Book: Lord, What Should I Do?

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While many Americans consider themselves to be Christians, the nation’s popular culture, its government and educational institutions, its laws, its entertainment industry, and especially its news media have clearly become not only un-Christian, but anti-Christian. A veritable tug-of-war has taken place between Christianity and secular culture—and by all accounts, the church isn’t winning.

A key reason, according to David Kupelian, is that when the church should have been at the forefront in the country’s “culture wars,” it too was seduced by worldliness. In his provocative book The Marketing of Evil, Kupelian quotes Francis Schaeffer, who is widely regarded as one of the most influential evangelical thinkers and writers of modern times. Schaeffer takes the position that, for the most part, Christians seem to have drawn back and failed to engage in a meaningful way in the ongoing battle for American culture. In his book The Great Evangelical Disaster, Schaeffer writes: “Most of the evangelical world has not been active in the battle, or even been able to see that we are in a battle” (Kupelian, p. 226). In describing the “failure of the evangelical world to stand for [the] truth,” he says the church has “accommodated” the world—tried to fit in. In turn, the “evangelical disaster” has led to the further breakdown of America’s culture.

Schaeffer writes that it has been “the weakness and accommodation of the evangelical group on the issues of the day that has been largely responsible for the loss of the Christian ethos” over the past few decades (p. 226). Such accommodation, he writes, is nothing less than “worldliness.”

Kupelian suggests that such “accommodation” by evangelical Christians was ostensibly an attempt to gain new converts, the idea being that you have to go where the unconverted are, act like them, look like them—all in hopes of winning their trust. But as we will see, this approach is completely contrary to the biblical instructions. Kupelian gives the following example: “[Youth] pastors at some point started to dispense with their formal attire and instead appeared before teenagers without coat and tie, so as not to appear a stuffed shirt. That’s a reasonable accommodation. But what happens when the youth leader’s strategy of going tie-less turns into his dressing like a rap singer, talking jive, and wearing earrings? That’s what’s happening in Christian pop culture today” (p. 228).

Whatever the motive—fear of rejection, doubtfulness, need for acceptance and approval—wanting to fit in and be like the world is just the opposite of what Jesus instructed His followers to do. Notice: “I have given them Your words, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:14; also verse 16). The world will despise you if you practice true Christianity because you will be so completely different in every aspect of your life—because you will refuse to “fit in” and participate in today’s popular culture. James adds: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).

How many Christians do you know like that?
Perhaps unwittingly, Christianity has indeed been seduced by those who market popular culture. In the end, Kupelian argues that we have been seduced because “a hidden, selfish part of us wanted to embrace” the falsehoods of secular popular culture (p. 240). Jared Wilson concurs, noting that “in American culture, it has often become hard to distinguish between the body of Christ and the culture of society” (Your Jesus Is Too Safe, p. 6; emphasis added). Wilson says Christians often quote such passages as “Judge not lest you be judged,” or “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”—because we want to “justify how we live without the pesky burden of what Jesus requires of us” (p. 14).
In Revolution, Barna laments the considerable “disconnection between what [the Barna Group’s] research consistently shows about [the conduct of] churched Christians and what the Bible calls us to [actually] be” (p. 31). If Christians are what they claim to be, adds Barna, “their lives should be noticeably and compellingly different from the norm.” According to Barna’s 2005 data, of the 77 million Americans who claimed to be churchgoing “born again” Christians, fully half of them admitted that they had not “experienced a genuine connection” with God over the past year (p. 32). Moreover, less than 10 percent claimed to possess a “biblical worldview”—a core set of beliefs that they have proven as absolute truth (the other 90 percent claimed only a patchwork of theological views) (p. 33).

Is it any wonder then that “worldliness” is as much a problem inside mainstream Christianity as it is outside?

Youth Opting Out of Church

Disappointed churchgoers are not the only ones saying that church has little to do with the way believers actually live their lives. According to David Kinnaman, young nonbelievers (which he refers to as “outsiders”) are well aware of their peers’ “lifestyle gap.” In his book unChristian, Kinnaman says that “eighty-five percent of young outsiders have had sufficient exposure to Christians and churches that they conclude present-day Christianity is hypocritical” (p. 42; emphasis added). He notes that many of these outsiders were once insiders who attended church. Now, their negative perception has bled over “into the perspectives of young churchgoers,” of which 47 percent agree that Christianity has a serious problem with hypocrisy (pp. 42-43).

Thus, young churchgoers are frustrated by what they see—a failed system in which too many Christians simply do not live according to their beliefs. As Duin writes, “when church isn’t relevant, the first ones out the door are usually the young” (p. 37). She points to mid-2006 research which suggests that, at current dropout rates, only four percent of American teens will end up as Bible-believing churchgoers (compare this to 35 percent of baby boomers and 65 percent of their World War II-era grandparents).

Drew Dyck, a lead researcher for Christianity Today, writes on the magazine’s Web site that the May 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that “young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate” (“The ‘Leavers’: Young Doubters Exit the Church”;

Dyck also notes that, according to Rainer Research, approximately 70 percent of America’s young people drop out of church between the ages of 18 and 22. Similarly, the Barna Group estimates that 80 percent of those reared in the church will be “disengaged” by the time they are 29.

The epidemic of young people leaving the established church does not mean they have given up on God, just the failed system. Young people do not resonate with what is being presented to them in church. Christian author Steve Mansfield says young people “are voting with their feet. The next generation is not going to church. For the most part, they are going to the First Church of Starbucks”—where they will sit, drinking a latte and studying relevant Christian teaching material. This, Mansfield says, is the future of the church. “In fifteen years, present trends continuing, the church in America will be half of what it [now] is” (Duin, p. 38; emphasis added).

Duin writes that many frustrated Christians, especially those of the younger generation, are “creating their own wineskins instead of dealing with the current structure” (p. 33). The failure of the one-size-fits-all corporate church has forced them into the parachurch sector—home fellowships, small-group meetings, coffeehouse studies, reliance on printed materials or Internet ministries. They understand that the church is the spiritual body of Christ (I Cor. 12:13), and cannot be defined by corporate charters or contained by bricks and mortar.

Young Adults Walking Away from Christianity

While many in their 20s and 30s are opting out of organized religion, a significant number are actually walking away from Christianity itself. Dyck has studied this phenomenon and sees a significant trend developing among young adults. In his Web article noted above, he writes that “sociologists are seeing a major shift taking place away from Christianity” among young Americans.

Referencing the results of the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), Dyck notes that the percentage of Americans claiming “no religious affiliation” has almost doubled in about two decades—from 8.1 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. The trend has been fairly uniform across the nation—even in the so-called Bible belt. Significantly, 22 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds claimed to be “unaffiliated”—up from 11 percent in 1990. Moreover, 73 percent of those came from “religious” homes, and an amazing 66 percent described themselves as “de-converts”—meaning they had opted out of Christianity altogether.

Based on his thousands of interviews with young adults, Kinnaman likewise concludes: “The vast majority of outsiders [those who do not claim to be Christian] in this country, particularly among young generations, are actually de-churched individuals” (unChristian, p. 74). As the de-churched, he refers to Dyck’s “de-converts”—those who were once part of the Christian community, but no longer consider themselves to be Christian. Again, they’re not just church dropouts, disenchanted with corporate religion; they have, in Kinnaman’s terms, put Christianity itself “on the shelf” (p. 74). In other words, the problem of today’s young adults leaving the church is not just about their becoming un-Christian, it’s also about them choosing to become ex-Christians.

But why are so many young people turning their backs on Christianity? According to Dyck, the answer is complex. He notes that there is a subgroup of young Christians who have chosen to drop out of church because of abuse—those he calls recoilers. In an interview with The Christian Post, Dyck said recoilers are those who have left the faith because of “painful childhood or teenage experiences with the church.” He adds: “They have become disillusioned with faith because the people they sanctified let them down. God is guilty by association” (Michelle Vul, The Christian Post, Jan. 6, 2011; Vul discusses Dyck’s new book, Generation Ex-Christian;

However, Dyck points largely to one key factor: moral compromise. Many young Christians, he writes, experience an unbearable level of “conflict between belief and behavior. Tired of dealing with a guilty conscience and unwilling to abandon their sinful lifestyles, they drop their Christian commitment. They may cite intellectual skepticism or disappointments with the church, but these are smokescreens designed to hide the [real] reason. [In effect,] they change their creed to match their deeds…” (emphasis added).

While some young people have had distinct “postmodern misgivings”—that is, they have fundamental difficulties with the teachings of mainstream Christianity—or may have experienced some form of abuse associated with church, most young adults who abandon the faith do so in order to adopt a lifestyle that falls outside the bounds of Christian morality. Ultimately, they desire worldliness instead of godliness.

As Dyck rightly notes, “the Christian life is hard to sustain in the face of so many temptations”—especially for the younger generation. But Dyck has come to the conclusion that it is the church itself that has failed to equip young people to fight the good fight. “I realized that most ‘leavers’ had been exposed to [only] a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculated them against authentic faith” (emphasis added). Kinnaman has come to a similar conclusion: “It is easy to embrace a costless form of Christianity in America today, and we [the church leadership] have probably contributed to that by giving [young] people a superficial understanding of the gospel and focusing only on their decision to convert” (p. 75; emphasis added).

“Churchanity’s” narrow-minded rush to increase membership rolls has led to the development of spiritually weak, ill-prepared converts—particularly among young people. Instead of emphasizing personal transformation and practical faith according to Scripture, young people have been sold a feel-good religion—one that fails miserably when stacked up against the pulls and temptations of society.

According to Dyck, when sociologists examined the spiritual lives of American teenagers, they found that most teens were practicing a religion best described as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”—which “casts God as a distant Creator who blesses people who are good, nice and fair.” The central goal in such a religion is to help believers “be happy and feel good” about themselves. Where did teenagers learn this “faith”? Unfortunately, says Dyck, it’s one “taught, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, at every age level in many churches. It’s in the air that many churchgoers breathe, from seeker-friendly worship services to low-commitment small groups. When this naive and coldly utilitarian view of God crashes on the hard rocks of reality”—the trials and temptations of real life—“we shouldn’t be surprised to see people of any age walk away” from Christianity.

Barna Group research shows that only three percent of young people who say they have (or had) made a commitment to follow Christ possess a clearly-defined set of beliefs based on the Scriptures, particularly in the area of absolute moral truth. As Kinnaman notes, “What Scripture teaches is the primary grid for [young people] making decisions and interacting with the world” (p. 75). When that “grid” is not in place—when all you have is a “feel-good” religion—morality is the first thing out the window. Ultimately, in a “lightweight [emotionally-based] exposure to Christianity, where a decision for Christ is portrayed as simple and costless, [the experience] will fail to produce lasting faith in young people” (Kinnaman, p. 76).

Compounding the problem is the fact that many young people who express their concerns or doubts about Christianity are often ridiculed or treated with contempt. Dyck writes that in his interviews with young people who have left the faith, numerous de-converts reported “sharing their burgeoning doubts with a Christian friend or family member only to receive trite, unhelpful answers.”

This utter failure to engage young believers in a relevant, Bible-based, life-changing faith experience falls squarely at the feet of America’s ministers and pastors. But too many “Christian” leaders do not really believe or follow the Bible themselves—so how can they be expected to teach our young people to do so? Today’s so-called Christianity is based largely on carefully selected New Testament passages (mostly from Paul’s writings) that are twisted to make them appear to teach a “soft Christianity”—a costless “faith” void of works and indifferent to clear biblical teachings. Thus, the typical teenager’s “conversion” is based on a fleeting emotional experience wherein the new “believer” is enamored with a popularized, bumper-sticker “Jesus.” But without an informed biblical foundation centered on personal change, works and obedience—with a corresponding network of support from mature Christians—the young person will soon discover that their “religion” is of little help when it comes to facing the pressures of this world.