Last week I came across a book published in 2017 titled, “Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World,” by Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles J. Chaput, who is the first Native American archbishop in the United States (he recently retired). A brief description of this book on Amazon.com states the following:
A vivid critique of American life today and a guide to how Christians–and particularly Catholics–can live their faith vigorously, and even with hope, in a post-Christian public square.
From Charles J. Chaput, author of Living the Catholic Faith and Render unto Caesar comes Strangers in a Strange Land, a fresh, urgent, and ultimately hopeful treatise on the state of Catholicism and Christianity in the United States. America today is different in kind, not just in degree, from the past. And this new reality is unlikely to be reversed. The reasons include, but aren’t limited to, economic changes that widen the gulf between rich and poor; problems in the content and execution of the education system; the decline of traditional religious belief among young people; the shift from organized religion among adults to unbelief or individualized spiritualities; changes in legal theory and erosion in respect for civil and natural law; significant demographic shifts; profound new patterns in sexual behavior and identity; the growth of federal power and its disregard for religious rights; the growing isolation and elitism of the leadership classes; and the decline of a sustaining sense of family and community. (Quote source here.)
I was raised in a non-denominational church in the Midwest most closely aligned with Baptists, so my knowledge of the Catholic Church is minimal. However, as I looked through this book, the information it contains is clearly relevant to all Christians regarding the seismic changes going on in our society today and how they have unfolded over the past several decades since the 1950’s and 1960’s. In Chapter 1 titled, “Resident Aliens,” he writes the following on page 7:
Judges 2:6-15 is the story of what happens after the Exodus and after Joshua wins the Promised Land for God’s people. Verse 10 says that Joshua “and all that generation also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation after them, who did not know the Lord or the work which he had done for Israel.”
It’s a Bible passage worth pondering. Every generation leaves a legacy of achievement and failure. In my lifetime, many good men and women have made the world better by the gift of their lives to others. But the biggest failure of so many people of my–baby boomer–generation, including parents, teachers, and leaders in the Church, has been our failure to pass along our faith in a compelling way to the generation now taking our place.
The reason the Christian faith doesn’t matter to so many of our young people is that–too often–it didn’t really matter to us. Not enough to shape our lives. Not enough for us to suffer for it. As Catholic Christians, we may have come to a point today where we feel like foreigners in our own country–“strangers in a strange land,” in the beautiful English of the King James Bible (Exodus 2:22). But the deeper problem in America isn’t that we believers are “foreigners.” It’s that our children and grandchildren aren’t. (Quote source: “Strangers in a Strange Land,” page 7.)
The number of Christians and cultural strength of Christianity are both declining in the United States. This decline is noticeable and is affecting church life, culture, and politics. It is also deeply disturbing to most Christians, including me.
These descriptive claims are found in my new book, A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends, just out with Westminster John Knox Press. I will be reflecting on themes from that new book in my blog posts over the next few weeks. This is the first, exploring Christian decline in the United States.
I could now spend several paragraphs inviting a debate over whether and in what sense Christianity really can be said to be in decline in the U.S. But I won’t. Suffice it to say that when one percent fewer Americans each year claim a Christian affiliation, that marks decline. When most denominations and congregations report declining membership and attendance, that marks decline. When more and more congregations close their doors forever, that marks decline. And when the youngest generation shows the greatest disaffiliation trend, that marks a decline likely to have lasting impact.
No, the more interesting question at this point is why. Why this disaffiliation trend? What are its causes?
An interesting problem in recent conversations about Christian decline is that many who weigh in appear to be defending their side in internal Christian conflicts and controversies. Undoubtedly there is some truth to their respective claims, but their polemic purposes must be considered.
For example, many conservative evangelicals have for a long time pinned Christian decline on the mainline liberals, stating that if they had held firmly to a more robust and orthodox Christianity, they would have done better.
On the other hand, many mainliners, not to mention disaffected evangelicals and ex-evangelicals, have made quite the opposite claim. For them, Christian decline is due to the excesses and rigidities of conservative religion.
Having experienced both kinds of churches, I have witnessed both kinds of disaffiliation: ex-mainliners leaving because their churches were so insipid, and ex-evangelicals leaving because they could not reconcile conservative faith with science, critical thinking, or the contemporary world.
So let’s count both of those as reasons why some are disaffiliating. Here is my very tentative proposal for eight other reasons:
–Prosperity and affluence distract people from regular church attendance and reduce a strong sense of need to be in church, gradually eroding not just church attendance but Christian identity.
–The pre-modern claims of traditional Christian faith appear increasingly incredible to postmodern Americans. It has been a very long time since a majority of cultural elites found Christianity’s supernatural claims, for example, to be credible. These elites dominate our culture.
–Hypocrisies and conflicts in church, when they (inevitably) erupt, don’t just drive people to other churches, as in the past, but sometimes take them out of Christianity altogether.
–The fading of cultural Christianity means that fewer and fewer Americans feel any cultural or familial expectation to be in church or practice Christianity. “It was good enough for grandpa” just doesn’t cut it anymore.
–American Christianity is not producing many compelling leaders, and thus the average church (as well as the Church writ large) is not especially inspiring or visionary. Many ministers play it safe in order to keep their jobs, or are simply not that talented.
–The collapse of any protection of Sunday from recreation and work, together with the gig economy, means many people are working or otherwise engaged on Sunday.
–It is harder for parents to pass the faith onto their children in a wired world in which parental influence is in decline.
–Evangelism is dead. No one really knows how to “share the Christian faith” any more in a way that connects with people, and many Christians have stopped trying.
So that’s ten proposed reasons why Christianity is declining in the United States. I invite you to add your own reasons for this significant trend. In a later post I will reflect on what might be done to redress the problems the churches now face. (Quote source here.)
One has to wonder, too, if part of the reason Christianity is declining in America is because it was just something many of us especially in the Baby Boomer generation grew up doing because our parents did–attending church services and being involved in church activities–and as the culture around us became more secular, we didn’t really have any “roots” that kept us in church other then maybe feeling an obligation to go as it was “expected” for us to go. Or, it is mainly just a part of something we did or still do every Sunday (attending church), but the faith that is required to believe in God and Jesus Christ wasn’t or isn’t really there or it has no depth. Hebrews 11:6 states, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
So, what are the signs of genuine saving faith? GotQuestions.org answers that question as follows:
This is one of the most important questions in the Christian life. Many believers doubt their salvation because they don’t see signs of genuine faith in their lives. There are those who say we should never doubt our decision to follow Christ, but the Bible encourages us to examine ourselves to see if we are truly “in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5). Thankfully, God has given us ample instruction for how we can know for sure that we have eternal life. The first epistle of John was actually written for that purpose, as it states in 1 John 5:13, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
There is a series of tests in 1 John that we can use to examine ourselves and our faith. As we look at them, remember that no one will perfectly fulfill all of them all the time, but they should reveal a consistent trend that characterizes our lives as we grow in grace.
1. Do you enjoy having fellowship with Christ and His redeemed people? (1 John 1:3)
2. Would people say you walk in the light, or walk in the darkness? (1 John 1:6-7)
3. Do you admit and confess your sin? (1 John 1:8)
4. Are you obedient to God’s Word? (1 John 2:3-5)
5. Does your life indicate you love God rather than the world? (1 John 2:15)
6. Is your life characterized by “doing what is right”? (1 John 2:29)
7. Do you seek to maintain a pure life? (1 John 3:3)
8. Do you see a decreasing pattern of sin in your life? (1 John 3:5-6) [Note: this refers to not continuing in sin as a way of life, not a total absence of sin.]
9. Do you demonstrate love for other Christians? (1 John 3:14)
10. Do you “walk the walk,” versus just “talking the talk”? (1 John 3:18-19)
11. Do you maintain a clear conscience? (1 John 3:21)
12. Do you experience victory in your Christian walk? (1 John 5:4)
If you are able to truthfully answer “Yes” to these questions (or a majority of them, and are working on the others), then your life is bearing the fruit of true salvation. Jesus said that it is by our fruits that we are known as His disciples (Matthew 7:20). Fruitless branches—professing believers who do not display the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) are cut off and thrown into the fire (John 15:6). A genuine faith is one that not only believes in God (the demons themselves do that – James 2:19), but leads to open confession of sin and obedience to Christ’s commands. Remember, we are saved by grace through faith, not by our works (Ephesians 2:8-9), but our works should display the reality of our salvation (James 2:17-18). Genuine saving faith will always produce works; a faith that is perpetually without works is no faith at all and saves no one.
In addition to these confirmations, we need to remember God’s promises and the reality of the war we are in. Satan is just as real as Jesus Christ, and he is a formidable enemy of our souls. When we turn to Christ, Satan will look for every opportunity to deceive and defeat us. He will try to convince us that we are unworthy failures or that God has given up on us. When we are in Christ, we have the assurance that we are kept by Him. Jesus Himself prayed for us in John 17:11 that the Father would “protect them by the power of your name—the name you gave me—so that they may be one as we are one.” Again in verse 15, He prayed, “keep them from the evil one.”
In John 10:27-29, Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.” If you hear and obey the voice of Jesus, then you are one of His sheep, and He will never let you go. Jesus gave a wonderful word picture here of Christians securely held within His loving hands and the Father’s almighty hands wrapping themselves around His, giving us a double assurance of eternal security. (Quote source here.)
On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.
GotQuestions.org explains what Jesus meant by “living water”:
Jesus uses the phrase “living water” in two instances in the Bible. The first instance is found in John chapter 4. Jesus was tired and sat at a well while His disciples went into town to buy food. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus asked her for a drink. The Samaritan woman was quite shocked because Jesus was a Jew, and Jews simply hated the Samaritans. Of course, she had no idea who Jesus was and asked Him how He could ask her for water since He was a Jew.
Jesus ignored the question and went right to the point, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). Notice that He does not say that He is the living water, but that He would give living water to her, and when she received it, she would never thirst again. Of course, that does not tell us what the living water is! For that, we must go to another passage of Scripture. In this case, Jesus is in the temple surrounded by a throng of worshipers. He suddenly cried out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scriptures said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’ But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:37–39).
Here Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the living water. External influence of the Spirit had always been given in the conversion and sanctification of the Old Testament saints and prophets, but the gift of the Spirit who would indwell believers had not yet been received (Acts 10:44–45). So, though many people say that Jesus is the living water, Jesus Himself intended the phrase to mean the Holy Spirit who dwells in believers and seals them for salvation (Ephesians 1:13–14). It is the ministry of the Spirit, flowing out of a heart redeemed by God, that blesses believers and, through them, brings life and light to the world. (Quote source here.)
I’ll end this post with the words of Jesus from John 7:37b-38—Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said…
Rivers of living water . . .
Will flow . . .
From within them . . . .
YouTube Video: “Rivers of Living Water” by Karen Marrolli: