The Real Reason Christianity is Still in Decline

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The most recent Pew forum study, which show that numbers of people identifying with any brand of Christianity is still in decline, should surprise no one. But as is the case any time such a study comes out, Christians are looking for reasons why.

By now we know a lot of the basic reasons: people are busier, they are more mobile, there’s less social stigma about not going to church, folks don’t trust us, etc. But I’m interested in looking at it from three different perspectives, rather than just from the inside of Christianity. After all, there’s far more at play here than just Christians not practicing what they preach.

Christians never will be perfect, so why do we pretend otherwise? There’s always a big headline whenever a church leader falls from grace. From Robert Tilton and Ted Haggard to Mark Driscoll, they all fall, sooner or later, it seems. And yes, part of the problem is that power corrupts, and church leaders perhaps more than anyone else are too often given carte blanche authority to do what they feel is right. Unlimited trust plus unlimited power – regardless of the person at the focus – is a recipe for big trouble.

But corruption isn’t the only problem. The bigger problem is honesty.

I’m not just talking about leaders lying about their transgressions. I mean that all Christians, as a whole, have a tendency to promote a false veneer of flawlessness to the world, as if somehow once you are a Christian, your hair is perennially straight, teeth are white, and your bodily functions magically smell like roses.

I really appreciate the approach fellow author/blogger Nadia Bolz Weber takes when talking to a newcomer to her Denver congregation. Inevitably, no matter who they are or where they come, a newcomer goes through what we call a “Honeymoon Phase” at any church, where (like in any new relationship) they only see the good in the church, in the pastor, and so on. And a leader who is not onto themselves will play into that, because it feels good. But it’s not real, and it’s a setup for disaster.

In her interview with Krista Tippet for “On Being,” she explains what she says to anyone newly in love with the church. “I’m glad you love it here,” she says “but…at some point, I will disappoint you or the church will let you down. Please decide on this side of that happening if, after it happens, you will still stick around. Because if you leave, you will miss the way that God’s grace comes in and fills in the cracks of our brokenness. And it’s too beautiful to miss. Don’t miss it.” 

Three things happen in this disclosure. First, it helps to set more realistic expectations, both for the church leader and the congregation as a whole. Second, it brings the pastor down off a pedestal where they never should have been in the first place.

But third, and most important, it redirects everyone’s attention toward the opportunity for Grace to enter in. After all, why look for grace, support and healing if we are still trying to convince ourselves we’re perfect? And if Church does anything beyond bringing people together for mutual accountability, support and to help bear witness to each others’ lives, it should redirect our individual and collective attention away from ourselves and toward something bigger than us.

From our signs to our “evangelism” efforts, we’re so focused on what others need to be more like us, that we don’t spend half as much energy or time vulnerably and honestly sharing our own imperfections and messed-up-ness with others. Why do that? Because it assures people we’re no better than they are, that, they’re not alone, and that we all need each other, and just maybe, God.

But beyond that, when we admit we actually really suck sometimes, it assures people they can actually trust us, which is far more important than earning their short-lived admiration.

Find out more about Christian Piatt’s work at ChristianPiatt.com.

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  • http://omg-occasionalmuffledgrunts.blogspot.co.uk/ Jez Bayes

    Very true.

    ‘We’ have a tendency to be subconsciously arrogant and superior, feeling that it’s bad PR for our faith or our Church, or even for Jesus, for us to display anything less than being totally sorted out.
    Even when we aren’t.

    This is at its worst when Ministers/Pastors act like they know better than trained specialists in complex situations, leading to some very bad counselling, amateur psychology, and risky issues not being dealt with openly or professionally.
    Dangerous.

    Every church should have a good, regular, humble relationship with its local mental health service, alcohol support team, and a qualified professional counsellor.

  • trinielf

    I was a firebrand, constantly preaching Evangelical and I went to a school with a diverse cultural student population and faculty, so there were lots of people outside my particular sect for me to preach to and I did- passionately. But slowly it began to dawn on me that many of the people I was so eager to bring to into the fold of what I believed to be the true religion with superior people were far better people than people in my church and even me. Many came from far happier homes not sullied by divorce, dysfunction and abuse like my “Christian home”. They were happier, healthier in many ways superior to me and perfectly content with their religion and culture.

    This humbled me and opened my mind. Maybe I should listen and stop talking. Maybe there were things I could learn from people who were not part of my religion. From there that led to, “What manner of deity would create a system where people who were admirable and could teach me how to be a better person, would go to hell because they won’t join MY church?” That eventually led to deep depression about what I believed. Once that ego-tistical supremacist thing was gone, the actual theology depressed me. The outcome of the whole saga I had been taught about the universe depressed me. My dear friends, mentors, people who were there for me in so many ways, doomed to hell anyways. Once the religion I was raised in no longer gave me hope, there was no emotional need for it. Once the emotional need was gone, the intellectual and spiritual journey really began.

    • Orwellian_Dilemma

      So basically, your home life was somewhat less than you’d have liked so you’ve become a sarcastic and bitter atheist who is just as evangelical at that as you were while you pretended to be a Christian.

      Got it.

  • Charles Stensrud

    I find this insightful and relevant to us on the “inside.” But frankly, for those on the outside looking in, we are a freaky bunch of apocalyptic idiot haters. Who would WANT to join? Fringe Christians – those who claim Christianity but whose actual beliefs and practices are in diametric opposition to the life of Christ are turning off God’s children in droves. For this reason I and others of the same ilk prefer evangelization by example and not high-pressure salesmanship. I feel that if I can turn just one person by virtue of my lifestyle and actions, I am living God’s purpose. But folks like the aforementioned make it REALLY difficult.

  • Runesmith

    As a member of the fastest growing religion today, I have to note that the “people don’t have time for religion” excuse doesn’t wash; they have time for what draws them. And Pagans don’t even have any evangelists.

  • Horace Mack

    This article is pure conjecture, which one can quickly discern by following the link to the actual poll. There is nothing in the poll that supports, or even suggests, the conclusions the author leaps to. In fact, the poll shows that the “more hard-line” religions grew or declined much less than mainline religions that are compromising their doctrine.

  • Red 2

    Western Civilization has moved progressively towards secularism in both government and society. This puts all religion as a personal activity which is very different from other parts of the world where religion is intertwined in most aspects of society. As a result fewer people make the choice to choose religion. There is also the aspect of a greater level of access to information. If you live in a country where everyone belongs to religion X and said religion is tied into the government and culture it’s easy to see why you are likely to belong to religion X. However, if you belong to a society where most people are members of Religion X in one form or another, but not all, and you have access to all information, history, and data on not only religion X but also Y, Z, A, B, C, etc. it’s much easier to question you’re individual religious beliefs. Spirituality within a religion only requires the faith in the basic tenents of said religion. However, belonging to an actual congregation with a minister requires the willingness to adhere to the standards of the community and the message of the designated interpreter, which is much harder the more open the society becomes.

  • Malcom Warner

    People like this author have this bizzare obsession with blaming non-belief on the messengers of Christianity, and never the message itself. Did ever occur to you people that maybe, just maybe the reason Christianity is in decline is that more people are examining Christian theology itself and concluding that it doesn’t make sense? Most atheists are not atheists because they had a bad experience with a mean Christian. They are atheists because they took a look at the foundational stories of Christianity (and other religions) and concluded “No, I do not believe these claimed events actually happened.” Being a Christian requires that you literally believe that the son of god was born of a virgin, performed miracles, rose from the dead three days after being executed, and ascended bodily into heaven. Atheists and other non-Christians simply do not believe any of that ever happened. This isn’t complicated.

  • DennisLurvey

    ppl are leaving religions because their stories were never true and we can learn that now very easily online. science and education are killing it. we now know who wrote the OT, why and when; most importantly for what purpose. We know how the NT was written, by who and the time span (almost 500 yrs). We know those things through science, dating, reading old text w new methods not available a few years ago, they scan in ancient texts and software can find when writers change, find when the names for god changes, and differentiate between the oldest writing styles to the most recent. That coupled with new archaeological finds give us a broad picture of the facts, not conjecture, about the history of the scriptures.
    And if we compare what the scriptures say with the science, any objective person can dismiss them.

  • Orwellian_Dilemma

    “I mean that all Christians, as a whole, have a tendency to promote a false veneer of flawlessness to the world, as if somehow once you are a Christian, your hair is perennially straight, teeth are white, and your bodily functions magically smell like roses.”

    Straw Man Down! Repeat! Straw Man Down!