There is a tendency today to believe that America is becoming increasingly secular, in the sense that more and more people are either atheists or agnostics. However, that is not what the evidence reveals. In fact, 89 percent of Americans still claim to "believe in God" or claim to have "a strong sense of religious faith" and only 11 percent claim to be atheist or agnostic. This latter figure has remained relatively unchanged for decades. Granted the term "believe in God" can include those completely unrelated to faith in Jesus Christ, cultural Christians, or the faithful follower but that is not my point.
Last week NBC Nightly News featured a story in conjunction with their "Faith in America" series. According to the story, Americans actually remain strongly "religious" and the only change has been in the fact that we are seeing an increased level of comfort among the unbelieving to express themselves. They pointed to the popularity of prominent atheist writers such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris all of whom have had hugely successful books on the New York Times Best-Seller list.
This raises the obvious question: "If Americans remain so staunchly religious then why do books such as Hitchens', God is Not Great or Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion and many others challenging faith seem to be gaining popularity?" Why are so many Americans who evidently claim to believe in God and describe themselves as having "religious faith" buying books attacking the existence of God? Clearly I believe we are talking about spiritual seekers and not necessarily spirit-filled believers. And for that reason, this is a very important question for the Church to grapple with and not ignore.
J. David Kuo, who served in the Bush White House for two-and-a-half years as a Special Assistant to the president and eventually as Deputy Director of the Faith-Based Initiative, offers one possible suggestion as to why this may be. According to Kuo, a self-professed conservative Christian, growing interest in questions about God's existence may be the result of a "backlash against the mingling of religion, politics and public policy," and this idea that "Jesus was about a particular conservative political agenda." In essence, he means that the actions of some Christians may be encouraging the spiritual seeker to further doubt the existence of God.
Some of us may be tempted to react to these statements but I want to encourage you to look beyond your feelings and return to the question at hand. For Christians, there is always an imperative for self-critique in the light of Scripture and we must be willing to face the toughest questions about ourselves first. As Christians we must constantly test our attitudes and actions against the truth of Scripture and be prepared to abandon our positions when found to be in conflict with Scripture. Furthermore, I am not suggesting that Kuo is, in fact, correct, only that his suggestion warrants objective examination by those who are truly committed to living in obedience to Christ.
Could it be that our own actions are causing the religiously-inclined but nonetheless lost to doubt the existence of God? Is it possible that the Church is pushing people toward unbelief by virtue of its approach to culture and the world? Has Christianity become so politically defined that true faith and the person of Jesus Christ is obscured in the minds of many? Is it possible that Christians are conducting themselves in such a way that the spiritually seeking are looking anywhere but to Christ? I don't know for sure but I certainly think it is possible and that is enough to make me examine my self in light of these questions. It should cause us all to examine ourselves.
This growing interest in "questioning the existence of God" seems to parallel the decline in church attendance or more precisely, those leaving the institutional church. According to Reggie McNeal, author of the Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church, "They are not leaving because they have lost their faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith." McNeal adds, "They contend that the church no longer contributes to their spiritual development." This would certainly be the natural consequence of a Christianity that has lost its Christ-centeredness.
McNeal goes on to say, "The bottom line is that the bottom is not looking too good... Underneath the semblance of an American culture influenced by Christianity, the tectonic plates have shifted."
What is the cause of this shift? The blame, once again, seems to lie with us and not some externally imposed force. According to McNeal and I think he's right, "The North American church culture unfortunately now reflects the materialism and secularism of the modern era." In other words, the Church has in many ways conformed to the world and this conformity will not capture the attention of the lost much less the commitment of the faithful.
In so many churches today we have unwittingly reduced the gospel to a "come to Jesus and be happy" proposition (the therapeutic Jesus) rather than a "call on the name of the Lord and be saved" reality. Additionally, many churches have become so reliant upon modern methodologies, growth strategies, and best practices that they operate like well-ordered corporations who, practically speaking, have no need of God.
There seems to be a fundamental failure in defining the Church. Is the Church a "club" into which we invite people to join or is the Church the Body of Christ sent out into the world? How we answer these questions will necessarily produce two very different churches, one institutional and dying (world come to us) and the other missional and vibrant (go to the world).
I would argue that the "world come to us" approach has largely stripped the Church of authentic faith in Jesus Christ and replaced it with a club mentality that seeks like-minded "club members," people who already share our values and are looking to be with their own kind. The "go to the world" or missional approach presses into the world among those not like us, seeking to share the love of Christ through word and deed. Given these two approaches; do you think it possible that the "club" approach coupled with the growing reaction to the "Christian right" might send outsiders into questioning the existence of God?
Regardless of where you are in relation to politics or the kind of church you attend; the question we must each ask ourselves everyday is this: "Is my life and conduct drawing people toward Christ or pushing them away?" I pray for my own sake that it is the former.
S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture, a ministry of discipleship and Church renewal that works to equip Christians with an intelligent, thoroughly Christian and missional approach to culture. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, additional resources, and other works by S. Michael Craven visit: www.battlefortruth.org