The recent study released by the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) is alarming. Based on a 54,000-person sample, ARIS discovered that Christianity in America is declining at a breakneck speed. Cathy Lynn Grossman, from USA Today, summarizes, “The percentage of people who call themselves in some way Christian has dropped more than 11% in a generation… more people are exploring spiritual frontiers – or falling off the map completely.” Those who claim no religion has now reached 15%, nearly double the percentage from 10 years ago. The nonreligious are now nearly as numerous as any single religious group in America.
The Baylor University Religion Surveys in 2006 and 2008, each based on 35,000 interviews, similarly discovered a sharp decline in traditional Christian beliefs. The religion of most Americans today is characterized as “moralistic, therapeutic deism” (Christian Smith). Studies by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public life and the Barna Group discovered much of the same.
90% percent of this decline is from Protestant Christian circles. While it is no surprise that mainline denominations continued their decline, it is noteworthy that stalwart Evangelical denominations (such as Southern Baptists) are equally declining. Sociologists are scratching their heads and speculating as to the factors causing this decline. Leading theories include increased social mobility, on-line communities, and the raised profile of atheism. All of these theories are terribly inadequate.
Many Christian leaders suggest that regardless of the cause of this decline, the solution is clear: churches must adapt by providing even more relevant teaching and worship experiences to reach the unchurched. But the problem is that churches are not only are failing to reach the lost, they are loosing the reached! And when evangelical leaders protest that the solution is more of the same, I frankly disagree.
I am persuaded that the current decline of Christian belief cannot be pinned on the culture. Rather, I believe that in the last 30 years or so evangelicals have sown the seeds of their own demise. The era of the mega-church has not done anything to stem the irreligious drift of American culture. On the contrary, the surging numbers of those who identify themselves as non-denominational, or simply as “Christian” finds its corollary in the surging numbers of those who have drifted away from their faith. While behemoth-like churches successfully siphoned off the membership of more rooted evangelical denominations, most traditional churches responded by mimicking the “therapeutic, church-growth oriented mega-churches that have defined success” (Michael Spencer). But what the church growth prognosticators could not forecast was the long-term effect that these methods have upon Christian families.
The evangelical emphasis on obtaining a personal relationship with Jesus has become for many a private relationship with Jesus. Typical of many surveyed by ARIS one self-described evangelical commented, “Christianity is moving totally under the radar… It can’t be measured. It happens inside of people’s souls.”
Evangelical teachers typically place little or no importance on church membership, and it is therefore no wonder when more and more professing Christians become detached to any church. Similarly, we should not be surprised if the stress on the small group as the place were “real ministry happens” leads many to neglect the corporate worship and the official proclamation of God’s Word. We should not be surprised when George Barna enthusiastically heralds the coming of the “house church” as the next great trend that will replace the over produced worship experiences of the mega-church.
The steady diet of teaching in evangelical churches is broadly therapeutic, focusing on “felt needs.” We can hardly blame the average listener from inferring, even in churches that affirm traditional Christian teachings, that the Gospel message is “do more; try harder” (Michael Horton). Many have therefore become convinced that church is not the place to find the answers for the great questions in life.
In an effort to attract “unchurched Harry” Evangelicals have upped the entertainment value of the worship experience. For many Christians, music has become the central thing. The result is that the faith of many is grounded in their emotional response rather than the intellect, while the seeker knows he can find better entertainment elsewhere.
In our quest for “relevance” we have become irrelevant. Many Christian churches offer little that is unique from the culture. The end result is that Evangelical churches today have probably produced the most Biblically ignorant generation of Christians since before the Protestant Reformation.
There are, however, many bright spots across our nation. There is a resurgence of interest in the theology of the Reformation. Young people are discovering dynamic, doctrinal teaching, which is opening their eyes to a larger vision of God than they had previously dreamed. While Christian churches across the theological spectrum are declining, small Reformed denominations, such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, are steadily growing. These churches do not often make headlines, but while the back doors of many churches are wide open, these Reformed churches are faithfully teaching the next generation the great truths of God’s Word.
Redeemer Church in Santa Maria is such a church that contends “for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We believe that God’s Word is always relevant and that Jesus Christ, the savior of his people, should always be proclaimed. We are not a perfect church, but as a Reformed church we believe that we must be “always reforming according to the word of God.”