Sad Stats and a Sobering Trend for the Church

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Baseball is a game of numbers. Oddly, blogging can be also.

Now, I’m not a statistics hound when it comes to Cerulean Sanctum. I’m not analyzing every bit of data generated by the operation of this blog. Still, from time to time, I do check stats because they reveal the heartfelt questions of people on the Internet.

One trend I’ve noticed this year is the increasing number of search hits coming into this blog from people looking for guidance on what to do when someone they know walks away from God. Recently, searches in that vein have been moving up from nowhere to be in the top two or three for the last few months.

This blog post from late 2013 has been getting more than its share of hits lately:

When Someone You Love Turns Away from God

Say what you will about “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” but I see this as a warning couched in numbers.

Much has been made about the supposed weakening condition of Christianity in America. Some pundits who wish to diminish the handwringing have claimed that the folks who once attended church but now do not were not serious about their faith anyway.

But people tend to hang with others like themselves. “I can take it or leave it” Christians don’t tend to hang with the ardently devout. They befriend people who can take Christianity or leave it too. Those lukewarm folks are not the kind who care enough to scour the Internet for what to do about apostasy.

'Girl on Tracks' by Barta IVNo, I think the people coming here to find out what to do about prodigal friends and family are more serious believers. They’re distraught that someone they know and love, someone like them who once was a serious believer too, has seriously flown the sacred coop.

Are we seeing the first trickles of a genuine falling away?

It’s too early to say yes, but we Christians need to be on our watch, noting the signs of folks ready to give up on God.

Some Christians are so concerned about losses to the flock, they’re invoking anew an old idea, which is being dubbed The Benedict Option. To generate some search engine stats of your own, Google that phrase and check out the results.

I’ll be writing more on The Benedict Option in days to come.

Until that time, consider someone you know who might have walked away from the Lord, and pray for him or her.

Learning the Kingdom

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40 Days of God's Kingdom @ AmazonOne reason Christians “settle” in their faith and become inert is a lack of comprehension of the Kingdom of God. We teach creeds, disconnected Bible verses, and what some nationally known preacher thinks, and then we wonder why people have no investment in the story of God’s redemption.

But the Kingdom of God is an ongoing narrative in which you and I play a vital role. We are part of that story, and our story within it matters.

Even then, we are not the protagonist; Jesus is. Churches fail in their education of the flock when they don’t connect all of the Bible narrative back to Jesus and to His Kingdom. People end up missing the story of glory. They see that story as a jumble of scenes and characters, and the thread of Jesus and His Kingdom, from Genesis to Revelation, goes uncomprehended.

Scot McKnight points out a new book that attempts to rectify our lack of Kingdom teaching in the Western Church: 40 Days of God’s Kingdom.

I have not read the book myself, but it looks intriguing. God knows it fills a need! That it comes with a study guide helps even more.

Russell D. Moore’s “Farewell, Cultural Christianity,” the Dones / De-Churched, and the Gospel

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A long-time reader, Robert, pointed out an excellent article in Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal, “Farewell, Cultural Christianity” by Russell D. Moore, one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s leaders and rising stars. As they say, read the whole thing.

The gist: Recent changes in American culture will shake the American Church but in a positive way, forcing out nominal Christians who drain the Church’s vitality, and leaving us with an energized remnant. While this is not a new idea, the article has some good insights. Moore notes churches have focused too much on delivering a Gospel of self-help that appealed 20 years ago to lost people but not today, which is true. He also notes that our past political engagement and “values voting” are obsoleted by an America that learned to value other ideas more. Again, worth the read.

I like Moore. He’s not afraid to say it like it is and to question sacred cows. But as much as the article makes good cases, it reveals blinders representative of many leaders in the American Church.

This passage is telling:

Those who were nominally Christian are suddenly vanished from the pews. Those who wanted an almost-gospel will find that they don’t need it to thrive in American culture. As a matter of fact, cultural Christianity is herded out by natural selection. That sort of nominal religion, when bearing the burden of the embarrassment of a controversial Bible, is no more equipped to survive in a secularizing America than a declawed cat released in the wild. Who then is left behind? It will be those defined not by a Christian America but by a Christian gospel.

He’s absolutely right about nominal Christians. They’re dropping out. What he misses entirely though is that those who are leaving our churches are not all nominal Christians.Leaving, walking out of churchurch In fact, it can be argued that the exodus contains a frighteningly large percentage of those who are our most devout believers, the so-called Dones or De-Churched. You can read about them all over the Web.

These are not nominal, cultural Christians. These are the folks who worked in the nursery for years, veteran Sunday School teachers, elders, the 20%, seasoned missionaries, and even pastors. It’s not that they’ve lost their faith. It’s that the present way we do church in America became too taxing, stifling, lonely, frustrating, and debilitating, and it left them with no other choice than to walk away–for their own spiritual, mental, and physical health.

We must ask this: Is the empty pew a result of cultural Christians fleeing genuinely Gospel-centric churches, or is it the result of Gospel-centric Christians fleeing culture-centric churches? My bet is the latter is just as big, if not a bigger, reason. And doesn’t every church leader think his/her church is Gospel-centric? Who then will own up to the present exodus of Gospel-centric Christians?

It’s frustrating to read the Moore piece and think he’s ignoring the Dones / De-Churched or that he’s lumping them with the nominals and saying, “Good riddance.” But the lack of mention is telling. Again, this is someone who leads America’s largest denomination. The blame instead shifts to those who left, with little reflection on those who once led them. Convenient.

Moore ends his article with this statement:

The shaking of American culture will get us back to the question Jesus asked his disciples at Caesarea Philippi: “Who do you say that I am?”

I think Moore is misunderstanding again.

While Who do you say that I am? was definitely a question for those who once had never heard of Jesus Christ, it’s one most Christians have resolved over the past 2,000+ years. (Whether they do anything with the answer is a whole ‘nother issue.)

But the real question, the one at the heart of the church exodus, whose mis-answering has plagued the American Church for the last 100 years or so, is this: What is the Gospel?

The term moralistic, therapeutic deism defines a good chunk of the central teaching of many churches in America. It’s Old Testament Law wrapped in an American flag and the Protestant Work Ethic, then blessed by Oprah Winfrey and Sigmund Freud. But it’s not the Gospel. Some may call it the Gospel, but it’s actually anti-Gospel.

Personally, I think the exodus of devoted Christians from the American Church is as much due to a failure to have the Gospel preached to them as it is with anything else. People have had it with performance-based Christianity. Grace, the very heart of the Gospel, may be the single most lacking element in American Christianity. That dearth ultimately drives away those who need grace the most.

Sadly, even churches and leaders who claim to be Gospel-centered fall back on preaching a moralistic melange when it directly benefits them. The resulting confusion further alienates the most discerning, those who can’t reconcile mixed messages, especially those messages proclaimed in the name of God.

If Moore wants to say farewell to the flee-ers in a way that honors God, as a denominational leader, he needs to own up to the American Church’s hand in creating not only the nominal, cultural Christian, but also the Dones / De-Churched. Until then, church leaders around this country will have no answers to stemming the exodus, continuing to preach a pseudo-Gospel to the self-justified for which they will one day answer.