I recently attended a service that might help solve the riddle of the fantastic decline of American Christianity. It was a different church from the one I normally go to.
Let me set the scene, perhaps it will sound familiar:
I walked in and immediately realized that I’d inadvertently stumbled upon a totally relaxed, convenient, comfortable brand of church. The first hint was the choir members dressed in shorts and flip flops. Sweet, bro. So chill.
There were a bunch of acoustic guitars and drums and tambourines and a keyboard. Before the service/concert began, some guy came out to rev up the crowd. Opening acts aren’t usually a part of the liturgical experience, but this is 2015 and we’re, like, so not into solemn silence and prayer anymore.
There must always be noise. Always noise. Sounds. Lights. Never silence, not even for a moment.
Finally, church started. The choir, or jam band for Jesus, or whatever it was, played a song that sounded like a cross between a 90′s Disney soundtrack and an easy listening favorite you might hear if you skimmed through your aunt’s second generation iPod. It wasn’t really contemporary, or good, or relevant, but at least it wasn’t traditional. Because YUCK! Tradition is old!
The singer was relatively talented, but he carried on like an American Idol contestant. I got the impression that he was fishing for applause, not worshiping the Lord of the Universe. His style and demeanor said “talent show” but the music said “wine and cheese festival” or maybe “my dentist’s waiting room.” It definitely didn’t say “truth,” or “heaven,” or “the Great King sitting upon his throne amidst throngs of mighty angels.”
The pastor began with another round of jokes. They weren’t very funny but they succeeded in being unserious, which I guess is close enough. The sermon was jam packed with youth slang and pop culture. He mentioned a couple of TV shows and Netflix. He made sports metaphors. He didn’t do anything with the references, he just hung them out there like we were supposed to be impressed that he knows about these things.
I think he even said something about Angry Birds. Dated, sure, but it did the job of letting us know that the guy speaking also used a smart phone at some point in the last five years. OMG! He totally gets us!
The word “Gospel” made maybe one appearance in his message. The words “truth,” “sacred,” “reverence,” “sin,” “hell,” “virtue,” “obedience,” and “duty” were conspicuously absent, just as they’re absent from most sermons delivered in most churches, everywhere in the country. Of course he did throw in a friendly helping of “friend” and “helping.” And “tolerance.” Obviously tolerance. It’s important to only preach the sort of principles we can practice from our couches, you know.
Also left out of his spiel: any semblance of an insight, a challenge, a truth, a call to action, or a point.
About halfway in, I turned around to get a look at my fellow congregants. Do you know what I witnessed? Hundreds of captivated churchgoers.
Actually, a lot of empty seats. A disinterested yawn echoed through the hall. I could see the guy next to me fighting to keep his eyes open. I understood where he was coming from. Maybe this was the plan: stop people from leaving by putting them to sleep.
Effective, yes, but to what end?
Effective at making this whole thing seem rote and shallow, that’s for sure. I guess it’s supposed to entertain us, but our faith isn’t suppose to be merely entertaining. It’s so much more than that. When you reduce it to mere distraction and spectacle, it loses its substance, and without its substance it is, among other things, boring.
I wonder what a secular person might think if he was looking to give Christianity a try and that was the first service he ever attended? Yeah, he wouldn’t leave offended (or impacted, or moved, or energized), but would he even be awake?
Would he have a deeper understanding of the faith, or would he be scratching his head, wondering what all the Jesus fuss is about? If he went in prepared to encounter something deep, holy, and challenging, would he walk out feeling like that goal was accomplished?
And this is the problem with Christianity in this country. Not just inside our church buildings, but everywhere. It often has no edge, no depth. No sense of its own ancient and epic history. There is no sacredness to it. No pain. No beauty. No reverence. Or I should say Christianity has all of those things, fundamentally and totally, but many modern Christians in every denomination have spent many years trying to blunt them or bury them under a thousand layers of icing and whipped cream and apathy.
I think this might shed some light on the latest study trumpeting how the Christian ranks have shrunk by another eight percentage points in just the last seven years. Now, about 70 percent of Americans identify as Christians. Still a majority, but the smallest majority we’ve ever had. As atheism and agnosticism surge in popularity, Christianity hemorrhages and fades.
Some have tried to argue that the situation isn’t really as bad as all that, but I disagree. I think it’s worse.
After all, some 70 percent of us might “identify” as Christian, but how many actually subscribe not to Christianity, but to Convenient Christianity? (Convenientanity, if you like.) How many are the type who call themselves Christian but don’t consider the Bible to be a particularly authoritative document? How many are in the group who see Christianity as nothing more demanding or complex than the 30 second life lessons speech Bob Saget gives to one of the Olson twins at the end of each Full House episode? How many believe that morality and faith can be severed from each other? How many believe in a Christianity that doesn’t include the existence of sin or Hell? How many are relativists? How many are prosperity gospel proponents?
How many say they’re Christian but only because they’ve convinced themselves that Jesus loves gay marriage and abortion?
And what happens when you don’t factor these Convenientists — members of the Church of Convenience, proponents of Convenientism — into the equation at all? Are we still at 70 percent? Not hardly. What’s the real number? Forty percent? Thirty? Ten? Less? I don’t know, but it’s depressing, whatever it is.
So while everyone offers their own diagnosis of the cause of this catastrophe, this is mine. The light of the Faith grows dimmer in this culture because of that church service I attended. Not specifically that one, but that kind of service. And not just that kind of service, but that kind of Christianity, generally. The lame and bored kind. The flavorless, tame brand.
Every branch of the Faith has become infected by it, and if we want to understand why Christianity is not out winning souls and conquering the culture, look there.
Yet many of our fearless leaders, pastors, and pundits think this is, rather than the disease, the remedy. It’s the same remedy they’ve tried for half a century. As the problem gets worse, they don’t change the medication, they just keep upping the dosage. They tell us that in order to bring the sheep into the fold — especially the millennial sheep — Christianity must be as un-Christian as possible. It must be stripped it of its truth, of its sacredness, of its sacrifice, of its morality, of its tradition, of its history, of its hardships, of its joy, and whatever is left will be enough to, if not engage and excite people, at least not scare them away.
And that’s been the strategy of the American church for decades: just try not to scare people. They put on this milquetoast, tedious, effeminate charade, feigning hipness and relevance, aping secular culture in a manner about as cool and current as your science teacher retelling a Dane Cook joke from nine years ago, and then furrow their brows and shake their heads in bewilderment when everyone gets bored and walks away.
Christianity is fading because more and more of our leaders want to steal people from the true faith and deliver them to this convenient version. But that isn’t what actual Christians want, and the Christians who do, only want it because it doesn’t much resemble Christianity at all. Those folks eventually figure out that the only thing more secular than Christian secularism is secular secularism, and there’s really no reason to choose the former over the latter. The transition from Convenientism to agnosticism continues unabated.
There are still plenty of Christians who desire the true faith, but they are mostly ignored or scolded by the very people who should be leading them. And the Convenientists, of course, find no happiness in their secular Christianity, nor do they find it in secular secularism. Even if they don’t know it, they yearn in the pit of their souls for the true message of Christ, but they rarely hear it. And when they do hear it, there are a million competing voices, many from inside the church, warning them that if they go down this road it might involve changing their behavior and their lifestyle, which is a total hassle, man.
Often that’s enough to dissuade any further investigation.
And that’s how we ended up here. That’s it. That’s the problem. It’s plain as day, yet every time this conversation comes up, we’re told that Christianity is declining because Christians are too religious, too bold, too outspoken, too moral, and too firm in their beliefs. That’s the conventional wisdom, but as we’ve seen a thousand times over, the conventional wisdom of an unwise society should never be taken seriously.
If the faith is to regain lost ground in this country, it will only happen when Christianity is presented and understood as what it is: a warrior’s religion. A faith for fighters and soldiers. CS Lewis said it best (as usual):
Enemy-occupied territory–that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.
There. There it is, explained more compellingly in two sentences than many pastors can muster in a lifetime of sermons. This is frightening, militant language, but it’s exciting, it’s exhilarating, and it is, most importantly, accurate. As Christians, we are fighting a war against the Devil himself. We are advancing against the darkest forces of the universe, and we march with God by our side. And all the while, all around us, on a dimension invisible to mortal eyes, angels and demons and supernatural forces, both good and evil, work to defend or destroy us.
The stakes are infinite. Our souls hang in the balance. We are standing on a battlefield where the hope of eternal life awaits the loyal soldiers. The Psalms say “praise be the Lord, my Rock, who trains my hands for war.” This is the feeling and the attitude that our leaders and churches should be stirring in us. This is the truth of this life and of this faith that we claim. It’s a ferocious, formidable, terrifying, joyful truth. It’s the truth that Scripture spends over 1,000 pages trying to explain. It’s the truth that should be shouted from the rooftops of every church and proclaimed from the mouths of every Christian.
That’s how you stop the “decline” of Christianity in America. Tell people the truth. The truth, that’s all. Move them. Love them. Make them feel anger, and fear, and longing, and sadness, and happiness, and hope, and determination. All of these things. These are all a part of our Faith, because our Faith is everything. As Chesterton said, “there is more in it; it finds more in existence to think about; it gets more out of life.”
Yes, Christianity gets more out of life. And whatever it gets might not be comfortable, convenient, or relaxing, but at least it isn’t boring.
And best of all, it’s true.