Posts tagged ‘Survey’

The Church’s Durability

The Christian faith has staying power. This is both a biblical promise and a statistical reality. The biblical promise is that Christ’s Church is so strong that not even “the gates of Hades will overcome it” (Matthew 16:18).  The statistical case for the endurance of the faith was laid out by Ross Douthat in a column for The New York Times this past weekend:

Long-term Gallup data suggest that any recent dip in churchgoing is milder than the steep decline in the 1960s — and that today’s churchgoing rate isn’t that different from the rate in the 1930s and 1940s, before the postwar religious boom …

The recent decline of institutional religion is entirely a function of the formerly weakly affiliated ceasing to identify with religious bodies entirely; for the strongly affiliated (just over a third of the American population), the trend between 1990 and the present is a flat line, their numbers neither growing nor collapsing but holding steady across an era of supposedly dramatic religious change.

The case for the Church’s remarkable sociological durability is not new with Ross Douthat. Several years ago, Ed Stetzer, then the executive director of LifeWay Research, argued:

Nominal Christians are becoming the nones and convictional Christians remain committed. It is fair to say we are now experiencing a collapse, but it’s not of Christianity. Instead, the free fall we find is within nominalism.

So, what does all this mean?

For churches whose attendances are dropping, there are no easy answers, but there are some things we can and should consider in light of what we know about churches that are growing. Two things specifically come to mind.

First, pandering isn’t helpful. Hospitality, however, is. Pastors and church leaders have, in some corners, tried to pander to a progressive cultural zeitgeist that has a deep-seated distrust in and disgust at the Christian faith.  These leaders have discounted biblical authority and downplayed Christ’s ipseity.  In their rush to make the Christian faith palatable for the world, they have wound up with nothing to offer to the world.  These churches are collapsing.  In other more traditional corners of the Church, pastors and church leaders often spend more time pandering to longtime donors and power brokers within their congregations than they do reaching out to those who have questions about the Christian faith or to those who are skeptical of the Christian faith.  In these types congregations, traditions often trump mission.  These churches, too, are foundering.

Pandering stymies the Church’s mission.  Hospitality, on the other hand, calls churches into mission.  Hospitality is not focused on indulging people’s whims, like pandering is.  Instead, it is focused on loving them. This is why, when he writes about hospitality, the apostle Paul explains:

Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. (Romans 12:13-16)

For Paul, hospitality’s proving ground comes in how one treats their enemies.  How does the Church treat its enemies?  Do we lie to them by telling them what they want to hear like some supposedly “enlightened” and non-orthodox congregations do?  Do we reject them by catering to insiders and their preferences as some other congregations do?  Or, do we love them by living for them as Christ lived for us?  The Church must recover its hospitable spirit – especially to outsiders.

Second, faith is meant to be deep and go deep inside of us.  In a culture that is, in many pockets, post-Christian, a shallow or simple faith simply will not answer people’s big questions or stand the test of life’s terrible trials.  The studies above show, as other studies have before, that it is people with shallow faith who are falling away from the Church – not people with deep faith.  This means pep talks that pretend to be sermons will not keep people in church – but neither will dry doctrinal treatises that recycle theological buzzwords ad nauseam by pastors who are more concerned with brandishing their orthodox bona fides than they are with communicating Christ.  Only preaching that exposits the content of the Scriptures, explains how the Scriptures concern us and convict us, proclaims from the Scriptures what Christ has done for us, and then calls us to live out of what Christ has done for us will do.  The Scriptures present a deep faith in a clear way.  The Church should do the same.

Obviously, the Church has not done any of this perfectly – nor will it.  But we should consider how we can do things better.  Blessedly, in spite of our shortcomings, the Church will continues to endure because the Church is as durable as the One who died – and conquered death – for it.  Because Christ conquered death, the Church will not die.  He, finally, is the Church’s durability.

November 4, 2019 at 6:15 am 2 comments

The Shifting Moral Tide

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 10.25.13 AMA couple of weeks ago, it was the Pew Foundation’s report on the decline of those who self-identify as “Christian” that left the faithful rattled. Last week, Gallup published survey on Americans’ moral attitudes that, once again, shook Christians. Gallup reports:

Americans are more likely now than in the early 2000s to find a variety of behaviors morally acceptable, including gay and lesbian relations, having a baby outside of marriage and sex between an unmarried man and woman. Moral acceptability of many of these issues is now at a record-high level.[1]

In the scope of fifteen years, the percentage of people who believe gay and lesbian relations are morally acceptable has gone up 23 percent. 61 percent of people now believe having a baby outside of marriage is morally acceptable compared to 45 percent fifteen years ago. Support for polygamy has more than doubled: only 7 percent believed it was morally acceptable 15 years ago compared to 16 percent today. And the case for doctor-assisted suicide is gaining traction. 56 percent of people now find it morally credible. According to this report, only two issues have seen their moral favorability decline over the past fifteen years. Fewer people now believe the death penalty and medical testing on animals are morally acceptable.

In some ways, this survey is merely a lagging indicator of a moral revolution that has already taken place. Frank Newport, who wrote the article on Gallup’s findings, explains:

Americans are becoming more liberal on social issues, as evidenced not only by the uptick in the percentage describing themselves as socially liberal, but also by their increasing willingness to say that a number of previously frowned-upon behaviors are morally acceptable.

Notice that Newport explicitly locates the change in Gallup’s poll in what people are willing to say. This poll does not measure what people may have already believed. If our own president is any indication, people may believe something is morally acceptable long before they are willing to publicly admit it, especially when what they believe is controversial.

So what are we to make of this tide of evolving moral sentiment? If this poll is indeed a lagging indicator of what people already believe and how people are already living, I would suggest this survey represents as much of a human desire for catharsis as it does a shifting of the moral tide. After all, when people do not live up to a given moral standard – which has been happening for a long time – they have two options. First, they can bring their lives into alignment with the moral standard in question. Second, they can bring the moral standard in question into alignment with the way they are already living. Option one is challenging because it demands change and effort. Option two is cathartic because it makes people feel better about what they’re already doing. This, I suspect, plays a large part in why so many are so willing to shift their standards. They don’t want to feel bad because their lives don’t measure up to a given moral standard, so they just change the standard so it no longer makes them feel guilty. Our shifting moral standards have become therapeutic comforts.

There is, of course, a third option for morality and life. This option admits our lives will never measure up to any moral standard – at least not any moral standard worth having – and so the way to address our shortfalls and shortcomings is not by shifting moral standards, but by repentance. This is the way of the cross. And this is the way our world needs.

We can try to live up to transcendent moral standards, but we will always fail. We can try to change transcendent moral standards, but history will only mark us as deluded. So we must repent. And we must be forgiven. Because forgiveness is what we need – even when it’s forgiveness for when we immorally shift our moral standards.

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[1] Frank Newport, “Americans Continue to Shift Left on Key Moral Issues,” Gallup.com (5.26.2015)

June 1, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Marriage Recession

Marriage 1I’m not surprised, but I am saddened.  A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center confirms what we already know:  the estate of marriage has been in decline now for decades and it continues to decline.  Richard Fry summarizes the study’s findings:

In 2011, 4.2 million adults were newly married, about the same number as in 2010 and sharply lower than the 4.5 million newlyweds estimated in 2008…The decline in nuptials from 2008 to 2011 is in keeping with a general trend away from marriage in the U.S. Barely half of adults (51%) were married in 2011, according to ACS data, compared with 72% in 1960.  Marriage increasingly is being replaced by cohabitation, single-person households and other adult living arrangements.[1]

Two things are striking about Fry’s summary.  First, the rapid decline of married households from 1960 to 2011 is astonishing.  It represents nothing less than a seismic shift in premium our culture places on marriage.  Clearly, the value that people place on marriage has taken a precipitous fall.  Second, Fry’s observation that “marriage is increasingly being replaced by cohabitation” is also tremendously significant, for it marks a radical departure from God’s ideal of a covenanted relationship between one man and one woman who share and confront life together (cf. Genesis 2:24).

Of course, there are some who applaud this shift away from marriage toward cohabitation as the inevitable unleashing of a long-suppressed epicurean desire that has finally managed to shake itself free from the asphyxiating antiquated constraints of Victorian mores.  What these jubilant celebrants who eagerly preside over marriage’s funeral fail to notice, however, is the disturbing darkness that the decline of marriage reveals in the hearts of humans, not only as it pertains to sexual passions, but as it pertains to a basic lack of concern for others.

One of the blessings of marriage is the commitment it demands.  Rather than arbitrarily living with someone to whom there is no formal, long-term, and, indeed, life-long commitment, marriage demands the kind of fidelity that does not shift with better times or with worse times, with riches or with poverty, with sickness or with health.  The promises a person makes in his or her marriage vows are to remain firm even when everything else in life is in continual flux.  Thus, marriage vows are not primarily for the benefit of the one who makes them, though there are certainly blessings to be found in God-pleasing vows, but for the one who receives what they promise, for the vows focus especially on the interests of the partner to whom they are made.  A refusal to make these vows and instead cohabitate can allow some couples to unscrupulously hop from one relationship to the next, discarding any lover who a person feels no longer “meets their needs.”  In its worst form, then, cohabitation can amount to little more than rank selfishness on display.

Ultimately, at the same time marriage forges our character, it also reveals our character.  Marriage forges our character because it calls us to remain committed to another person even when our natural inclination would tend toward severing a relationship.  Marriage reveals our character because whether or not we are willing to enter into such a relationship in the first place says a lot about how willing we are to trade our own self-interest for service to another.  Marriage matters – not just because it safeguards the romantic relationships we have, but because it exposes the kind of people we are.  My prayer is that more and more people commit to be individuals of fidelity and service rather than sensuality and selfishness.


[1] Richard Fry, “No Reversal in Decline of Marriage,” Pew Research Center (11.20.12).

December 3, 2012 at 5:15 am 2 comments

ABC Extra – Why Do Good Things Happen To Bad People?

The other day I participated in an internet poll.  The question asked was, “Do you consider yourself to be a good person?”  There were three options:  “Yes,” “No,” and “It’s not black and white.”  The results of this poll?  The vast majority of people – a little under two-thirds – responded that they did consider themselves to be good.  Another one-third of the respondents answered that such a question is not black and white.  Finally, two people claimed they were not good.  And one of the two was me.

This past weekend in worship and ABC, we looked at a list of spiritual gifts from Romans 12.  Before talking about spiritual gifts, however, Paul sounds a warning:  “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you” (Romans 12:3).  Paul understands that humans have a proclivity, when asked whether or not they are “good,” to think of themselves as better than they are – to think of themselves “more highly than they ought.”  Thus, Paul calls for “sober judgment.”

Last week in my personal Bible reading, I read a seemingly simple and straightforward passage that gripped me:  “Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, toward Zoar. This was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah” (Genesis 13:10).  In Genesis 13, Abraham and his nephew Lot are on their way up from Egypt to start over and settle in a new place.  As they reach the Negeb, they arrive at a pinnacle from which they can see two lands – one to the east which looks well-watered and lush and one to the west which looks arid and barren.  Abraham, in an act of stunning generosity, allows his little nephew to pick which of the two lands he would like for himself.  Logically, Lot picks the lush land, leaving his uncle with the barren pit.  But as Lot is picking the lush land, we find out that this land is home to two infamous cities – Sodom and Gomorrah.  Before God destroys these twin cities of iniquity with fire and brimstone, however, they are apparently situated on a verdant plain.  But why?  Why would God bless such evil cities with such lush landscapes?  For these cities cannot be considered “good” by any estimation!  Even people who call themselves “good” would probably say that the residents of these cities were “bad”!

There is a foundational truth that undergirds all of God’s blessings:  God’s blessings come not because humans are worthy to receive them, but because God is gracious to give them.  Sodom and Gomorrah certainly did not deserve the land and bounty they enjoyed.  But out of His grace, God blessed them in spite of their wickedness.  And we must remember and recognize that God does the same thing with us.  The blessings we have are not the result of our worthiness, but a testimony to God’s graciousness.  As Jesus Himself says, “The Father causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).

More than once, I have been asked, usually after a heartbreaking tragedy has struck a seemingly great person, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  Though it is important to affirm the sadness of tragedy and mourn with those who mourn (cf. Romans 12:15), it is also important to understand that such a question has embedded in it a faulty premise.  There are no “good” people, at least not in the biblical sense.  Though people, when asked if they are good, may consider themselves as such, the Bible paints an entirely different picture of human holiness.  Paul explains, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts…We were by nature objects of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1, 3).  “By nature,” Paul says, “we are sinners.  By nature, we are bad.  And because of our badness, by nature, we deserve not God’s blessings, but God’s wrath.”  The question, then, is not, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” but “Why do good things happen to bad people?”  For we, like Sodom and Gomorrah, deserve not the verdant plains of God’s blessings, but the barren desert of God’s wrath at our sin.  So why does God give us good things even though we are bad?  He gives us good things because of His grace.  So praise God for His blessings to you today!  For you do not deserve them.  But God has given them to you anyway.

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April 23, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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