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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Decline and Fall of Christian America

Last month the cover article of Newsweek was titled "The Decline and Fall of Christian America." It cited recent polls which indicate that the number of professing Christians is on the rapid decline. In less than 20 years the number of those who profess to have no religious affiliation has doubled from 8 to 15 percent. From a Christian perspective, this may not be all bad news. Such a sharp decline is at least as much reflective of a growing sense that it is socially acceptable to be an unbeliever as it is that true believers are abandoning their faith. This, I think, is a good thing. For quite some time in America it has been, and still is in much of our country, socially advantageous to identify oneself as a Christian. As such, the church has always been filled with those who simply "go to church" because that's what you're supposed to do. Such "Christians" are quintessentially nominal--in name only. But being a true follower of Jesus means nothing less than reorienting the entirety of one's life around the reality of his lordship over all of creation. As such, if the church is losing the nominal, we might see it as a welcome foreshadowing of God's separation of the wheat and the tares. Moreover, nothing is more damaging to evangelistic efforts than those who acknowledge Jesus with their lips but deny Him with their lifestyles. My prayer is of course that those who have left the church will return, but now not as those seeking social status but as those who genuinely desire to seek God.

Unfortunately, I doubt the decline is due simply to the loss of the nominal. But the picture of Christianity that Newsweek paints leads me to suspect one central reason as to why many true seekers have turned away from the faith--they simply don't understand what Christianity is really about. This is not surprising. The uniqueness of Christianity is so counter-intuitive that historically its essence has often been distorted. Many people say that all religions are the same--and based on the picture of Christianity painted in this article--I would agree. But simply put, you can sum up the difference between Christianity and all other religions as Tim Keller does. Religion says, "I obey, therefore I am accepted." But authentic Christianity says "I am accepted, therefore I obey." These two statements are polar opposites. It is Christianity's uniqueness that reveals how it is that all religions except for Christianity really are essentially the same and directly contradict the Christian worldview. However, it is our human nature to resort to the religious worldview and so historically Christianity itself has often had a tendency to lose its flavor and become like every other religion. The Christianity portrayed in Newsweek would certainly be guilty of this. The article's author, Jon Meacham, shows that he too has bought in to this misconception in this summary statement:

"Roughly put, the Christian narrative is the story of humankind as chronicled in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament—the drama of creation, fall and redemption. The orthodox tend to try to live their lives in accordance with the general behavioral principles of the Bible (or at least the principles they find there of which they approve) and anticipate the ultimate judgment of God—a judgment that could well determine whether they spend eternity in heaven or in hell."

Meacham starts off his summary right on target. Christianity is fundamentally about creation, fall, and redemption. But his further analysis betrays a complete misunderstanding of this. Creation, fall, redemption is not about "trying to live their lives in accordance with the general behavioral principles of the Bible." This is exactly the kind of moralism that is at the heart of mere religion. But creation, fall, and redemption is about what God has done precisely because we have failed to live in accordance with the aforementioned biblical principles. As God brings about redemption, his followers do in fact begin to follow these principles, but it isn't by one's own efforts but by the power of God working in the life of the believer. One adheres to biblical principles not because they have to in order to be accepted by God but because they are already accepted and are empowered by God to live in such a way---a way that is in fact the best way to live. And here's where the rubber meets the road. Christians should not depend on the government to enforce morality but on the working of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the redeemed. Forcing a person to act like a Christian no more makes them a Christian than throwing them in the ocean makes them a fish. I agree with Charles Finney who says as quoted in the article that "the great business of the church is to reform the world—to put away every kind of sin" but we must be very careful with his conclusion that Christians are "bound to exert their influence to secure a legislation that is in accordance with the law of God." I do not wish to delve into the complex issue of how a Christian is to live in a democracy, but suffice it to say that true Christian reform is accomplished when God writes the law not on stone tablets but on the heart. A nation that relies on the government to enforce biblical principles is not a Christian nation but a religious one, and those who look to the government in this manner misunderstand the primary means by which redemption is to take place. If those who have turned away from Christianity have done so because they understand it as it is portrayed by Newsweek--primarily about enforcing a moral way of life--they have put the cart before the horse and rejected not Christianity but religion.

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