Is Christianity in Decline? Yes and No. – Part 2

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In Part 1 of this post I shared some thoughts on the commonly held belief that religious belief is in decline around the world and eventually doomed for extinction.

Today, we look at three more important factors to keep in mind regarding this topic:

2. Liberal Religion is Declining, but Conservative Religion is on the Rise

I wrote about this phenomena recently here: When You Stand for Nothing…, where I talked about the case of two Presbyterian denominations, one which is theologically liberal and the other which is theologically conservative. The liberal denomination is bleeding out quickly, whereas the conservative one is growing strongly.

It seems that there has been a major miscalculation by many people about the eventual demise of theologically conservative beliefs.

Since many of the historical mainline Protestant denominations, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the United Methodist Church (UMC), the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) and the Episcopal Church in America (TEC) have taken a hard turn towards theological liberalism, they have seen rapid declines in their membership and attendance. And since these denominations compromised a large portion of the population in the United States, their declines have caused many to say that Christianity in the United States is in crisis.

Of the people leaving these denominations, many have transferred into theologically conservative Evangelical Protestant Churches. According to this article from Christianity Today, over the last four decades, there has been more than a 400 percent growth in Protestants who identify as nondenominational. Non-denominational Evangelical Protestant Churches now compromises about 30% of all Christian church attendance in the United States.

Around the world, both in Christianity and outside of Christianity, it is the conservative branches of religious movements which are on the rise, not the liberal ones. This is surprising to those like Richard Dawkins, who assume that as the world becomes more educated and developed, religion will either turn into sentimental tradition or just die out completely. Quite the opposite is happening actually.

3. Secularism is Set to Decline in the Future

In an interview with the Christian Post (full article here), author and pastor Timothy Keller said:

“In the past there was hardly anybody who was secular,” Keller told the Christian Post. “In the future there will be significant numbers of people who are secular more than have ever been in history. But, the facts on the ground are that Christianity and Islam in particular are growing faster than the population. And that over the next 25-45 years the number of people who say that they are secular, the percentage of the world’s population that is secular, is actually going down.”

Is Keller correct? According to a Pew Research Center report released in April 2015, he is. That report projected out to 2050, finding that, as the world population changes in the coming decades, the world’s religious profile will also change.

Christianity is poised to remain the largest religion in the world, but Islam is growing quickly, less by conversion than by birth. This relates again to my previous post, in which I pointed out that inherited religion is in decline globally. It would be assumed that this decline will affect the growth of Islam as well.

4. Only a Small Part of the World is Moving Towards Greater Secularism, and They Will Soon be a Minority

What the Pew Research Center report had to say about the “nones”:

“Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France – will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.”

So, it would seem that secularism is set to decline rather than increase in coming decades.

It is important to remember that the rise of religious beliefs is taking place as education as well as industrial and economic development is taking place. It would seem that as the world is becoming more educated and more developed, people are increasingly aware of their need for God.

Senator Ben Sasse’s Speech at the Gospel Coalition 2017 Conference

Take a minute to watch this short address given by Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska at the Gospel Coalition 2017 Conference a few weeks ago in Indianapolis.

Sasse is a graduate of Yale and studied in Oxford. He is a Christian and in this address he sounds more like a pastor than a politician. He has served as an elder in his church and on the board of trustees of Westminster Seminary California.

Here’s an article about him and his faith that was published in World Magazine: Ben Sasse: a Reformed reformer.

Here’s the video of his session: “What Does Washington Have to Do with Jerusalem?”:

A Refugee Story of Our Own

60 years ago this week, the Hungarian people rose up against the Stalinist government of Hungary and the Soviet occupation.

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Toppled Statue of Stalin in Budapest

The revolution ultimately failed, and in the wake of it, my wife’s father, Ferenc, fled Hungary along with some 200,000 people, and became a refugee. Ferenc was able to escape across the border into Austria along with a friend thanks to the help of a local villager who helped them navigate the minefield at the border. Unfortunately they later received news that this man had been caught and executed.

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Those who fought and those who fled were known as 56-ers (Ötvenhatosok).

Time magazine named the Hungarian Freedom Fighter the Man of the Year in 1956.

The revolution began on October 23, 1956 with rallies and protests. When the  ÁVH (Hungarian secret police) fired into the crowd of protesters in front of the parliament building, people formed militias, armed only with rocks and molotov cocktails, but were later able to break into military weapon storage and get guns. The revolution spread throughout the country, and on Oct 28, 1956 Soviet troops withdrew from Budapest. The Hungarians thought they were free, and began to establish a new government, but on Nov 4, in the middle of the night, the Soviet army rolled into Budapest and crushed the revolution completely and finally.

One of the saddest parts of the story of the revolution, was that the United States had been broadcasting into the Eastern Block via Radio Free Europe, telling people there that if they were to rise up against the Soviets, the US would support them. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, because at the exact time when the Hungarians did rise up, the US was in the middle of negotiations about the Suez Canal and needed the support of the Soviet Union, and they weren’t prepared to turn the Cold War into World War III.

My father-in-law, Ferenc, was able to get refugee status in Austria and petitioned for asylum in the United States, and was among those who were accepted. The United States said they would accept 100 young men who were willing to work. They took them on a B-52 Liberator, and after a stop-over somewhere in Africa, they were brought to a military base in New Jersey. Asked where they wanted to live in the United States, they chose Chicago, because it was the only American city they had heard of.

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B-52 Liberator, the plane Ferenc and other refugees were brought to the US in

Ferenc later gained US citizenship, got married and had 2 kids. He went to college and worked in the tech industry. He loved Hungary, but understood he couldn’t go back. He also loved America, because of the opportunities and the freedoms he enjoyed here.

It was also in the United States that Ferenc heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ and became a Christian. He was born in Hungary during World War II and raised in the Stalinist era of communist Hungary, which meant that although he identified as Roman Catholic, he never practiced it. Upon coming to the US, Ferenc began attending Catholic mass, but the real turning point in his life came when his son, my brother-in-law, was invited as a teenager to a church by some friends. My wife and her brother had gone to Catholic church growing up with their parents, but as they got older they had stopped attending. Tony, my brother in law embraced the gospel message of who Jesus was and what he did: the Divine Son, dying in our place, for our sins, so we could be forgiven, justified and redeemed; rising from the dead that we might have eternal life through him.

Tony invited Rosemary, my wife, to come to church with him, and she did. He also invited his mom and dad, who were much more hesitant to come because of the charismatic nature of this particular church.

Ferenc, however, listened to what Tony said about Jesus, and so Ferenc looked for a church where he felt comfortable going and learning more. He ended up finding Calvary Chapel in Vista, CA – and Rosemary began attending with him.

Rosemary remembers the time when her dad really understood the gospel for the first time. She says that he was emotional, having been touched deeply by the love and the grace of God towards him, and at the same time somewhat angry, saying: “I went to church for years…but I never heard the gospel!   Why did they never tell me that I needed to repent of my sins and put my faith in Jesus, and that God extends grace and mercy and eternal life to those who will receive it?” 

I went to church for years…but I never heard the gospel!   Why did they never tell me…? – Ferenc Kovács

Ferenc attended Calvary Chapel in Vista for years. While he attended there he met another man, István, who was also a 56-er. About this time, the great changes were taking place in Eastern Europe which led to the end of Communism in those countries. Calvary Vista led the way in sending teams to preach the gospel and to plant churches, first in Yugoslavia and then in Hungary.

Ferenc was so excited to see what God was doing, and he wanted so badly to go to Hungary and tell his fellow countrymen the good news of the gospel, and the message that God loved them and that Jesus had died for them. Unfortunately, he never got that opportunity. Ferenc suffered from Juvenile Parkinson’s Disease, a devastating condition for a man who had formerly been an avid athlete and soccer player. Ferenc died from complications from Parkinson’s in 1996, at the age of 59, but not before seeing his daughter go on mission trips to Hungary. His friend István did go to Hungary and spent years working with Calvary Chapel in Budapest.

We ended up working together in, of all places, a refugee camp

In 1998, Rosemary moved to Hungary to work with Calvary Chapel, spreading the gospel and planting churches. It was there that I met Rosemary in 2001. We ended up working together in, of all places, a refugee camp, in Debrecen, Hungary where we ministered several times a week to people mostly from muslim countries, who had never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. We provided for them materially through donations, and we also offered them Bibles and held Bible studies, translated into several languages. Over this period of time, we saw people from Kosovo, Iran, Afghanistan and several African countries become Christians after hearing the gospel clearly presented for the first time in their lives and having the opportunity to read the Scriptures for themselves.

Today, we have a modern-day refugee crisis. We’ve been told that they are a “Trojan Horse” – and maybe some of that rhetoric has some truth to it, but I also know that people were sceptical of people like Ferenc, my father-in-law, who came from a Communist country – and guess what: during the Cold War, some spies and people with bad intentions against America did come to the US pretending to be refugees. It doesn’t change the fact of Ferenc and many other refugees’ stories of escaping oppressive regimes and not only finding freedom, but also having the opportunity for the first time in their lives to hear the life-transforming message of the gospel.

I see the current refugee situation through this lens: the lens of my wife, her brother and my late father-in-law. I see it through the lens of the many people who became Christians in the refugee camp I worked in, who had never had the opportunity to hear the gospel or the freedom to become Christians in their home countries. I see it through the lens of the Iranian refugees I met in Budapest last year, whom White Fields church bought Bibles for, because they were hearing about Jesus and getting baptized, changing their names and evangelising other refugees.

I’m not afraid of refugees – my father-in-law was one. The mass exodus of people from Syria is a difficult and messy situation, but here’s what I’m going to do if Syrian refugees move into my neighborhood: I’m going to befriend them, love them, show them kindness and seek to share with them the life-changing message of the gospel, a message which they likely have never heard before. I hope you’ll do the same.

 

Charitable Giving Habits of Americans

Living abroad for many years, one of the things which I came to realize and be impressed with, is how much American citizens give to charitable causes.

I was living in Hungary when the monster earthquake hit Haiti, and Hungarians were blown away to hear that average people in the United States were giving generously to help provide aid and relief for people they had never met in some faraway country. They were used to governments giving aid to regions with humanitarian crises, but for regular people to do such a thing was surprising to them.

It could be because people in the United States have more expendable income than people in most parts of the world, and that our currency is strong and goes further than other currencies. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that there is a culture here in the United States of using what we have to do good for other people.

Perhaps it comes from our history: having been a nation of immigrants, whose ancestors moved here to seek a better life or to escape poverty, and so it is built into our collective psyche, to use what we have to help others, knowing that we have experienced divine providential fortune to live in this country.

It also can’t be ignored, that a great number of Americans identify as ‘religious’. Part of the Judeo-Christian ethic is that, like Abraham, if we have been blessed, it is so we might be a blessing to others – that God wants to bless other people through us (Genesis 12:2).

The Sacramento Bee published an article last month, showing the Adjusted Gross Income of every county in the US compared to how much was given in that county to charitable causes, non-profits and churches.

Interestingly, although perhaps not surprisingly, it was the poorer counties which gave more per capita than the richer ones. One of the major factors in how much people in a given county gave to charity seems to be religious affiliation; places with more people who attend religious services saw higher rates of charitable giving.

The idea that people who have less tend to give more may not be surprising to everyone. Jesus drew the attention of his disciples to a woman in the temple who gave her last 2 mites – all that she had, whereas other people who had more gave less of what they had. Preachers have long cited statistics which show the same thing: ironically, the more one accrues, the more miserly they tend to become with it.

How about Boulder County, Colorado, where yours truly is located? 2.6% of income was given to charity. That’s pretty low, and pretty ironic, because people in Boulder County, in my experience, talk a lot about being “locally minded and globally conscious” and caring about the well-being of other people, even if most of them are not Christian or attend religious services of any kind.

Neighboring Weld County was not much better at 2.7%, Larimer County came in at 3.2% (there are quite a few more church-going folks up there).

Here is the map with each county’s income versus charitable giving:

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Do you give charitably? The Bible recommends 10% of one’s income. The only places that came close to that number were the heavily Mormon populated counties of Utah.

Where do you direct your giving towards?

 

A “Christian Nation” and the End of an Era

Have you ever heard the term “Christendom”? I have often heard it used to refer to the “invisible community of Christians everywhere” – kind of along the lines of the term “blogosphere”.

While that use of Christendom isn’t wrong – it isn’t the historical use of the word either. Historically, Christendom referred to the “Christian nations.” It was a way of dividing up the globe, into “Christendom” and “heathendom”.

One of my professors from seminary, Llyod Pietersen, recently wrote a book titled Reading the Bible After Christendom.

In the book he includes two lists: the first is a list characterizing Constantinian Christianity and culture, and the second characterizes the shift away from it. They are particularly interesting in regard to thinking of the United States or the United Kingdom (or any country for that matter) in our modern era as a “Christian nation.”  Whether or not our founders were God-fearing people, or whether we have a history of movements of God in our country – we need to assess the reality of the modern situation. Sweden, for example, like a number of other European countries, is still technically a Christian nation, whilst practically they shifted away from Christendom long ago.

The other thing you realize from these lists is that maybe Christendom wasn’t actually as great as people think it was. One of the great downfalls of a “Christian nation” is that you give people a false sense of security in their salvation – simply because they were born into a “Christian” culture or society. At least in a pluralistic society (which is what we are in – but was also the situation Paul the Apostle and the Christians in the Book of Acts were in!) people realize the immediate and pressing need for them to make a choice to follow Jesus, and the radical implications that come with it!

Rather than bemoaning the end of Christendom, I believe that Christians are faced with a great new opportunity in pluralistic society – the opportunity to bring to bear on all people the challenges of the Gospel and the call to follow Jesus Christ, because being a Christian is no longer a “given”.

Here are those lists:

Characteristics of the shift to Christendom:

  • The adoption of Christianity as the official religion of city, state, or empire.
  • Movement of the church from the margins to the center of society.
  • The creation and progressive development of a Christian culture or civilization.
  • The assumption that all citizens (except Jews) were Christian by birth.
  • The development of a “sacral society,” corpus Christianum, where there was no freedom of religion and political power was divinely authenticated.
  • The definition of “orthodoxy” as the belief all shared, determined by powerful church leaders with state support.
  • Imposition, by legislation and custom, of a supposedly Christian morality on the entire society (though normally Old Testament morality was applied).
  • Infant baptism as the symbol of obligatory incorporation into Christian society.
  • The defense of Christianity by legal sanctions to restrain heresy, immorality, and schism.
  • A hierarchical ecclesiastical system based on a diocesan and parish arrangement, analogous to the state hierarchy and buttressed by state support.
  • A generic distinction between clergy and laity, and relegation of laity to a largely passive role.
  • Two-tier ethics, with higher standards of discipleship (“evangelical counsels”) expected of clergy and those in religious orders.
  • Sunday as an official holiday and obligatory church attendance, with penalties for non-compliance.
  • The requirement of oaths of allegiance and oaths in law court to encourage truth telling.
  • The construction of massive and ornate church buildings and the formation of huge congregations.
  • Increased wealth of the church and obligatory tithes to fund the system.
  • Division of the globe in “Christendom” and “heathendom” and wars waged in the name of Christ and the church.
  • Use of political and military force to impose Christianity, regardless of personal conviction.
  • Reliance on the Old Testament, rather than the New, to justify these changes.

Characteristics of the shift into post-Christendom:

  • The Christian story and churches have moved from the center to the margins.
  • Christians are now a minority.
  • Christians therefore no longer feel at home in the dominant culture.
  • Christians no longer enjoy automatic privileges but find themselves as one community among many in a plural society.
  • The church no longer exercises control over society but instead Christians can exercise influence only through faithful witness to the Christian story and its implications.
  • The emphasis is now no longer on maintaining the status quo but on mission in an contested environment.
  • Churches can no longer operate mainly in institutional mode, but must learn to operate once again as part of a movement.

 

What do you think?  Are there any Christian nations these days?  Do we really want to be one?

Jesus didn’t live in a Christian nation, neither did Paul. And I don’t think they thought our goal as Christians was to establish them either.