good.
We are now left with a choice. Either nurture and raise up “Spiritual Theologians” who will lead us on a transformation of our lives and churches, or stubbornly continue on the current path, declining in spirituality and power, size and relevance, and the ability to provide a still searching world with the answers they so desperately need.
10Brooks, David. “Obama, Gospel and Verse.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Apr. 2007.
11Carson, Clayborne, editor. “Facing The Challenge Of A New Age (1957).” The Essential Martin Luther King, Jr., Beacon Press, Kindle Edition, 2013.
1,2,3,4,5,8Doblmeier, Martin, director. An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story. First Run Features, 2017.
28,29“Effective Evangelism View.” Evaluating the Church Growth Movement: 5 Views, by Elmer L. Towns and Gary McIntosh, Zondervan, Kindle Edition, 2004.
19Gallup, Inc. “Religion Gallup Historical Trends 2017.” Religion, Gallup, 2017, news.gallup.com/poll/1690/religion.aspx.
25“Hartford Institute for Religion Research.” Hartford Institute for Religion Research, hirr.hartsem.edu/.
35Kierkegaard, Søren. Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (p. 193). Plough Publishing House. Kindle Edition.
22,23Meacham, Jon. “Meacham: The End of Christian America.” Newsweek, 27 Oct. 2017, www.newsweek.com/meacham-end-christian-america-77125.
12,32,33,34,37,38“NIV 50th Anniversary.” NIV Bible, www.thenivbible.com/.
6Ohmae, Kenichi. The Invisible Continent: Four Strategic Imperatives of the New Economy. Nicholas Brealey, 2001.
7“On Keeping Theological Ethics Theological (1983), Reinhold Niebuhr’s ‘Neo-Orthodox’ Criticism Of The Social Gospel.” The Hauerwas Reader, by Stanley Hauerwas and John Berkman, Duke Univ. Press, Kindle Edition, 2005.
36The Passion Translation 8-in-1 Collection. Broadstreet Pub Group Llc, 2015.
9“Searching For The X Factor, What Is Transforming Leadership?” Transforming Leadership: the New Pursuit of Happiness, by James MacGregor Burns, Grove Press, Kindle Edition, 2004.