Generational Drift and Decay

Last week we began to unpack Michael Spencer's explosive article, "The Coming Evangelical Collapse." Spencer's central assertion that "we are on the verge-within 10 years-of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity" drew widespread affirmations (or resignation) from many evangelicals. Whether or not one agrees with Spencer's conclusions, the general resonance with this article by so many evangelicals and its specific charges against the evangelical church in America warrant serious consideration.

Now, you may think, "How can Christianity suffer collapse? Such a thing isn't possible. This is just reactionary hyperbole!" However, Christian communities have arisen and vanished across the globe throughout history. The story of the church includes the ebb and flow of Christianity into and out of various cultures and regions; and while Jesus promised that his church would last until the end of the age, he never promised that it would do so in America. Recall that Christianity was dominant in Europe for more than a millennium and yet today barely a trace remains, while in Africa and Asia, the church is spreading like wildfire. Historian Philip Jenkins adds, "Once, the prospect of a non- or post-Christian Syria or Mesopotamia would have seemed inconceivable, as the Christians of these lands knew incontrovertibly that they stood at the heart of the faith" (Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity [HarperCollins: New York, NY], 42). Isn't this same prospect equally inconceivable to us?-and yet history proves it is possible.

Let me also add any impending collapse of evangelicalism as we know it is not the result of any flaw inherent to Christianity. It would be, without a doubt, the result of God's providence. We cannot know why, but given the state of the church in America, could it be God's judgment? I am inclined to think that is possible. Might we be the church in Ephesus to whom John writes, "you have abandoned the love you had at first" (Rev. 2:4)? Perhaps the Laodicean church that has become "lukewarm" (Rev. 3:16)?

This week let's examine another of Spencer's charges (an issue pandemic in our churches)-our abject failure to transmit [coherent] Christian faith to the next generation. Over the last century the church in America has suffered serious generational drift and decay. In every subsequent generation over the last century, the faith has become more fragmented, watered-down, superficial, and irrelevant. We have drifted from a vibrant faith rooted in the historic confessions, coherent theological convictions, and intelligent cultural engagement to a privatized faith that is indifferent to the past, theologically ignorant, and culturally irrelevant. As Michael Spencer writes:

We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we've spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.

The evidence supporting this charge is both overwhelming and damning. As I wrote last week, less than one percent of professing Christians aged 18-23 possess the very basics of a Christian worldview. Droves of young people are leaving the church; countless numbers of young evangelicals-ill equipped-are being morally and spiritually decimated upon entering the university. The moral conduct of young evangelicals is barely distinguishable from their unchurched counterparts. And very few can articulate any doctrines remotely related to historic orthodox Christianity.

The travesty exists in the fact that among church leadership, this isn't new news. Countless studies documenting these facts have been published and available for years. In 2004, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton conducted the largest study ever documenting the vacuous religious beliefs of young people. So discordant were the theological beliefs of young professing Christians that the researchers coined the phrase, "moralistic therapeutic deism" to describe the practice and belief of this generation. The results were published in the popular book Soul Searching, receiving widespread acclaim. A documentary-style film version followed, which was distributed to thousands of churches.

In regards to moral conduct, Christianity Today reported in 2003, "Specific studies of sexual trends among Christian teens have been limited, but all indications are that, on average, there is little difference between their sexual behavior and that of non-Christian youths…" (Jennifer Parker, Christianity Today, "The Sex Lives of Christians," Mar/Apr 2003). In 2007, Mark Regenerus, a sociologist and Christian, published Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teens. Regenerus's study confirmed earlier findings, adding that evangelical teens may actually be having premarital sex at younger ages and more frequently than their nonevangelical counterparts. Barna's research on a range of moral and ethical questions also reveals little or no difference between Christian and non-Christian youth.

Again, this isn't news to anyone involved in youth ministry, and yet there appears to be little in the way of serious self-examination resulting in new strategies designed to remedy this deplorable condition. The emphasis still favors entertainment-based strategies designed to attract youth through big-event evangelism, celebrity testimonies, concerts, and pizza parties-but teaching them nothing of substance.

I've talked with numerous youth pastors who grieve over the state of the youth in their charge but concede that they are under pressure from church leadership to "keep the numbers up." These young leaders confess that if they simply sat down to exegete and teach the scriptures, their numbers would likely drop and thus would be sure to end their career in ministry. Where are the senior pastors, youth leaders, men and women willing to say enough? Are we willing to see the crowds diminish in order to reveal those earnest followers receptive to intensive discipleship? What is worse? Leading masses to believe that because they play dodgeball in church on Sunday night they are followers of Christ-or making disciples out of small but committed groups of young people who are serious about following Christ?

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