How’s that for a provocative title, especially for Christmas Eve?
It comes off the heels of my previous entry and a short conversation I had with someone who graciously answered some questions after she responded to my original question: Is atheism dead?
She answered simply: “No.” I then asked a few questions including why atheists seem to be antagonistic more toward Christianity than any other religion. Her answer—based on her experiences, including with a group of atheists she once attended—confirmed what I already suspected. From a purely grammatical perspective, it’s a well-written response. I could tell each word she chose was intentional, something the writer in me can appreciate (used with permission):
“I think the focus on ‘not Jesus’ is because Christianity is the most virulent in the United States, at least where I live. All of the people I met had some run in with Christian cults, not with Islam or any other. Take for instance Greek gods. Most people dismiss those as ancient fiction, so the atheists discuss them like science or history. They don’t feel threatened by ancient Greek or Roman gods because there is nobody here that presses them to fire sacrifice their dinner in a temple. On the other hand, there was a Christian who came to the meetings to try and convert the atheists to his religion. These are the only examples that I know and that came out during the conversation. We didn’t discuss other religions.”
Her answer makes perfect sense. How can anyone honestly criticize a religion they’ve never been exposed to? Nor do I think her perspective is unique.
Back in March of this year, Gallup did a study that revealed for the first time ever, less than 50% of the US population claim to be members of a house of worship. According to the study, it’s largely due to an increase of people who have no religious preference (more on that in a bit). Yet those who do have a religious preference are also dropping out of attending a church. Some of it appears to be generational. The older a person, the more likely they are to be a regular member/attendee. Even so, older generations are still attending less or claiming no affiliation.
Interesting tidbit: Southern/Republicans have a lower drop in attendance rates than Eastern/Democrats.
The fact so many churches closed over the last two years due to the thing-that-shall-not-be-named have likely caused the more precipitous drop, but the drop has been trending for decades.
So what’s causing the trend?
Gallop did another study in 2017 that might help explain it. It boils down to what the churches themselves are doing—or not doing. According to this study, the main reasons people stay or leave a specific church are sermon content (76%), real-life applications (75%), child/teenager programs (64%), and community outreach/volunteer opportunities (59%). Lowest in importance are social activities (49%) and choir/band/music (38%).
Taking those two surveys into consideration, church attendance may be falling because their sermons, life applications, and programs for children are lacking.
Now for the anecdotal.
The church I attended for over fifteen years did all of the above necessary for a healthy church: great sermons, plenty of bible studies for all sexes and ages geared toward real-world applications, amazing community outreach, and programs for children/teens.
Until the-thing-that-shall-be-not-named hit.
I eventually left the church permanently due to fundamental disagreements with how the church responded to it. The details are irrelevant at this point. Suffice to say, I became one of the statistics where I claimed no church affiliation for about a year. Another member once confided in me that he was getting frustrated with an increasing lack of preaching on the harder parts of scripture–mainly the dangers of sin.
Feeling a bit lost after that year, I searched for and found another church. Three things kept me coming back:
1. Pastors who don’t shy from or make apologies for preaching on the hard stuff. They also revere scripture; they ask the audience to stand whenever they read a passage. I’d never seen that before.
2. Bible studies on a slew of subjects and for all ages and sexes.
3. Youth programs. My son loves the programs so much, he looks forward to meeting every Sunday (at 8:30 am!) and Wednesday evenings to the point he won’t let me make any excuses to not take him.
This church is also one that’s growing while too many others are dying, making it an exception. I also live in a mid-western state where church attendance is still relatively high (it’s still dropping overall, just at a much slower rate).
Another reason—which ties into the lack of a good message, I think—is increasing church arguments over fundamental doctrines, and even the Bible itself. Who wants to be a member of a church that can’t agree over the most basic tenants of their faith, argue over what scripture does and doesn’t say, and eventually split?
Does all this mean I agree with the idea that Christianity is dying?
As emphatic as the lady above was with atheism not being dead, I give an emphatic “no” that Christianity is not dying. At least not world-wide.
What’s dying is the American church—generally speaking. Some might say that’s a good thing, and for many reasons which I won’t get into. This entry is already quite long, so thank you for sticking with me this far.
From my admittedly biased perspective, I see it as God pulling his support from the churches who’ve set aside their love of Jesus in favor of embracing secular/societal beliefs that directly contradict scripture, or for potential monetary gain (Prosperity Gospel anyone?). Or to put it more directly, he’s separating the wheat from the chaff. All we can hope to remain is a remnant that holds true, and will perhaps attract others who are searching for the concrete instead of the mercurial.
I alway say God is a fan of paradox. I’m not alone in thinking this according to an article by Christianity Today titled, “Proof That Political Privilege is Harmful for Christianity.” Subtitle: “Analysis of 166 nations suggests the biggest threat to Christian vitality is not persecution, affluence, education, or pluralism. It’s state support.”
One quote: “… some scholars have suggested the cause is rather the accumulation of wealth. Increasing prosperity, it is believed, frees people from having to look to a higher power to provide for their daily needs. In other words, there is a direct link from affluence to atheism.”
We therefore shouldn’t be surprised that Christianity is “dying” in western, affluent societies, yet growing by leaps in countries where it’s effectively outlawed such as in China and India.
Does that mean we should hope for the United States government to officially outlaw Christianity and start persecuting Christians in order to see growth instead of decline? Not at all. What I hope to convey is that we need to shift our focus back to our “first love,” (See Revelation 2:4-5) and worship only Jesus instead pushing him aside in favor of the loves of this world.
If we don’t, then we will see Christianity die. At least in the United States.