Churchianity: Christian Culture and its Impact on Believers
The Road to “Heck” is Paved With Good Intentions
Sometime in 2019, a host of prominent Christians began to undergo and publicise what became popularly termed as ‘spiritual deconstructions’. Joshua Harris (of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” fame), Marty Sampson (Hillsong), Jon Steingard (Hawk Nelson), and Rhett McLaughlin & Link Neal (Good Mythical Morning, Ear Biscuits) are just a sampling of the names that posted on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and so on about how they’d come to a place of doubt with their previously strong held Christian convictions and did not believe any longer.
Here’s a snippet from Harris about his deconstruction (courtesy of Christianity Today):
“I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is “deconstruction,” the biblical phrase is “falling away.” By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.”Joshua Harris, author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and former pastor; sourced from Christianity Today
Sampson made similar comments, as below (courtesy of the Reasonable Faith Podcast):
“This is a soapbox moment so here I go … How many preachers fall? Many. No one talks about it. How many miracles happen. Not many. No one talks about it. Why is the Bible full of contradictions? No one talks about it. How can God be love yet send four billion people to a place, all ‘coz they don’t believe? No one talks about it. Christians can be the most judgmental people on the planet—they can also be some of the most beautiful and loving people. But it’s not for me.”Marty Sampson, former Hillsong singer/songwriter; sourced from the Reasonable Faith Podcast
Cue panic within the church. People that so many look up to (or at least have in the past) now falling away from the faith? If these people are losing their faith, what must we do for ourselves and future generations to keep them strong in the faith?
Nothing new under the sun
Of course, this isn’t something that’s only happened in the last two or so years, but is a trend that has been observable in the West over the last few decades.
Consider this 2020 study by Barna Group on Christianity in the United States (I’ve taken the US as the barometer on where the Western world sits). In short, they find that the number of practising Christians has dropped to almost half of what it was (from 45% to 25%), the number of non-practising Christians has risen (from 35% to 43%) and the number of non-Christians (read: atheists, agnostics) has also risen from 20% to 32%.
The question needs to be asked – why?
Christian culture and questions
Consider Sampson’s statement for a moment. On the Reasonable Faith Podcast, Dr. William Lane Craig and his co-host Kevin Harris made a great point in noting that all of these questions have answers readily available in many forms – online, in books, in podcasts, and so on.
However, there’s some sort of disconnect that means many aren’t aware of these resources that help Christians navigate difficult issues in their faith. Having grown up in similar Christian circles to the ones Sampson primarily associated with, I can say first hand that these questions just haven’t been discussed at depth in these faith groups. Some push them aside and hope they don’t resurface; others may seek answers and eventually find them. Others still may seek answers and never find them.
Is it any wonder then, that Sampson felt alone and isolated in exploring these issues? To his credit, he did seek guidance in answering these questions from respected Christian thinkers like Dr. Craig and the New Testament scholar Dr. Michael Licona, but I suspect that this may have been too little too late, and he may not have had enough support from his community in seeking clarity on these issues.
It is imperative that Christian communities start fostering an environment where tough questions are welcomed, considered, and answered, because it is only by doing so that we can cultivate a generation of Christians who are confident in defending and sharing their faith with those around them.
“…but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, but with gentleness and respect”1 Peter 3:15, NASB
One thing that has amused me for some time while being in and around churches (particularly over the last ten years or so) is that parents are often in awe at children who have a sound working knowledge of the Bible and Scriptural teaching at a young age. I know this is a sweeping generalisation, but often their own children are the ones who are kept occupied during church services and meetings by catchy videogames on a mobile phone or tablet. Is it any wonder they aren’t as familiar with the Word?
It’s also worth noting that with so many additional distractions nowadays to keep families engaged and away from church, many (if not most) youth groups and Sunday schools focus more on making their meetings attractive, rather than focusing on preaching the Word. Don’t get me wrong – you can’t have a meeting if there’s nobody there to meet with, but you can’t have a ministry without doing any ministering. I’ve always been a firm believer that the best form of growth in these settings is by teaching truth and spiritually equipping youth in the most effective way.
But of course, the most effective starting point is within the home. The message is clear in Scripture:
“These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. And you shall repeat them diligently to your sons and speak of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the road, when you lie down, and when you get up.”Deuteronomy 6:6-7 (NASB)
Christian culture and Christian teaching
When these deconstruction stories first started breaking, John Cooper, devout Christian and frontman of the rock band Skillet, wrote a scathing critique on Facebook (linked here and below) about the culture within Christianity that has allowed these stories to become commonplace. In my view, one of the most salient points he notes in the post is:
“It is time for the church to rediscover the preeminence of the Word. And to value the teaching of the Word.”John Cooper, Skillet frontman, on Facebook
Cooper hits the nail on the head here, and it’s ironic that it took a rock musician to convey this message. Churches these days are all too often about metrics and popularity, preaching messages that speak more to emotion than providing spiritual food. The so-called “prosperity gospel” fields most of the criticism for this within Christian circles, but it is absolutely not restricted to those groups.
Christian teaching ought to equip and encourage believers with sound wisdom and a proper theological foundation to base their faith upon. Even outside of prosperity theology, very few pastors do it these days, often lobbing softball sermons about how God will help us through trials and temptations and persecution and struggles and so on. None of this is false, but none of this is new, and certainly hearing this message on repeat for weeks, months and years is of no benefit to the church either.
For me personally, I’ve had to fill this gap with online teaching, and there is a veritable goldmine of material to learn from. However, whenever I’m asked for a recommendation, the first name on my mind every time is Pastor Mike Winger. Clear, precise, bold biblical teaching done with love and care. I’ve linked his YouTube channel here and below.
Christian culture and evangelism
With these clear deficiencies in the way Christian culture equips believers to live out their faith, I’m sure it makes a difference to the way evangelism is carried out.
Furthermore, times are changing. On the Pints with Aquinas show (linked below) with Matt Fradd, Catholic apologist Trent Horn noted:
“I think there might have been a time when you could just evangelise to people and just say ‘look, your life’s a mess, you need to get back to church, you need to see Jesus.’ And that’d be evangelism.
But if someone says ‘I don’t need church to be a good person’…that’s where apologetics comes in, especially now…
I think now, the majority of the country [speaking about the US] does not go to church, or does not identify formally with that.”Trent Horn, Catholic apologist, on Pints with Aquinas
At least from an observational standpoint, I’d say Horn is likely correct. In a culture that is becoming increasingly post-Christian and less likely to be receptive to a 2-minute presentation of the Gospel, it’s important to have some grounding for why we in modern society ought to care about it.
Many conversations I’ve either been a part of or have overheard generally boil down to these points:
“Do you have a faith background?” or alternatively “Do you belong to a church?”
“What do you believe about Jesus?”
“The Bible tells us Jesus died for our sins and rose again.”
And that’s usually it. There’s no real engagement here, because the listener is either receptive or they’re not. I do wonder how many people this sort of approach brings into the fold (at least in a seeking capacity, if not a commitment to the faith).
It’s possible that Christians default to this line of conversation due to a fear of having to go toe-to-toe on hot button social issues, or on issues relating to science and philosophy (Did God really create the world? Why is there so much suffering if God is good? and so on).
I alluded to a similar idea earlier, noting that many Christian circles either shy away from answering these difficult questions, or offer poor answers to them. Just as damaging is the false dichotomy created between science and Christianity (or science and religion more broadly). However, I personally believe that many in the church have bought into the narrative, which can certainly impede their ability to have an impact as a witness. It is time for churches to train the sheep within their pasture to understand where their faith sits in the context of our modern world, in order to give them the confidence to share the reasons behind why they believe. As Horn mentioned, apologetics is fast becoming a prerequisite for effective evangelism.
Christian culture, icons and thought leaders
A peculiar aspect of modern Christianity is the creation of a subculture within the West that has its own music stars, thought leaders and even vocabulary. (Yes, the title and subtitle of this post are an intentional parody, for those who picked it up).
To me, it seems to be part of an effort to emulate the wider world and make Christianity more relevant and accessible to the seeker. I’ll have a forthcoming post on this, specifically focusing on contemporary Christian music, but I wanted to focus more on how the voices that seem to be heard loudest aren’t exactly the voices we should be giving the most weight to.
Let’s revisit John Cooper’s thoughts. He noted in his post:
“My conclusion for the church (all of us [sic] Christians): We must STOP making worship leaders and thought leaders or influencers or cool people or ‘relevant’ people the most influential people in Christendom. (And yes that includes people like me!)
I’ve been saying for 20 years (and seemed probably quite judgmental to some of my peers) that we are in a dangerous place when the church is looking to 20 year old worship singers as our source of truth. We now have a church culture that learns who God is from singing modern praise songs rather than from the teachings of the Word.”John Cooper, Skillet frontman, on Facebook
Cooper is spot on again. These “Christian celebrities” are often thrust into the spotlight as teens or in their early 20s, and seemingly overnight become viewed as role models and thought leaders in the Christian community. For some Christians, they become a substitute for the musicians, actors and icons of the secular world. Few have a solid theological of the faith at this age, and even fewer have any sort of theological or ministerial training. It’s not even an age thing; there are plenty of older “Christian celebrities” who lack the proper theological knowledge to be placed on a pedestal as thought leaders.
None of this is to say that these figures shouldn’t have their platform. However, we must ensure that we don’t create a culture within the church that gives the most appealing people influence if they don’t have the requisite knowledge to back that influence up. We need to ensure that believers are trained to apportion influence to people within the church based on their ability to share and reflect true biblical wisdom.
Perhaps the easiest way to sum things up is this: let’s get back to basics. Christians: seek biblical truth. Create an environment where questions are welcomed and faith is tested and challenged. Understand the reasons underlying your faith. Listen to the voices that share biblical truth. I think we would do well if we started to shift the culture within Christianity towards this approach.