The Blue Parakeet: How to Compete with Christianity

parakeetWhile we Christians are worrying about the decline of Christianity in the US, the atheists are worried about their inability to keep their children away from God.

In an editorial in today’s New York Times, Charles M. Blow writes,

“Most people are religious because they’re raised to be. They’re indoctrinated by their parents.”

So goes the rationale of my nonreligious friends.

Maybe, but a study entitled “Faith in Flux” issued this week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life questioned nearly 3,000 people and found that most children raised unaffiliated with a religion later chose to join one. Indoctrination be damned. By contrast, only 4 percent of those raised Catholic and 7 percent of those raised Protestant later became unaffiliated.

Blow writes from the perspective of the irreligious, and he finds this trend disturbing. He concludes,

As the nonreligious movement picks up steam, it needs do a better job of appealing to the ethereal part of our human exceptionalism — that wondrous, precious part where logic and reason hold little purchase, where love and compassion reign. It’s the part that fears loneliness, craves companionship and needs affirmation and fellowship.

We are more than cells, synapses and sex drives. We are amazing, mysterious creatures forever in search of something greater than ourselves.

Dale McGowan, the co-author and editor of the book “Parenting Beyond Belief” told me that he believes that most of these people “are not looking for a dogma or a doctrine, but for transcendence from the everyday.”

Now, this is interesting — in at least two ways.

First, how can both the irreligious and the religious be losing ground? The mainstream churches are in precipitous decline. The Southern Baptist are in decline. The Churches of Christ are in decline. And yet most children raised irreligious later become religious. How can this be?

Surely the answer is in two different measures being used. The denominations measure growth and decline by attendance. The figures cited by Blow are in terms of “affiliation.” What we’re seeing is a trend toward unchurched Christianity — people holding to some sort of faith without being a member or regular attender in a church. Perhaps this is better than the atheists taking over the country, but it’s not nearly what God wants from his “affiliates.”

Second, we start to see something about what it is about church that appeals to the contemporary mindset: it’s the transcendence and community, rather than the law and the logic. That’s not to suggest that we should toss out God’s word or sound doctrine. Rather, the point is that study and rules are not nearly enough.

According to the Pew study,

Two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated and half of former Protestants who have become unaffiliated say they left their childhood faith because they stopped believing in its teachings, and roughly four-in-ten say they became unaffiliated because they do not believe in God or the teachings of most religions. Additionally, many people who left a religion to become unaffiliated say they did so in part because they think of religious people as hypocritical or judgmental, because religious organizations focus too much on rules or because religious leaders are too focused on power and money. Far fewer say they became unaffiliated because they believe that modern science proves that religion is just superstition.

We have for too long offered the irreligious (and the religious) far less than what God intends for them to have. We offer sound doctrine, but God meant for his Kingdom to restore people to true community with one another and with him. Love God; love your neighbor. These aren’t mere commands — they are the essence of Christianity: learning how to have relationship with the Transcendent; learning to see the Transcendent in his people so that true relationship among his people can be restored. This is the soundest of sound doctrine.

On the other hand, a religious that about being judgmental, that’s focused on rules, or in which leaders govern through power rather than love, example, and gentle persuasion, well, that religion will not only decline, it’ll see its children leave Jesus altogether.

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6 Responses

  1. We’ve often missed the point of Christianity. Far more of the NT addresses godly living than the things we typically think of as “sound doctrine.” In fact, the things that the scriptures call “sound doctrine” actually focus on godly living, not sacraments and rituals. We usually emphasize the abstract when people need help with the struggles in their very concrete lives.

    Godly living works. It avoids many of the problems and soothes many of the pains of real life. People who are experiencing that are not thinking about leaving. Instead, they are a very attractive witness to others who are still suffering the effects of ungodly living.

  2. After being in a cell-based church, I can tell you first hand that this is where the people who are disappearing from both sides are going. This is more than “small groups” that meet during the week. This is where spiritual, emotional, and even financial needs are met. I’ve seen healings, bills paid, relationships restored, and people saved, all within the context of a community of 3 to 6 families.

    These home-based churches are off the mainstream research radar for now (except in the case of Saddleback http://www.gladwell.com/2005/2005_09_12_a_warren.html). This is a good thing. The real life of Jesus is being established in His church, while the world isn’t paying any attention. This is a sneak attack in the works by God. With the amount of large (4 or more kids), godly, homeschooling families out there, coupled with the fact that the much of the world aborts their kids or they don’t reproduce at all, God’s kingdom seems to be expanding at a rate that is both surprising, and hidden.

    Around the world, the cell-based church is responsible for amazing growth.

    But it is not the “cell” model that one has to follow. Cell is simply one method of following the Biblical model of meeting in homes and sharing each other’s burdens. Following God’s instructions always results in great things that advance the kingdom.

    If your church is shrinking, ask God what’s missing. He’ll be faithful to show you! But be warned – He is for the advancement of *His* kingdom, not ours, and His is much more uncomfortable than the one we have made for ourselves in our church buildings.

    -Brad

  3. I believe this is the predictable failure of “organized religion.”

    As I read the text, what Jesus came to establish was neither a religion nor organized. Both of those adjectives were man-made additions.

    The struggle for organized congregations is to get out of the way of faith in Jesus. And that’s really hard to do, because, in general, most people find comfort in group uniformity and are uncomfortable with the freedom we truly have in Jesus Christ.

    But whether it is organized or disorganized, we should revel and rejoice whenever people find Jesus. It’s is God who reveals himself to people and draws them to himself (John 6:44)

  4. As I read the text, what Jesus came to establish was neither a religion nor organized.

    Well, Jesus did say “On this rock I will build my church” (Matt 16:18) so he did have something in mind. There’s quite a bit in the NT about “one another.” The particular kind of organization (and degree) are certainly open to discussion.

    And James did talk about a kind of religion that God approves (James 1:27).

    So the issue is not really whether the scriptures call for organized religion. It’s the kind of organization and the kind of religion that people have gotten wrong so often.

  5. I don’t find that surprising. Battles between Atheism and Christianity have only shown that both can shed doubt on the other’s beliefs. Furthermore, with the problems in churches (much discussed here) people don’t find a real family at either end of the spectrum, and are left with vague and doubltful notions of spirituality.

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