David Gushee and “Why Is Christianity Declining?”


church demolitionEver hear the one about things happening in threes?

I’m a Vine Reviewer with Amazon.com, and recently, David P. Gushee’s new book A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends: From Fear to Faith in Unsettled Times came up in my review queue. The title sounded interesting, so I bit on reviewing it. Later that afternoon, Gushee was mentioned on an episode of the podcast Breakpoint. Then later that weekend, I read an article at Religion News Service called “Why Is Christianity Declining?” by…well, I’ll let you guess.

So who is David Gushee? Interestingly, he has a Wikipedia entry, so perhaps you should check it out.

Did you? An impressive set of credentials, right? Well, except perhaps for being on the board of directors for Sojourners. But hey, no one’s perfect.

But back to his 10 reasons why Christianity is in decline.

So, you read it and came back. Notice what I noticed?

Yes, all those reasons are largely societal perceptions or sociological in nature. Almost none is related to spirituality.

To me, the great failure of contemporary Christianity is that we have turned everything about the faith into something made by man. It’s about marketing. It’s about demographics. It’s about the intersection of faith and science. It’s about affluence, antisupernaturalism, family tradition, or some other thing rooted in data points.

What it’s almost never about is a person’s relationship with God.

Where is that mentioned in Gushee’s list? Nowhere. Heck, he even adds seven more points and still doesn’t touch on it.

To me, that’s an epic fail, because I think the real reason Christianity may be declining in America is a lot of leading Christians have lost all concept of the faith being about intimacy with God.

People today are not meeting God. They aren’t experiencing the Kingdom of God either. And people who neither meet God nor experience His Kingdom in its fullness won’t stick around in a church more about entertainment and head knowledge than a genuine, living, breathing intimacy with the Creator.

The source of the problem? Christian leaders who are incapable of getting people to that place of intimacy with God. I get tired of the ones who make faith into a solely intellectual endeavor. Or a sociological one. I get upset at leaders who look at every problem and prescribe some kind of change in church programming based on the latest psychology experiments or the trends in marketing espoused by some business guru. More lights! Louder music! The latest fad!

Aren’t you sick to death of all that crap? Because that’s what it is, utter crap.

When you walk into the assembly of believers in church on Sunday, are you encountering the living God of the Universe? If not, why not? And if not, who can blame you for walking out?

There’s a massive number of people getting together each Sunday who have convinced themselves that they have this great Christian thing going in their church, but where is the evidence of God meeting people there in a powerful way that blows away all skepticism? It’s not there in most cases. Which is remarkably sad, especially for those self-deceived people.

Some people don’t like Leonard Ravenhill, but I have to keep going back to what he said: You never have to advertise a fire.

The buzzword in Christian circles is authenticity. In reality, the most authenticity you can have on any given Sunday—or anywhere at anytime—is to meet God on a regular basis in such a way that His Presence changes you just by being near Him.

I think fewer and fewer people are in that position. I think it’s why Christianity may be in decline. We’re wandering around lost, telling ourselves that God is here, but at the same time, we’re not connecting with Him.

It’s not God’s fault. It’s more the fault of people who tell other people what to do and how to be a Christian, and yet those seekers never connect because the tellers aren’t connecting either. That’s where we are in America 2016. Tragic, isn’t it?

I don’t know any other way to fix it, either, than for churches to stop messing with the crap and start getting back to the King and the Kingdom. And that starts with repentance and prayer. Lots of both. Perhaps the kind that will make our church service run too long and force the preacher to ditch the sermon this week. You know, inconvenient stuff that takes us out of our comfort zone and obsoletes all the bulletin bullet points.

So I read why Christian academics and intellectuals think Christianity is in decline, and I wonder how people so smart can miss obvious truths about what is most needed. Because if you and I are not encountering God in profound ways amid the communion of the saints, then nothing in the universe will save us.

Suicide and the Church of the Organ Grinder’s Monkey


This weekend, I listened to a podcast from a well-known Christian organization that featured the banter of two notable hosts. The subject was not banter material, though, because it focused on the alarming rise in the last few years of suicide.

The hosts attempted to pin some of the blame on economic realities. This is no doubt true. One demographic to experience an alarming rise in self-harm: men in their 50s. For most men, the early 50s are imagined as peak earning years. When a job loss or income drop happens at this time, the results can be catastrophic, especially since 50 is the new 70 in the eyes of the corporate world.

When the hosts shifted into talking how the Church should be the answer to people who are looking for hope amid economic misfortune, I wondered if they listened to their own show. Why? Because something telling betrayed their response. It’s the reason why economic realities are not the greater portion of the problem of suicide and its rise.

All throughout the podcast, the hosts mentioned their individual, personal brands. They dropped the names of the top schools their kids attended. They talked titles and honors. In doing so, they broadcast a sub-message greater than the Gospel—at least greater in its ubiquity. It’s the message that powers America and drives people to pull the trigger, cut the wrists, and take the pills. It’s the message of the Organ Grinder’s Monkey.

Organ Grinder and MonkeyI’ve never seen an actual organ grinder and his monkey. Italian men with handlebar mustaches come to mind, wearing Tyrolean costumes, while a capuchin or spider monkey gambols about his feet in a cute, little red vest and fez.

The one thing about the monkey: It never stops doing its shtick. Fact is, it can’t. Gotta keep dancing so long as the organ music plays.

I visited the website of a well-known church growth leader, and the one thing that impressed me most about his message was how often he begged people to retweet it, buy it in book form, and share his name with friends, neighbors, the neighbor’s dog, the fleas on the dog, and the mites on the fleas.

Because you gotta keep dancing.

Gotta be number one.

Gotta have name recognition.

Gotta be flogging that personal brand. You.

Gotta get those kids into a name school.

Gotta hold down that title, that chair, that fellowship, that thing that will justify your use of air.

Gotta. Because the organ is grinding, the music is playing, and it’s dance or Antonio finds another monkey.

You have to be “on.” All the time.

Do. There is no do not.

If we think we can go to the Church for an answer on this non-stop performance, we can’t. Because so many churches are enmeshed in trying to stay alive that they do everything they can to enhance their brand, their name recognition, their “product.”

Everywhere you turn, it’s perform or die.

Don’t make a mistake.

Don’t relax.

Don’t stop selling.

ABC—Always Be Closing.

The problem is that the Gospel comes along and it’s 180-degrees in opposition to the lifestyle of the organ grinder’s monkey. The Gospel’s freedom comes in not having to dance unendingly. People are no longer slaves to the music the world pipes. God doesn’t give a rip about your personal brand because you’re a mess and will be until you draw your final breath. Your personal brand is just another load of skubalon. So stop with the charade. Grace.

Why do people despair enough to end their lives? I think too many feel that they can’t let their guard down, can’t stop dancing, can’t stop performing, and just can’t shill for even one second more for themselves or for whomever their organ grinder might be. They simply cannot keep up.

When I listen to a Christian podcast and the message sounds like the organ grinder’s music, I don’t wonder why people are not in the seats on Sunday. Because there’s no relief. If the Church can’t tell people they can stop being an organ grinder’s monkey—and give them actual help to cease the tarantella—then no one will. Freedom in Christ will remain high concept and low reality.

We can talk all we want as a Church about grace, but until we stop with the performance mentality, we’ll sit back and watch the suicides pile up and blame them on everyone and everything EXCEPT the real cause.

We took a cruel world and fed into it a bunch of performance lies that make it even crueler. It’s time, Church, to help people throw off their monkeydom and embrace the freedom that comes from being identified by more than our performance.

The Idol God Is Breaking in the American Church


Previously, I’d commented on an article that posited a slightly different idol that afflicts Americans:

Idol #1

But after recent political upheavals that left a lot of Christians wringing their hands, I read a different article a Christian friend posted:

How Cruz’s Dropout Exposes the Corruption of the American Soul

The sheer brazenness of the title was enough to suck me in, plus it’s CharismaNews, so it’s bound to have hyperbole galore.

I was not disappointed.

Or, actually, I was.

Like far too many articles in Christian sources today, the foundation rests on fear. Despite the fact the Bible tells us over and over NOT to fear, Christian media love to fan the fear.

And the fear this article fans is one I see rising everywhere: The fear of not having power.

I’d use the polysyllabic word powerlessness instead, but the “not having” carries a nuanced interpretation I think must be stressed. This is about control too.

Right now, American Christians of many stripes are scared to death that both they and the American Church are not in control of power.

Consider the following:

  1. Declining church attendance
  2. A string of losses in high-profile national, state, and local legal battles and protections
  3. A presidential race where no clear “Christian candidate” remains, in fact, the remaining candidates seem the polar opposite

Most interesting is the swiftness of this reversal of fortune. And it has been a dire and fast fall.

But here’s the thing…

We Christians look at patterns of events in the world and in the Church, and while we’re good at noticing them, we’re terrible at providing solutions because we misinterpret what is happening behind the scenes. Only later does it turn out that what we thought was A proves actually to be B.

So while gloom, doom, and The End get bandied about by Christian Chicken Littles driven by fear, I want to propose that our fear of judgment on America is wrong, and that the actual judgment is on the Church. I want us to consider that all these dark happenings are good because God may be breaking an idol in the Church.

Broken idolAnd what is that idol? Well, I mentioned it already: Power.

But not all power. Instead, I think that God is forcing the Church to stop investing so much time, effort, and devotion to man-made, secular power.

The #1 form of secular power obsession in the American Church for the past 40 years has been political power. Guess what? The previous couple elections punched in the face the idea of the power of the Christian voting bloc, and the 2016 presidential race shot it in the head.

To this I say, good. I also say that Roe v. Wade didn’t just turn America into a wicked charnel house, but it ingrained in the Church the wrongheaded idea that the godly response must come primarily through political maneuverings, which may have set the progress of the Christian Church back by 40 years. I know that’s not a popular opinion, but in the wake of recent events, it seems crystal clear.

Some of that failure in politics comes from a declining church attendance. With that has come the fall of the über-pastor, and with him/her, the importance of the über-churches they pastor. And what accompanies that fall? A loss of man-made power. The media stops focusing on the same old Christian faces, and instead shoves microphones in the faces of other 15-minutes-of-famers.

Where does this leave the American Church? Pretty busted. Heck, we can’t even keep pervs out of bathrooms.

All that man-made, secular power? Gone.

And I firmly believe God has purposefully taken it away. Good for God.

So Christian, stop blaming this on the devil. Stop blaming this on evil groups and people. Stop blaming, period.

You see, a Church that relies on man-made, secular power is no Church at all.

This is the Church:

Then he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”

—Zechariah 4:6

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

—Acts 1:8

Where is real power, Christian? In the Spirit of God. And honestly, in a supposedly charismatic generation, the Spirit of God and the power He alone brings has been #2 for a long, long time. God’s not going to let that be the case anymore.

This is a good thing.

The reason all the man-made, secular power sources are now failing Christians is because God wants them to fail so Christians will start getting serious about living by the Spirit, and not by manmade, secular power.


Feel a little naked right now? Honestly, that’s where we are as Church. Naked and exposed. Because we’ve been doing it wrong. And for a long time.

I hope a lot more starts to fail for us. Because perhaps then we’ll get serious about what it means to have no power in ourselves or in other men yet have all the power of the universe and beyond available to us.

We haven’t seen that in this generation. Heck, we haven’t seen that in a few generations.

Better start learning what it means to cultivate humble, Spirit-driven power, because that’s the only power that will get us through the days ahead.