Wednesday, March 11, 2009

ARIS & American Religion

This week a survey has been getting a lot of play in the media regarding the shift in American religious faith. USA Today ran a front page article on Monday, March 9th on the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). The gist of the research is that all major denominations and religions in America have experienced a quantitative loss in membership over the last 18 years.

One highlight of this survey includes the fact that those who refer to themselves as “none” (or of no religious persuasion) is up from 8% in 1990 to 15% in 2008. Of concern to evangelicals in particular is the fact that 15.8% of those surveyed identified themselves as Baptists, down from 19.3% in 1990. Those who identified themselves as non-denominational remained about the same (14.2%) since 1990. Of course, there is a lot more to this survey than these facts, but these are the pertinent facts when it comes to those of us who do evangelism.

It’s not surprising that the media is using this information as a sort of pealing death knell of Christianity in this nation. Already, those who identify themselves as “nones” seem to be taking this news as validation for their stance. On Tuesday I ran into an agnostic who attempted to rub this in my face as proof that Christianity is losing ground. What did I have to say to that?

Well, here’s what I have to say to that. It’s far worse than the news media and ARIS reports. Everyone who is a pastor of a Southern Baptist church knows that it’s worse. 15.8% of the respondents might consider themselves Baptist, but how many of these are attending church on anything approaching a regular basis? In recent years, the bloated membership rolls of Southern Baptist churches have been an issue at the annual convention. There is a debate on how to count noses; do you count people who became members and who never attend church or don’t you? Apparently, the SBC is content to count them and it’s more than likely that as long as they are considered true blue members by the leadership of the SBC, they consider themselves members as well.

Can someone be considered a Christian who has no desire to align themselves with a local church? The Bible doesn’t seem to teach that they can. In fact, if someone hates his brother, he is considered a murderer, by God’s standard (1 Jn. 3:15). Most professing believers do not attend church because they harbor bitterness in their hearts and in fact hate church members and leadership. This violates the spirit of the Sixth Commandment regarding murder.

So, it’s probably much, much worse than the survey reports in terms of active membership. But we can KNOW it is far worse because of what Jesus said in Matthew 7:13-23. He said that “many” will go to Hell with the hope of Heaven, calling Him “Lord” as they do so, pointing to their apparently supernatural works. Identifying oneself as a Christian in a survey no more makes one a Christian than me calling myself the President of the United States makes it true either.

How many Christians are there in America? Pollsters will never get it right. Since the Scriptures teach that no one can evaluate another’s true spiritual condition before God, but are instead called upon to “examine themselves” (2 Cor. 13:5), polling Christians about their beliefs is a fool’s errand. Only the Lord can accurately assess who is a true follower and who is not (Jn. 2:23-25). And when He does do that on that great day of reckoning, there will be many surprises.

It’s extremely tempting to look at this poll and say, “See, this is what happens when you don’t evangelize.” Since only 2% of Christians evangelize to begin with, it’s only natural to conclude that we’re going backwards statistically. But ultimately salvation is of the Lord and if He wants to save the lost He can make the rocks cry out and testify even if His professing children won’t. The 2% statistic may be far more accurate in gauging who is a Christian in this nation and who is not.

It is highly ironic that the non-denominational sub-group has held steady over 18 years in spite of the growth of the so-called “mega-churches”. All of the money spent on high power praise bands, lighting, facilities, pastors in trendy clothes, expensive youth programs, media ad infinitum has resulted in zero gain over the last 18 years. If you are a seeker sensitive church guru reading this, my challenge to you is, “Why not just start following the Bible? It can’t be any worse than what you’re doing now.” No, I take that back. It will be worse. The people you have drawn with cotton candy will leave when the solid meat is brought out. But do it anyway, your budgets and big box cathedrals be damned. They are anyway.

It’s probably too late for American Christianity. It’s bankrupt and far worse than ARIS realizes. The only problem is that most who actually espouse American Christianity sound a lot like the church in Laodicea; “I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing.” As the Lord Himself says, we “knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). The only remedy is a tidal wave of true repentance (Rev. 3:19).