The Strange Persistence of the Work Marriage

It started out as a fairly typical office friendship: You ate lunch together and joked around during breaks. Maybe you bonded over a shared affinity for escape rooms (or board games or birding or some other slightly weird hobby). Over time, you became fluent in the nuances of each other’s workplace beefs. By now, you vent to each other so regularly that the routine frustrations of professional life have spawned a carousel of inside jokes that leavens the day-to-day. You chat about your lives outside work too. But a lot of times, you don’t have to talk at all; if you need to be rescued from a conversation with an overbearing co-worker, a pointed glance will do. You aren’t Jim and Pam, because there isn’t anything romantic between you, but you can kind of see why people might suspect there is.

The term for this type of collegial relationship—work wife or work husband—has become a feature of American offices. The meaning can be a bit slippery, but in 2015, the communications researchers M. Chad McBride and Karla Mason Bergen defined a “work spouse” relationship as “a special, platonic friendship with a work colleague characterized by a close emotional bond, high levels of disclosure and support, and mutual trust, honesty, loyalty, and respect.” Other scholars have argued that the connection actually sits somewhere between friendship and romance. Although articulating exactly what makes work spouses unique can be hard, individuals who have them insist that they are singular, Marilyn Whitman, a professor at the University of Alabama’s business school who studies the phenomenon, told me. But the language people use to describe this bond is even trickier to explain than the nature of the relationship: Why would two people who aren’t married or even interested in dating call each other “husband” and “wife”?

[Read: Corporate buzzwords are how workers pretend to be adults]

The term made a little more sense in its original form. The phrase office wife seems to have been coined in the second half of the 19th century, when the former U.K. Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone used it to describe the oneness of mind and uncalculating commitment shared by a minister and his (male) secretary. In later decades, the expression became a means of referring to secretaries more generally—that is, to typically female assistants who handled their boss’s tedious affairs at work as his wife did at home. At times, it gestured toward the potential for romance, as in Faith Baldwin’s 1929 novel The Office Wife, in which a wife, a husband, and a secretary are entangled in a web of infidelity. But eventually, this trope fell out of favor; secretaries distanced themselves from the role of their boss’s caregiver, and the influential feminist scholar Rosabeth Moss Kanter criticized the gendered divisions of labor and power imbalances that work marriages created.

But work spouses didn’t so much disappear as evolve. By the late 1980s, in step with changing attitudes toward marriage, the dynamic had started to morph into something more egalitarian. As David Owen, a former contributing editor at The Atlantic, described in a 1987 essay, the new office marriage did not have to be a hierarchical and questionably romantic relationship between a boss and a secretary; it could be a platonic bond between a male and a female peer. The appeal, to Owen, lay as much in what the other person didn’t know about you as what they did: The two of you could share secrets about your real partners, but because your work wife didn’t know about your habit of leaving dirty dishes in the sink, she wouldn’t nag you about it. It was a cross-sex relationship that benefited from professional boundaries, offering some of the emotional intimacy of marriage without the trouble of sharing a household.

Today, your work spouse doesn’t need to be someone of the opposite gender, though McBride and Bergen found that these relationships still tend to occur with someone of the gender you are attracted to. You don’t have to have a real spouse to have a work spouse, though a lot of work spouses do. The office marriage has shed many of the stereotypes that once defined it, but the term itself has strangely persisted.

The impulse to assign some sort of name to a relationship like this makes sense. Labels such as “sister” and “colleague” give people both inside and outside a bond a framework for understanding it. Less traditional pairs, such as work spouses, “have to work even harder to justify and explain to other people who they are and who they are to each other,” Aimee Miller-Ott, a communication professor at Illinois State University, told me. Familial terms are common labels to choose—they’re universally understood and offer a “handy” set of metaphors, the anthropologist Janet Carsten explains. Usually, however, when people reach for kinship vocabulary to describe nontraditional relationships, they select blood relations, Dwight Read, an emeritus professor of anthropology at UCLA, told me. With the exception of some straight women calling their best friend “wifey,” using husband or wife is virtually unheard of—certainly within cross-sex friendships. None of the researchers I spoke with could think of another example.

[Read: The widespread suspicion of opposite-sex friendships]

This curious usage might simply be an artifact of the romance-novel “office wife” trope, Whitman suggested. But the marital language also makes some intuitive sense. Work marriages involve a type of compatibility, lastingness, and exclusivity that also tends to characterize real marriages. Of course, a lot of these traits are true of good friendships too. But when people hear the word friend, they don’t necessarily imagine this intensity—the word has been diluted in the age of Facebook, referring to any number of loose acquaintances. This is certainly true at work, where chumminess can raise eyebrows and friendliness itself is kept in check for the sake of professionalism. Against this backdrop, real friendship stands out. Add in the age-old misgivings about close ties between men and women, and the extended proximity that working together necessitates, and it’s unsurprising that people in a professional setting might assume that a tight bond is actually a disguise for the beginnings of a romance. Because of this, some avoid using the term work spouse publicly. For others, Miller-Ott suspects that combining the word work with wife or husband may be an expedient, if counterintuitive, way of addressing such suspicions: Yes, we’re very close. No, we’re not dating. Using a phrase that implies monogamy may help explain the relationship by affirming that it is atypical—that these two people have mutually decided to relax the rules of professionalism with each other but not with anyone else.

Employing the term in this way only sort of works, because although wife and husband reliably connote intimacy and singularity, they also imply sex and romance. Indeed, Carsten, the anthropologist, was somewhat amused that spousal language might be used to defuse rumors that two people are dating. One cannot borrow some implications of a word and leave the rest—and people seem to be aware of this. In Miller-Ott’s research, many of the people she spoke with called each other “husband” and “wife” only when they were alone. Others with close work friendships refused to use the label at all, Whitman and Mandeville found, fearing that their real partner might object.

But for some people, the slightly illicit connotations of the work-marriage terminology may be part of its draw. Perhaps that’s one reason so many colleagues who wouldn’t call each other “husband” or “wife” publicly continue to do so privately: Referring to someone by a title that skirts the boundaries of propriety may be a way to bond with them. But ultimately, work spouse breaks down for the very reason it works: It co-opts the exclusivity of a word intended to describe a very different relationship.

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The High Tension and Pure Camp of Jurassic Park

This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here.

Good morning, and welcome back to The Daily’s Sunday culture edition, in which one Atlantic writer reveals what’s keeping them entertained.

Today’s special guest is the Atlantic deputy editor Jane Yong Kim, who oversees our Culture, Family, and Books sections. She’s fond of Laura Dern’s dino-dodging fashion in Jurassic Park, the late English environmentalist Roger Deakin’s paean to swimming outdoors, and the “wildly imaginative” video art of Wong Ping.

But first, here are three Sunday reads from The Atlantic:

The Culture Survey

The last museum or gallery show that I loved: The last art shows I remember feeling really impressed by were side-by-side Wong Ping exhibits from 2021, one at the New Museum, and the other at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. A self-taught animator based in Hong Kong, Wong makes wildly imaginative videos: colorful landscapes that use surrealism to convey oddball, engrossing, sometimes disturbing stories about the loneliness and disappointments of modern life. (One video, An Emo Nose, depicts a man who discovers his nose is sensitive to “negative energy”; in an attempt to keep it happy, he dispenses with polarizing activities such as talking politics and focuses on cheerier ones such as eating ice cream and having sex.) The reward of Wong’s work is the juxtaposition of cartoonish early-internet aesthetics with intricate, gripping themes.

Best novel I’ve recently read, and the best work of nonfiction: I just finished, and loved, Lisa Hsiao Chen’s debut novel, Activities of Daily Living. It’s a striking meditation on time and the things we fill our lives with—the tug-of-war between jobs and passion projects, productivity and curiosity, minutes spent and minutes gained. A woman named Alice is preoccupied, in her off-work hours, with Tehching Hsieh, the brilliant performance artist known for his lengthy “endurance” pieces in the 1980s. Hsieh’s explorations of time were psychologically and physically demanding: In one, he tied himself to another artist for a year with a piece of rope; in another, he punched a time card every hour for a year; in yet another, he spent a year inside a cage. Alice’s research into Hsieh begins seeping into aspects of her daily existence—interactions with her family, her movements through the city. The novel is a beautiful, subtle read; it tenderly builds an argument for seeing our lives more clearly.

On the nonfiction front, I’ve been making my way through Waterlog, a stunning book by the environmentalist Roger Deakin that takes readers on a swimming journey through the lakes, rivers, and tarns of Britain. Deakin, who died in 2006, was a tremendous writer, able to render his adventures with immediacy, clarity, and wit. Following along with him as he goes in search of little-known waterways and old open-air swimming pools is a real delight. [Related: Swimming in the wild will change you.]

A photo from the Wong Ping exhibition at the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York City
“The reward of Wong’s work is the juxtaposition of cartoonish early-internet aesthetics with intricate, gripping themes,” says Jane. Above: A photo from the Wong Ping exhibition at New York’s Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (Pierre Le Hors)

My favorite blockbuster and favorite art movie: I’ll answer this one with movie theaters in mind.

Jurassic Park is one of the first true blockbusters I remember seeing in a theater, and that place of honor colors my relationship with it. The blend of high tension and pure camp—the rampant hubris, the captive goat, the raptors on the hunt (those tapping claws!), Laura Dern’s knotted shirt and khaki shorts—is pitch perfect. And the experience of watching it in a row filled with other terrified kids is an indelible memory.

The art-house version of this memory, for me, is watching Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Decalogue. It’s actually a series of one-hour films originally made for Polish television. Each film takes loose inspiration from one of the Ten Commandments, following characters who all live in the same neighborhood in 1980s Warsaw as they deal with the moral messiness of their lives. I first saw The Decalogue in high school, at an indie theater close to home that happened to be playing it, and was transfixed by its moody, understated profundity. Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy is arguably his better-known series, but this earlier group of films about human frailty has always been my favorite. [Related: I just wanted to watch people get eaten by dinosaurs.]

Something I recently rewatched, reread, or otherwise revisited: I recently reread No Longer Human, a cult novel by the Japanese writer Osamu Dazai. It’s just as arresting as I remember it being when I first read it more than 15 years ago. Dazai, who died by suicide in 1948, at 38, wrote discerningly, sometimes scathingly, about disenchantment. His young male protagonist is alienated from society, spending much of his time noticing all of the ways in which the world around him seems fake or strange or stressful. Dazai’s prose style is spare, and his observations about life in 1930s Japan are startlingly acidic. [Related: Of Women: A story]

A painting, sculpture, or other piece of visual art that I cherish: The Visitors, by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, charmed me when I first saw it and has stuck with me since. The concept is deceptively simple: Across nine screens, viewers see footage of the artist and a bunch of his musician friends performing together from different rooms in a big, run-down house in upstate New York. Kjartansson himself plays the guitar from inside a bathtub filled with soapy water; other people, perched on beds or by windows, sing and play cellos, accordions, the piano.

Kjartansson’s 2012 work, which is currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, hit a nerve during the pandemic, for obvious reasons. The solitude of the performers is noticeable; the videos draw attention to the visual stillness in each scene. In turn, the collective sound the performers produce—separately but in unison—is a powerful reminder of music’s communal potential and the new ways we’re always learning to be together. It’s an artwork to spend time with in person, one that rewards slowing down and lingering.

Read past editions of the Culture Survey with Clint Smith, John Hendrickson, Gal Beckerman, Kate Lindsay, Xochitl Gonzalez, Spencer Kornhaber, Jenisha Watts, David French, Shirley Li, David Sims, Lenika Cruz, Jordan Calhoun, Hannah Giorgis, and Sophie Gilbert.

The Week Ahead
  1. The 65th Annual Grammy Awards (broadcasts live on CBS tonight)
  2. Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop, a sweeping study of human creativity by the Harvard professor Martin Puchner (hits bookstores Tuesday)
  3. Magic Mike’s Last Dance, the third and final installment of the director Steven Soderbergh’s male-stripper series starring Channing Tatum (in theaters Friday)

Photo of the band Blondie
(Gie Knaeps / Getty)

The Band That Best Captures the Sound of the ’70s

By Kevin Dettmar

No decade is dominated by a single genre of popular music, but the 1970s was arguably more motley than most. What is the sound of the ’70s? Is it … folk rock? (Neil Young’s Harvest turned 50 last year.) Progressive rock? (Prog’s nadir, Yes’s Tales From Topographic Oceans, was released in 1973 and promptly crashed under its own weight.) How about disco? Punk? Post-punk? New wave? Reggae? Rap? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. And what do we do with Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell, one of the 10 best-selling albums of the decade? Is bombast a genre?

But if you were to drill down through the decade and pull up a core sample of ’70s pop, it would come up Blondie—and would look, in fact, very much like the band’s eight-disc box set, Against the Odds: 1974–1982, which is nominated for the Best Historical Album Award at this weekend’s Grammys. As the academic and artist Kembrew McLeod has written, Blondie was a mediator between the experimental music and art scene of downtown New York City and the larger pop audience. But more fundamentally, I’d argue, the group was also a conduit and popularizer of a wide variety of new rock and pop sounds.

Read the full article.

More in Culture

Catch Up on The Atlantic

Photo Album
The first run of the women’s doubles luge at Thuringen Ice Arena in Oberhof, Germany, on January 28, 2023.
(Matthias Rietschel / Reuters)

Check out snaps from a figure-skating championship in Finland, a rugby tournament in Afghanistan, the Magh Mela festival in India, and more in our photos of the week.

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In Flight


“Engage in an activity,”
one said.

Then one said,
“Believe in your feelings.”

It would be easy to believe
our bodies

were being operated

like drones
receiving instructions,

no doubt coded,
on the fly.


It was possible to feel
you had been saved
by paisleys

then by natural fabrics
in muted shades.

Both promised new lives.

Once I was saved
from monotony

and hate

by a square of sun

on the overhead compartment

tinged faint yellow
and lime.

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Paramore Is Miles Beyond the Emo Revival

The pop-cultural vibes of the past few years have been confused and chaotic, but one story line is clear: the mainstream return of emo, music blending punkish vigor with the vulnerability of a meeting group. Young artists such as Olivia Rodrigo and Willow Smith have injected this sound into the Billboard Hot 100—a feat previously, and perhaps most excellently, accomplished during the Obama administration by the Nashville trio Paramore.

Paramore has itself been central in this recent revival. Rodrigo’s 2021 smash “Good 4 U” sounded so similar to the band’s 2007 hit, “Misery Business,” that Paramore’s singer and ex-guitarist were given writing credit. In 2022, Billie Eilish brought out that singer, Hayley Williams, to perform at Coachella. That same year, Paramore headlined a Las Vegas festival that was stacked with acts that defined the emo burst of the early 2000s. Williams even recently hosted a podcast series called Everything Is Emo.

But when I asked Paramore’s members last month about the comeback of the E-word, their response was hardly triumphal. Over Zoom, Williams flashed a blank stare of feigned (or real?) boredom, then broke into a laugh. The guitarist, Taylor York, spoke diplomatically: “For some people, that’s a really meaningful phrase. We’ve realized there’s no use in fighting it.” Zac Farro, the drummer, said that the word emo made him feel like a high-school goth kid who started playing football.

As Farro’s comparison would imply, the trio has undergone a makeover. Paramore’s 2013 self-titled album was a masterful pop-rock reset, and on 2017’s After Laughter, the band experimented with shiny, happy synthesizers. What’s impressive about the post-emo phase of Paramore’s career is not just that it has generated hits, including the gospel-infused “Ain’t It Fun,” the gushingly romantic “Still Into You,” and the groovy “Hard Times.” It’s that the band has maintained its credibility among fans and critics, becoming more respected than ever. What unites its sonic explorations is what made the band important all along: a raw nerve of, well, emotion.

Paramore’s first album in six years, the tense and complex This Is Why, feels a bit like something the High Fidelity record clerks might love. The primary influence is history’s brainiest guitar music: the mysterious soundscapes of Can, the deconstructed partying of Talking Heads, the anxious reveries of Radiohead. With its catchy rhythm and exasperated lyrics, the lead single, “This Is Why”—which recently hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart—encapsulates the band’s new sound. “I love watching funk find its way into weird alternative music,” Williams said.

The twitchy mood suits Williams’s lyrics about the frustrations of living in the COVID-19 era. The band had already been on a hiatus from touring and recording when various recent sociopolitical jolts—the virus, the racial-justice protests of 2020, the January 6 insurrection—occurred. The past few years felt like “being hit with reality so hard,” Williams said. The band “got away, throughout our 20s, not having to be super engaged. We thought, Obama is the president now. Look at all this progress that’s happening … To be home and have to face the way things have always been in our country, it’s just a totally different life.”

Rather than preach, the new album approaches politics from a personal, and self-lacerating, perspective. “The News” captures the agony of doomscrolling, with Williams shouting “I worry and I give money and I feel useless behind this computer!” Another track, “Big Man, Little Dignity,” mocks a toxic dude who, many listeners will theorize, could be Donald Trump (Williams stipulated he’s “just a poster child” for the phenomenon she’s describing). But the lyrics highlight Williams’s own fascination with the pighead: “I memorized all your lines / I can’t look away. You’re like a movie I love to hate.” Featuring classy woodwinds and an aching melody, the track is a love ballad as twisted as anything in Paramore’s catalog.

Indeed, the album is partly a document of emotional stasis: These onetime teenage sensations, now in their mid-30s, haven’t lost the angst that fueled—and was inflamed by—their early success. “Thought I’d simmer down as I’d get older / Can’t shake the devil on my shoulder,” Williams sings on the standout “You First,” a rumbling blast of what she jokingly calls “motorcycle daddy” rock. Many years of “stress, or survival, or just chaos in general,” Williams said, gave her a kind of post-traumatic paranoia. Even when her life is stable and pleasant, she said, “it’s hard to be like Oh, things are okay, we’re safe here … and not wait for the piano to fall on your head, like [in] Looney Tunes.” Writing songs about struggling for chillness is a way to “metabolize lessons,” she said. “You know, words are just fuckin’ spells.”

Age has, at least, given Paramore some perspective about its place in the culture. In 2018, the band said it was retiring “Misery Business” because its lyrics, about the romantic rivalry Williams had with another girl while in high school, were misogynistic. Yet the song’s power seemed to only grow, as seen in Rodrigo’s 2021 interpolation. Paramore recently decided to return “Misery Business” to its concert set list. Now “that song is solely about giving [something] to fans,” Williams said. “If people, at this point, think that there’s truth to a 17-year-old’s diary about being mad at a girl because of a love interest that was mutual, then they’re missing the point of what our career has really been about.”

What has the band’s career been about, then? One answer lies in the ever-changing sound of the music. I told the band that This Is Why’s dance-punk aesthetic brought me back to my own teenage years in the mid-2000s as an “indie kid,” a category of listener containing members who looked down on the “emo kids.” Back then, Williams said, the trio didn’t respect the separation between scenes: “We listened to screamo things, and then [would] be really into The Rapture or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.” But in media interviews, York pointed out, the band did sometimes keep quiet about its passions—he thought back to obsessing over the Swedish band Loney, Dear—for fear of being seen as “snobby” in the emo world.

In retrospect, the band’s eclecticism always helped it stand out. (Recall that “Misery Business” starts with, of all things, a snippet of mariachi music.) And now, Farro said, the band is amused by pop culture catching up to “the old version of us” while “we’re still reinventing the new versions of ourselves.” But maybe Paramore’s adventurousness isn’t all that different from the impulse driving young artists to try out blaring guitars and ragged vocals. “It is cool today that the newer generations are understanding there’s no point in having to pledge allegiance to one thing,” York said. “You can be honest about what you like without fear of judgment. That’s very nice to feel.”

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American Christianity Is Due for a Revival

Upon joining the Presbyterian ministry, in the mid-1970s, I served in a town outside Richmond, Virginia. New church buildings were going up constantly. When I arrived in Manhattan in the late ’80s, however, I saw a startling sight. There on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 20th Street was a beautiful Gothic Revival brownstone built in 1844 that had once been the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion. Now it was the Limelight, an epicenter of the downtown club scene. Thousands of people a night showed up for drugs and sex and the possibility of close encounters with the famous of the cultural avant garde. It was a vivid symbol of a culture that had rejected Christianity.

I began to notice “repurposed” church buildings all over the city. They were now condominiums, gyms, art galleries, coffee shops, pubs, and clubs, a trend that continued as my time in the city went on. In 2014 the New York Archdiocese of the Catholic Church announced that it was closing dozens of empty church buildings, and hundreds of other Protestant congregations faced dwindling membership and were unable to maintain their church homes.

[From the October 1942 issue: Will the Christian Church survive?]

In moving to New York City, I had entered a different world than the one I’d known in Virginia. Here society was secularizing; religion in general and Christianity in particular were in sharp decline. In 1989 my family and I started Redeemer, a new church in Manhattan. We faced cultural attitudes toward Christianity that ran from deep indifference to mockery to shouting-out-loud hostility. Meanwhile, in the middle of the country, churches continued to multiply and some grew to enormous sizes.

What I’ve experienced in New York for decades has now spread across the country. As of 2021, the number of “religious nones”—people who don’t identify with any established religion—in the U.S. had grown to nearly 30 percent of the population while professing Christians constituted 63 percent, down from 75 only a decade ago. The Pew Research Center recently projected the future of this trend: In three of its four scenarios, the percentage of Christians plunges to less than half the population by 2070, and in none does the trend reverse and the Church grow.

Should we expect to see most church buildings in the country repurposed or torn down? Is it inevitable that we will become an ex-Christian society, or could the Church experience a renewal?

Why should anyone besides Christians like me care whether the Church revives? Many Americans would say the fate of the Church is inconsequential to them. Others want very much to see the Church continue to shrink. I believe both attitudes are mistaken.

Many secular social theorists—including ​​Émile Durkheim and Jonathan Haidt, to name two—show how religion makes contributions to society that cannot be readily supplied by other sources. Cultural unity, Durkheim argued in the 1890s, requires a “conscience collective,” a set of shared moral norms that bind us together in a sustained way. These norms are understood to be grounded in something sacred and transcendent, not created by culture. Durkheim recognized the difficulties secular cultures have in cultivating moral beliefs that are strong and unquestionable enough to unite people.

[Faith Hill: They tried to start a church without God. For a while, it worked.]

Consider the evolution of America. In the classic 1985 book Habits of the Heart, the sociologist Robert Bellah and his co-authors showed that the social history of the United States made it the most individualistic culture in the world. American culture elevates the interests of the individual over those of family, community, and nation. Yet for two centuries, Americans’ religious devotion counterbalanced this individualism with denunciations of self-centeredness and calls to love your neighbor. The Church demanded charity and compassion for the needy, it encouraged young people to confine sexual expression to marriage, and it encouraged spouses to stick to their vows. Bellah wrote that American individualism, now largely freed from the counterbalance of religion, is headed toward social fragmentation, economic inequality, family breakdown, and many other dysfunctions.

At a local level, churches provide community and support to people in their congregations who lack strong family ties or other kinds of emotional and social support. They also serve neighbors who do not attend church, particularly in poorer neighborhoods. More than 20 years ago, a University of Pennsylvania study of Philadelphia congregations concluded, “Congregations are vital to the social fabric of Philadelphia and take a major role in caring for the needs of people in the neighborhoods.” The study authors estimated the replacement costs of churches to communities and government would be about $250 million annually, in 2001 dollars—in the Philadelphia metro area alone.

While a revival of the Church would benefit society, that will never happen if the Church thinks of itself as just another social-service agency. Christians seek spiritual renewal of the Church not because they see religion as having social utility, nor because they want to shore up their own institutions. First and foremost, Christianity helps society because its metaphysical claims are true; they are not true because Christianity helps society. When Christians lose sight of this, the Church’s power and durability are lost.

So: Can Christianity grow again? Yes it can. Even the Pew report concedes that “events outside the study’s model” could lead to a revival of Christianity. The events mentioned include “immigration patterns or religious innovations.”

First, as I see it, growth can happen if the Church learns how to speak compellingly to non-Christian people. For a millennium, Western institutions instilled in most citizens Christian beliefs about morality and sex, God and sin, and an afterlife. If non-Christian people entered a church, what they heard was likely not strange or offensive to them. That has changed, but the Church has not yet learned how to communicate to outsiders. As a result, most evangelical churches can reach only the shrinking and aging enclaves of socially conservative people.

But change is possible. In our church in Manhattan, over the years, we learned to reach young secular progressives by adopting the way St. Paul told the good news to nonbelievers in his own day, as described in I Corinthians 1:22–24. He affirmed their best aspirations and longings, yet challenged the inadequate ways in which they were seeking to realize these hopes, and redirected them toward Jesus Christ.  

Second, the Church in the U.S. can grow again if it learns how to unite justice and righteousness. I have heard African American pastors use this terminology to describe the historic ministry of the Black Church. By righteousness they meant that the Church has maintained its traditional beliefs in the authority of the Bible, morality, and sexuality. It calls individuals to be born again through faith in the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. By justice, they meant that the Church has an activist stance against all forms of oppression.

White Protestant churches in America tend to pick one or the other. Liberal mainline Protestantism stresses justice but has largely jettisoned ancient affirmations of the Christian creeds, such as the preexistence and divinity of Jesus, the bodily resurrection, and the authority of the Bible. Evangelicalism stresses righteousness and traditional values, but many congregations are indifferent or even hostile toward work against injustice. However, if the Church at large could combine these two ideas the way the Black Church has, it can begin to rebuild both credibility and relevance, rebutting the charge that it is merely another political power broker. A church that unites justice and righteousness does not fit with the left on abortion and sexual ethics or with the right on race and justice. Instead it is a community that addresses the timeless longings of all people for meaning, hope, love, and salvation.

Third, the Church in the U.S. can grow again if it embraces the global and multiethnic character of Christianity. By 2050 nearly one in five Americans will be foreign-born, and these immigrants will likely come from the more religious parts of the world. Immigrants bring their faith with them. Christianity in East Asia grew from 1.2 percent of the population in 1970 to 10.5 percent of the population in 2020. In turn, Chinese and Korean immigrant communities have started as many as hundreds of churches in New York alone since the late 1970s. Protestantism in Latin America has also grown explosively, particularly through the Pentecostal and evangelical denominations, and these Christians are coming to the U.S. The combination of secular Americans having fewer children and the increasing immigration of religious people leads some observers to argue that secularization is likely to stall in America by 2050.

Established majority-white denominations often welcome “ethnic congregations” in order to grow their numbers, but don’t always open the doors of power and leadership to them. If the fast-growing nonwhite U.S. churches are supported by the Church’s power structure in a non-paternalistic way, and if their leaders are consistently embraced and included at all levels, then the public face of the Church will look very different and much more credible.

Fourth, the Church in the U.S. can grow again if it strikes a dynamic balance between innovation and conservation. A church must conserve historic Christian teaching. If a church simply adopts the beliefs of the culture, it will die, because it has nothing unique to offer. But the Church has always, especially in times when the faith seemed moribund, introduced unexpected innovations.

There was no such thing as monasticism—through which pagan Northern Europe was turned Christian—until there was. There was no Reformation until there was. There was no revival that turned Methodists and Baptists into culturally dominant forces in the midwestern and southeastern United States—until there was. There was no East African Revival, led primarily by African people, that helped turn Africa from a 9 percent Christian continent in 1900 into a 50 percent Christian continent today—until there was. Christianity, like its founder, does not go from strength to strength but from death to resurrection.

Fifth, the Church has in its favor what the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor called “the unquiet frontiers of modernity.” He makes the case that Western culture is deeply conflicted about faith and God. Modern secularism holds that people are only physical entities without souls, that sensations of love and beauty are just neurological-chemical events, that there is no meaning other than what we construct, and that there is no right or wrong outside of what we in our minds choose. Yet most people feel that life is greater than what can be accounted for by naturalistic explanations.

The modern self is exceptionally fragile. While having the freedom to define and validate oneself is superficially liberating, it is also exhausting: You and you alone must create and sustain your identity. This has contributed to unprecedented levels of depression and anxiety and never-satisfied longings for affirmation. The modern self is also fragmenting, as Bellah argued, its individualism leading to the erosion of family, community, and unity of shared values in the nation. The breakdown of neighborhoods and communities means that, more and more, our lives are run by faceless, massive bureaucracies and inhumane technologies aimed solely at economic efficiency.

In stark contrast, Christianity offers grace and covenant. Protestant Christianity teaches its members that salvation is by sheer grace, not by one’s moral efforts or performance. We are adopted as sons and daughters of God, so the cosmic ruler becomes our unconditionally loving heavenly father. And all who unite with God as father are brought into a family of faith, which is based not on contractual relationships, sustained only as long as they benefit both parties’ interests, but covenant relationships, in which all parties pledge to serve one another in sacrificial love.

What may happen is this: Even though the secular world markets its highly individualistic view of the self as objective and universal, the rest of the world sees that it is parochially Western and shot through with nonempirical assumptions about human nature. As time goes on, secular Americans may begin to see that the rest of the world has developed cultures that are modern but nonetheless religious. Young, secular Americans may feel themselves to be in a kind of wasteland and begin to question their unbelief. All of this, Taylor thinks, may cause secularism to “become less plausible over time.”

All of these factors in Christianity’s favor will not necessarily trigger a renewal. For that to happen, three things need to be accomplished by at least a significant sector of the U.S. Church.

The escape from political captivity. American evangelicals have largely responded to the decline of the Church by turning to a political project of regaining power in order to expel secular people from places of cultural influence. But a demographically shrinking Church that identifies heavily with one narrow band of political actors will not be relevant in America. A dynamically growing body of believers making visible sacrifices for the good of their neighbors, on the other hand, may indeed shape the culture, mainly through attraction rather than compulsion.

[From the January/February 2023 issue: The reinvention of the Catholic Church]

A union of “extraordinary prayer.” All religions promote and call for prayer. But historically, during times of fast growth and renewal, Christian movements have been marked by an extraordinary amount of communal prayer. During the early years of the explosive Christian movement in Korea, all-night prayer meetings were common, and they remain so in many parts of the country to this day. During the 18th-century Great Awakening in America, Jonathan Edwards wrote of the “explicit agreement and visible union of God’s people in extraordinary prayer for the revival of religion.” Unions of believers for prayer—both large and small gatherings—have an empowering effect. The renewed growth of the Church in the U.S. will not happen without it.

The distinguishing of the gospel from moralism. In a relativistic culture the Church will have to clearly declare that there are moral absolutes—which will be unpopular, to say the least. It will be called domineering and abusive, but it must not flinch. Yet there is danger on the other side too.

The Christian gospel is that we are fully forgiven by God because of what Christ has done, not because of anything we have done. In traditional Protestant thought, there are two ways to lose one’s grasp on this gospel. The most obvious is “antinomianism,” the belief that I can live any way I wish. But the other way is legalism, the belief that through my moral goodness I can put God in my debt, so he is obligated to bless and favor me. Both reject God as Savior and make you your own savior and Lord.

Langdon Gilkey was a young man in China during World War II and was confined to an Japanese-run internment camp, as he recounts in Shantung Compound. Also imprisoned with him was Eric Liddell, the former Olympic star and missionary to China whose story inspired the film Chariots of Fire. Gilkey, who was not a Christian believer when he was interned, is honest about how the many missionaries in the cramped and difficult conditions of the camp not only behaved in selfish and ungenerous ways, but often added sanctimonious rationales for their behavior. Liddell, however, stood out. He poured himself out for others and was overflowing with humor, kindness, and an unmistakable inner peace. When Liddell died suddenly of a brain tumor, all mourned.

Gilkey concluded that religion and moralism do not produce love. Often they make self-centeredness worse, especially when they lead, as they will, to pride in one’s moral accomplishments. Liddell, however, believed the gospel of sheer grace through Christ. In Liddell, Gilkey had a picture of what we could be if we are at the same moment humbled yet profoundly lifted high by the knowledge of God’s unconditional love through undeserved grace. Gilkey, quoting the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote: “Religion is not the place where the problem of man’s egotism is automatically solved. Rather … the ultimate battle [takes place] between human pride and God’s grace.”

For the first five years after my family and I started Redeemer in Manhattan, we saw seasons of remarkable spiritual revival and growth. Scores of people embraced faith who most would have considered unlikely to be Christian converts. Looking back on that time, the most important reason for this was that we were offering God’s grace as a unique path, different from either religious moralism or secular relativism. And going forward, a renewed Christian Church must focus on this identity-altering, life-changing, community-forming message in the same way.

Is Christianity going away in the U.S.? No. And although no one can predict when it will happen and how rapidly it will happen, there are many reasons to believe that growth will resume.

But it will not happen until the Church applies this famous saying of Jesus to itself: “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant … even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” If the Church aims at loving service to one’s neighbor while clearly speaking the truth, it will grow again and may have cultural influence. But if it aims at influence rather than humble service, it will have neither.

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