Part 1: An Introduction to the Problem Facing the 21st Century Western Church

The “Takeover and Colonization of Christianity”

20100410-_MG_8446 Twenty-first century Western Christianity is in dire straits. Europe exists in a post-Christian state, and many believe that the United States is effectively on a path towards that same end. While some may argue that there has been a resurgence of evangelical growth, what with such phenomena as the megachurch or emergent church movements, it seems that more and more people in the U.S. are choosing to affiliate themselves with no religion[1]. Whereas up through the mid-twentieth century one could expect an average United States citizen to understand the tenets of a Judeo-Christian heritage, a worldview of pluralism is now permeating the environment, essentially deadening secular society’s sensory receptors pertaining to moral truths. Strangely enough, we find that this state of affairs has occurred despite the West having experienced over 60 years of peace, prosperity, and religious freedom. Or, perhaps, I should state that this condition has occurred because of said peace, prosperity, and religious freedom.

In their book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton detail out the results of an extensive interview process of 267 teenagers across the United States.[2] Their conclusions paint a picture of a next generation of adults with a distorted view of religion, especially Christianity. Using the term Moral Therapeutic Deism, Smith and Denton describe the “creed” with which many of today’s teenagers view religion, and Christianity. They describe the tenets of this creed as,

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die. [3]

They go on to write,

Therapeutic individualism defines the individual self as the source and standard of authentic moral knowledge and authority, and individual self-fulfillment as the preoccupying purpose of life. Subjective, personal experience is the touchstone of all that is authentic, right, and true… Members of therapeutic individualistic cultures are encouraged in various ways to “get in touch with their honest feelings” and to “find” their “true selves”… Moreover, moral duties, pain, and suffering are not seen, as they traditionally often were, as an inevitable part of life to be endured or perhaps through which one should grow in personal character and spiritual depth. Rather, these are largely avoidable displeasures to be escaped in order to realize a pleasurable life of happiness and positive self-esteem. [4]

[emphasis mine]

20100412-_MG_8609 A preoccupation with self, combined with an almost hedonistic view of happiness, is driving the worldview of followers of Moral Therapeutic Deism.

With regards to teenagers, and to believers of all ages, many are warning that a worldview of Moral Therapeutic Deism, along with a general lack of coherent understanding of concrete Christian faith doctrines, results in an acceptance of pluralism and, consequently, a rejection (whether conscious or sub-conscious) of the belief in objective truth.

In his talk and study guide From Truth to Experience: Why the Church is Losing Its Vitality in the 21st Century, Greg Koukl (of Stand to Reason) argues that relativism, indeed moral relativism, has infiltrated the church in America. Citing Barna research from 2001[5], Koukl presents the following statistics regarding “born-again” believers. “Born again” believers were first defined by the following questions:

Have you ever made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in your life today?

If the respondent answered “yes” then they were asked a follow-up question about life after death. One of the seven perspectives a respondent may have chosen was,

When I die, I will go to Heaven because I have confessed my sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as my savior.

Individuals answering “yes” to the first question and then selecting this perspective as their belief were categorized as “born again.”

With that basis, Barna provided the following beliefs of “born-again” Christians in the United States:[6]

45% believe Satan does not exist.
34% believe that if a person is good enough they can earn a place in Heaven.
28% believe that, while on earth, Jesus committed sins.
15% believe that Jesus did not physically return to life after his death on the cross.
26% believe that it doesn’t matter which faith you follow because they all teach the same life lessons.
68% do not believe in moral absolutes.

For “born-again” Christian teenagers, the issue is even more desperate.

91% do not believe in moral absolutes!

One way in which relativism can infiltrate the church is in the form of subjective experience which, when combined with an over-emphasis on the personal and relational aspect of Christianity, may tend to drive believers towards a dependence not on the Word of God but on their personal opinion about the Word of God. Recall that Smith & Denton concluded that, Subjective, personal experience is the touchstone of all that is authentic, right, and true, for followers of Moral Therapeutic Deism.

Yet, we followers of Christ, here in the West, live in a cultural environment supposedly rich with a history of religious freedom. We have at our disposal the benefit of discipleship tools our predecessors in the faith could not have even dreamed of. We have access to a seemingly countless supply of interpretations and translations of the Bible, as well as a plethora of commentaries and Biblical expositions. Unfortunately, I think that along with freedom has come laziness; and along with a lack of persecution has come a secular cultural acceptance of religion (as one of but many “valid” worldviews). It should come as no surprise, then, that there is an evolved syncretism on our part – those defined as evangelicals – with an acceptance of, and a willful participation in, the ways of the world.

Consider, for a moment, some of the various means with which the United States was able to grow into a rich and powerful nation: a land full of natural resources, people fleeing oppression and mandating freedom – especially religious freedom – in their new home, founding fathers who understood man’s natural propensity for depravity, a people with a strong desire to succeed and a passion to explore, and an economic system which rewarded hard work by the individual and the corporation. Now, consider how some of those same means helped the evangelical church in America become strong – strong enough to propel the United States into producing some of the greatest missionary movements for the Gospel.

But at what cost?

_MG_7790 In my opinion, the current state of affairs of the evangelical church in America is due, in part, to a pragmatic approach to evangelism birthed, also in part, within an evangelical capitalistic mindset. When combined within a recent history (60+ years) of peace, prosperity and unprecedented technological advancement, and a secular culture which has become indifferent to the truly counter-cultural aspects of Christianity, the result is an essentially impotent form of Christianity, which has become syncretistic with a secular culture steeped in narcissism and relativism.

In this five part series I will argue that the problems facing Christianity in the West stem from:

1) A pragmatic mindset derived more from capitalism than from scripture,

2) An emotion-based view of Christianity, which gives too much importance to the feelings of an individual and to that of making proselytes, and

3) A cultural laziness which has evolved both from prosperity as well as an attitude that life’s main goal is to have fun.

Finally, I will propose that, as a solution to the predicament we are in, there are good reasons for the evangelical church in America to stop focusing on making proselytes and to put their efforts into making disciples. In so doing we will take, as an example, the early Church and what it truly means to be counter-cultural.

– all photographs © A. R. Lopez

[1] Wikipedia, Irreligion in the United States, (June 20, 2011).

[2] Christian Smith & Melinda Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 118.

[3] Smith & Denton, 162-163.

[4] Smith & Denton, 173.

[5] Barna Research, Americans Are Most Likely to Base Truth on Feelings, (Feb. 12, 2002).

[6] Gregory Koukl, From Truth to Experience: Why the Church Is Losing Its Vitality in the 21st Century, Stand to Reason, (2004), 5.

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