By / Aug 26
By / May 13

A new study from Pew reveals that evangelical Christianity in America isn’t dying quite like some in culture thought or hoped. In fact, given the force of secular headwinds against it, evangelical Christianity might even be considered resurgent. If you’re at all familiar with the Christian narrative, that last line shouldn’t be surprising (Matt. 16:18).

Here are a few relevant snapshots from Christianity Today’s reporting, which offered a fine summary of Pew’s findings in its just-released America’s Changing Religious Landscape study.

“Over the past seven years, evangelicals have lost less than 1 percent of their share of the population, holding steady at about 1 in 4 American adults (25.4% in 2014, vs. 26.3% in 2007) and preserving their status as the nation’s largest religious group.
Evangelical churches also added more than 2 million people to their ranks, up from 59.8 million in 2007 to 62.2 million in 2014.
Pew found a ‘remarkable degree of churn’ in the US religious landscape. But evangelicals are the ‘major exception’ to the national pattern of Christian decline, and the only major Christian group in the survey that has gained more members than it has lost through religious switching.
Over the past seven years, evangelicals lost almost 8.5 percent of adherents and gained almost 10 percent for a net gain of 1.5 percent since 2007.”

Now, to be clear, not everything is rosy for evangelical Christianity. The rise of the religiously unaffiliated—the “Nones” as they’re referred to—is growing substantially faster than evangelical Christianity. Secondly, the slow rate of evangelicalism’s growth can hardly be interpreted as vindicating evangelicalism’s commitment to evangelism. In the battle to evangelize America, secularism appears to be winning hearts and minds.

But there are implications from this study that matter greatly to the future of America’s religious landscape.

First, it’s quite common to hear from former evangelicals now within the Mainline Protestant tradition that if evangelicals, with their persistently conservative theology, would only liberalize on such issues as biblical authority and sexual ethics—they’d find a newfound opportunity for cultural influence and increased opportunity to “reach the next generation.” The problem, however, is that the statistical evidence suggests just the opposite: It’s the liberalizing trends of American life that work to calcify vibrant, growing, and orthodox belief. The report indicates that a nominal, religious middle is simply dropping out altogether. The almost-Christianity of liberal Christianity is proving, in the long run, to not be Christianity at all. Either failing to grow or literally dying out, Mainline liberalism offers little as far as attractional gravitas once it surrenders core doctrinal beliefs to progressivism. If anything is clear from the Pew report, it’s that evangelicals should, once and for all, ignore the captains at the helm of the Mainline Titanic.

Secondly, this report shouldn’t be altogether surprising. Evangelical Christianity’s influence may very well wax and wane in whatever milieu it finds itself in. Christianity is never promised cultural dominance or privilege. Historically, Christianity flourishes in spite of these things. This shouldn’t surprise Christians—our Lord insists we’re going to inherit lot more than just good reputations, after all (Matt. 5:5). An alternate headline from this study might read: “Growing secular culture finds Christianity’s anti-secular claims troubling and conflicting.” Christianity and secularism are not amenable. And the constituency that believes they are (Mainline liberals) doesn’t have evidence to suggest that their hollowed out version of Christianity can survive the vaporizing winds of secularism. A growing secularism may force the church to learn a new cultural adroitness, but it doesn’t guarantee that Christianity will end up in the dustbin of history. The soil of civil religion is hardening, but in that, Christianity is given opportunity to be true to itself.

Third, by way of charting what successful social interaction will require as growing polarities exist between secularists and evangelicals, the future belongs to successful leaders that deliberately seek to understand the views of those who differ from them. This applies to believers and non-believers. For secular fundamentalists and religious fundamentalists, the easy task of caricaturing one’s opponents will have to give way to the harder task of inclusion and respect. The key to navigating a secularizing culture buffeted by robust religious belief is a genuine pluralism that seeks to actually understand and live at peace with one another in the this shared space we call American democracy.

Therefore, civility and pluralism are musts if there’s to be any chance of civic unity in the coming years.

Finally, what the study infers but doesn’t exactly state is that the future of Christian belief in America belongs to those who hold fast to the faith. The pseudo-evangelicals who cry, “I’m an evangelical!” while gutting evangelical doctrine and excising unpopular teachings are the high priests of managed religious decline. The future of Christianity belongs to those who don’t surrender the inconvenient, inexpedient truths of Christianity for the sake of secular pottage.

By / Jul 23

Decline: no one except Oswald Spengler likes to talk about it. Of particular importance today is the decline of church attendance and membership in the United States of America. When statistics came out that showed that the Southern Baptist Convention had experienced a decline in membership after a long plateau, evangelicals across the spectrum wrung their hands at the weakening of America’s largest Protestant denomination while liberal media outlets exhibited no small degree of schadenfreude. On the other hand, there does not seem to be a spike in atheism and even much of a bump in agnosticism. Many claim to talk to God and meditate; the same identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Americans like the idea of God being around, but He is surely not to be found in the church assembled.

There are doubtless myriad reasons for this development, but one particular trend occupies my attention. The narrative is familiar: an evangelical kid hits his late teens or twenties. He gets burned, embarrassed, or frustrated by his religious upbringing. He spurns said upbringing and vociferously condemns the entire institution of the church, perhaps eventually forswearing the label of “Christian” altogether. Pastors, youth ministers, parents, and others respond with three common reasons to justify church attendance.

First, church attendance is beneficial or useful. One gets encouraged, re-energized, taught, counseled, and discipled in a congregational setting. Personal narratives dot arguments for how helpful church membership is: individual experience rules the day in such a debate. Of course, the would-be lapser can offer his own negative experiences on this count. Soon, the conversation devolves into a tit-for-tat of examples and counterexamples.

Second, church attendance is commanded in Scripture. “Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together,” evangelicals will rightly cite from Hebrews. However, there is no “why” or “wherefore” for the verse. This deontological approach sets forth a biblical rule to be obeyed. A Christian must submit his will to God’s because we do whatever God tells us. Of course, Islam promises just as much of a spiritual life. Such a perspective can become burdensome and even give way to legalism. Certainly the Christian life (and, by extension, membership in Christ’s body) means something more than submission.

Third, church attendance is a necessary evil if not a liability. We find this sentiment in the cliché that “following Christ is not a religion but a relationship.” Never mind for right now the fact that all people have a relationship with God; it is just not necessarily a good one. If we think through the logic of that phrase “not a religion but a relationship,” it reinforces an individualistic retreat from the Christian assembly: why engage in organized weekly acts of worship in a corporate setting? Isn’t that a hallmark of religion? Why can’t I have a (good) relationship with God outside the walls of the church? It is at this point that we are faced with a double jeopardy.

For one, preachers and teachers who condemn religion can sometimes perceive a Christian home and family as the breeding ground for lukewarm faith. Without a big conversion experience from a life of lecherous and spectacular sin, one will lack the gratitude and ensuing zeal for salvation. It must be admitted that this may spring from evangelical inexperience. When the Mainline Protestant and Catholic leadership began to fail and fall to revisionism in the 1960s, their flocks fled to the greener pastures of nondenominational evangelicalism in the 1960s (as well as to the Southern Baptist Convention and various charismatic groups). The Generations X and Y evangelicals are the first to be completely raised in the post-Mainline-exodus milieu. Thus, any fallout or challenges regarding the passing on of the baton of faith to the next generation is a relatively new thing for the widespread nondenominational churches across the country.

Evangelical leaders need to be asking some hard questions. Can’t we see the faith derived from a Christian home as a benefit? Don’t we have a responsibility to teach our children in the faith and to introduce them that most wonderful gift, Jesus Christ Himself? On the other hand, if one has to be full-sprung in rationality and volition to be considered a member of Christ’s Body, why should we teach our children to pray? If there is no room for faith in the young at church and thus no union with God for the young, why on earth do we expect Our Father in heaven to heed the prayers of our offspring? Indeed, we have stumbled upon the crisis of catechesis, which afflicts Christians across the world right now. As James K. A. Smith has pointed out, our children will be catechized and will be spiritually formed by a liturgy. The only question is who will be the teacher and what will be the curriculum. Right now, many preachers are overly eager to join the wider culture in condemning the Body of Christ.

These quandaries of passing down faith have been dealt with before (see the history of Israel for just one example). They can be dealt with again. Evangelicals must learn how to steward their heritage. All too often, evangelicals act like the Christian upbringing does not happen or is something to be ashamed of for its lack of testimonial verve. No wonder their young cast off this great blessing with tremendous eagerness. Their Christian experience is consistently threatened to become inauthentic.

The other, more troubling reasoning lies not with faithful evangelicals, but rather those who malign and abandon the flock to seek a religion-less Utopia. While sexual discrepancies get a free pass, young drop-outs are wont to condemn hypocrisy, greed, and social insensitivity in the pews. To summarize a common refrain, they will exclaim, “Those nasty sinners over there! How could anyone fellowship with them? I am leaving, thereby proving my moral excellence.” Of course, there is a double standard here. Nevertheless, one is tempted to ask church-jumpers, “Where else do you expect Pharisees on a Sunday morning? And have you never been a hypocrite yourself? Am I to extend no mercy to you on that account?” Of course, a sarcastic quip will only go so far.

What evacuees fail to realize is that religion is inescapable if faith is to be in the plural. Religio (“to bind [together]”) is what happens when a faith is shared in common, across space and time. You have a group of people together confessing the same essentials. However, if faith cannot be shared, then by all means go home to be your own authority! It will be just you and God; institutions are bad. Collapse into yourself as you become your own prophet, priest, and king. You’ll have no church, no Christianity, and eventually a very different God. God will be small and His work in your life will resemble that of a doting or perhaps ambivalent fairy godmother.

What can be said in response to this? After all, we cannot really complain about church decline if young evangelicals are taking us at our own word. How should we be talking about church attendance and membership?

There remains a most potent argument for rejecting the abandonment of Christ’s body. It is to reaffirm that the Church was, is, and will be absolutely essential to the Christian life, a non-optional part of its nature. How could we have become Christians without the Church? She is necessary to enter the faith. We would never had heard of the faith if someone had not told us about it; we would not have read about Christ if some member of the flock did not write a book or article about Him. We cannot go call out the name of the Trinity, throw ourselves into a swimming pool, and call that baptism. We cannot go home, pray over certain victuals, and call that Communion. All of this requires an “other”: one or (more likely) several other Christians.

Going home with your Bible (and blogs) and calling that the Christian life is an utter farce. It is totally foreign to the faith as recounted in history; the very fathers who hammered out what Christianity means in the councils and creeds had a completely different view of the Church. For them and others, the Body of Christ is much like Noah’s Ark: she is leaky, cramped, and stuffed with filthy cantankerous animals. But she’s the only thing that will float as the world is drowned in the waters of God’s just judgment. Imagine, if you would, a worried fellow in the late antediluvian days who insisted, “I have faith in God, but I won’t go into that boat that Noah made. Noah is a drunk hypocrite while his family is a bunch of homophobic bigots.” By refusing to enter, that poor doomed fool would prove he had no faith at all.

We can’t have our cake and eat it, too. We have to make rhetorical commitments that are consistent. How we think, preach, pray, and talk about the Church is of great importance. If the church is spoken of as an ornamentation, add-on, or obstacle to what it means to be a Christian, then we shouldn’t be surprised that the young throw it off as a useless bauble in a streamlined age. However, if the Church be essential and the very barque of salvation as being one with Christ, she shouldn’t be the scapegoat for spiritual grievances. We must choose wisely, for both Babel and Jerusalem are watching.

By / Mar 5

To be faithful to God, Christians should take care not to invest too much hope in politics. But we must be good stewards of the power and influence we have. This is the natural consequence of two biblical beliefs. First, God is sovereign over the universe and Christians will be in heaven one day no matter what happens on earth. Second, each person is responsible to God for his own stewardship of responsibilities and opportunities. Though there will be some overlap, each Christian is called to be faithful differently because each has his own opportunities, vocation, and callings.

For the most part, I think Christians get into trouble doubting that first statement. As fallen beings, we far too often set our minds on the here and now, rather than on eternity. Waiting until heaven to see results is hard, maybe more so in our present age of instant gratification.

For two millennia Christians have struggled to stay on mission, at times allowing the siren calls of power and relevance in this world to draw us off course. This is perhaps most acute for those of us called to be faithful in politics and culture. The very same malady afflicted the disciples, who first expected the Messiah to bring reform and a worldly kingdom. At times they were mainly interested in an armed revolt against Rome. As they soon learned and proclaimed clearly in Scripture, Jesus had not come to rule a worldly kingdom, reform the Roman Empire, or bring Judea back to its glory years. His agenda was one of changing men by supernatural means, not bending wills to outward conformity by law or culture.

Even after it became clear that Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36), the church continued to struggle with mission creep. Within a century it became clear that the Christian church would not form a nation-state and instead became a minority religion throughout the Roman Empire. With rapid demographic growth, successful evangelism, and converts in high positions, the church saw growth and, eventually, worldly standing. Over time, Christianity became intertwined with the state in a way that would last for more than a millennium.

Fast forwarding to our time and our nation, Christianity has always been a dominant cultural force. The Founders were clearly not all orthodox believers, but they largely respected the moral teachings of the Bible. During times of revival, the influence of the church increased. In our own recent history, there seemed to be a peak of religious interest in the 1950s, when three-quarters said religion was “very important” in their lives.

For a complex set of reasons outside the scope of this piece, the influence of the church on the larger culture and the health of the visible church itself weakened considerably. Today self-reported church attendance is down twenty percent since the 1950s, and the portion saying religion is very important is down to 55 percent. Within living memory the influence of Christianity has dropped significantly. The mainline churches have been a spent force for decades.

Perhaps in part because of the one-time “success” of nominal Christianity—the line between the faithful and the nominal was blurred—theological precision and fervor subsided. Today’s ascendant and sometimes dominant religion—inside the professing church and in society at large—is what sociologist Christian Smith calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It is a “how-is-this-going-to-help-me-now” approach to religion devoid of the gospel. Such thinking, Smith found, is particularly prevalent among those under thirty, a trend that is true also in the church. When worldly success is more esteemed, valued, and sought, is it surprising that true Christianity (“Pick up your cross and follow me,” Matthew 16:24) morphs into Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?

Such a shallow gospel, of course, is no help to those undergoing trials and hardly spurs the kind of devotion necessary when you are encountering the headwinds of mainstream culture to “get with the program” of the sexual revolution. The theologically rotten fruit of worldly thinking are all around us: To take just two issues of relevant political importance today, we have abortion on demand, same-sex marriage in more than a dozen states, and a majority of the Supreme Court cannot even bring itself to engage arguments for the traditional definition of marriage, instead maintaining that proponents of marriage are animated by animus.

The rapid cultural collapse in many areas of the United States is evident: A photographer who did not want to photograph a lesbian commitment ceremony was reprimanded by the New Mexico Human Rights Commission. Laws concerning sexual orientation and gender identity in many locales will make it increasingly difficult for some employers to operate according to biblical views of sexuality.

So how should believers respond?

Our political engagement must not hinder our desire and ability as the church and as individuals to preach the gospel and, reliant on God, to make disciples. That is also true for those of us working vocationally in politics and culture. While we need not strain our theology to be popular—that often means ungodly accommodation—we do need to be careful not to put ourselves as an obstacle to someone to hear about Christ. God saves political liberals, moderates and conservatives alike. We should worry a lot less whether about our candidate wins the next election and a lot more about whether our friends, family and neighbors have heard the good news and see us living that out in our lives. After all, to paraphrase Jesus, what would it profit us to gain the whole world “politically” but lose souls “theologically”?

Redoubling our efforts to organize and “take back America” is distinctly the wrong approach. For one thing, the Millennial generation has little interest in an infusion of Christian political activism bordering on sloganeering, ensuring that such a strategy would not work even if it was the best course.

Christians who take the Bible seriously should seek faithfulness in all spheres. The most direct threat to the church is not political, but theological, and always will be. Jesus and the apostles warned us repeatedly to watch out for false teaching. Paul in 2 Timothy warned us, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” Instead of shaping our theology and practice to make us popular, we must fear God rather than men. Jesus told us to “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” A local church’s weekly preaching should reflect God’s Word, holding forth the gospel and teaching the congregation to be more like Christ. That will transform culture more than prodding the congregation to battle in the culture. And more importantly, God uses the preaching of His Word to save souls.

People are not saved by common grace or political arguments—they are saved by redeeming grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And that gift of faith comes by hearing not a political speech but by hearing God’s own revealed Word about a forgiving God who sent His Son Jesus Christ to save sinners.

That said, we should not stop fighting for biblical principles about public issues, thinking the cause is not worthwhile (faithfulness is always worthwhile) or being deluded that the world will suddenly love us if we stop talking about controversial political and cultural issues. Preaching the gospel faithfully may well offend, after all.

Some advocate for a “culture war truce” in our politics. Such a truce would amount to little more than capitulation. (As a political and practical matter, Republicans would be imprudent to set aside social issues. Traditional marriage outperformed the Republican presidential ticket in states where it was on the ballot in 2012.) The Bible addresses marriage and the unborn, to take two issues mentioned earlier. Not speaking to those issues in the larger culture would be poor stewardship. In as many ways as possible, believers should strive to be agents of common grace for all as we seek to be instruments of redeeming grace.

To be faithful, a Christian who is running for political office or toiling in the fields of the culture wars must be ready to give a defense of his views, using both scriptural reasons and arguments accessible to non-believers. When the Bible speaks on something, we should not shy away from defending that proposition. We can pray that God’s grace—common and redeeming—will be at work in the people hearing our arguments. And if our arguments do not prevail, we can take comfort that we were faithful in proclaiming the truth, and remember that our home is in heaven.

Certainly there will be plenty of opportunities for our own repentance and faith—privately and publicly—as we seek to be faithful in a realm in which so many invest so much meaning and it is easy to offend others. As Christians, we must approach this from the right perspective. Scripture is exceedingly clear on some cultural and political issues, and faithful expositional preaching will address them in due course and in context of all God’s teaching. We must consider our political efforts as a test of faithfulness on these issues and think, act, and speak charitably on those issues where Christians can disagree. The church’s primary mission is to make disciples. That means overall we ought to worry a little less about this world, and a lot more about the next.

By / Sep 26

Russell D. Moore of the ERLC and Paige Patterson of SWBTS discuss regenerate church membership and how the Church today compares to the one in Acts.