Tear down that cross and toss it in the wood chipper because the American church is toast. So goes conventional wisdom after recent revelations from the Pew Research Center, which found that in just seven years, the percentage of Christians in the United States dropped nearly eight points.
The news was met with glee from liberal publications such as Salon, where writing under the breathtakingly clever headline, “Ding Dong the Church is Dead,” author Patricia Miller gloated that the benefits from the decline of Christianity would be, “huge.” No doubt the scores of natural disaster victims around the globe who have profited from all of the atheist relief trucks rolling in would agree.
Far more annoying than the juvenile taunts of journalists were the suggestions that poured in from Christian thinkers as to how to right the ship, or Ark if you prefer.
The most common refrain echoed repeatedly in both religious and mainstream media was that the church needed to become culturally “relevant” to survive. For some, that term merely implies ministers in jeans and fog machines. I have my own preferences in that regard, but they are just that – preferences. My serious objection is reserved for those who intend the cry for “relevance” in a substantive rather than superficial manner. These are the voices calling to deliberately neuter the confrontational truth of Christianity to compromise with the spirit of the age.
Take the recent Washington Post op-ed by Rachel Held Evans. Evans pinpoints what she sees as the real problem when she chastises Christianity for being too “judgmental” and “exclusive.” In other words, she yearns for a church more open-minded and inclusive of alternative ideas, beliefs and lifestyles.
I suppose there is merit to what she is saying if the sole purpose of the church is to fill seats on Sunday mornings. If the mission of the church is nothing more than a relentless ambition to “affirm” everyone from all walks of life, then her counsel is spot on.
After all, speaking the exclusivity of Christ – that whole “no man comes to the Father except by me” thing – or preaching repentance will not make anyone feel affirmed. Everyone can see how painfully un-hip such a message is in contemporary American society.
In fact, churches committed to that outdated way of thinking might be accused of acting like some prudish carpenter of antiquity whose obsessive devotion to unpopular notions of right and wrong, good and evil, consigned him to the outskirts of society rather than the mainstream, to preaching from hillsides rather than from behind gold-crusted lecterns.
It’s curious, isn’t it? Somehow American Christians convinced themselves that becoming more like Jesus of Nazareth would make them more attractive to the world; but the exact opposite is true. After all, why would they treat us any different than they treated him? Confusing that reality has the American church all kinds of backwards. If the world adores us for the words we speak, it is not because those words are loving and good. It is because they are cowardly and compromising. And that’s the real problem we face in our churches.
I admit that I don’t have the credentials of many weighing in on the unfolding collapse of American Christianity. But I humbly submit that if the church wants to stop the bleeding, it should stop worrying about the praise of men and instead seek the applause of heaven. How is that done?
In a recent seminar I gave to Christian high school seniors about to head to college, I asked them to name five figures from Scripture that God used in a powerful way. Their list included Noah, Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist and Jesus. Question for the American church: how relevant to their respective cultures were those guys?
Noah was a laughingstock, Moses was exiled and hated, Elijah had a bounty on his head, John the Baptist lost his head, and Jesus lost a popularity contest with a despised murderer named Barabbas – all because each was committed to speaking a truth that no one in their time wanted to hear.
True Christianity is confrontational. It is an open and courageous rebellion being conducted deep within enemy-occupied territory. It is counter-cultural, not culturally relevant. It alone recognizes that there is no love without truth.
If Christ’s church dies in the United States, it’s only because it committed suicide on the altar of relevance.
Heck is a speaker, author and teacher who hosts a weekly radio broadcast on WIBC. Follow him @peterheck or email firstname.lastname@example.org.