Thanks to those who sent in comments on my article “Why Aren’t Canadians listening to Christian leaders?” I appreciate your thoughtful responses and correctives. Overall, I tend to agree with many of the points made in the responses. In a few cases, there were some misunderstandings, probably because I was not clear enough. For a more thorough discussion, please see my book, Caught in the Current (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2023). A quick reminder for readers, my main point in the article was that one of the reasons that Canadians are not listening to their Christian leaders is because Western culture is pushing people toward an internal locus of authority, away from an external locus of authority.
First, after re-reading the article, I realized that it read like I was singling out the youth in our churches as the sole carriers of internal authority. While it is true that the cultural drift away from deference to external authority (including deference to institutional leaders) to deference to internal authority (deference to one’s “heart” or intuition) is increasing with each generation, there is plenty of internal authority among boomers and those in the older generation, and in many ways the youth are simply building on what they inherited. So, this “inward turn” affects more than our youth. Indeed, this glacial shift toward internal authority crosscuts generations, social locations, and national boundaries. As one commenter noted, this same trend exists in the U.S. as well. Researchers have found growing internal authority across Western countries, and in many southern and eastern countries. Its roots can be traced back as far as the Enlightenment and Romanticism. It is massive. So, I did not intend to pick on the youth. To be clear, I spend much of my day with youth, and I find them delightful. Should we listen to them and hear their stories? Yes. Can we learn from them? Absolutely.
Second, one commenter is quite right that external authorities often need to be critiqued, and that deference to external authority is not always good. Since fallen humans are involved in the formation and leadership of our institutions (families, schools, hospitals, businesses, entertainment industries, and yes, our churches), they can fail to measure up to shared expectations about character and integrity. However, if it is correct that we are moving toward internal authority, then a person’s tendency will be to make criticisms of external authorities not based on these shared expectations but rather on what they sense inside. There is considerable research that shows that people tend to make ethical decisions, for example, based on the dictates of their heart, and then seek post-hoc justifications for what they already feel is right (like appeals to reason or an external authority like science). Instead, our critiques of earthly external authorities, particularly for Christian leaders, should be made based on biblical standards (another external authority), corporately discerned.
On the one hand, sociologists like me try to tell things as they are, not how they should be. I tend to be more descriptive than prescriptive. I think some commenters may be perceiving more angst about internal authority than I intended. My point is that there is a move toward internal authority sponsored by our culture and supported by our institutions, and for at least 40 years scholars have been observing it (using slightly different language). Eminent Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls this move “the massive subjective turn of modern culture” and British sociologists Heelas and Woodhead say “the subjective turn has become the defining cultural development in modern Western culture.” On the other hand, if readers picked up my concern for the future of our evangelical churches and our evangelically-raised youth, you are correct. I hope we all are.
The reality is, Canadians of all ages are leaving their churches in droves. There are various reasons, but my point is that the pull of the cultural current is part of the reason. Based on my interview data, this internal locus of authority is evident in evangelical churches, even among the devout. I see it in myself. This cultural sea-change makes for declining authority among evangelical leaders, like all external authorities. Since our culture is the water we all swim
in, it easily becomes taken-for-granted, covert, or subconscious. I hope what I wrote makes us more aware of the influences of cultural change on our churches.
Again, many thanks for engaging with my article, and for your helpful comments.