American churches: secular gatherings?

John Ortberg recently wrote this on the Out-of-Ur blog: "The recently released American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) indicates that faith is going down across the board."

Ortberg is not the only one discussing this latest survey. A number of people are writing about it, and generally, the conclusion is that America is fast becoming a secular nation. Christianity is diminishing in influence and significance at an increasingly rapid pace.

This morning, I glanced at TIME magazine's list of the "most influential people in the world." It's instructive to look over the names and see how many of those listed are Christians, and more, how many are there because of their public life as a Christian. I saw only one of the latter: Rick Warren. It's a graphic illustration of the same picture painted by ARIS.

This is a disturbing and sad trend, but not surprising and not unprecedented. It has happened before, but most Americans neither know nor care. We Americans are uninterested in history and what we can learn from it. And so we repeat it.

Europe was once a stronghold of Christianity. Today? Almost entirely secular. North Africa and the Middle East once had large Christian communities with deep roots, going back to the earliest decades of the church. Today? Hardly a glimmer.

The idea of "Christian America" is an illusion. Such a place never was. Even so, there have been periods when Christianity - a vibrant, rich faith - was an important and positive factor in American culture. While it's a stretch to call ourselves a Christian nation with a Christian history, we do have a rich tradition and deep roots in Protestant Christianity. America of the past 200 years was largely shaped and formed by children of the Reformation. The freedoms, the form of government, the opportunities and the way of life we know all came out of that. Our nation is unique in history, because of that heritage.

But our heritage - which some argue became irrelevant long ago, if it ever existed - is fast losing influence in our communities and our national life. Though a majority of Americans self-identify as Christians, Christianity is less and less significant in our culture, and in fact has a rapidly declining credibility.

Why? What's going on?

It would be easy to point a finger at any one of a number of factors: education, wealth, and more. But I believe none of these are a true cause.

The core cause is a powerless church. The core cause is a "Christianity" that is little more in most cases than simply living a reasonably civil, usually Caucasian, fairly well-off life, and not drinking, smoking, using crude language, or being unfaithful to your spouse - too much.

The core is a church that doesn't even understand, much less preach the Good News of Jesus, and doesn't seem to care.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians that the kingdom of God is not just words, but power (I Cor. 4:20). The church in America today - with some notable exceptions - is about words. There is little to transform lives. There is little to set captives free, to heal the sick, to give sight to the blind. Words. Empty words.

The world has too many empty words. It wants demonstrations of power, something to give hope and transform lives. And the church in America is too busy on a feel-good gospel, "recovery" groups, self-centered "ministries," and other nonsense to hear what the world is crying for. In fact, if they hear, in most cases they turn away, because the things that transform lives are dangerous. They involve a radical commitment to follow Jesus, to represent him in our daily lives.

It's no surprise that America is becoming a secularized nation. It's no surprise that many of our fundamental rights as American citizens are being aggressively attacked. And it's little surprise that most "Christians" neither know or care. Most care little about the problems in our cities - high crime, poverty, hideous "education" - or about social justice. And it's no surprise that for a great many in America today, Christianity has no credibility.

An empty, powerless church.

11 Comments

"...Christianity has no credibility. An empty, powerless church."

Well said, Larry...I could not agree more.

Am a lover of our Lord Jesus Christ preparing to come in to the United States of America for a visit soonest,send me a word of reply if I would be welcomed in your wonderful ministry to share the word of our Lord with you and your people.

I am based in Nigeria a Country that love God so much as well.

Expecting to receive a reply from you soonest.
Remain Blessed always

Yours in Christ
Prophet Obedience Nweru
Founder Christ Revival Ministries
Abuja
Nigeria.

I'm sorry, but I am a simple writer, and have no people with which you might share. Thanks for the idea, however.

Religion is dying out in the educated world. Still spreading like a venerial disease in the 3rd world though.

Hello Christian,

Your name is ironic, considering your comment. But your comment and name are welcome here, nevertheless.

You have placed yourself in a long line of people -- some eminent -- predicting the demise of religion. Unfortunately, you have also put yourself in an equally long line of people whom events have proven wrong.

If you speak of "religion" in general, it is certainly not dying out in the US or anywhere else. Christianity is growing. Islam is growing. People are inherently religious. If you are speaking more specifically of Christianity, which I suspect -- neither is it dying out. It is changing form in Europe and to an extent in North America, but it is certainly not dying.

What is dying is the old, "mainline," denominational Christianity. That's well documented, and is not news. But Christianity outside the mainline denominations is alive and well by any standard.

Apparently you don't know much about it, or you would certainly not compare it to venereal disease. Perhaps some actual experience, or at least, a little honest research would be in order to help prevent more nonsensical statements like the one you just made.

I'm deep into this issue and it involves on the definitions of secular and religion. The former is theoogically neutral and only means "the present"; religion since Barth is non-faith and non-belief. So a secular church may be the preferred option to a religious church. A secular church has the present Christ, the living Christ, now for today. The evangelical or mainline church may have no idea of the living Christ, preferring to be dogmatic, fundamental or like the cultural values listed in the above statement. If we can figure out how to use secular in its ordinary definition, the God-human incarnate God may yet have a chance in the religion-less church talked about by Bonhoeffer in his letters in 1944 which contain far more ecclesiology than any fundamentalist, evangelical or mainline liberal church knows in America.

Paul,
I'm not sure I fully understand your comments, but it seems to me there is little point in trying to force a use of words different from the way they are used by the general English-speaking public. "If we can figure out how to use secular in its ordinary definition" seems like a pointless quest. It's about Jesus. It's not about secular vs. religious. As the church proclaims the good news of Jesus, and as people see lives changed by his grace and truth, all this secular/religious stuff becomes irrelevant. And if the church does not proclaim Jesus, then the question is likewise irrelevant, as is the church itself.

We live in a world that is marked with unprecedented pain and suffering, a world where unspeakable evil abounds. The response for the church -- the only response that matters -- is Jesus. That's it. It's not about relevance: Jesus is always and everywhere "relevant." The solution for "secular" churches, or churches that are "religious" and no more, is prayer for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, bringing a new awakening to the good news of Jesus.

Larry...You missed the point entirely.
The issue is ecclesiology...which is absent from the mega-church phenom you would say is alive outside the mainline denominations. The so-called "evangelical church" is an oxymoron as anti-historical, and anti-intellectua without any theologically-informed statemet of the church. This is today's religious church--be it mainline or "evangelical, fundamental or independent." The secular, present church of the presetlyliving Christ may be a vaible altenative, but evangelicals like you would need to define your church thelogically as more than a random gathering of lone rangers for Jesus who tack the Eucharist onto their services once a month.

Hello Paul,

Thanks for your comment. I am a little confused, however, by some of what you say. What do you mean, for example, that "ecclesiology...is absent from the mega-church phenom"? (And, incidentally, I'm not sure you know what I "would say is alive.")

Then, I'm also puzzled, trying to understand how the "evangelical church" is an "oxymoron as anti-historical, and anti-intellecual without any theologically informed staqtement of the church." Pretty strong words. Care to elaborate?

Larry....Please Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters from Prison to discover a theological basis for a powerless church contra today's mega-power church which is really not a church at all...it is a powerless, crucified Christ who authors our faith...please climb out of your individualism and move toward a more robust ecclesiology...the last statement of your article is the one that indicts you most...you still want a power-church...which explains why mega-churches have removed the cross so as not to offend seekers...I hope God is not a seeker!

Paul, thanks for your comment. I think you misunderstand my position. I am uninterested and unimpressed by some of the "powerful" megachurches. The power I long for is the present power of the Holy Spirit at work in, among, and through the people of God.

I would point to the words of Jesus to the infant church that when the Holy Spirit came upon them, they would receive power to be witnesses to the truth of Jesus (Acts 1:8). And that power was essential for success in obeying and living out God's purposes for the church.

It still is.

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  • Larry Baden said:
      Paul, thanks for your comment. I think you misunderstand my position. ...
  • paul bischoff said:
      Larry....Please Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters from Prison to discover ...
  • Larry Baden said:
      Hello Paul, Thanks for your comment. I am a little confused, however,...
  • paul bischoff said:
      Larry...You missed the point entirely. The issue is ecclesiology...whi...
  • Larry Baden said:
      Paul, I'm not sure I fully understand your comments, but it seems to m...
  • Paul Bischoff said:
      I'm deep into this issue and it involves on the definitions of secular...
  • Larry Baden said:
      Hello Christian, Your name is ironic, considering your comment. But y...
  • Christian said:
      Religion is dying out in the educated world. Still spreading like a v...
  • Larry Baden said:
      I'm sorry, but I am a simple writer, and have no people with which you...
  • Prophet Obed Nweru said:
      Am a lover of our Lord Jesus Christ preparing to come in to the United...

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