Posts tagged ‘Ed Stetzer’

The Pew Survey On Christianity: It’s Not As Bad Or As Good As You Might Think

Church and CrossThe Washington Post led with a headline that sounded nearly apocalyptic: “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion.”[1] The faithful quickly jumped in to temper the premature reports of Christianity’s cardiac arrest with op-ed pieces like this one by Ed Stetzer that ran in USA Today: “Survey fail – Christianity isn’t dying: Ed Stetzer.”[2]

The topic of discussion and debate is a new Pew Research Center poll that finds:

… the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%.[3]

Taken by themselves, these statistics sound dire and dour. But, as Ed Stetzer helpfully points out in his article, there is more to these statistics than what first meets the eye:

Rather than predict the impending doom of the church in America, this latest study affirms what many researchers have said before. Christianity isn’t collapsing; it’s being clarified. Churches aren’t emptying; rather, those who were Christian in name only are now categorically identifying their lack of Christian conviction and engagement …

Nominals – people whose religious affiliation is in name only – are becoming nones – people who check “none of the above” box on a survey.

Those who value their faith enough to wake up on Sunday morning and head to their local church are mostly still going. What I have described as “convictional Christianity” will continue. Those who say their faith is very important to their lives are not suddenly jettisoning those beliefs to become atheists.

According to Pew, unaffiliated Americans grew from 16 to nearly 23% in the last seven years. That increase largely came from the ranks of Catholics and Mainline Protestants, religious traditions with high numbers of nominals.

Stetzer’s point is well taken. By no stretch of the imagination should we read the Pew survey as a funeral dirge for Christianity – especially for Evangelical Christianity, contrary to this misreading of the Pew survey.[4] Still, even if Pew’s numbers do not portend the sure demise of Christianity, they do indicate a real shift in Christianity. Here’s how.

For better or for worse, the nominal Christians who once warmed the pews in Mainline Protestant churches and are now hemorrhaging to the “nones” had as their counterparts the academic Protestant Christians among the elites. Names such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Paul Tillich, and Karl Barth once held court as America’s public intellectuals – their books being widely read and disseminated not only into Protestant Christendom, but into society in general. These men enjoyed unrivaled cultural gravitas – so much so, that each of them took their turn gracing the cover of Time Magazine. And though none of these men can be considered orthodox in their doctrine in an Evangelical Christian sense, they nevertheless passed down to American society some generally and even genuinely Christian concerns and insights. Reinhold Niebuhr defended a robust doctrine of original sin, thundering against the pride of society and those who thought they were generally good people. Harry Emerson Fosdick, though he firmly espoused a liberal Protestant ethos, was not afraid to critique it by warning the Church against a blind cultural accommodation to the spirit of the age. Paul Tillich served as an apologist of sorts, explaining how life’s deepest existential questions can be answered by divine revelation. And Karl Barth bequeathed to us an 8,000 page series on church dogmatics that still informs – and occasionally irritates – Christian thinkers to this day. The work these and other men did kept Christian concerns in the forefront of people’s minds and Christian ethical commitments in the center of people’s worldviews.

The latest Pew survey reminds us that these Christian concerns and ethics are disappearing in broad society. The Protestant lions of old are being replaced by the secularist elites of today. The Pew survey, then, does not just tell the story of a non-committed Christian-esque demographic that, in a twist of delicious justice, is deservedly disappearing; it tells the story of a broader Christian influence that – even if it was of the liberal variety – is waning.

This, of course, is not all bad. The heterodoxy and, in some instances, the outright heresy of these Protestant theologians posed a serious challenge to orthodox Christianity. But, then again, the disappearance of influential Protestantism is also not all good. After all, these Protestant theologians did serve broadly, even if unintentionally, as a tenuous bridge between orthodox Christians on the one hand and powerful elites on the other, enabling the two sides to talk to each other.[5] But this bridge has now collapsed, leaving a yawning canyon between a group of orthodox Christians who are increasingly frightened by and hostile to secularism and a group of powerful elites who are increasingly uninformed about and uninhibited by a generally Christian view of life. Our challenge, then, is to bridge this canyon. And that is no easy task.

I agree with Ed Stetzer that Christians should not respond to the Pew survey apoplectically. But the survey does make me miss some of the Protestant leaders of yesteryear, no matter how much I may have been at odds with them theologically. They may have not always been right, but sometimes, they were helpful.

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[1] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion,” The Washington Post (5.12.2015).

[2] Ed Stetzer, “Survey fail – Christianity isn’t dying: Ed Stetzer,” USA Today (5.13.2015).

[3]America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center (5.12.2015).

[4] Although I share many of Matt Walsh’s concerns with what he saw of Evangelical Christianity and would agree that many Evangelical churches need more robust and Christocentric teaching and preaching, his stated cause of Christianity’s losses is not specifically born out by the Pew data.

[5] For example, Billy Graham and Karl Barth were friends and were comfortable enough with each other to spar with each other on occasion.   See Mark Noll, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 47.

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May 18, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

It’s Not About The Supreme Court Ruling

Credit:  Wikipedia

Credit: Wikipedia

There was the ruling.  And then there was the reaction to the ruling.  When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby, saying it did not have to pay for certain types of birth control as mandated by the Affordable Care Act because it considered them abortifacients which violated the theological beliefs of the company’s owners, the reaction was swift and fierce – from both sides.  Mark Goldfeder, senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, announced:

Here is what the decision means:  People have First Amendment rights, and even if the corporations themselves are not entitled to Free Exercise exemptions, the people behind the corporate veil, the business owners themselves, certainly are.

On the other side, Judy Waxman, vice president of health and reproductive rights at the National Women’s Law Center, lamented:

We think it’s a bitter pill to swallow for women, and that the decision is saying that bosses know best and their religious beliefs can trump very basic health-care coverage.  It’s especially harmful to women, but beyond this, down the line, there will be other cases, other challenges, that could have an even broader effect.[1]

Of course, along with these measured responses, there were also the less measured responses of the Twitterverse, like one post advocating arson: “#HobbyLobby are scum of the earth.  Burn every single one down, build a homeless shelter there instead.”[2]  Then, there was another very humble post from a person who agreed with SCOTUS’s ruling:  “Ha. Ha. It’s The. Law.”[3]

What fascinates me about all these responses – whether they be sophisticated or sleazy – is how little they have to do with the actual legal ins and outs of this case and how much they reflect the radically disparate worldviews of our society.  I have found no better synopsis of the clash of worldviews in this case than this from Trevin Wax:

A generation ago, a person’s religious observance was a public matter, a defining characteristic of one’s identity, while a person’s sexual activity was something private. Today, this situation is reversed. A person’s sexual behavior is now considered a defining characteristic of identity, a public matter to be affirmed (even subsidized) by others, while religious observance is private and personal, relegated to places of worship and not able to infringe upon or impact the public square.

The culture clash today is less about the role of religion in business or politics, and more about which vision of humanity best leads to flourishing and should therefore be enshrined in or favored by law.[4]

This is exactly right.  Different people value different things.  For some, their faith is their defining characteristic.  Thus, they have a strong desire to practice their faith in every area and aspect of their lives, including their business dealings.  For others, some other thing – like their sexuality – is their defining characteristic.  And anything perceived as an affront to their sexual identity is worthy of unrestrained caustic choler.

As a Christian, I really have no choice when it comes to how I will define myself:  my life must be defined by Christ.  In the words of the apostle Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).  So what does this mean for my interactions with those who define themselves by other things?  A few things come to mind.

First, I must love those with differing worldviews.  As Ed Stetzer so pointedly says in his article on the Hobby Lobby ruling, “You can’t hate a people and reach a people at the same time.”[5]  People who live outside a Christian worldview are not to be destroyed or oppressed in a political or judicial power grab, but loved through a winsome witness.

Second, I must realize that my worldview is no longer a privileged majority worldview in our society.  Indeed, many people are not at all concerned that a Christian may be legislatively or legally forced to do something that goes against his conscience.  Again, Ed Stetzer writes, “Most Americans are not as passionate about the religious liberty issue (when connected to contraception, even abortifacient contraception) as most evangelicals and conservative Catholics.”  Trevin Wax reveals that “a record number of Americans (1 in 3) said the first amendment [which grants religious liberty] goes too far in the freedom it promises.”  This is just a reality.

Third, I must make the case – through both a rigorous intellectual defense and a gentle, quiet lifestyle – why my worldview should be seriously considered and why it does indeed lead to true human flourishing.  It is important to note that this case cannot be made quickly.  Indeed, it cannot even be made by just my life or in just my lifetime.  No, this is a case the whole Church must make.  And blessedly, the Church has been making it for millennia.  For instance, the Church made its case here.  And here.  And here.  And here.  This is why I doubt any Supreme Court ruling – be it in favor of or against religious liberty – will kill the Church’s case.  For this is the case and cause of Christ.

Let’s keep making it.

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[1] Ashby Jones, “Legal Experts, Advocates React to Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby Ruling,” The Wall Street Journal (6.30.2014).

[2] Costa Koutsoutis, @costa_kout, 6.30.2014

[3] Harriet Baldwin, @HarrietBaldwin, 6.30.2014

[4] Trevin Wax, The Supreme Court Agrees With Hobby Lobby, But Your Neighbor Probably Doesn’t,” The Gospel Coalition (6.30.2014).

[5] Ed Stetzer, “Hobby Lobby Wins: Where Do We Go from Here?The Exchange (6.30.2014).

July 7, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Tornadoes and Satan

Moore TornadoCrises have a strange way of calling people to faith.  In a day and age where many are bemoaning that our nation is becoming increasingly secular, the devastating EF 5 tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma on May 20 gave rise to an abundance of prayers and cries to God.  Ed Stetzer paints the scene well in his article for USA Today, which is worth quoting at length:

Times of grief reaffirm our identity as a religious nation. Shortly after the horrific news of the tornado devastation in Oklahoma, “#PrayforOklahoma” quickly rose to the top of Twitter’s trending list as millions shared their prayers for the people who lost loved ones and had their homes destroyed.

In times of prosperity, far removed from tragedies, many people in our culture reject expressions of faith. In the moments of hopelessness, however, the desire to reach out to a higher power is an instinctive reflex.

Some may say, “But that’s Oklahoma – it’s the Bible Belt.” Yet, after the Sandy Hook tragedy, I was struck by the comment made by Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy referencing our collective religious heritage:

“In the coming days, we will rely upon that which we have been taught and that which we inherently believe: that there is faith for a reason, and that faith is God’s gift to all of us.”

Many are embarrassed by this national identity – until it is time to grieve.  Then, politicians, celebrities and reporters can unashamedly say they are praying for those affected.  News networks will show church bells ringing in memory of those lost.  Nightly news shows feel the need to broadcast excerpts from sermons delivered by pastors in the area.  Journalists interview religious leaders about how God can help us through.

And yes, that is where the discussion often begins. We consider why this would happen. Some people representing faith groups may speak quickly (and unwisely), assuming they can connect the dots between something in our culture and the most recent tragedy.

Others simply ask the question, “How could God allow this to happen?”[1]

Tragedies of the sort that struck Moore, no matter how supposedly “secularized” our nation has become, call forth faith.  And, as Stetzer duly notes, they also call forth questions.  Most often, tragedies like the one in Moore call forth the question that Stetzer poses:  “How could God allow this to happen?”  But in the wake of the tragedy at Moore, I received another question that, though less common, is certainly worthy of a moment of our reflection:  “Can Satan cause a tornado?”  When a tragedy strikes, most people wonder about God’s power to prevent tragedies and His ultimate purpose in allowing them.  But it is also worth asking what kind of prerogative Satan has to wreak havoc in our world.

Satan does seem to have some power to cause trouble in our world.  One needs to look no farther than the story of Job.  In nearly an instant, Job’s life goes from riches to rags.  A quick sequence of four calamities, instigated by Satan himself, robs Job of nearly everything he has.  The fourth of these calamities is especially instructive for our purposes:  “Yet another messenger came and said, ‘Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house.  It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you’” (Job 1:18-19)!  Notice that it is a windstorm that Satan sends to destroy Job’s family.  Satan, it seems, does seem to have limited power to incite natural disasters.

It is important to note that, as the story of Job clearly delineates, Satan incites calamities on a person not because a person is somehow particularly sinful or deserving of such calamities, for Job was “was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1).  No, Satan incites calamities out of depraved delight – he enjoys watching people suffer.

Certainly we cannot know, nor should we speculate on, the transcendental cause of Moore’s devastating tornado.  The most we can say is that natural disasters are part of living in a sinful, fallen world and Satan takes cynical delight in the effects of sin on our world.

But there is hope.  For even if Satan can incite calamities, his ability to do so is severely – and blessedly – limited.  Jesus describes Satan as a “strong man” whose fate is sealed:  “How can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man” (Matthew 12:29)?  Satan may be a strong man.  But Jesus is the stronger man.  And He came to tie up Satan by defeating his favorite calamity – death – on the cross.

Ultimately, then, no matter what the spiritual causes of the natural disasters that plague our world may be, in this we can take consolation:  no matter how much strength sin and Satan may have for ill, Jesus is stronger.  He’s so strong, in fact, that “even the wind and the waves obey Him” (Matthew 8:27).  He has things under control.  And He holds Moore’s victims in His heart and hands.  May we hold them in our prayers.


[1] Ed Stetzer, “We still cry out to God when tragedy strikes: Column,” USA Today (5.22.2013).

June 3, 2013 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Is Christianity Dying?

Broken Down ChurchIt was quite a byline:  “‘Protestant’ is no longer America’s top religious umbrella brand.  It’s been rained out by the soaring number of ‘Nones’ – people who claim no faith affiliation.”  When Cathy Lynn Grossman, religion editor for USA Today, penned these words for her article, “As Protestants decline, those with no religion gain,”[1] they served as yet another sobering statistical reminder concerning the decline of Christianity in America.  More and more people, it seems, are simply not concerned with matters of faith.

But not so fast.  At least if you believe Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research, who explains the statistical shift in the “nones” like this:

“Cultural Christians” mark “Christian” on a survey rather than another world religion because they know they are not Hindu, Jewish, etc., or because their family always has. “Churchgoing Christians” identify as such because they occasionally attend worship services.  On the other hand, “conversion Christians” claim to have had a faith experience in which they were transformed, resulting in a deeply held belief.  The recent growth in “nones,” I believe, comes primarily from cultural and churchgoing Christians shifting to the category no longer using a religious identification.[2]

Stetzer surmises that more and more people are increasingly feeling at liberty to publicly admit what many of them already privately suspected:  that Christianity is not a tenable way to view of the world and so there is no reason to be overly concerned with what this faith – or any other faith, for that matter – teaches and preaches.  And because there is no longer the social stigma attached to being irreligious that there once was, these people feel comfortable designating their faith commitment as “none.”

So what does all this tell us?  I would offer two thoughts on this data.

First, this data is a good reminder that, contrary to the gleeful predilections of naysayers, Christianity is not on the brink of extinction.  On April 8, 1966, TIME Magazine famously carried a cover story titled, “Is God Dead?” where eminent theologians opined on the possibility of doing theology without God.  Christianity, it seemed to these scholars, was on the decline while secularism was on the rise.  The “nones” were on the ascendancy and would shortly squelch the relic religious commitments of the Dark Ages.  But those relic religious commitments to a God from ages past stubbornly refused to die.  Christianity did not fall flat.  And Christianity will not fall flat.  As the above statistics intimate and as Ed Stetzer explains, it’s not that Christianity in America is declining per se, it’s that people are becoming more honest about what they actually believe.

Second, this data reminds us that Christianity and culture don’t mix quite as well as some might have previously thought and others might currently wish.  The desire to have a culturally Christian nation didn’t work so well in the first century as the nascent Christian Church was belabored and bludgeoned by the Roman Empire and it doesn’t work so well in the twenty-first century in a secular society that disparages and derides the Christian faith.  This should not come as a surprise.  Christianity and culture will always be at odds with each other, for the perfect law of God and the sinful sensibilities of men can never coalesce.

Ultimately, this tendentious relationship between Christianity and culture should clarify our mission.  For all too often, the Christian mission has been reduced and relegated to little more than that of fighting culture wars in hopes of forcibly shaping society.  However, such efforts have proven largely futile.  Yes, there are times when Christians need to stand up for the truth in society.  And no, I do not have any problem with Christians lobbying governing officials on issues of moral import – issues such as abortion or caring for the poor.  These things are indeed important.  But in order to win on Christian positions, we must first win over people. After all, people hold positions.  Positions do not hold people.  If you don’t win over a person, you won’t win on a position.

Finally, even if things seem grim in society, take heart!  Persecution, ridicule, and mockery from without the Church and scandal, avarice, and pride from within the Church have not been able to destroy a faith founded by an itinerant preacher from the backwaters of Galilee.  I have a feeling some statistics about Christianity’s decline aren’t going to be able to take it down either.


[1] Cathy Lynn Grossman, “As Protestants decline, those with no religion gain,” USA Today (10.9.2012).

[2] Ed Stetzer, “Column: Christianity isn’t dying,” USA Today (10.18.2012).

January 7, 2013 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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