Friday, July 1, 2016

Is American Christianity in Trouble?

This isn’t going to be a book review, but I do want to start off by discussing an interesting one I have been reading lately. Written by Bradley R.E. Wright, Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…And Other Lies You’ve Been Told is an interesting read. I’ll admit, it’s been a bit of a slog for me. I’m no sociologist or statistician, so I have had to do some rereading to grasp a few points. But it has been worth the effort.

This book looks at the religious make-up of the United States by reviewing a number of statistical studies on statements of faith, religious service attendance, and religious activity, among other things. Sociologists have been curious about these topics since the beginnings of their discipline. Of course, that was only about 150 years ago, so the data don’t go back very far. However, thanks to census and other records, it is possible to paint at least a broad picture of religion in America throughout its history. It becomes clearer following the 1940’s, and today’s results are considered very reliable. No statistics are perfect, of course, but we have something we can work with.

The Statistical Health of American Faith

Reviewing many of these benchmarks, Wright comes to the conclusion that the health of Christianity in the United States is mostly good, and that it has a promising future. Now, perhaps that surprises you. I know it surprised me when I first heard another researcher, Ed Stetzer, discussing it. But according to the best available data, it is true.

That cuts against what we hear so often. It seems every year another study comes out and spells doom for the Church, with shrinking attendance numbers and signs of less concern for faithful living. Some of that is true, but the problem is in the way they are reported. The greatest example has to do with the “nones,” people who say they have no religious affiliation when surveyed. In the 1970’s, they made up about 7% of the population. Now, they represent around 15%. In other words, their numbers doubled.

Just looking at those numbers, it sounds like an existential threat to Christianity. The truth is a bit more complicated, though. For one thing, while the “nones” make up 15% of the population, little more than a tenth of them are atheists. In other words, atheists make up less than 2% of our population, and their number has not really experienced much growth over the years. Most of the “nones” still have some type of belief in God or a higher power. They just don’t consider themselves part of a faith community.

Secondly, there needs to be some consideration of where the “nones” came from. They didn’t just appear one day out of the clear blue sky. They were people who had been going to church, and they decided to stop. Does it seem likely that 8% of the U.S. population had a great crisis of faith that led them to abandon God? Or is it perhaps more reasonable to think they were never really committed, and they used the greater cultural acceptance of a church-less life as a reason to stop doing something they only did for show?

Wright’s book has a lot of points like that. It is largely meant to be encouraging, while also calling out Christian leaders who fear-monger in an effort to gain support and notoriety. Overall, Christianity is doing well in the U.S., Evangelical Christianity especially so, and our retention of young people is good. We are not on the brink of the faith dying out here.

The Philosophical Strength of American Faith

Most of the reason I want to write about this, though, is to offer balance. I think Wright knows what I’m about to say, and he alludes to it on occasion, but it would be easy to miss. A lot of the time, he seems to be dismissive of other people’s concerns about the future of the Church. His point, though, is that things are not as bad as they sometimes sound. He does not say we have no reason to try to make them better.

I’m here to be more explicit, by offering up a warning that should be viewed as an opportunity rather than a catastrophe. I don’t know very much about statistics, but I know a bit more about the history of philosophy (not to be confused with Hegel’s Philosophy of History). The Church has, at various times and multiple places, been confronted by worldviews that opposed it. This should come as no surprise, given that Jesus Christ Himself predicted it in John 15:18–16:4, 33 before the Church even existed. We carry a message that worldly people do not want to hear, so conflict between our ideas and theirs is natural.

For American Christians, though, it does not feel that way. Unlike most other Western nations, our history has been entirely Christian. That is not to say our government was meant to be a theocracy or that all citizens were at one time believers. Nothing could be further from the truth. But from the beginning, we shared a set of assumptions inspired by the Bible. Most everyone knew that certain things were wrong, certain duties were expected, and that humans were created with certain rights. No one was perfect in observing these things, either, but that is not the point. The point is that they created a common foundation with which people held one another accountable.

There have always been efforts to undermine that foundation, but we feel that they are gaining greater success now than ever before in our past. I believe there is truth to that. Much of Wright’s argument is predicated on the stability of statistics. Short bursts of change, such as in the growing number of “nones,” do not guarantee that the rate of change will be continual. Usually it is not. However, this assumes that things are the same as they were 20, 40, or 200 years ago.

That is not the case. Cultural messages in schools and universities, in government and in media, are far more hostile to Christianity than they have ever been. If, historically, young people who left the faith came back when they were older, it might be because there were no other options. However, the philosophy of our secular culture offers an alternative. It could enable more people to think they do not need the gospel and the rest of the guidance of Scripture. That could, indeed, lead to a greater challenge than we have seen in the past.

But again, that is in the American past, not the Christian one. We need to remind ourselves that there was a time when Christianity was a few hundred people. They just happened to have seen a Man die and then raise Himself back to life, as He had promised to do. With word of that event, they changed a world that didn’t want anything to do with it.

The Responsibility of the Church

That is where we need to find balance. We need to have vigilance without fear, and comfort without complacency. Yes, things are not ideal. The rise of the “nones” is a sign of that. It is not good that they feel leaving church comes with no cost in social capital. And yes, historically, young people have always tended away from their childhood faith until greater responsibilities drew them back. Perhaps that will happen again. Or perhaps the current secular worldview will make it easier for them to stay away. That is more likely than in the past, but it is not inevitable.

Quest Forums exists for this very reason. Christianity in America does not have to die. But it does have to be able to offer something. If all we can say is “I go to church because my father did, and his father before him,” then we certainly are in trouble. That is not an answer to life’s many questions. It is just a tradition, and tradition for its own sake can hardly offer stable footing. Christianity is not about what worked in the past. It is about what is always true. Chief among truths is that all people are sinners in need of a Savior, but there are many others. We have to be able to discuss and show them, in Scripture, in reason, in faith, and in experience. The words of 1 Peter 3:15 are as instructive today as when they were written almost 2000 years ago: “Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” Christianity is not obsolete. But people can only know that if we can tell them why.

The statistics on faith can be interesting. They should not inspire fear or a defeatist attitude. Things are not as bad as they are sometimes made out to be. Nor should they be read through rose-colored glasses. The truth is what it is. Our faith is healthy here, but it could be better. It could also get worse. The only way to grow, rather than losing people, is by knowing the truth and using it to counter the world’s lies. Don’t lose heart, because with willing hearts and the Spirit’s guidance, we can still accomplish great things. Believe that, and get to work.

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