Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Decline in the American "Church"

Imagine the thought process behind the proposed solution to the problem of Christians not taking their faith seriously enough being a more relaxed & "relevant" (so-called) "Church"... I kid you not. This is what I endured at a recent Christian seminar.

The speaker, George Barna, backed by a PowerPoint presentation detailing the decline of American Christianity explained some dismal statistics about what Christians really believe. It said that less than half of Christians were "born again". I suppose he meant less than half of Christians would claim to be "born again" (as if you could really quantify in a graph who is really going to Heaven and who isn't).

He meant to come across as an objective observer of Christian trends - irrespective of denominational concerns. Firstly, the entire presentation was given strictly from a Protestant perspective. I'm not sure if the Catholic population was represented in any of his surveys (I suppose not) but even if they were, the direction of the talk ignored them. That's fine. You're a Protestant, you consider "Church" to be the invisible body of Christians who interpret the bible in a roughly similar way as you. I can deal with that. But he would make such comments as "Evangelicals are just part of the Church. They're a part of Christianity whose world view tends to be more in line with the Bible than others." (I wonder if he himself was an Evangelical and I wonder how one could quantify such a thing objectively).

He spoke about the unbelievable decline in morality within the "Church" and how fewer and fewer Christians even report that they believe in certain key doctrines. He bemoaned the secularization of American Christians.

All these things are problems in both Catholic and Protestant populations to be sure. But he missed some real key points. The culmination of this utterly failed look on Christianity in America and what to do about it was this: in the coming years we're going to see Christianity shift from "traditional church settings" to "alternative churches" (i.e. big screen tv's as the center piece of worship - hey who needs a freakin' altar?) The young generation is being influenced most by TV, movies, internet etc and thats where we need to focus our message.. Thats it?! That's your conclusion? You see such a decline in Christianity being serious and not only do you more or less say that the trends are going to take care of themselves but the trends are part of the solution?!

Am I being unreasonable or is it not too eccentric to assume for a brief (perhaps naive) moment in time that regarding the correlation between Christians no longer taking Christianity seriously and the gradual implementation of a more 'culturally hip' and 'relevant' "church" service there might be just a hint of causality going on? On the contrary, most Christians in America (don't even try to contradict me on this one, we all know it's true) seem to think that in order to save the relevance of the "Church" we need to make less distinction between "church" and their other worldly activities.

We need to be less uptight (reverent) have less archaic (beautiful) music, less solemn (serious), less preachy (Christ-like... oh I mean the REAL Christ - the One who kept talking about hellfire and what not) less traditional (orthodox) and for crying out loud - let's be more spiritual (Gnostic).

It's the classic Satanic lie. They point to a real problem (Christians don't take Christianity seriously) and propose a solution (be less reverent) that will at best make no difference and will usually make the problem worse (in this case I can assure you it will continue making the problem worse).

Fortunately, as Mr. Barna failed to recognize, there are significant changes being made in a certain portion of Christianity - that is.. the Catholic Church. The reform happening within the Church is pointing towards (and will achieve) greater reverence and solemnity of worship. The Church guards it. The 'reform' in the evangelical ecclesial community is moving in just the opposite direction (at least according to him and it seems that way to me as well). They want an e-church. Well, they can have it. But they should at least learn from the Catholic mistakes - we've been there, done that have the battle scars (hippie priests) to prove it.

It doesn't work. Mark my words - the more you laugh at something, the more others will think it's a joke. The less YOU take "Church" seriously, the less THEY will.


Anonymous said...

I agree 100%

Kim said...

This trend is what, I believe, is driving many Protestants toward the Catholic Church. It's what is driving me! I'm sick of this trying to be "relevant" stuff. Give me tradition! Give me the Church Fathers!

TheDen said...


Those are some great comments.

I think a lot of our priests need to understand that what people crave for is the Truth.

People don't want to go to Church to "feel good." They need to understand the message. They need to hear what God wants from them.

As Vatican II tells us, it's not just the clergy's responsibility to deliver the message. It's yours and mine (and all Christians) as well.

Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Amen brother.

Phil Snider said...

Well, I'm divided on this. Yes, a lot of what is coming out of the circles that Barna is talking about is pap, sometimes heretical pap.

And, yes, I'm skeptical whether 'up-to-date' media etc is going to be enough by themselvesto reverse the decline in numbers and seriousness of Christians today (of whatever denomination). Method, at the end of the day, will not get people into the pews. The message that we share will.

Yet, I'm not sure that we should be dismissing these methods unthinkingly either. Much of what made the Church Fathers speak to their culture so effectively is that they used the media they had to make cultural connections. Really, this is what Barna is suggesting and I think we are making an error if we dismiss these media out of hand without thinking how we might use it reverently and worshipfully.

My own criteria about this is that the choice of media should be done well (that is, have robust content as well as aesthetic value). That means a traditional service needs to be well done, not done for the sake of tradition. A contemporary service needs to be well-done, not just glitz and not substance. I've seen excellent examples of each and some pretty dreadful ones. My concern is that we give our all to God and the media is negotiable.

We do have to be ready to pillage the Egyptians (i.e. the culture surrounding us), if we have to, but our message is what is most important here.


japhy said...

There's a lot of "casual church" mentality nowadays. Man Church, where men having a "coach", not a "pastor", is one example. Liquid Church is another. Personality-church. Uber-contemporary stuff. Just watch their latest message (from their service this past Sunday).

... Then again, a parish I was at on Sunday (just visiting for something happening after Mass) had at least 5 minutes of football-related garbage at the end -- blessed are the Giants fans, for they shall be consoled; watch the football game, not the commercials; go big blue -- with a Bible Study announcement kind of stuffed in there as an afterthought. I was at that parish to assist Bible Study sign-ups. Only three or four people actually stopped by the table. Probably because the only thing they could think about was the Giants.

It's about pandering to people who want to feel connected to God without having to make much effort or do things outside of the ordinary, outside of their comfort zone. They want to worship "in spirit and truth" (whatever they think that means) without worshiping in body and mind.

Instead of making time for God, they want God to make concessions for them.

At least, that's what I get out of it.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Phil - I think you bring up some valid points and also don't misunderstand what I'm saying - I'm not trying to say Christians shouldn't use current media to help spread the gospel. By all means, use all (ethical) means available!

My problem was with the thrust of his presentation. Not only does his vision for the future of Christianity completely leave out the majority of Christians (Catholics & Orthodox and probably would leave out Anglicans as well) but I think his estimations are off too.

He thinks that by 2025 most "churches" will be alternative-churches. Obviously, this is only including evangelical ones (which would be fine if he had said so, but in his mind he's speaking of Christianity in general).

At any rate, I think its an evangelical/puritan mistake to take the sacrifice out of the mass (they did this long ago). Next they only want to even commemorate the mass monthly or even yearly. Next, they replace the altar and pulpit with a television screen. I think we're going to have serious problems here. In fact I'm sure of it.

But I'm not discounting what you're saying either. I'd rather go to a reverent mass that made use of technology and (shudder) "Contemporary music" than a traditional mass with unorthodox homilies and or irreverence at the altar.

It's just nearly always the other way around and I think the correlation is far from coincidental.

Tim A. Troutman said...

"It's about pandering to people who want to feel connected to God without having to make much effort or do things outside of the ordinary, outside of their comfort zone. They want to worship "in spirit and truth" (whatever they think that means) without worshiping in body and mind"

Japhy, you nailed it on the head. Thats exactly what is happening. We need leaders (even seminar leaders) to stand up and say "NO. I know thats what you think you want but you don't".

These church-goers are like four year olds wanting to play with daddy's chainsaw. Yes, you may feel very strongly that the chainsaw will satisfy you, but dad knows that not only will it not be any fun to play with - there are some serious dangers associated with it.

Julie said...

Tim, I agree with you on this. Thanks for a great post. Kim -- welcome!

Phil Snider said...


I take your point. Really, this kind of thing is the standard 'flavour-of-the-month' kind of thing. In the 90s, it was 'seeker-sensitive' mega-churches. Now, it is this kind of 'Emergent Church' rhetoric. Not everything is wrong with either movement, but there is plenty of schlock as well.

I do think that these movements do forget that they aren't the only way to be the Church, but that is a common problem with many evangelicals (and others, of course). You are right that much of what they assume would leave Anglicans out as well.

But, I think it is important to realize that many in these movements in evangelicalism recognize their short-comings and are approaching catholic ideas. For instance, Emergent Church voices are interested in the kind of liturgical understanding that both Roman Catholics and Anglicans prefer. At least, as far as embracing Taize, for instance. Heck, even some of the evangelical interest in the Fathers is coming from this direction.

Like anything, a little digging will reveal good and bad. Balance is called for here.


japhy said...

Can I get a buzzword-free, non-rhetoric definition of "Emergent Church", by the way? Maybe a bullet-point list or something simple to digest like that?

Tim A. Troutman said...

Good question Japhy. If the wikipedia article is the least bit representative of the truth about the movement (and I think it is based on what I've heard) I think there are some serious problems.

I keep hearing things like what Phil said, "Emergent Church voices are interested in the kind of liturgical understanding that both Roman Catholics and Anglicans prefer" but what I see in the real world seems to match up much closer to what the wiki article said and what Barna was basically getting out (without using the word).

I know someone personally - a couple who are in LA and started an ecclesial community that as far as I can tell would be legitimately called a part of the "emergent church movement". They basically seek to attract non-believers to their home-church style gatherings by developing relationships outside of Church and then inviting them personally.

I think many of the intentions of these emergent "churches" may well be in the right place. Unfortunately, they're grasping at the air. Sure, they might see some small success (and it's good) but there are much better ways of going about it - and their doctrine is going to lead as many people astray as their technology brings in.

Phil Snider said...


I'm not the expert on Emergent Church, but, from memory, these are some highlights.

1. They are post-modern. That is, they strongly suspect claims of objective truth as part of religious talk. Some Emergent Church folks are more rabid on this topic than others, but the suspicion is there with all.

2. They tend to define orthodoxy as being 'right worship' more than a set of propositions to which one must ascribe. This means that they accept a level of doctrinal fuzziness which a more traditional conservative tends to find problematic. The hope express is that, by permitting the fuzziness, the person will feel welcome and hopefully grow in their understanding of the faith and of Christ.

3. There is a stress on keeping conversations going, more than final results. This makes sense if one is resistant to a kind of faith which stresses adherence to certain propositions.

4. The Bible is considered the founding narrative of the Christian community and, hence, is authoritative in that sense. Narrative here is an important buzz word because this is what binds the community together: a shared narrative.

5. Community is crucial in the Emergent Church view. The community of believers is what a church is, so therefore, there is attention to intensifying the experience of community both by encouraging smaller, almost cell-group churches or by communities of Christians.

6. There is a tendency to come out on the left side of the political spectrum on issues like the environment, homosexuality and the political role of the religious right.

7. There is an interest in pre-modern expressions of faith and theology over the modern expressions. Church Fathers are among the authors which Emergent folks like, although I suspect they read them rather differently.

I'm sure I'm forgetting something, but, if you want a feeling, for what is happening: see href="http://www.emergentvillage.com/" or people like Brian Maclaren.

I hope that helps a bit.

Phil Snider said...


I agree in the sense that I'm concerned about where the Emergent Church is going. Some of its points are right, I think, but they are sometimes so fuzzy that it is hard to know what they mean.

And from an Anglican, that says a lot...:).


Kim said...

Some of its points are right, I think, but they are sometimes so fuzzy that it is hard to know what they mean.

I think that's their point. They don't want to fit in anywhere and be pigeon-holed, so they keep morphing. The ultimate in cool religion.

Phil Snider said...

I should add to my post on the Emerging Church. Orthopraxy--that is, right action is more important than right belief. That does mean worship, but also social justice types of things. There is a point in it: if one doesn't act on one's faith, what good is that faith? Still, I can't help but wonder if it doesn't get a little, shall we say, Pelagian at times.


Anonymous said...

How do you feel about preachers such as Andy Stanley or Louie Giglio? Have you ever heard them speak? They seem to speak TRUTH to me! I am not really sure about the "churches" they speak at, never been present there. I have only heard their sermons online at www.northpointministries.com, check them out if you have not. I am just curious what you think about their preaching and their accounts on TRUTH and God's Word! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, that was www.northpointministries.org