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
the dominating controversy within Christendom will be between those who give full weight to the supernatural reality at the heart of all Christian dogma, practice, and thought, and those who try to convert Christianity into a naturalistic religion by whittling away the reality and comprehensiveness of its supernatural basis. This conflict is already upon us and is pushing into the background controversies which caused deep and bitter strife in previous ages. (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:
The outrage is being committed daily in our midst, wherever the supposed Christian message is presented without reference to baptism, grace, and regeneration; without reference to Incarnation, Atonement and Redemption…without reference to the Church, the sacraments and the Holy Spirit. That such an emasculation of the Christian message is possible is a shocking fact. That a ‘Christianity’ can be popularized in which the fundamentals of Christian faith, practice and worship are annihilated, is an appalling testimony to our spiritual apathy and our theological illiteracy….How has this corruption of the Christian Message come about? All we can say in answer is that the prevailing materialism of popular thought, so diversely represented in the attitudes and evaluations of the man in the streets and his newspapers, has spread its infection so as to contaminate the only authority which brings a cure. The physician is himself infected with the disease.(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?
1 [ Back ] See, for example, David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church...And Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011).
2 [ Back ] See Christian Smith and Melinda L. Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
3 [ Back ] Harry Blamires, The Secularist Heresy: The Erosion of the Gospel in the Twentieth Century (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1980), 2-3.
4 [ Back ] Blamires, 65.
5 [ Back ] Blamires, 67-68.