According to scripture there have always been private aspects of religion. The first glimpse of religious practice we have in the Bible is the personal relationship between God, Adam and Eve. Clearly there was no organized religion involved there. The same was true of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But with the story of Moses and the wilderness wanderings we see the advent of the Hebrew faith.
As the Israelite faith became more organized and unified the delineation between individual acts and corporate acts became less distinct. It was believed that an individual's sin was cause for the punishment of the whole nation. For example, when Joshua led the wandering Israelites into Palestine, their armies soundly defeated Jericho and God commanded that the spoils of war be devoted to God. However, one of the soldiers stole some gold and hid it in his home. When Israel's army went up against the city of Ai they were severely defeated because, "Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I imposed on them. . . .they have stolen, they have acted deceitfully . . . therefore the Israelites are unable to stand before their enemies" (Joshua 7.11-12a). Indeed, we read in Exodus that the sins of an individual could even bring retribution to their children: "I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of their parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me" (Exodus 20.5b). The institutionalization of religion was complete.
By the time Jesus arrived on the scene the people were ripe for a renewal of private religious faith. Jesus spent much of his ministry condemning the organized religion of his day. The Israelite cult had become rigid, inflexible, and intolerant and Jesus favored a faith that was inclusive and personal. Most of his teachings to his followers were about how to live life in relationship with God and with others. He didn't advocate organized religion, but a movement of the heart.
As Jesus' life and teachings became the core of the newly emerging church, once again religion became organized. Within two hundred years of Jesus' departure the church was organized and was already debating what would be and would not be orthodox. Within four hundred years the church looked a good bit like it does today.
And so it seems the cycle is about to repeat itself. Once again organized religion of the day has generally become rigid, inflexible, and intolerant and fewer people are participating in it. However, to date there has not been a charismatic prophet, teacher, or messiah arise to coalesce a movement as did Moses and Jesus.
But what about the church? Is there any hope for it in this day of privatization of religion? The answer is yes. As I've said before, there is no Christianity without the church because institutions maintain the history, traditions, and norms of the faith. Without the church Christianity would slowly fade from history, much like the Greek and Roman pantheons. But if the church is to make a difference in people's lives it is going to have to keep up with the needs of society.
According to recent polls, people are looking for meaning and significance in their lives. One would think the church could offer this, but often the church "lets" people be significant by letting them hand out worship programs or take up the offerings. Unhappily, neither of these tasks makes one's life significant; instead, the church regularly trivializes people's gifts and talents. Further, the church is guilty of maintaining traditions that are irrelevant to the needs of society. Someone has said that the church sit on chairs designed in the Middle Ages, meets in buildings designed during the Renaissance, reads a Bible translated into the language of the 1600s, sings songs written in the 1800s, and produces presentations written for people used to radio media, not television, and then wonders why people think the church is out-of-date.
And so society is looking for meaning, significance, and God by looking within themselves instead of turning to the church because the church is seen as unconcerned with the real needs of the people. Until that changes, the privatization of faith will continue to flourish and the church will continue to dwindle.