Americans’ identification with the Christian faith is in decline. In their new book, “The Great Dechurching,” Jim Davis and Michael Graham detail how about “40 million adult Americans who used to go to church … don’t go anymore.”
This is not a new phenomenon. Christians have always wrestled with remaining faithful. For example, the writer of Hebrews warns, “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12).
Many of those who have left their previously professed faith might well have been merely “religious,” never having been born a second time (see John 3:1-18) and active in their local churches due to family tradition, a desire to “do good,” or things not grounded in a robust theology. Additionally, the seven “old line” Protestant churches are shrinking by the day — and for good reason. Abandoning historic Christian teaching is not a matter of being “relevant” in a changing culture. It is the creation of an alternative religion cloaked in the language and rites of a discarded faith.
There are other reasons. Some believers have been so passionate about the cultural crisis we are in that they have prioritized political victory over eternal values. We decry ends justifying means, but in recent years some of us have been more concerned with electoral outcomes than biblical faithfulness. As a result, our professed allegiance to scriptural virtues has been compromised by our desperation to save our nation. I plead guilty to falling prey to this mindset more than I would like to admit. So, for many (especially younger) Christians, disillusionment has been the result of our putting winning over character: we decried Bill Clinton’s sordidness but have made excuses when “our guys” — those who pledge allegiance to the things we cherish — match Clinton’s manifest crudeness.
Then there’s the cost of being a disciple. No one wants to be misrepresented, castigated, or disliked. Yet to affirm something as simple as marriage as the union of a man and a woman can be personally and professionally costly. Like the seed that fell on rocky ground, some self-proclaimed Christians wilt under the heat of aspersion, however unjustified.
With this, we’re sometimes almost frantic in our efforts to be “relevant” (see above). While liberal churches are eager to be seen as “progressive,” some evangelical churches believe that snazzy sneakers and smoke machines are more needed than sound exposition of the Word of God. While rock concert-like glitz entertains, substituting it for true worship and teaching is like drinking a soft drink while eating popcorn: temporarily filling and enjoyable but ultimately empty.
Finally, there’s our failure to adequately teach our youth not only the great truths of “the faith once delivered” to us (Jude 3) but why these truths are life-giving if properly understood and applied. For example, most evangelical young people understand they should remain sexually abstinent until marriage, but asking them why discloses a good bit of uncertainty. I know; I teach young people from strong Christian homes. As often as not, they cannot articulate why their expressed convictions have a grounding in Scripture, common sense, and so forth. The bland acceptance of what one has been taught won’t last in the aggressive godlessness of our time.
Similarly, something as central to Christianity as the atonement frequently is understood at only a basic level. Yes, our teens and 20-somethings know Jesus died for their sins — but what does that phrase mean? What exactly happened on the cross? Too many are bereft of the ability to offer a clear explanation.
Now for the good news: The gospel of Jesus Christ is always relevant. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” Paul wrote his young disciple Timothy (I Timothy 1:16). If that’s true, then the field is wide open — because the world is still full of sinners who need saving! Additionally, many churches and individual believers are doing a lot of things right, living faithfully, sharing the gospel, befriending the lost and hurting, giving and serving generously, raising their kids to love Jesus — a tough task in our time — and generally being models, even if imperfect, of what it means to know God.
We have our work cut out for us. America is a darkening place. But regardless of what might happen to the nation we love, we cannot avoid the unshakeable truth that God’s plan for all humanity is unstoppable. And nothing is ever hopeless — not, at least, while “Christ our hope” (I Timothy 1:1) remains Who He is. And since He is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), we have great reason to trust that He will continue to bring to Himself “those who are being saved” (Acts 2:47).
Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Lecturer in Regent University’s Honors College.
Photo: The Pioneer Woman
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