How Can we Reverse the Decline of Christianity? Value and Practice a Christian Way of Life

How Can we Reverse the Decline of Christianity? Value and Practice a Christian Way of Life May 23, 2023

Empty pews signifying the decline in Christianity in the USA
Evangelical Christians are declining in numbers. Can the trend be reversed? Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Headlines and stories detailing the decline of Christianity in the United States are common. The reality is undeniable. The cause depends on who you ask. The solution is unclear. Some think that a return to old-style religion with an emphasis on personal evangelism and recommitment to missions is the way forward. Some argue that what we need is a fresh movement of the Holy Spirit to propel the American church into a new phase. 

I spent the majority of my life worshiping, learning, and serving in Southern Baptist contexts. One of the ideals I most appreciate about my Southern Baptist heritage is the emphasis on evangelism and missions. Organizationally, the SBC does a lot to promote, fund, train, and send its parishioners in a variety of mission contexts both globally and domestically. 

One would think that would make the SBC an effective evangelistic organization. But the emphasis on evangelism and missions has resulted in consistent decline and diminishing evangelical effectiveness over the last 50 years. The problem isn’t unique to the SBC. A 2021 study by Pew tracked the increasing phenomenon of religious “switching” away from Christianity. Unsurprisingly, the age range where most switching away from Christianity tends to occur is between 15-29. In this case, evangelistic effectiveness isn’t in question. The switchers away from Christianity have grown up in the church. They have simply decided that they don’t or no longer believe. Thanks to Lifeway Research, we know that many of them cited church members coming across as “divisive,” “judgmental,” and “hypocritical” as their primary motivators for leaving.

Trouble on Two Fronts

Evangelical Christians face a two-fronted problem. On the one hand, we aren’t as effective at sharing the Gospel and inviting people into faith in Jesus as we once were. On the other hand, we aren’t as effective at retaining those who at one time professed faith in Jesus or, at a minimum, those who grew up in our midst being regularly exposed to worship and the proclamation of the Gospel.

How do we address both problems at once? I think an emphasis on a distinctly Christian way of life can help the church make headway on both fronts.

The Unintended Consequences of Emphasizing Truth

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father except through Me.” –Jesus, John 14:6

You’ve probably read and heard that verse hundreds of times as an evangelical Christian. As a result,  Jesus as the truth jumps out at us. Truth is a concrete concept, often defined in black-and-white terms: truth vs. untruth. But how does our rush to emphasize truth impact our understanding of the other two ways Jesus describes himself?

When we think of Jesus primarily as the truth, “the way” becomes solely the salvific way to God. It is not a way of life in pursuit of righteousness, justice, holiness, and establishing the rule and reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. 

When we think of Jesus primarily as the truth, “the life” becomes eternal life. We especially emphasize what happens when we die. We lose emphasis on a quality of life characterized by the fruit of the Spirit, self-sacrificial love, and pursuit of Jesus’ mission to seek and save the lost.

This is interesting because the title given to Jesus’ original followers wasn’t The Truth, but The Way. Truth is certainly important, but we spend an inordinate amount of time cultivating this aspect of our faith over the lived components of it.

On Changing Our Minds

I’ve served in campus ministry contexts for the last 10 years. I love conversing with students who don’t believe what I believe. I especially love talk to students who have decided to leave the faith. Stories of faith change encourage me because it gives me hope that some who do not know Jesus may come to know Him.

I thought that my theology and apologetics training would help me make intellectually appealing cases to student to put their faith in Jesus.

It didn’t.

I distinctly remember one interaction with a student who shared the common view that “all religions teach the same thing.” Being a good seminary graduate, I made him a chart that showed how 6 major belief systems answered the 5 big worldview questions. The answers sometimes had similarities, but they were also clearly different. After looking over the chart for about 30 seconds, he shrugged and quipped, “Yeah, basically the same.”

A Prescription for Evangelism

Change can happen, but it often occurs through relationships and stages. Logic and reason are also overestimated in the process by which we change our minds. Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, observes that “what you’re saying matters far less than who you are.”

People can (and will) argue facts all day long. But a life marked by Jesus is difficult to argue. 

A few years ago I encouraged students in our ministry to develop personal discipleship plans. 

The plans outlined spiritual disciplines they wanted to focus on for the school year. They also included “small rebellions.” “Small rebellions” were ways my students’ faith could motivate them to abstain from common behaviors of their classmates. One student decided her small rebellion would be to not “slander” her professors. Apparently, it was common for her classmates to sit around after a lecture and talk about how dumb or unfair their professors were. Her classmates noticed she no longer participated after a week. They inquired about why. This opened the door for her to share the Gospel with her classmates. She connected her abstention to her desire to respect and honor her teachers even when she didn’t always like what they did.

Think about the impact our lives and words would have if our lives were distinctly characterized by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Now, consider how that impact can be amplified if we pursue these things in community with other Christians. 

Think about the opportunity we would have to influence others if they saw us prioritizing community with people, even when we disagree with them. What if they saw us prioritizing selfless service to populations who may not have the nicest things to say about us? If they saw us choosing to forgive people who have greatly wronged us. If they saw a group of people regularly experiencing true, authentic joy?

Preach the Gospel. If Necessary, Use Words.

Criticism of this position comes from those who say that, at some point, we have to verbally share the Gospel with others for them to come to faith in Jesus. Yes, this is true. But verbally sharing the Gospel is made more effective by a life that backs up the substance of the claims made by the sharer. The claims of the sharer are made even more effective when the hearer observes an entire community of people whose way of life is marked by obedience and submission to the Lordship of Jesus. 

Perhaps its time for evangelical Christians to take a good, long look in the mirror. Perhaps the problem isn’t situated completely “out there.” Perhaps part of the problem is, in fact, that many of us are hypocritical. Our actions often don’t match up to the ideals we preach. The application of our faith to daily life is often inconsistent.

The solution isn’t to double down and try harder. The solution is to reflect, re-examine, and re-engage differently.

The way of Jesus works. Let’s put it to the test.

About Benjie Shaw
Benjie Shaw serves as a Campus Staff Minister for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at the University of Georgia. He is married, the dad of 2 kids, a self-described coffee snob, and an MCU apologist. Benjie is an ordained minister, a Georgia Southern University and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary graduate, and a former personal trainer. You can read more about the author here.

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