Every indication suggests that America is becoming increasingly secular. However, if we mean increasingly secular in the sense that more and more people are now irreligious, secularism has a long way to go. In fact, 78.4 percent of Americans still describe themselves as Christian and ninety-one percent say they believe in God, according to a 2011 Gallup survey. Only 1.4 percent of Americans identify themselves as atheists and another 2.4 percent claim to be agnostic, according to the latest Pew Forum research. Granted, assent to belief in God can (and often does) include those completely unrelated to faith in Jesus Christ and nominal Christians, but that is not my point.
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. Simply consider the popularity of prominent atheist writers such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris-all of whom have published books that made it onto the New York Times Best Sellers list. More recently, Hollywood released a slew of independent films which rail against evangelicalism such as the megachurch satire Salvation Boulevard, the atheist film The Ledge and Sundance Film Festival favorite, Higher Ground.
This raises the obvious question: If Americans remain so staunchly religious then why do books such as Hitchens’s God is Not Great or films ridiculing Christianity seem to be gaining popularity?
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 Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, 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, Kuo suggests 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 become defensive in response to these statements, but I want to encourage you to look beyond your emotions and return to the question at hand. For the Christian, there is a persistent imperative for self-critique in the light of the Bible, 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 the Bible. Furthermore, I am not suggesting that Kuo is, in fact, correct, merely 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 we are pushing people toward unbelief by virtue of our approach to culture and engagement with 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 everywhere else but to Christ? Of course, I don’t know for sure but I certainly think it is possible-and that is enough to make me examine myself 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 that, practically speaking, think they have no need of God.
We seem to be suffering from a fundamental failure to define the church. Is the church a club that we invite people to join or is the church the living body of Christ sent out into the world? How we answer these questions will necessarily produce two very different churches, one institutionalized 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 politicized 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.