Must Christianity Change or Die?

January 19, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Credit: Rudy Tiben

Credit: Rudy Tiben

Sometimes, it can feel as though the sky is falling and the bottom is dropping out all at the same time. It seems like I can go barely a day without reading a dire report on church attrition, especially among the younger generation. Between high school and turning 30, 43 percent of once-active young adults stop attending church.[1] As of 2012, almost one-third of young adults were unaffiliated with a religious institution.[2] In one survey, researchers found that nearly one-third of young adults left the Christian faith because of its “negative teachings” related to gays and lesbians.[3]

Such gloomy statistics lead to predictable calls to fix the Church by changing its teachings, lest the next generation, discontent with the Church’s antiquated morals, leave her altogether. Take, for instance, this call from popular Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans:

Young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people …

Young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness …

The evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and … millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt …

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.[4]

Evans’ last line is striking to me. In response to changing cultural norms, Evans maintains that the Church must change the substance of her message. In the words of the famed Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong, “Christianity must change or die.”[5] How must Christianity change? Evans offers some suggestions:

We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.

We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

Evans’ words here are fascinating – and confusing – to me because, understood one way, they are commendable, orthodox, and necessary. But understood another way, they are deeply troubling. For instance, if a “truce between science and faith” means understanding the respective spheres of each and welcoming scientific discovery while at the same time remaining faithful to Scripture’s narrative, I’m onboard. If, however, it means dumping the historicity of Scripture’s creation account, I’m troubled. If having “our LGBT friends feel truly welcome in our faith communities” means showing love, compassion, and going out of our way to listen and learn from the LGBT community, I’m more than all for it. If it means calling what is sinful, “just,” I’m troubled. Sadly, I can’t help but think that, all too often, it’s the latter understandings of these statements that are insinuated. Otherwise, it is feared, a whole generation of young people will leave the Church.

But is this really the case?

Take Rob Bell. Here is a man who has, at least in part, bought into Spong’s motto, “Christianity must change or die.” In his book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Bell asks candidly, “Can God keep up with the modern world?”[6] He fought to build a community – Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids – that would lead the way in this new Christianity. Until he left. In an interview with Oprah, he says his Sunday mornings are now regularly filled with he and his 13-year-old son surfing.[7] Rob Bell was leading a changed church. But even a changed church wasn’t enough to keep Bell around. And he isn’t the only one.

For decades now, churches that have changed the substance of the Christian faith have not been gaining members, but losing members. And now, even as young people are leaving traditional churches, they are not joining these changed churches. They are leaving altogether.[8]

It would seem that if a church is willing to “get with the times,” so to speak, and embrace our culture’s zeitgeist, its pews should be filled to overflowing with the ranks of the enlightened, all breathing a collective sigh of relief that, finally, the offensive, narrow, bigoted Christianity of yesteryear has been relegated to the scrap heap of history. But this has not happened.

The problem with changing the faith of the Church – even the parts of the faith that are not particularly palpable to our modern ears – is that such changes inevitably displace Christianity’s eschatological hope with an evolutionary drum.

What do I mean?

Whether it’s the so-called “war” between science and faith, or the question of gay marriage, or the role of politics in faith, many Christians have simply traded one side of Rachel Held Evans’ despised culture war for the other. They desire to evolve beyond what they perceive as a restrictive, judgmental, intellectually archaic Christian faith. So they laugh at those who take Genesis’ creation account historically, or cry “bigotry” against those who express concern with gay marriage, or look down on those who argue for a more traditionally moral politics. These are old ways that must be done away with, they think.

But what happens is that they become so animated by grievances from the past and trying to right them right now that they forget about – or at least relegate to the background – any sort of ultimate hope for the future. They wind up fighting for a certain kind of culture rather than finding their hope in a different type of Kingdom. They become so obsessed with what’s next that they forget about what’s last.

When you dispel the Christian faith down to nothing more than a fight for this or that cause célèbre, more often than not, you end up with nothing – or at least with nothing that can’t be found elsewhere. And why would anyone go somewhere for something they can get anywhere? This is why changing Christianity’s substance doesn’t gain people; it only loses them.

So what course of action can a Christian take? In a world full of cultural convolution, Christianity’s answer is elegantly simple: “Stand firm in the faith … Do everything in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14). Don’t change the faith. Love others. That’s it. And really, who can improve on that? Some things don’t need to change.

_____________________

[1] Melissa Stefan, “Have 8 Million Millennials Really Given Up on Christianity?Christianity Today (5.17.2013).

[2] Vern L. Bengtson, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 148.

[3]A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues,” Public Religion Research Institute (2.26.2014).

[4] Rachel Held Evans, “Why millennials are leaving the church,” cnn.com (7.27.2013).

[5] John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change Or Die (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1999).

[6] Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 8.

[7]Super Soul Sunday: Oprah Goes Soul to Soul with Rob Bell,” Oprah.com.

[8] Rod Dreher, “The Dying (No, Really) Of Liberal Protestantism,” The American Conservative (7.25.2013).

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