There has been a lot of hand-wringing in church-land recently.

The angst has been generated by a Pew Research opinion poll released in May showing that, in that most Christian of all countries the United States, the number of people identifying as Christian has dropped from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% last year. This represents a loss of 5 million American Christians in slightly less than 7 years.

In the same period the number of people identifying as “no religion” has grown from 16% to 23%.

Alan Cooperman, Pews directory of religion research reports that decline in religious affiliation

is taking place in every region of the country, including the Bible Belt.

What has happened to cause such a precipitous drop in religious adherence in less than a decade and a rise in those who no longer feel the need to report any affiliation with a religious institution?

Some commentators blame the culture. The prevailing culture of the 21st century it is argued is materialistic, individualistic, self-indulgent, and superficial. Two-career families and overly-busy children have made religious affiliation a luxury that can be indulged in by a declining number of households.

No doubt there are elements in our current culture that mitigate against regular church attendance. But, since these cultural forces are beyond the control of anyone in the church, they are less helpful in finding a way forward than looking honestly at the life of Christian communities and asking what contribution we may have made to the demise in church attendance over the past decade.

Within the Christian Church there are a number of commentators eager to point the finger of blame at those within the Christian community they perceive to be the cause of religious decline.

Peter Heck suggests that the real problem in the church today lies with

those who intend the cry for “relevance” in a substantive rather than superficial manner. These are the voices calling to deliberately neuter the confrontational truth of Christianity to compromise with the spirit of the age.

Rather than seeking “relevance” Mr. Heck suggests,

if the church wants to stop the bleeding, it should stop worrying about the praise of men and instead seek the applause of heaven. How is that done? 

In a recent seminar I was giving to Christian high school seniors about to head to college, I asked them to name 5 figures from Scripture that God used in a powerful way. Their list included Noah, Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus. Question for the American church: how relevant to their respective cultures were those guys?

Noah was a laughingstock, Moses was exiled and hated, Elijah had a bounty on his head, John the Baptist lost his head, and Jesus lost a popularity contest with a despised murderer named Barabbas — all because they were each committed to speaking a truth that no one in their time wanted to hear.

True Christianity is confrontational. It is an open and courageous rebellion being conducted deep within enemy-occupied territory. It is countercultural, not culturally relevant. It alone recognizes that there is no love without truth. 

If Christ’s church dies in the United States, it’s only because it committed suicide on the altar of relevance.

It appears the goal of church leaders who want to stem the tide of decline should be to become a “laughingstock,” to be “exiled and hated,” outlawed, executed and unpopular. We need to recognize that we are operating in “enemy-occupied territory” and to be more “confrontational,” and less “culturally relevant.”
I am afraid I am simply not up to the job. Perhaps, I am the one who is killing the church.
But Mr. Heck’s view simply does not represent the world I see outside the church, where I meet people whose lives are often characterized by as much gentleness, kindness, goodness, and compassion as I have ever found within the sanctified walls of the church. I find it hard to imagine that the good, caring people I see all around me who would never darken the doors of a church, are going to be attracted by the dismissive arrogant attitude that Mr. Heck encourages.
I may be worshiping at the altar of relevance, but I would prefer to start from a place of respect for those who find nothing in the church that seems relevant to their lives. The church may find more creative ways forward if we stop throwing angry invective at those who are dropping away from our communities and instead listen carefully to what is really going on in their lives.
What the church needs is to approach the world a little more in the spirit of Titus who encourages us
to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone. (Titus 3:1,2)
Forced to choose between Mr. Heck’s hectoring approach and the Titus attitude of gentleness and humility, I choose to go with Titus, even if it means I may be guilty of killing the church.