Getting back to Christian Basics

bargraphBy Joe LaGuardia

There has been much discussion over a recent study from the Pew Research Center.  It reveals a rise of people of no faith (“the unaffiliated”) and the demise of Christianity in our nation.

The percentage of “unaffiliated” people rose from 16% to over 23% in the last seven years, while the percentage of Christians has steadily decreased.

Some say the decline is a result of the lack of institutional loyalty, while others blame a loss of “traditional values” in the public sector.  Many argue that these trends are regional and the statistics should be taken with a grain of salt: Christianity represents the largest religion in the world, and it is actually growing in continents located in the southern hemisphere of our planet.  Christianity is flourishing, just not the way we westerners are accustomed.

Diagnosticians like Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, see it differently: He contends that Christianity is not dying, but “jettisoning” a type of faith too liberal to be called as such, one that promotes atheism in disguise.

“We do not have more atheists in America; we have more honest atheists in America,” he wrote.

Also, the percentage of evangelical Christians, who tend to be more conservative, are stable if not in decline.  The number of evangelicals only decreased by less than 1%, which seems to support Moore’s assessment.

The devil, as they say, is in the details.  For one, evangelicals have remained steady not because of growth (decline is decline whether it is 1% or 3%), but because evangelicals retain more children than other Christian subcultures.

Second, a growing population of immigrants and minorities, who err on the side of conservatism, helps fill pews otherwise empty in evangelical churches.

Third, more mainline churches now consider themselves “evangelical,” as denominations fracture over liberal and conservative fault lines.

Fourth, studies show that growing churches tend to be evangelical megachurches with founding pastors.  Saying that the decline of mainline churches is due to theological liberalism is actually beside the point because all small churches are declining rapidly, not to mention that the Southern Baptist Convention has experienced decline in the past decade.

No matter who is providing an assessment on the Pew Research results, I think that the truth is somewhere in the middle.  I agree with Moore that Christians who are, in his words, “almost-Christian,” have rarely helped Christ’s cause in our nation.  I just disagree with Moore’s caricature of theology as the reason for decline.

mosaicChristian liberalism did not add to the faith’s decline; rather, it failed to bring out the best of what Christianity had to offer in the last century of our nation’s history.  In the first four centuries of the Christian church, the population of Christians grew from a few hundred people to millions–as many as half the population of the Roman Empire by some estimates.  Christianity grew not because is was more traditional or conservative, but because Christians readily adapted to a culture in need of radical hospitality.

According to Roman pagan philosophers, Christianity’s hospitality was too liberal to take seriously: Churches were egalitarian in outreach and leadership.  They did not enjoy prestige or privilege.  They included people normally marginalized in the ancient world–a liberal value if there ever was one.

Christians in the first century did not refuse to provide pizzas or wedding cakes to people; rather, Christians opened their doors to all people, and it often got them in trouble with the authorities.

The wave of Christian decline shouldn’t cause Christians of different theologies to turn on each other.  A large percentage of Americans view all Christians, no matter the denomination, as hostile, exclusive, prejudiced, and out of touch with the rest of the world.  This is the reason for decline.

We Christians have a choice to make.  We can circle the wagons and blame each other for our faith’s decline or we can take a look at our own failures.  It is time to overcome our differences, and develop a fuller outreach program that is surprisingly inclusive, vibrant, creative, and grace filled in a culture that longs for the type of belonging only churches can provide.

The Great Christian Migration

runningI’ve been a pastor long enough to realize that growth in most churches is the result not of people becoming believers but of what I call the “Great Christian Migration.”  It’s the trend in which Christians move from church to church.  Whatever church is new and fancy is the one that garners the most Christians.

Denominational trends have reflected this migration for years, and nearly a quarter of Christians now attend a church not affiliated with any denomination.  The fastest growing churches are those with either contemporary worship or a founding pastor (or both).

Yet, the number of Christian converts remains stagnate and the number of baptisms has decreased.   Church attendance in this century is at an all time low.

When I talk to people who are merely moving from church to church, I realize that we have forgotten some fundamental truths along the way.

For one, no matter where a person goes to church, that person still has to take responsibility for having a personal relationship with God.

We have come under the false notion that having a particular experience, learning from a specific pastor, reading the newest Christian best-seller, or worshiping a certain way will somehow do the work of getting us to be more intimate with God.

Those Sunday morning, pop-culture routines can only fuel a Spirit-filled life with Christ so far.  No book, church, worship experience, pastor, or social gathering can replace the invaluable spiritual practices of daily prayer, Bible reading, and communion with God.

Sunday attendance is not the first place to meet God; it is the place to celebrate where Christians have met God throughout the week.

If you are not experiencing God during the week, there will be little that you can gain from attending church once or twice a week.

Second, churches are places that provide opportunities for people to serve, not be served.

Whenever the Bible talks about the Body of Christ, it refers to the sharing of lives, gifts, and resources.  The very word used for church worship, “liturgy,” comes from the root word for “work” in the Greek.

Church is about working on behalf of God’s Kingdom together; it was never intended to be a place to come and “get fed.”  If you are looking to get something from church rather than give something or work on God’s behalf to spread the Gospel, you’re better off going to Starbucks.

Last, church loyalty is profoundly meaningful because it gives Christians time to build authentic, vulnerable communities.  Truth is, church hopping does not provide the longevity and trust needed to build life-long accountability partners and spiritual friendships in which God shows up in new, creative ways.

With the advent of social media, technology, and extracurricular activities, families have very little time to socialize, build authentic community, and deepen friendships.  Studies show that people, when they do have the time to socialize, now group up in like-minded cliques that only reinforce their ideas rather than challenge them.

Attendance in intentional discipleship, like Sunday School and Bible studies, is also down; but those were the very places that challenged beliefs, developed well-rounded, educated Christ-followers, and inspired missions and calls to full-time ministry.

Spiritual friendships and deep, abiding relationships have always been the primary way to grow in Christ as people mentor one another, keep each other accountable, and talk about the “deep things” of God.  But church hopping does not promote these relationships.

The church in America is at a tipping point.  People will need to take responsibility to foster the things that have always been–and will always be–the primary ways that help maturation in faith in Christ: stability, friendships, intentional community, and daily interactions with God.

Without such things, Christians who move from church to church will always be discontent and frustrated with what they find.