The reports, studies and news stories seemed to pour out this past week on the diminishing role orthodox Christian faith has in America. Here’s a sampling:
From USA Today, “More Americans customize religion to fit their personal needs,” a look at new research indicating that one day “310 million people” might have “310 million religions.” Today, people are “making up God as they go.” So if World War II-era warbler Kate Smith sang today, her anthem would be “Gods Bless America.” The article was based on research by both George Barna and LifeWay Research.
From the New York Times, a lament from columnist David Brooks on the findings from the recently released research led by Christian Smith in the book Lost in Transition, the third in a series of reports from the largest study of its kind on American youth. Result? The almost complete inability to think and talk about moral issues. After rape and murder, they had a hard time even thinking what else might fall into the “moral” category, much less what might be immoral. Their default position? Moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?” Another typical response: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”
From the National Post in Toronto, Canada, an almost comical question: in the midst of the widely documented desertion of the Quebec church, what is going to happen to the province’s preferred swear words? When a Quebecer whacks their thumb with a hammer or gets cut off in traffic, the curses that spew forth are overwhelmingly drawn from objects found in the church: ostie, tabarnak, ciboire, calice, criss! So how long can the distinctively Quebecois swear words survive in a secular age?
If there is one strategic insight I try to pass on to other church leaders, it is this: we have moved from an Acts 2 cultural context to an Acts 17 cultural context.
Both scenes from the New Testament portray a classic engagement of contemporary culture.
In Acts 2, you have Peter before the God-fearing Jews of Jerusalem. His message is easily paraphrased:
“You know about the creation, Adam and Eve, and the fall; you know about Moses and the Law; you know about Abraham and the chosen people of Israel; you know of the prophets and the promised coming of the Messiah. So we don’t need to waste time on that. What you need to know is that Jesus was that Messiah, you rejected him, and now you are in deep weeds and need to repent.”
That was it!
And 3,000 did!
Peter was able to speak to a group of people who were already monotheists, already bought into the Old Testament scriptures, and already believed in a coming Messiah.
Now, move to Acts 17.
Here is Paul on Mars Hill, speaking to the philosophers and spiritual seekers of Athens. Here was a spiritual marketplace where truth was relative; worldviews and gods littered the landscape; and the average person wouldn’t know Abraham from an apricot.
He knew he wasn’t in Kansas - I mean Jerusalem - anymore.
So he didn’t take an Acts 2 approach, much less give an Acts 2 message. He had to find a way to connect with the culture, and the people in it. So he looked around and found a touchstone – an altar to an unknown God. The culture was so pluralistic that the only thing they could agree on was that you couldn’t know anything for sure.
“What if I could tell you that God’s name? Would that be of interest?”
Paul then went all the way back to creation, and began to work his way forward – laying a foundation for the understanding and acceptance of the gospel.
That is where we find ourselves today, needing to build bridges of understanding to the culture, meeting on that bridge, and then helping those who wish to walk across to the other side.
Which means our primary currency is going to be “explanation.”
It's not enough to move from a King James Version of the Bible to the NIV, or even Eugene Peterson's The Message in our speaking. We must begin by saying, "This is a Bible. It has sixty-six books. There's an Old Testament and a New Testament. It tells the story of us and God."
When it comes to apologetics, we need less talks on “Reasons to Believe the Bible” and more series dealing with “This is the Bible.” And then Easter messages that move beyond “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead” to “So What If He Did?”
But it’s going to take more than just explanation.
It’s going to take looking – hard – at ourselves in the mirror. Meaning those of us who say we follow Jesus.
Because who is making up their faith for themselves?
Who can’t think or talk about moral issues?
Often, it is just as much a “Christian” as it is a non-Christian.
Perhaps the most startling research flowing from Barna was released in his book Maximum Faith. He reports that four out of five self-identified Christian adults (81%) say they have made a personal commitment to Christ that is important in their life.
So far, so good.
Yet less than one out of those very same five (18%) claim to be invested in spiritual development. About the same number (22%) say they are actually dependent upon God.
Let’s state the obvious:
America is becoming increasingly secular and losing whatever Christian moorings it once had.
We are standing on Mars Hill, not Jerusalem, and need to wake up to our true cultural context.
But let’s not forget the rest of the story.
If those who claim to follow Christ do not actually follow Him, then we will have nothing to offer the world it does not already have.
And it won’t matter whether we are in Kansas or not.
Because we’re not from Kansas ourselves.
James Emery White
“More Americans tailoring religion to fit their needs,” Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA Today, Tuesday, September 13, 2011, p. 2A. Read online.
George Barna, Futurecast (2011).
“If It Feels Right ...”, David Brooks, The New York Times, September 12, 2011. Read online.
Christian Smith, et al., Lost in Transition (2011).
“Can Quebec’s Church-based curse words survive in a secular age?”, Graeme Hamilton, The National Post, September 10, 2011. Read online.
“Self-Described Christians Dominate America but Wrestle with Four Aspects of Spiritual Depth,” George Barna, report released September 13, 2011. Read online.
To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.