You’ve seen the headlines. It’s been all over Twitter and Facebook, posted by that annoying brother of yours who won’t ever shut up about atheism or by that ‘friend’ you keep meaning to delete:
Christianity In America Is In Decline
Only 71% of Americans describe themselves as Christian.
Let’s be clear, Christianity isn’t going away anytime soon, and I’m fine with that. Even at my most “Militantly Atheist” I never thought religions should be abolished or eradicated. I know firsthand how a person can be better off without religion and I think Christianity has no place in our government. But some people find purpose and drive in faith, so Godspeed to them.
There will be a lot of thinkpieces written about why Christianity is in decline (a question that the original Pew Research Center Survey was not attempting to answer). Christian writers will have their arguments, Atheists will have theirs, and so will your dad.
Let me suggest that it’s actually pretty simple.
Christianity is the Reason Christianity is in Decline
“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” – Brennan Manning
When I was a Christian, I adored the massively popular band dc Talk, and one of my favorite songs of theirs was “What If I Stumble” which begins with a recording of that above quote. The song then goes on to ponder the consequences if the singers stumble in their faith and make a mistake. A pretty reasonable concern for megastars who have major influence.
It’s a less reasonable concern for a 13-year-old kid who barely interacts with anyone outside his church or Christian school. It probably wasn’t smart for me to get much of my theology from pop music. So where should I have gotten it?
The Pew Research Center survey found that Millenials (I hate that term) are fleeing Christianity, which isn’t particularly surprising since the younger generation is always less religious. That is, until they get older, have kids and fall back on faith again. Except that isn’t happening with older Millenials born in the 80s (that’s me). The survey found they aren’t falling back on faith.
So what happened in Christianity in the last few decades to turn off so many people in my generation?
I can’t speak for everyone. I wouldn’t presume that my experiences are universal, but I suspect that they might resonate with a lot of people.
In the 90s, when I first entered youth group – weekly meetings for teens in Junior High and High School – Christian outreach was all about being hip. We went to rock shows (dc Talk and Jars of Clay were two of my first concerts), watched movies and had all-night lock-ins at the church. At the beginning of the 00s, My youth group had a video game room and a snack bar. It genuinely was one of the best things for a teenager to do on a Wednesday night in Lawrence, Kansas, Christian or not.
Christians were pretty good at casting their nets, but they didn’t know what to do with the fish once they had them.
The teaching in youth group was atrocious (big church wasn’t much better). I know because I was responsible for some of it. Our pastors and youth leadership were basically just making it up as they went. As near as I can tell, they still are. Our youth pastor and his wife were kind, wonderful people who cared about the kids they ministered to, but their theology was about as deep as a piss pool.
That’s not really that big of a deal when you’re teaching 13- and 14-year-olds since your function is mainly to keep them from screwing up their lives (though, inevitably, many slipped through anyway).
If you’re a kid like I was, though, who grew up in 9 years of Christian schooling, weekly church attendance and home Bible study, you seek a little more meat in your faith. This was especially true for me when, as a high schooler, my parents divorced and my dreams of moving to New York City were falling apart around me. I was pretty messed up in the head and when I turned to my faith for comfort all I got in return were platitudes and Bible Verse Confetti.
Here entered Steve, a pastor at my church (one of seemingly dozens). I was still only a senior in high school when he invited me to join his college only Tuesday night Bible Study. Not for the last time, I was the youngest in a group of considerably older members (some were only a year older than me, but others were well into Grad school).
Steve was a military guy who spoke at prisons. He was a serious teacher with years of theological study, and he was pretty damn intimidating. I respected the hell out of him and for a couple years I found a lot of comfort in those Tuesday night meetings.
Then came my sophomore year of college. My faith was falling from me like a lizard shedding its skin. I had stopped attending church and was no longer hanging out with my Christian friends. The only religious thing I still did was a Sunday morning Bible Study held at Steve’s house before church.
I remember the exact morning my faith broke: I was there with maybe 5 other people and Steve was preaching about demons. He handed out a sheet with a list of sins like lying and masturbation and a whole host of other small and big indiscretions. He then went on to explain that these sins were all demons that a person could be possessed by.
And I had this thought: “Oh, he’s making this all up.”
I had read the Bible. I had studied the scriptures. I knew there was no mention of a Masturbation Demon in there. That kind of thing would have stuck out.
I realized that no matter how deep and thoughtful a person’s theology was, at some point it was all made up crap. Read the Bible. It isn’t full of life changing teaching. It’s about 25% archaic laws that nobody follows anymore, 25% history, 15% redundant passages, 15% beautiful poetry and 10% lists of names. What remains could be considered religious teaching or guidance, but even a lot of that is pretty simplistic (“Do unto others what you would have done unto you” is hardly original or even that profound considering that it’s the first lesson our evolving species learned).
Yet, week after week, sometimes in 3 or 4 meetings, pastors across America find a new way to jumble together a dozen disparate verses and craft a new sermon. They say the Bible is the Living Word of God, and that’s a lovely turn of phrase but all it really means is that everyone can make up their own interpretation. Which is exactly what they do.
That’s fine when you’re just piecing together a faith to give your life a little meaning. When you’re attempting to guide your entire existence by the teachings of Christ, however, it’s a lot less helpful.
As a college student, I felt adrift in the ocean and when I tried to cling to the faith that I had been told all my life would support me, I found it riddled with holes and slowly sinking. Christianity is ultimately empty, as are all religions.
I have to politely disagree with Brennan Manning. I don’t believe Christians are the main reason for the increase in atheists. I believe that the fact that Christians are forced to make it up as they go is the cause. People of the faith can pretend like they’re all following the same religion, but go into any Christian bookstore in the country and you’ll see shelves full of different theologies. Some of those differences are minor, but they still represent one basic truth: Everyone is making it up.
Everyone’s theology is either based on their own interpretation of Bible verses or the interpretation of their favorite theologian/pastor/pop singer. Either way, it’s just an interpretation.
Once you realize, as I did that one Sunday morning, that there is no universal truth in Christianity, it stops holding any power.
And that’s why Christianity is in decline. Or, at least, that’s my interpretation.