Note: I wrote most of this the day before the most recent hate crimes and this article does not mean to reflect that information in any way.
When I started this blog, I mentioned that I will use this same space for my medical updates under the title “Updates” and where I just put down my rambling thoughts about anything. Since then a lot of caring people have signed up, I’m sure, just to keep abreast of my cancer fight and for that interest, I am deeply grateful.
Today I’m posting a rambling that, while I want to be concise, I fear will turn into an exposé. The best way to summarize this writing, is me sharing my perspective on why people are leaving evangelicalism (starting with one particular story from the news this week about Joshua Harris) and why all the statistics says the Church (in general) is dying in America.
This “op-ed” is really targeted toward those who have already left Christianity or those who are contemplating doing so. It is not an attempt to persuade anyone to stay, but to confirm their legitimate reasons for leaving, and that there are alternatives to evangelicalism besides atheism.
I’ve spent time with a social media groups, that consider themselves “Post-Christian.” One of them had about 4-5 thousand members world-wide. If I remember right, they did a survey of that group and about 75% reported now being atheists. I found many to be very bitter, being deeply hurt by things such as sexual abuse within the Church. I don’t know if Joshua is ending up as an atheist as he has not said.
Because I will say things that some will find controversial, if you are happy where you are, please don’t bother reading this. I have no objective of arguing with anyone or trying to convince them to adopt my views. I’m not here to persuade those who are comfortable in their beliefs to change them, but to offer people, like Joshua, alternatives to the “all or none” acceptance of evangelism and to talk about the legitimate reasons (not just their “moral failure”) of why someone would want to leave. I will also be clear that most of what I will share is based on my own experience with evangelicalism (some thirty years ago) and is not meant to be a critique of your story or church.
Joshua Harris Departs Christianity
If you live in evangelical circles you may have heard the news that author Joshua Harris, just announced not only the end of his marriage, but is now kissing his faith goodbye as well. He was the author of the evangelical, best-seller of 1997, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. That book was very popular among evangelicals, I think (and I cannot find the statistics right now) was one of the best-selling Christian books of the entire decade. He is recanting most of what he said in those books and has said that he is especially regretful about how he treated the gay community.
In his flagship book, he describes how to live with sexual purity, before marriage, as a way of building a foundation for a more perfect and enduring marriage. His other books followed this general theme. Not only was he a very successful author, but was the lead pastor of a mega-church, in Maryland, until 4 years ago. Then he moved to our neck of the woods (Vancouver, BC) to study at Regent College. Regent is a deeper-thinking, but theologically conservative college (that I’ve had a several friends and patients who have attended there) so I certainly don’t think he was “led astray” during his studies.
His previous associate pastor and close friend in Maryland, Kevin Rogers, posted the following letter to their congregation this week:
Several times Paul mentions former Christian leaders ‘swerving from,’ ‘wandering from,’ or ‘making shipwreck’ of their faith. So while this is sad and confusing, it isn’t new.
“Paul says some had gone off course theologically. Others behaved in ways that violated Christian conscience. For others, it was greed. In every case, Paul’s hope was for redemption and restoration. That these leaders would develop ‘love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.’ (1 Tim 1:5) That should be our hope and prayer for Josh as well.
Now, if someone thinks they are hearing gloating in my “voice” here, they are entirely wrong. That is the last thought on my mind. I feel the same level of sadness (at least) as the evangelicals who supported him, but for entirely different reason.
If you want to hear more about Joshua Harris’ departure and conversations as to why people are leaving the Church, here is a link to Christianity Today’s podcast on the topic. I didn’t listen to the whole podcast and probably have a different viewpoint than CT.
A Personal Perspective
I know that I’ve shared my very personal story before, but I will review it briefly for this context. I grew up in the Bible-belt, however, I was unique (at least in my high school) that I privately considered myself an atheist by the time I was about 13. I remember having an argument with my 10th grade biology teacher (who, like everyone else was a Christian, usually Baptist) about evolution… me for it and him refusing to teach it. If he had taught about evolution in my school, the local parents would have run him out of town, as they say, on a rail.
But, saving the details, I was converted into Christianity at age 18 through the influence of a high school psychology teacher. Not only was it an evangelical Christianity, but (seriously), had to be one of the most zealous branches of evangelicalism in the country. If there was such a thing as a Christian Taliban, we would have been it. I spent the next 12 years being “trained” in this discipleship group, and then, following Jesus’ example, we gave away all of our processions and moved, with our little kids, to the Middle East with the primary goal of converting Muslims to Christianity. It was a very hard and dangerous work. I share this because some of my evangelical friends now assume that I must not have taken evangelicalism seriously enough and my point is, you could not have tried harder than we did.
Then, after a bad experience with an abusive leader overseas (which is common within the most zealous religious groups) one day I suddenly realized that we were all just a bunch of phonies living in a make-believe world. I had what some would call a “crisis of faith” and started on, what would eventually be, a decade-long search for the truth. Because I felt like the group, which I was coming out of, was very dishonest—intellectually dishonest and dishonest with each other—my mantra became honesty. I did not care where my journey took me, as long as it was the truth.
During that decade of serious study, I first looked at Church history (to figure out where in the hell we got things so wrong), and then expanded to the history of western civilization and then to philosophy. Next I studied all classic disciplines of science, astrophysics, geology, archaeology, and etc.
I’ve had evangelical friends say at this point, “Mike, there’s your problem, you should have been studying the Bible!” I think, in response, “Are you freakin kidding me?” For 12 years I had studied the Bible daily (as taught to us by leaders, Bible study books, and etc.). At this juncture, I started to study the Bible with even greater fervor than ever before, but this time on my own. I wanted to know what the Bible really said, rather than having someone else, organization or church, predigesting it for me and telling me what I suppose to believe. I studied it back and forth from cover to cover, trying to understand what it was saying within its historical context and referencing the original languages.
I was anticipating that when I was done with all of this, that I would end up back where I started, as an atheist… or at least an agnostic. But during this 10-year journey, I eventually got jammed up on two issues. The first was self-consciousness and the second was cosmic entropy (or another way of putting it, asymmetry between future and past in the cosmos, which doesn’t allow for a reasonable beginning with order). I will not waste your time trying to explain what those meant to me here, but it was a profound sticking point. I also want to be clear, although many have tried (especially during the Enlightenment), there is no scientific proof of God’s existence nor is there a proof that He (BTW, I use “He” as an arbitrary pronoun as I’m quite sure God does not have X or Y chromosomes or a penis) does not exist. So, my two issues weren’t to me as some type of ad hoc proof of something but more of an enigma that causes you pause and realize that the resolution will not be so easy, nor with complete certainty.
To make a long story short, this eventually led me to a place where I’ve embraced a very simple form of Christianity, trying to avoid the many layers of human traditional and subculture add-ons and certainly not American Evangelicalism. One crucial point, in my previous evangelical days, we had to have certainty about every trivial issue, and I mean dead certainty or “dogma.” We called it “Biblical Christianity” to make us feel better. Now, I have no certainty… which is a good thing.
My evangelical friends sometimes think my present concept of God is not big enough. I think it is really the opposite. When I was an evangelical, we served a simpleton, Bronze-age God. He wasn’t much bigger than the old Bronze-age kings. Other times, he was like the genie, Aladdin, in a bottle in our back pockets. In that world, God’s only purpose was to grant our wishes, like helping me find a parking spot at the mall, (or curing my cancer). He was so small, that we could completely wrap our heads around Him, knowing His every thought on every issue and motive… or at least that’s what we thought.
I shared this following story in my book, Butterflies in the Belfry (I think, unless this part ended up being cut before the final manuscript) that we, our college discipleship group, had a serious debate in 1973 if God wanted us men wearing anything but tighty-whities. The argument was that men wearing colored underwear was part of the “gay agenda” to feminize men. Now, I see a God with so much mystery and hugeness that I don’t have a clue what He’s thinking or doing at times, and I would be quite surprised if He gives a rat’s ass about what kind of underwear anyone is wearing.
It is Inevitable that the Church in America is Dying
I am simply the message bearer. When I say the Church in America is on a dying path, it makes some people very angry at me as if I was cahoots with the Devil himself. But I am only restating facts that have been clearly established.
There have been surveys about youth raised in the evangelical church, which show as many as 75-90% will leave the Church entirely by the time they are independent adults. And no, it does not matter “if you raise them right.” They are still leaving.
Church membership in America is getting older and older. While there are exceptions, just walk into most churches and count how many heads are white or bald (like me now!), as compared to those who come during their child-rearing years.
I shared this information with a pastor friend (who co-pastors an evangelical church) and he became quite upset at me. He quickly protested that his church is packed full of young people. Maybe it is, after-all his church is in a college town. However, when I got home I did some research, and oddly, I discovered that his particular church denomination is the oldest of any church in America, with an average age of its members at 65 years old.
If you try to measure this by church attendance, an old (2005) study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion found that just 22% of Americans attend services weekly. This compares to other countries claims such as 15% of French citizens, 10% of UK citizens, 8.8% of Australian citizens, and 5.6% of Dutch citizens, and it has dropped a lot since then.
My friends who do accept these facts often want to blame the people who are not coming. “This wretched generation doesn’t love God like our generation did.” If that attitude brings you comfort, you will continue believing it. But imagine, and it actually happened, that Sears shoppers no longer visited Sears. Would the CEO of Sears start to trash talk those old customers? Maybe he or she would, but it doesn’t make sense. Sears, and churches, have to look honestly at the situation and realize that the culture has changed, people’s needs were not being met, otherwise, if they were, you couldn’t keep them away.
The decline in church interest is only expected to escalate over the coming years. One reason for the recent acceleration, and I’m trying not to take on another “third rail” of politics, is that only 30-37% of millennials have a favorable view of Donald Trump. While at the same time, the evangelical community has fully embraced the president. The Trump camp and the millennials are on diverging paths and have very different priorities in their values. While the Trump camp places the economy, American Nationalism, and defense, the millennials have far more convictions about honesty, social, and environmental justice.
I have heard for at least a couple of decades of how the Church needs to create new and better programs to retain this younger group. Many, very gifted people, have tried to do this. I attend a church right now that has a fantastic program of engaging the youth with many things such as the musical and theatrical arts. It is is led by very smart and talented people. However, I predict that in 30 years, after my generation is gone, this church will be much smaller, and in 50 years, our beautiful building will be a restaurant or hotel.
In my opinion, all the programs of the best churches is simply re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. I don’t say this with doom and gloom in my voice, as I think a radically different and more simple approach to Christianity will eventually come. But the Church has built into it (going back for its 2000 year history) some fundamental flaws of in the area of philosophy, especially in the area of epistemology (how we know things or find truth) that has set it up for eventual failure, especially now that the marketplace of ideas flood people’s lives and social media pages daily. In the previous 2000 years, the Church was able to hold its own by brute authority, isolation, and keeping the masses naive. That no longer works.
So, my Part II is where I share some of my specific diagnosis of the Church’s age-old problem and why it is not reform-able enough at this juncture to make a difference. But don’t worry, if you are of my generation, there will still be churches around for the rest of your life, if that’s what you want. But my concern is, what comes after us and what about those, like Joshua, who are leaving, for good, now? Do we drift into an atheistic society and call it quits on meaning? We could. But I think, if you erase all the human tradition (some of it a hindrance to faith) that has been piled onto the Church for 2000 years and replace it with some wonderful and very simple teachings of Jesus of Galilee, many people will be there. Mike