David Gushee recently wrote an article for the Religious News Service as to why Christianity in the United States is in decline. This is my response and why I differ with David and believe that the decline of Christianity in the United States will be good for the Christian faith in the long run. Basically it separates the wheat from the chaff.
“It will take a long time, and certainly the West will remain the dominant civilization well into the next century, but the decline is occurring.”
“I respectfully decline the invitation to join your hallucination.”
If you ignore criticism, you will end in poverty and disgrace;
if you accept correction, you will be honored.
Proverbs 13:18 NLT
This author misses Hitch!
There are a lot of topics this blog likes to tackle with atheism, agnosticism being of very high interest. I find the fields interesting and I write about them because of my own personal faith crisis and exploring atheism for half my thirties while proclaiming myself to be agnostic at the time. Another reason why I like to write about atheism is because I firmly believe that many atheists are misunderstood and mischaracterized. People lose faith for a whole number of reasons. Recently the Religious News Service wrote this fascinating article called, “Why most people leave religion? They just ‘stop believing’” In the next couple of weeks I plan to do a post about that article and write about how some people just stop believing. I don’t want to cram it into this article because it deserves its own space for analysis. I still am working on obtaining de-conversion stories which I hope to feature on a fairly regular basis here as well.
Recently David Gushee wrote an article called “Why is Christianity declining?” which was highlighted in the Religious News Service. As a follow up David Gushee wrote “Seven follow-ups on 10 reasons for Christian decline” which I also want to include here. Today’s post is some thoughts and analysis on the David’ Gushee’s first post from a fairly conservative evangelical Christian. There is much to say and it deserves its a response. Before I go forward David Gushee is on the Board of Directors of Sojourners and today is the Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics and the Director of Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University which is down on Georgia. I believe the main campus of Mercer is at Macon, Georgia. Like some of the other posts I have done I am going to write my comments below in red.
The number of Christians and cultural strength of Christianity are both declining in the United States. This decline is noticeable and is affecting church life, culture, and politics. It is also deeply disturbing to most Christians, including me.
Let me come out and just say that I am going to disagree with David Gushee on this point off the get go. The decline in both the number of Christians in the United States and the cultural strength of Christianity I firmly believe to be a good thing, and here is why I say that. I firmly believe that the Christian culture inside the United States needs to die for a number of reasons. The culture is hurting the Christian faith, and the church. The engagement in the cultural wars have been a huge distraction and a major problem. There is a lot in the Christian church today that is quite toxic and harmful, from the belief of prosperity theology to Neo-Calvinism which is fundamentalism 2.0. The decline and death of prosperity gospel churches and ministries are good for the church and will help it. I am not disturbed by hearing that “Christianity” in the United States is declining, instead I am grateful because much of what is being passed off as the church is garbage, harmful and causing major problems. So the sooner that what is passed off as Christianity in the United States dies, the better off we will all be. Not only that but in the process the wheat will be separated from the chaff.
These descriptive claims are found in my new book, A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends, just out with Westminster John Knox Press. I will be reflecting on themes from that new book in my blog posts over the next few weeks. This is the first, exploring Christian decline in the United States.
I could now spend several paragraphs inviting a debate over whether and in what sense Christianity really can be said to be in decline in the U.S. But I won’t. Suffice it to say that when one percent fewer Americans each year claim a Christian affiliation, that marks decline. When most denominations and congregations report declining membership and attendance, that marks decline. When more and more congregations close their doors forever, that marks decline. And when the youngest generation shows the greatest disaffiliation trend, that marks a decline likely to have lasting impact.
No, the more interesting question at this point is why. Why this disaffiliation trend? What are its causes?
An interesting problem in recent conversations about Christian decline is that many who weigh in appear to be defending their side in internal Christian conflicts and controversies. Undoubtedly there is some truth to their respective claims, but their polemic purposes must be considered.
For example, many conservative evangelicals have for a long time pinned Christian decline on the mainline liberals, stating that if they had held firmly to a more robust and orthodox Christianity, they would have done better.
On the other hand, many mainliners, not to mention disaffected evangelicals and ex-evangelicals, have made quite the opposite claim. For them, Christian decline is due to the excesses and rigidities of conservative religion.
Having experienced both kinds of churches, I have witnessed both kinds of disaffiliation: ex-mainliners leaving because their churches were so insipid, and ex-evangelicals leaving because they could not reconcile conservative faith with science, critical thinking, or the contemporary world.
David’s claim here is a very good point, and I want to say that I also see that as well. I have known of people who left the mainline churches for something more conservative and have passed the blame onto the liberal mainline. I have also known many people who have left evangelicalism disgusted and angry over spiritual abuse, lack of engagement, or cultural issues who point that evangelicalism is the problem. What also needs to be said is that there are many people who are converting to the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox faith who are dismayed and disgusted with Protestantism. Now that doesn’t mean that the Catholic faith and Eastern Orthodox don’t have their problems, they clearly do. But is there enough information to include that in the statistics of this and other claims? Quite simply I do not know.
So let’s count both of those as reasons why some are disaffiliating. Here is my very tentative proposal for eight other reasons:
–Prosperity and affluence distract people from regular church attendance and reduce a strong sense of need to be in church, gradually eroding not just church attendance but Christian identity.
On this issue I have to disagree as I do not think prosperity and affluence is reducing the strong need for church. There are some human needs that are crucial and there is one that is especially important. People have a need, a feeling of belonging. They want to be a part of something. Recently I heard of a story of someone who joined an Acts 29 church even when they disagreed with the Reformed Theology and more. They joined because they wanted to have friends, and more. People have needs which must be met. Also while this article deals with the United States there are other parts of the world which are affluent and have growing prosperity that that are still experiencing church growth. For example I think of the house church movement in China which is growing despite rising affluence and prosperity in that part of the world.
–The pre-modern claims of traditional Christian faith appear increasingly incredible to postmodern Americans. It has been a very long time since a majority of cultural elites found Christianity’s supernatural claims, for example, to be credible. These elites dominate our culture.
Before commenting on this one I would like to see this drawn out some more and hear this explained more.
–Hypocrisies and conflicts in church, when they (inevitably) erupt, don’t just drive people to other churches, as in the past, but sometimes take them out of Christianity altogether.
Very much agree…there is a major problem in evangelical Christianity with child sex abuse, spiritual abuse and more. Read the stories on blogs like SGM Survivors, The Wartburg Watch and more and you will see this played out over and over. Plus you have systematic problems in the Acts 29 network with a lot of people being hurt. Just look at the situation in Fellowship Memphis and the alleged criminal activity that went on in that church. There are many people who are getting so hurt, and so wounded that for them the best thing to do is to leave the Christian faith. The silence by the Christian church on spiritual abuse is telling and damning in my honest view. Why does it need to be bloggers like me who tackle the issue and some of these corrupt organizations? Why can’t the church do that at all? You also have corruption being defended with people claiming they are being “persecuted.” That is also problematic and flawed. If you are going to engage in alleged criminal activity you need to face the consequences for what you have done.
–The fading of cultural Christianity means that fewer and fewer Americans feel any cultural or familial expectation to be in church or practice Christianity. “It was good enough for grandpa” just doesn’t cut it anymore.
While I agree with this assessment I must also ask the following question. Is that the reason why you go to church or celebrate your faith? Because your family has done that and its a tradition in your family; is that always the right reason? Think of the cultural issues that come into play when immigrants choose faith systems and traditions that go against their cultural background? Because many people don’t feel any cultural expectation to practice their faith I think is a good thing. People should not practice something out of pressure of expectation.
–American Christianity is not producing many compelling leaders, and thus the average church (as well as the Church writ large) is not especially inspiring or visionary. Many ministers play it safe in order to keep their jobs, or are simply not that talented.
For me it depends upon how you define “leaders.” How is that going to be looked at and analyzed? Now in regards to talent is that always a guarantee? I think of individuals like C.J. Mahaney, Mark Driscoll and others who have good speaking skills and can speak well before a crowd, but who are intensely corrupt. I am in the process of writing about a corrupt Acts 29 church called Fellowship Memphis, and the pastor who led the church for years is Bryan Loritts. He is talented, gifted and one of the best speakers I have ever heard. I used to listen to him in Campus Crusade for Christ. Bryan Loritts turned out to be deeply corrupt in allegedly covering up his brother-in-law’s alleged sex crimes. So talent has its own problems.
–The collapse of any protection of Sunday from recreation and work, together with the gig economy, means many people are working or otherwise engaged on Sunday.
As our economy has changed yes this could be a factor. However, there have always been jobs that required work on Sundays and could have affected participation beforehand. Jobs such as law enforcement, fire and rescue, medicine, transportation (i.e. aviation and rail) and more have existed long before people worked on Sunday. So I believe its important that we keep this in mind.
–It is harder for parents to pass the faith onto their children in a wired world in which parental influence is in decline.
One of the problems that exists in evangelical Christianity is that too much has been passed on. Many kids have their parents faith. They have not made it unique, owned it or figured things out for themselves. In order for faith to grow it has to be uniquely developed and for each person that will be different. That is part of the reason why I think doubt can be a good and healthy tool.
–Evangelism is dead. No one really knows how to “share the Christian faith” any more in a way that connects with people, and many Christians have stopped trying.
Here is the problem, evangelism is dead because evangelicals have screwed up how to share the Gospel. Christians should be known by their love. Let me state that again…Christians should be known for their love. The fact of the matter is that much of evangelical Christianity is devoid of love today, couple that with the revival of Neo-Calvinism which is more about authority and less about love and you exacerbate the problem. The mark of the Christian is their love but that often doesn’t exist today. Love takes work, patience, effort as some people can be difficult to love. But the Gospel is about love. Love can touch more people than evangelism.
So that’s ten proposed reasons why Christianity is declining in the United States. I invite you to add your own reasons for this significant trend. In a later post I will reflect on what might be done to redress the problems the churches now face.
What David Gushee Missed in his Reasons
I will transition back into black font for this section. There is one thing that David Gushee missed in his analysis that I think needs to be featured and highlighted because it is a cancer that threatens the Christian faith and its another reason why I believe Christianity is in decline. While many evangelical Christians today are known for their arrogance what I think damns the Christian faith in the United States today is this….Christians don’t say they are sorry, or work to resolve pain or conflict when they have hurt someone. I have been writing this blog for over a year and a half and I have had the privilege to hear a lot of stories and situations. And there is one common thread in many of the stories and its this….Christians don’t say they are sorry or own their mistakes today. As a result what emerges in its place is something repulsive, ugly, and horrific that doesn’t give glory to God, drives people away and gives a sickening witness to the world. In my story involving Redeemer Arlington all I wanted to have an Air Force Captain to say he was sorry for the false accusation he gave birth to that adversely affected my life. He will not do that and my story drags on. This blog writes heavily about the Evangelical Free Church of America and has been consumed in writing about a horrific tale outside Philadelphia. Steve Estes who teaches at Westminster, and is the Senior Pastor of Community Evangelical Free Church orchestrated the practice of church discipline on an alleged sexual assault victim while the alleged rapist (Steve Estes’ son Brock) was given a pass. Many people in the Elverson, and Morgantown area of Pennsylvania want to hear the leadership of this church to admit its error. Plus the national EFCA denomination dropped the ball in dealing with this as well. My hope as I write about this story is that the national denomination will seek forgiveness from the alleged sexual assault victim and say, “we screwed up…we we’re wrong, please forgive us.” If a church, ministry, denomination or more cannot due that because a lawyer advises them against it saying they are opening themselves to lawsuits. My response will be this…if that will be the behavior then its not a church, a denomination or a ministry – instead its a business and a corporation. The inability of Christians to be able to seek forgiveness, own errors and make things right with people they have hurt results in the Christian faith being a travesty, ugly and quite simply something that needs to disappear off the face of the earth. Those are my thoughts as always I wait for your comments below. Take care and know that I love you!