It was a rather stark headline, spelled out on the cover of Newsweek, over a black background, but there it was.
“The End of Christian America.”
Dr. Al Mohler, who serves as president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the oldest and now largest seminary belonging to Southern Baptists, is troubled by the news, reported in Newsweek, that the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has increased to 15%, representing double the number of a decade and a half ago, and that New England has joined the Pacific Northwest as a region of the country with the smallest percentage of people claiming church affiliation. Is this news all that much of a surprise? And really, how much different is the religious climate in America?
We should know from our own record keeping among Southern Baptists that even those who claim some kind of “affiliation” with the church is not representative of the actual numerical strength of either a local church or a denomination. There are more than 16 million names on the church rolls of the more than 45,000 churches affiliated with the SBC, but on any given Sunday, according to the same record, fewer than 6 million bodies are gathered in the pews. Most other denominations, give or take a few percentage points, have similar figures to report, which means that the actual percentage of Americans who can be found in churches on any given Sunday is probably closer to the 35 to 38% range, rather than the 73% total number of “church affiliated”.
I’m less disturbed by regional religious demographics than I am by the fact that the institutional church as it exists in America today seems to be both unwilling and unable to lead younger people to a faith in Christ and motivate them to serving in his name. We seem to be unable to distinguish between methods and practices of doing church that are traditional, and doctrines and teachings of the church that are eternal, and in mixing the two, are incapable of preaching the gospel in a way that is meaningful and relevant to the next generation. Our elders and our ancesters in the faith were able to make successful transitions from generation to generation, and the church in this culture always saw its better days down the road, until now.
Today, those who have been able to cross the cultural bridge have been roundly criticized and pushed away from the traditional denominational tent, yet they have been far more effective in communicating the gospel and engaging people in the church than the traditionalists have been. Taking the gospel where it is most needed, a practice that was modeled by Jesus himself when he accepted a dinner invitation from Matthew, a tax collector, is not a common practice in a church culture where the gospel has become cloistered within the walls of church buildings and buried in an attraction model of outreach (our church is better than your church; our preacher is better than your preacher so leave your church and come over here where “everyone else” is going) that cannot be found anywhere in the scripture. A church in St. Louis, with a high degree of success in penetrating the postmodern generation with the gospel, was subjected to severe criticism, and the state Baptist convention that had loaned them some church starting money threatened to call in the loan because they dared to venture into the world and take the gospel with them. A local pastor told me he was reluctant to become involved in ventures where members of his youthful congregation encountered older believers in traditional church settings because they had experiences in the past where they encountered mean-spirited criticism and mocking anger as a result of choices they have made regarding how they choose to share the gospel.
We’re an affluent church in an affluent culture, and we are used to having things our way in everything we do. We’ve taken that attitude inside the church we’ve created for ourselves, and rather than be challenged by the changes taking place around us, and seeing them as unique opportunities that require the moving of the Holy Spirit and the use of our collective spiritual gifts as the body of Christ, we’ve retreated within the walls of our fortress and set about to protect ourselves during the siege. “Do it our way or get out!” That’s the message we send, and that’s why Newsweek, and most other secular media, can write articles about the “end” of Christian America.