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.

6 thoughts on “David Gushee and “Why Is Christianity Declining?”

  1. David Riggins

    I led a study at my church on comparative religion, and one thing stood out to me: All religions have two sets of books; one set handed down by their deity or founder, and one developed over the years by the followers interpreting the first book. Guess which one is followed? I found this true of Christianity as well. Look at your average Christian book store, with the shelf of bibles in the back, and the rest of the store chock-a-block with interpretations of what the bible says. Why is that? What is it about man that seeks to reword the Word? Could it be that a little voice is still whispering in our ears “Did God really say that?”

  2. Stumbled on to your blog. Enjoy it. Our paths sound similar. I converted to Christianity in 1979. The big difference is I’m not a Christian any more. I “lost my religion” writing my first novel, which is about a Mormon missionary who goes insane on his mission. I think there is a something called God that exists but I don’t think it’s possible to have a relationship with Him/Her/It/They—not in any real way that’s more than just a religious platitude. Don’t get me wrong. When I was a Christian, I loved God, loved worship, I love studying the Bible.

    But was that a “relationship”? Was is a relationship like I have a relationship with my children, my neighbor, my sisters—people I can actually interact with? I knew those people. Did I really “know” God?

    Not so much.

    What was the kicker to me was when I was doing research for my novel. I would invite Mormon missionaries in and talk to them. The more I did, they more I saw that they were just like me—even though I had about 30 years on them. They were zealous for their faith. They loved—I mean, LOVED—Jesus Christ. And they were oh, so sure they were right. They had an “inner witness.” They felt God.

    But was that a relationship? Not so much.

    I saw they only believed what they believed because they had been told to believe it. I had to admit that was me, too.

    When I was in college, I was part of Campus Crusade for Christ. As such, we would go around “witnessing” to people on campus. We’d ask them if we could “share the four spiritual laws” with them. If they actually made a decision for Christ–which happened VERY rarely–we would give them a few bits of advice (as well inviting them to church). We’d tell them that the Christian walk was like a train. The thing pulling the train is Fact, the fact of what God says in the Bible. Then comes Faith. Your faith is in the facts. The caboose was Feelings. We’d tell people not to try to pull their relationship with Christ with the caboose. Start with the facts of God’s word and your feelings will come around by and by.

    It worked.

    I had all sorts of “spiritual experiences.” I was a charismatic for much of my 35-year Walk with Christ. But I’ve come to see that those experiences are a common human experience. All devout people feel them—Christians, Muslims, Mormons, you name it. Those warm feelings are what happens when you are dealing with profound ideas. For example, I still cry every time I sing the Star-Spangled Banner.

    It’s my experience that what most Christians call a “relationship with God” is a matter of being passionate about God and passionate about scripture. That’s what all devout religious people feel — even people in stuffy mainline churches. Do they all have relationships with God?

    In my experience, here’s the way it works. A Christian is inspired by a pastor’s sermon and it’s “Jesus spoke to me through that sermon.” A Christian tears up during a moving worship song and it’s “Jesus touched me through that song.” And, of course, we always have the standard refrain: God speaks through his Word, the Bible, the Koran, et al.

    But in terms of an actual relationship with God? Not so much.

    • John,

      Thanks for writing.

      I don’t know you, so I can’t presume to know your journey. All I can say is what I do know.

      I believe that everyone worships something. Most people in America worship what they know, and for them, that’s themselves. Other people build for themselves an idol out of cast off bits of ideas and thoughts espoused by others. In a way, each of us is prone to be junkmen who build gods out of trash.

      But just because this is our tendency does not negate that God is real and He exists in a true form. The Bible says we can know that true God in His true form through Jesus. I believe that.

      Why do people fail to have a relationship with God? Because they have built an idol of junk that they brand “God.” This is the case for many people who call themselves Christians.

      For the most part, the greatest impediment to people coming into genuine relationship with the true God is buying into a divine taskmaster vision of who God is, that unpleaseable scold in the sky who must be satisfied at any cost but who ultimately never is. This is the junk god a lot of supposed Christians have cobbled together out of faulty theology, family of origin dysfunctions, and emotional experiences.

      But the God of the Gospel is not like that. He doesn’t make those demands. He is not a taskmaster.

      If you read my post What Is Repentance?, you get a better idea of what God is like in truth. A genuine Father. Someone who, because of His lovingkindness, can be known.

      It’s hard to have a relationship with that Father because of the junk ones we have built for ourselves. Rejecting all the false ones is the first step toward knowing and experiencing the genuine and true God. You can have a genuine relationship with Him.

      That’s what I know, John. I pray that knowing and experiencing the true God, who loves you so very much and offers you total forgiveness now and forever through Jesus, is something you come to discover in your life.


      • Thanks for the respon se, David. Conversations like this are fun! I definitely agree that your view of God is going to impact how you feel about Him. Mine was a very grace-filled Christianity. I did not see God as a taskmaster. I saw him as more of a nurturer and an empowerer—if that’s a word—and a font of love.

        I would have said I had a “relationship, not a religion.”

        But what did I mean about that?

        First off, I guess I would have said I talked to God. But they were really one-sided conversations—basically me talking and then silence. Oh, I’d feel certain “promptings” or inklings to go down this path or that path—or maybe I’d hear a song on the radio that I would take as an answer or out of nowhere a friend would offer me a certain book that spoke somehow to my situation. But nothing specific. (And when I was running in charismatic circles, people would give me “words of knowledge” and such. But every prophecy I ever heard was pretty much the same thing—broad enough so that just about anyone could think, “Wow, that was for me,” some version of “Come unto Me and I shall bless you. Stop your striving and rest in Me and know that I love you” and so on. Why do people feel the need to speak like King James when they are prophesying? Smile.)

        It wasn’t really a conversation in the way conversations with humans were conversations. Not even like the conversation you and I are having here over social media.

        Overall, we’d use the phrase “a still small voice” to explain how we’d hear God. But what “a still small voice” really meant is that we don’t actually hear a voice: We just sensed vague “nudges” to go in this direction or that. “I think God is closing this door to me,” for example. We were never certain. When I have a conversation with a human, I’m usually pretty sure I know what they’re telling me. And if I’m confused, I ask clarifying questions. You can’t do that with God.

        Nonreligious people would say that all the foregoing are just examples of intuition and synchronicity. I agree. I now think these promptings and inklings aren’t exclusive to Evangelicals. The difference is believers attribute those promptings to God. “I think Jesus told is telling me X” or “I sense the Spirit telling me X.” Non-believers just say things like, “I think I hear the universe telling me to . . .” or “I think somebody wants me to do X.” Similarly, believers from other faiths would say they received this kind of “direction” from God.

        I’ve come to the conclusion that everybody—Evangelicals, unbelievers and zealous believers from all faiths—is describing the same experience, the same “relationship.” Said differently, there is nothing exceptional about the way Evangelical Christians converse with God.

        The kicker is that when push came to shove, when something really bad happened to an Evangelical, something like cancer, he/she was usually as lost as anyone else would be. “Why is this happening to me? God, where are you?” Same with people from other faiths and same with unbelievers.

        In my experience, Evangelicals are just as befuddled about existence as anyone else.

        I know Christians like to think they a have special pipeline to God by virtue of their correct beliefs—I certainly did—but I’ve come to believe the opposite is true.

        Said differently, I don’t think Christianity offers anything that any other religion doesn’t offer—or well-intentioned atheism, for that matter. To the extent that God can be a day-to-day experience, that experience is the same for everyone, no matter their creed

        In my opinion.

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