Imagine for a moment that a school in your neighborhood organizes a field trip for one hundred of its students to a nearby zoo and that during this trip a number of large animals escape and end up trampling sixty children. Not only would this become a national news story, but more importantly, it would be a personal tragedy for many of the families in your community. No doubt there would be countless investigations on how such a thing could have happened, and the zoo would likely be temporarily, if not permanently, shut down. As horrific as all this sounds, there is something worse happening in our own churches, and few are sounding the alarm.
In Matthew 10:28 Jesus says, "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell." An obvious implication of this verse is that we should be more concerned with the state of our souls than with mere bodily existence. Yet according to most statistics, around 60 percent of those who grow up in American churches end up dropping out sometime after high school. (1) The majority of those who remain end up defining the faith as a kind of therapeutic or moral system. (2) So why aren't Christians talking about this crisis? Why aren't we demanding answers from our church leaders about this critical issue, and why do most of us appear to be unconcerned about it ourselves?
I submit that this is all rooted in the fact that we don't actually believe Jesus' point about the special care and attention we are to give to the state of our souls. Watch us for a week or two and you'll see us practically bubble-wrap our children before we let them get on a bicycle or scooter, and we start to freak out if our kids' favorite cereal has too much gluten or high fructose corn syrup. Yet when it comes to spiritual things, we generally send our kids out unprotected; we're generally unconcerned about their spiritual diet. Not only are they leaving our homes biblically illiterate, but they hardly know how to frame a sentence in which the concepts of truth and falsehood have much relevance.
In short, our problem is a theological one. We believe that the most important thing is right now, not eternity; this world, not the next; the body, not the soul. Granted, it's a controversial thesis, but how else are we to explain the incredible success of books like Joel Osteen's Your Best Life Now? How else are we to explain the ever-increasing shelf space devoted to "Christian Living," or the explosive growth of Christian romance and Amish fiction?
So why do we believe that this world is more important than the next? Why are we more preoccupied with physical than spiritual health? Why are churches more interested in being practical and relevant than faithful or countercultural? The issue boils down to this simple yet disturbing idea: The world is doing a better job at getting its message across than we are. In other words, the "this world is all there is" crowd is more passionate and more effective at evangelism. I recently experienced this firsthand while recording a number of interviews on a university campus in Southern California. The non-Christian students I talked with at least offered reasons for their beliefs (or lack thereof). But the one self-identified Christian I interviewed could only speak of her personal experience of faith. When asked how she would respond to a person who argued that the Bible was rooted in mythology, she replied, "Well, I guess I would say that I choose to believe these myths." Many students told me that they had abandoned the Christianity of their upbringing based on what they were reading and studying at college. Some would say they lost their faith. I argue that they simply got converted to a different set of beliefs.
Harry Blamires addresses this issue thoughtfully in his book The Secularist Heresy: The Erosion of the Gospel in the Twentieth Century. In his preface to the American edition, he reflects on all that had occurred in the thirty years since he first set out to write this volume. He says, "I could never have anticipated the virulent form which the epidemic of secularization would assume in attacking Christianity, nor the spiritual, intellectual and moral nervelessness that would paralyze many supposed leaders of Christian thought." But, he concludes, the end result is that today's churchgoer "is nowadays unlikely to come away from church wondering: Has that sermon got any connection with the secular world outside the church? He is more likely to come away asking: Has that sermon got any connection with anything other than the secular world? Has it led my thoughts where picking up a newspaper or turning on the television could not have led?" (3) He wrote these words in 1980. Imagine what he would have penned if he were around to experience a typical worship service at one of our super-relevant big-box megachurches.
The substance of the book was actually written in the early 1950s, and it is during this time that Blamires looks out in the not-too-distant future and sees a day in which(4)
Unfortunately, what Blamires foresaw over a half-century ago has actually come to pass, and it's not merely happening in college classrooms led by naturalistic professors. It's happening in both conservative and liberal churches alike. The emphasis in conservative circles is on God's supportive role in the life of the believer, how he can fix marriages, improve child rearing, inspire better financial planning, and so forth. On the other hand, liberal churches tend to emphasize what God (however we define what that means) is doing among us collectively and socially. Left-leaning adherents are often called to join with God in his redemptive plan for the world by pursuing things such as social justice and environmental responsibility. At the end of the day, conservatives and liberals alike are together obsessed with temporal rather than eternal things. The primary focus is on the body, not the soul, and on the practical benefits of Christianity, not the heart of Christianity itself, which is centered on Christ and his finished work. Blamires then observes:(5)
This is the battle of our times. The question is not merely, why are kids abandoning our churches? In most cases, the question is and should be, what compelling reasons are we giving them to stay?
Shane Rosenthal is executive producer of The White Horse Inn national radio broadcast which can be heard online at www.whitehorseinn.org.
Issue: "Secularizing Religion" Sept./Oct. 2013 Vol. 22 No. 5 Page number(s): 42-45
You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. We do not allow reposting an article in its entirety on the Internet. We request that you link to this article from your website. Any exceptions to the above must be explicitly approved by Modern Reformation (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: This article originally appeared in the [insert current issue date] edition of Modern Reformation and is reprinted with permission. For more information about Modern Reformation, visit www.modernreformation.org or call (800) 890-7556. All rights reserved.