Every now and then you have that rare moment of reading something that sticks to you like a 5th grader’s spit wad sticks to the ceiling. That was my experience as I began reading Frank Turek’s new book, Stealing from God – Why Atheists Need God To Make Their Case. The book itself is an apologetic defense claiming that many of the arguments commonly made by atheists to disprove God, on the contrary, actually reveal the truth of his existence. So far, it’s been a great read.
It’s in the Introduction to the book that Turek writes the section I can’t seem to stop thinking about. He’s discussing the unfortunate reality that 3 out 4 Christian students who go off to college, walk away from their faith. What he says, however, reflects some larger issues within church culture. Here is what he says:
“But how can you blame the professors? They are rightfully unimpressed with the inability of most Christian students to defend their beliefs. In other words, it’s not so much that Christian minds are lost at college – it’s that Christian minds rarely get to college. They rarely get to college because many parents and churches emphasize emotion and ignore the biblical commands to develop the mind, which means that most kids skip off to college equipped with nothing more than feel-good emotionalism…What you win kids with, you win them to. If you win them with emotion, you win them to emotion. Unfortunately, emotions are no match for atheistic college professors who are intent on undermining your beliefs. Facts are necessary. Emotions come and go, but facts never change. If Christians continue to rely on emotion and ignore evidence, they will continue to lose their children to secularism.”
That is both striking and sad. Now, this is not to say that there are no good churches, youth groups, pastors or parents out there, but overwhelmingly, this generalization seems quite fitting. It’s also indicative of a church culture where individuals are more concerned about some sort of spiritual experience than they are about receiving solid biblical teaching. How did we arrive at this point? How did we get to the place where doctrine is expendable as long as the worship service is good and the pastor is entertaining?
Before I share my thoughts on current church culture, I want to make an important clarification. This is not a finger-wagging or tomato throwing rant towards any group of Christians or any particular church. Highlighting certain weaknesses in the collective and current church culture is not the equivalent of saying the church is bad or useless. I live and toil for the church because I care about it, but there can never be change if we don’t first recognize and admit the trends that are not healthy.
It is with that in mind that I share a few thoughts about the matter at hand.
In today’s go-go-go pace, students and families are so busy it seems that to compete with everything else, many youth pastors feel that they have to push bright lights, loud music and sermons with more punch-lines then apologetics in order to even get students of regular attending families in the door. I know that there are exceptions to this. The point is NOT that there are no good youth ministries out there or that all Christian parents care more about their students getting into a good college than they do about their spiritual development. The point, is that this trend is common enough to have become a generalization – it’s not the exception to the rule. It is a much smaller percentage of parents today who see the importance of limiting secular extra-curricular activities in order to emphasize spiritual discipleship in their kids, and regular church attendance is very beneficial in that process.
Several youth leaders and I were recently reflecting on the days when, if the school scheduled a concert or game on a Wednesday night, all the Christian youth were absent because they were at church. Today, it is the opposite. I’m not advocating for religious routine, but ultimately, the danger in not making church a priority is that it conveys to students that you only go when it’s convenient. Additionally, if youth group is not a place where we are developing the mind of our young people, if it is only games and fun and music, how will the emerging young adults ever manage to transition to a regular adult service which includes none of what use to draw them in the first place? Finally, in my limited experience working with youth, I have found that today’s young people are genuinely interested in understanding their faith. Yes, they want to have fun, but they are also craving the authentic truth and hope that is only found in Jesus Christ.
While making church a priority is invaluable, there is also the other extreme side of this situation. This is the mentality that it is the sole responsibility of the church to train children and youth in the Bible. While the church is certainly there to support families and help disciple students, it is the spiritual responsibility of parents to raise their children in the knowledge of God and to lead by example. Now, no one is perfect, but parents who fall victim to this idea that they can just bring their kids to church and everything will turn out alright in the end, may be in for a rude awakening. Going to church plays an important role in spiritual development, but it cannot replace the role of the parent. I don’t hesitate for a moment to say that the majority of students who only receive Bible teaching for an hour on Sunday mornings, will not be equipped and ready to face an unbelieving world by the time they graduate high school. However, before the parents reading this get too angry with me, I will also say, I don’t doubt that many Christian parents want to be the spiritual leaders in their home, yet simply don’t feel equipped themselves. Parents can’t teach their kids what they themselves don’t know, and this leads me to my final point.
The church as a collective whole, is struggling to equip its members doctrinally, and there a few trends which, I believe, have helped pave the way for this decline.
On one hand, there is a huge push within church culture not just to grow, but to get big. Growth as measured by people getting saved and discipled is one thing, but often the unspoken motto becomes: We Need to Get Bigger. No, we need to speak the truth in love, care for our communities and ensure that those who call our churches their homes are growing in their faith. If getting bigger is a byproduct of that sort of authentic Christianity, great, but it is never the end goal. It’s too easy in this mega-church world to focus on attendance and tithes for the sake of church growth instead of as a reflection of individual discipleship. I see this reflected in the pastoral conversations that take place at minister retreats and gatherings all the time. It goes something like, “So, how many are you running these days?” It’s as if somehow the size of the church reflects our success in ministry. I don’t think this is true. Of course bigger congregations usually lead to bigger ministry budgets and personal salaries; but Kingdom success, if there is such a thing, is measured not in the mere breadth of bodies and buildings, but in the depth of lives changed by the power of God and our personal faithfulness to his calling on our lives.
Maybe you’re wondering, but how does this influence doctrine? Well, when the goal is to grow above all else, it’s easy to start emphasizing only the parts of the Gospel that are consumer friendly. God’s grace and love are emphasized without mention of his righteousness and the reality of sin, and then topical, self-help sermons begin to replace exegetical and systematic preaching. The harsh reality is that the truths about sacrifice, sin and sanctification don’t exactly, pack ‘em in, like teachings on happiness, prosperity or other entertaining sermons. This sort of mentality often leads churches to depend on the charismatic, personality-driven leadership of the main pastor. When this happens, the main concern becomes whether the speaker is pleasing to listen to rather than if he is qualified and capable to accurately deliver God’s Word to the church. Certainly part of preaching is good communication, but good communication without theological education and understanding will limit the level of solid teaching coming from the pulpit. This in turn limits the doctrinal understanding of the congregation.
Furthermore, as you get bigger, a program like Sunday School, which was at one time the primary avenue for teaching doctrine, is replaced by additional services and small groups. Now, there is nothing wrong with that necessarily. However, if we’re being honest, many modern main services are comprised of longer, emotion-driven worship services and shorter sermons, while a majority of church small groups revolve more around fellowship, food and certain topics like money and family issues, then they do around systematic theology or doctrinal principles. It’s not to say that there’s no room for these other topics. It’s also not to say that all emotion is misplaced. The problem comes when these others, start to replace solid, systematic teaching. While every Christian has a certain amount of responsibility to individually dig into and learn God’s word, shifting trends of modern church culture have also left many who would want to learn, without an effective main resource – the church.
So, where do we go from here? Well first of all, we shouldn’t be discouraged we should be motivated. It’s only once we recognize weaknesses that they can be addressed. So, let’s strive and toil within our spheres of influence to change them. It is through discipled Christians, God-fearing families and Scripture-driven churches, all lead by the Holy Spirit, that significant change will come.
Here are also some practical suggestions for you and your family today:
1. I don’t advocate church-shopping, but you need to make sure you are attending a church that teaches the full scope of Scripture. This will mean meeting with your pastor and learning your church’s doctrinal positions. You may need to study those positions which can be intimidating, but the work will be worth it. It’s important that you attend a church that cares about and teaches right doctrine.
2. Make sure that you have personal devotion time with God each day. This is not something to simply check off a list, it is a reflection of a growing relationship with your Savior. Divide that time into sections of Scripture reading, prayer and maybe a devotional.
3. Consider working your way through a systematic theology book. Take the initiative to understand your faith. Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology – An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, is a great place to start.
4. Make attending church faithfully a priority. This brings accountability into our lives and sets an example for our children that it is important.
5. Talk to your kids about why you believe Christianity is true. Ask them about their faith. What questions do they have? It’s okay to admit you don’t know an answer, but then seek to find the answer together as a family.
6. Set a time for family devotions. There is an array of family devotionals on the market. Find one that’s appropriate for the ages of your children. Set the example of the importance of Bible reading and devotion.
7. Memorize Scripture as a family. Find a central place in your home to display a verse a week or longer passage per month, whatever works for your family and make it fun. Create fun prizes or see if the kids can memorize more than the parents.
8. For elementary aged children I highly recommend including these books in your family’s collection: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/apologetics-resources-for-your-children
Sources for this article:
Turek, Frank. Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case. Colorado Spring, CO: NavPress, 2014.