The Church can be the problem, too

an open response to “Is Your Church or Denomination Dying?”

Photo by Jeremiah Higgins on Unsplash

The past several days, I’ve seen the blogpost Is Your Church or Denomination Drifting? pop into my feeds. I finally caved and gave it a read this weekend.

I found the piece to be concerning. Not because its author Trevin Wax correctly points to the realities of decreasing church attendance and American Individualism poisoning the Church, but because the reasons why that he presents are not the full picture. I’d argue that they’re not even a majority of the picture.

Before getting to my concerns, I encourage you to read Wax’s short piece over at The Gospel Coalition:

Now, I hope you’ll read the following as both a critique of and addition to Wax’s views. I’ll get into why at the end; but, in short, I don’t have a personal issue with Wax. I do feel that we’re long overdue to challenge overly narrow thinking like this in the American Church though. That’s my goal here.

A lack of commitment to loving others is a serious problem, too

A core cultural belief in Evangelicalism today is that Christian beliefs and traditions are under seige. I don’t think the sentiment behind this view is inherently wrong: both the world and the Church are in the beginning stages of seismic changes that run along many different fault lines. But the belief itself is misplaced.

Wax writes:

What do you believe and why? When a church or denomination is drifting, the answers become cloudy. A fog surrounding Christian belief and practice sets in

“The State of Theology” report from Ligonier and Lifeway Research shows widespread doctrinal confusion among evangelicals and rampant biblical illiteracy. Not surprisingly, many key components of Christian theology and ethics have undergone revision or are no longer seen as vital.

Yes, it’s true that in some corners of the American Church there is a civil war over doctrine and what the Bible says about certain social issues. I don’t want to minimize that reality —and there are certainly healthier ways to have discussions about serious issues instead of cancelling each other— but many Evangelicals have extended this war to literally everything else. And that’s where I often see the most widespread damage.

Today, churches are home to brutal battles over things that are, frankly, not essential or are more essential than Evangelicals want to believe. Styles of worship, new approaches to missions work, changing communication approaches, that biblically-based sermon the pastor gave about justice…the list goes on and on and on. As I’ve written about before, many of these battles play out along generational lines, with the worst offenders being men from the Boomer generation:

And when I say brutal, I mean brutal. I’ve watched Millennials especially get crushed by elders for doing things their pastor or another elder asked them to do on behalf of their church, or be pushed out of lower-level leadership roles because they wanted to try something new that had absolutely nothing to do with doctrine.

Personally, I’ve been told by an elder at my church that I’m too dumb to understand anything about mass communication — despite that being a core aspect of my job and him having no professional experience in the field — and that was followed by him trying to gaslight me into believing my marriage was in trouble, all because I was asked to and provided ways for our church to communicate and organize more effectively and gently challenged his refusal to do either. That’s what happens when church leaders commit idolatry to themselves and the institution and culture they sit atop of.

Stories like that are everywhere in the American Church today. It’s a cultural trend, not the result of a few bad apples in leadership.

Wax is right that knowing what you believe and why you believe it is important. Beliefs help bind communities together, but when you start wielding beliefs about practical application like a cudgel against others, you aren’t living for or loving others well. Additionally, what a church says it believes on their website may not line up with what is actually believed in practical application. And these are real problems with real consequences.

I agree with Wax wholeheartedly that there is widespread doctrinal confusion and rampant biblical illiteracy in Evangelicalism. Nationalism, political idolatry, and xenophobia are seemingly everywhere in the American Church today for that very reason, despite the Bible being full of stories guiding us away from those specific traps.

But what often drives the fog deep into our souls and between each other is not disagreements on, say, if the Bible is inerrant or not. No, what drives the fog forward is arrogance and a desire to control everything so that even good change is prevented. Jesus lived a life showing us that doing right is just as important, if not more important, than being right.

Simply put, you can uphold certain doctrines without crushing the souls of fellow believers who are trying to make modest changes in their church’s culture in a way that has no doctrinal impact. The now obvious need for reform, renewal, and practical modernization in many churches is not the same as the Cross being under siege. If anything, the Cross is under siege from nationalism, political idolatry, and the fetishization of social conservatism.

Some Evangelicals, particularly older ones, seem to believe that the only way to protect Christian theology and ethics is by preventing all change, including non-doctrinal change in the cultural aspects of their church that range from outdated to ineffective. That is a lie perpetrated by the Religious Right and patriarchy that has fully spiraled out of control into authoritarianism.

In reality, any and all change will not automatically destroy Christian beliefs and practices. Jesus is crystal clear that loving others, even if you disagree with them, is a required part of being a true follower of Him. His way is the highway, not yours.

The Church has changed for the better plenty of times throughout history. She can and will do it again. Even Evangelicals claim they must do better not to be saved, but because they are saved. Some amount of change, then, is inevitable.

Evangelicals can’t keep blaming the world for the challenges they face

One of the things I find most frustrating about Evangelicalism is the belief that others outside of the Church are responsible for the problems Evangelicals face and, perhaps more concerning, view the world as a threat to be neutralized.

I’m not claiming that Wax adheres to this view, but he heavily alludes to it in his piece:

Evangelicals today attend church with less frequency than those who responded to Emerson and Smith’s survey two decades ago. Pastors and church leaders have been talking about this trend for years now, decrying the mentality that would push the church to the periphery of one’s life, and wondering how to challenge families who prioritize other social activities over the church (travel ball, extracurricular activities for kids, recreation and leisure) without being legalistic or guilt-driven. It’s troubling to see that for many evangelicals today the church (and one’s personal faith) has been pushed to the periphery in ways that resemble the answers of mainline Protestants a generation ago.

I personally know some families who miss church for other social activities, be it regularly or sporadically, and feel comfortable with doing so. Maybe too comfortable.

But I know many more believers who miss church because they sometimes have to work on Sundays. The labor market has changed a lot the past few decades. It isn’t changing back any time soon because of growing wealth inequality, changing industries, skyrocketing student loan debt, and so much more. The Monday-Friday, 9–5 is dying. The Sunday morning model no longer works for everyone.

And, again, many believers I see who are in and out of churches operate this way because of real problems in churches. They’re struggling and often not getting the support they need.

I also don’t fully buy the argument that some Evangelicals have pushed their church and personal faith to the side because of a shift in mentality or priorities. That certainly happens, but some of the strongest Christians I know — including conservative Evangelicals — now live outside of an institutional church and have for some time. They genuinely yearn to be in a church building on Sunday; however, after years of searching for a healthy one with no results, they have given up for now. That alone should be enough to lead to reform in the Church, but it isn’t.

Still, others are drifting away from their church because their church is actually doing the drifting: right into the dire straits of irrelevancy. There are deteriorating opportunities for service, controlling elders and congregants, lazy or burned out leaders, and no vision. That’s a nearly impossible place for a dedicated Christian who is eager to serve to stay at. One has to ask of those pastors and church leaders who are “decrying the mentality that would push the church to the periphery of one’s life” if maybe they are actually part of the problem.

Yes, the world poses some challenges to the Church. It always has and always will. Jesus wouldn’t have come to redeem the world if the world was fine. There is supposed to be work to do. But instead of attributing lower church attendance to forces outside of the Church, Evangelicals should really pay attention to what those who are slowly leaving them are saying.

As Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope point out in their informative book Church Refugees, “We need answers — not statistics.” They present many of those answers, some of which I am bringing up here.

The Church needs innovative thinking and action, not more of the same

Much of Evangelicalism today is paralyzed due to some of the reasons I’ve outlined here. When nothing is allowed to change and those who seek change are isolated, judged, and punished, it’s a warning sign that a church’s leaders are unengaged and not innovating. It is anti-Gospel living.

So, what would the opposite of that look like?

If a church notices that they have quite a few believers who struggle to make it on Sunday mornings due to work or family matters, that church should reach out to those families and see when an additional service should be scheduled so that they can more easily attend, even if it’s on a Tuesday night. The Church is supposed to be about God and people, so make it about God and people, not a specific day of the week. Some churches have Wednesday night services for this very reason. It doesn’t mean your Sunday morning is any less important.

If a younger believer reports abuse from an older Evangelical, be it verbal or physical, church leaders should take action to immediately protect that person, seek truth, and initiate accountability. Encouraging a believer to bear with one another as their soul and mental or physical health are relentlessly destroyed and doing nothing to change the situation is the status quo, and it is wrong. Period.

If a Christian expresses doubt about their faith or a doctrinal tradition, church leaders and fellow believers should lovingly engage with them instead of treating them like a problem to be solved.

I could go on and on and on. But my main point is this: the Church needs to meet people where they are, just like Jesus did, instead of demanding that people come to her on hyper-specific cultural terms. It’s called the Great Commission.

In a time in which so much is changing, Evangelicals are going to have to change some, too.

Because the Church can be the problem, too.

Closing Thoughts

There is probably more that Trevin Wax and I agree on than not. I’ve read some of his other pieces before and felt myself nodding along, especially concerning how an unhealthy form of individualism has overrun much of the American Church. I don’t want to speak for him, but based on some of his other writings, I imagine that if he read the thoughts presented here he would find agreement with at least some of them.

I’m also sure there are some things we disagree on. And you know what? That’s perfectly fine. I’ve never met him, but we are still brothers in Christ. That’s what really matters.

However, this kind of approach to trying to solve issues in the American Church is just making these problems worse at an accelerated rate. Increased church attendance won’t help if a church’s culture is unhealthy and the teaching is so high-minded that it abandons positive practical application entirely, or worse, slowly instills hatred against people who don’t hold socially conservative positions — be they believers or not — or other institutions not called the Church that the Bible says we should respect.

A pastor can speak truth from his pulpit for years, but it doesn’t mean people in the pews are going to take it to heart. They will however eagerly listen to a pastor’s distrust of government institutions, love for social conservatism or their church’s culture, and frustration with media outlets. There’s a reason the terms Evangelical and conservative Christian are often used synonymously.

And when off-the-rails, white Evangelicals storm the US Capitol and attempt to mass execute governing officials —and the response from much of the American Church is silence— it makes evangelizing not an enthusiasm challenge, but a near-impossible enterprise.

As Tim Keller writes in this recent book review:

It will be many years before the sights and sounds of evangelical religious symbols and language in the Capitol riot will fade from national consciousness. We have all been stained with it. But we have seen that evangelical beliefs as they grow around the world do not inherently lead to nationalistic, racist ideologies. In fact, most of my evangelical friends from other parts of the world keep asking me why so many American evangelicals seem to have lost their minds.

Simply put, many of the problems American Evangelicals face today have been brought on by some American Evangelicals and the social conservatism they have idolized, not the world. The sooner reality gets recognized and action is taken in that direction, the better.

Wax closes his post with this:

If evangelicals want to retain spiritual vitality in the generations to come, we’d better take care not to rest too comfortably in our past successes, or even some of the present signs of growth and health, so that we do not fall prey to the same troubling tendencies that lead toward future collapse.

I’d argue that those “past successes” aren’t as successful as Evangelicals think they are. There has always been a degree of hollowness, and even falseness, to Evangelicalism. Recent, well-researched books like Jesus and John Wayne point to this reality, as do the personal experiences of many Christians. For example, a majority of the people I grew up with now consider themselves Exvangelical, or have left their Christian faith behind entirely.

Ask them why, and you hear very little about changes in beliefs on social issues or doubts about theology. You do hear a lot about the full spectrum of abuse and rampant intransigence toward any and all change that can be found in large swaths of the American Church. These aren’t signs of growth and health. They are the opposite. And I hear them coming out of most denominations and more churches than not these days.

With these realities in mind, at a certain point, the Church makes it easier to begin slipping away than to stay. Holding what are considered to be correct theological and ethical views does not mean they will always be used well or in loving ways. Being right isn’t the same as doing right.

The appearance of a lack of enthusiasm for sharing the Gospel may have more to do with the Church actually making it harder to be inside the Church. I’ve said things along this line before and received shocked expressions from Evangelicals. But it happens. A lot. If you want a real-world example, I suggest you read this excellent piece by Eric Sentell.

These are not problems from outside of Evangelicalism. They have been baked into the culture from the beginning. The trends that Wax correctly notices and is rightfully concerned about stem from these challenges.

Evangelicals need to be much more self-critical, both of themselves and the institutional churches they are a part of. When they do that, they’ll not only learn that Trevin Wax makes some valid points, but that the problems he describes run far deeper than most Evangelicals realize.

Ignorance is bliss, and bliss is slowly killing the Church.

We need to say these things out loud more, and we need to be louder when we say them. Evangelicals need Jesus just as much as the rest of us do. They need to be humble. And they need to take responsibility for their own problems instead of pointing fingers at the world they’re supposed to be helping to redeem.

About Me

I’m a millennial living in Memphis, TN. Married to an angel for 10 years with two wonderful children. We own a house and I like avocados.

Here, I explore parts of my life that collide: faith, politics, governance, generational divide, and radical empathy.

The views expressed here are not necessarily the views of my employer.

Millennial writing about parts of my life that collide: faith, governance, culture, and radical empathy.

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