By Dr. Riley B. Case
The most recent Barna report (Jan. 12, 2009) suggests that Christianity in America may be facing tough times ahead. Under the heading, “Christianity Is No Longer America’s Default Faith,” the Barna study reports that half of the American adults interviewed agree that Christianity is no longer the faith that Americans automatically accept as their personal religion. This 50% believe that Christianity is just one of many options that Americans choose from and that a huge majority pick and choose what they wish to believe rather than adopt a church’s or a denomination’s slate of beliefs.
Among subgroups, 64% of those who identified themselves as evangelical and 60% of Hispanics still affirm that Christianity is America’s religion. Regional differences were also evident. The Midwest and the South were much more likely to believe in inherited faith rather than were the responders in the Northeast and the West.
In the same study, however, by an overwhelming margin – 74% to 23% – adults agreed that their religious faith was becoming more important to them than it used to be as a source of objective and reliable moral guidance. Of those self-identified as born again Christians 91% spoke of the greater importance of religion: of those who considered themselves Christian but did not identify as born-again 66% spoke of the greater importance of religion; of those who did not affiliate with Christianity 39% spoke of the greater importance of faith. Among African-Americans 84% spoke of the greater influence of religion in their lives.
Barna draws these conclusions:
1) The Christian faith is less of a life perspective that challenges the supremacy of individualism as it is a faith being defined through individualism. Americans are increasingly comfortable picking and choosing what they deem to be helpful and accurate theological views and have become comfortable discarding the rest of the teachings in the Bible.
2) Instead of options between various Christian denominations, Americans are now considering non-Christian philosophies and religions as the basis for their beliefs.
3) Growing numbers of people now serve as their own theologians-in-residence. They put together their own belief system even though that system may be contradictory logically. Leading the charge in the move to customize one’s package of beliefs are people under the age of 25, among whom more than four out of five (82%) said they develop their own combination of beliefs rather than adopt a set proposed by a church.
4) Faith, of whatever variety, is increasingly viral rather than pedagogical. With people spending less time reading the Bible, and becoming less engaged in activities that deepen their biblical literacy, faith views are more often adopted on the basis of dialogue, self-reflection, and observation than teaching. Feelings and emotions now play a significant role in the development of people’s faith views – in many cases, much more significant than information-based exercises such as listening to preaching and participating in Bible study.
In addition to Barna’s conclusions we might offer several more:
A) Christianity in America has from the beginning depended upon cultural acceptance as the environment by which the church grows and is nurtured. We may no longer be able to make that assumption. But that may not be all bad. Persons who are identified as Christians in name only do not help the cause of Christ. The familiar saying, “God has no grandchildren” identifies an important truth. One is not born Christian. One becomes Christian by a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. May it be something special to be called a Christian?
B) A pick-and-choose religion, which ultimately makes the individual himself or herself the final authority in matters of faith, ultimately undermines the cause of Christ. This religion cannot change the world; it cannot save the soul. Biblical faith was, “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). The Confessing Movement exists for this very purpose, to seek to influence the United Methodist Church to proclaim that faith.
C) Despite the fact that identification with a denomination is less important than in the past, we must not abandon our denominational (in the case of the United Methodist Church, our Wesleyan) doctrine and tradition. It offers a truthful insight into the Scriptures as well as a correct perspective on modern times. But this is helpful only if it is affirmed and proclaimed. There is a tendency in mainline denominations to be swept along with the culture of the times so that we give in too easily to the pick-and-choose characteristic of the modern world. It is an indictment of our seminaries when they take pride that they have non-Christians on the faculty, or that their philosophy is “not to give answers but to ask questions.” No wonder we end up with the idea that truth is whatever we want it to be.
The Barna report reminds us that it is not going to be easy in days to come to keep true to the faith once delivered to the saints. But that is exactly what we are called to do.