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Generational Drift & Decay

May 11, 2009
S. Michael Craven
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Last week we began to unpack Michael Spencer’s explosive article, “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.” Spencer’s central assertion that “we are on the verge—within 10 years—of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity” drew widespread affirmations (or resignation) from many evangelicals. Whether or not one agrees with Spencer’s conclusions, the general resonance with this article by so many evangelicals and its specific charges against the evangelical church in America warrant serious consideration.

Now, you may think, “How can Christianity suffer collapse? Such a thing isn’t possible. This is just reactionary hyperbole!” However, Christian communities have arisen and vanished across the globe throughout history. The story of the church includes the ebb and flow of Christianity into and out of various cultures and regions; and while Jesus promised that his church would last until the end of the age, he never promised that it would do so in America. Recall that Christianity was dominant in Europe for more than a millennium and yet today barely a trace remains, while in Africa and Asia, the church is spreading like wildfire. Historian Philip Jenkins adds, “Once, the prospect of a non- or post-Christian Syria or Mesopotamia would have seemed inconceivable, as the Christians of these lands knew incontrovertibly that they stood at the heart of the faith” (Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity [HarperCollins: New York, NY], 42). Isn’t this same prospect equally inconceivable to us?—and yet history proves it is possible.

Let me also add any impending collapse of evangelicalism as we know it is not the result of any flaw inherent to Christianity. It would be, without a doubt, the result of God’s providence. We cannot know why, but given the state of the church in America, could it be God’s judgment? I am inclined to think that is possible. Might we be the church in Ephesus to whom John writes, “you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev. 2:4)? Perhaps the Laodicean church that has become “lukewarm” (Rev. 3:16)?  

This week let’s examine another of Spencer’s charges (an issue pandemic in our churches)—our abject failure to transmit [coherent] Christian faith to the next generation.  Over the last century the church in America has suffered serious generational drift and decay. In every subsequent generation over the last century, the faith has become more fragmented, watered-down, superficial, and irrelevant. We have drifted from a vibrant faith rooted in the historic confessions, coherent theological convictions, and intelligent cultural engagement to a privatized faith that is indifferent to the past, theologically ignorant, and culturally irrelevant. As Michael Spencer writes:
We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.
The evidence supporting this charge is both overwhelming and damning. As I wrote last week, less than one percent of professing Christians aged 18-23 possess the very basics of a Christian worldview. Droves of young people are leaving the church; countless numbers of young evangelicals—ill equipped—are being morally and spiritually decimated upon entering the university. The moral conduct of young evangelicals is barely distinguishable from their unchurched counterparts. And very few can articulate any doctrines remotely related to historic orthodox Christianity.

The travesty exists in the fact that among church leadership, this isn’t new news. Countless studies documenting these facts have been published and available for years. In 2004, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton conducted the largest study ever documenting the vacuous religious beliefs of young people. So discordant were the theological beliefs of young professing Christians that the researchers coined the phrase, “moralistic therapeutic deism” to describe the practice and belief of this generation. The results were published in the popular book Soul Searching, receiving widespread acclaim. A documentary-style film version followed, which was distributed to thousands of churches.

In regards to moral conduct, Christianity Today reported in 2003, “Specific studies of sexual trends among Christian teens have been limited, but all indications are that, on average, there is little difference between their sexual behavior and that of non-Christian youths…” (Jennifer Parker, Christianity Today, “The Sex Lives of Christians,” Mar/Apr 2003). In 2007, Mark Regenerus, a sociologist and Christian, published Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teens. Regenerus’s study confirmed earlier findings, adding that evangelical teens may actually be having premarital sex at younger ages and more frequently than their nonevangelical counterparts. Barna’s research on a range of moral and ethical questions also reveals little or no difference between Christian and non-Christian youth.

Again, this isn’t news to anyone involved in youth ministry, and yet there appears to be little in the way of serious self-examination resulting in new strategies designed to remedy this deplorable condition. The emphasis still favors entertainment-based strategies designed to attract youth through big-event evangelism, celebrity testimonies, concerts, and pizza parties—but teaching them nothing of substance.

I’ve talked with numerous youth pastors who grieve over the state of the youth in their charge but concede that they are under pressure from church leadership to “keep the numbers up.” These young leaders confess that if they simply sat down to exegete and teach the scriptures, their numbers would likely drop and thus would be sure to end their career in ministry. Where are the senior pastors, youth leaders, men and women willing to say enough? Are we willing to see the crowds diminish in order to reveal those earnest followers receptive to intensive discipleship? What is worse? Leading masses to believe that because they play dodgeball in church on Sunday night they are followers of Christ—or making disciples out of small but committed groups of young people who are serious about following Christ?

© 2009 by S. Michael Craven




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Response from : Buddy Hanson  

May 11, 2009 8:22 AM

Way to go, Michael! This is the first message I've received from you and you didn't let me down. I hope you don't fall into the common trap of merely offering the descriptions of the difference between a Christian and non-Christian worldview, and I hope that you follow this article with some of God's prescriptions. After all, we have been called into God's family and Christ's Kingdom to reign, not merely complain.

For the Kingdom


Response from : Paul Blankenship  

May 11, 2009 8:25 AM

Michael, met you at UTA Free Thinkers Mtg. about a month ago. This article provides great insight and analysis. Likely some of the research you sighted will show up in current series on Philippians. Thanks for your continued encouragement and commitment to truth.

Response from : Jeff  

May 11, 2009 8:34 AM

Great column. One teacher at New York School for the Bible where I take courses said that his brother couldn't care less about his Christian upbringing. They were both brought up in Christian homes. One became a pastor, the other has turned his back on his faith. It's like in the parable of the ten virgins or those gleaning in the fields where one is taken up and the other left behind. These are heartbreaking scenarios. Thanks for speaking about this sensitive and painful subject.

Response from : Jonathan Stern  

May 11, 2009 8:55 AM

Great article and sadly too true. Even here in East Africa the effects of secularism in the west is taking its toll on the general attitudes toward discipleship. Our local church is going through a hard time because we are a strong discipleship church and yet when push comes to shove, we are criticized for being "legalistic". Not so, just purposeful in our love... It is definitely a western problem...

Response from : Dave Allburn  

May 11, 2009 9:23 AM

Michael, I'm a fan, but your last paragraph offers the usual: quality vs quantity (of youth disciples). There should be both: a quantity of those who admittedly get a superficial "brush-by" of Christianty, hopefully including some influential admired (or envied) youth, and a probable "nerd-core" of introspective, curious, and perhaps more mature or evolved youth that few will listen-to (or worse, be seen listening to). Although it's a loose analogy, even Peter denied Christ when threatened. Living the Christian Life apparently "isn't cool" these days for rebellious indulgent youth. (That's from the department of redundancy department.) Why are we so afraid that Marketing 101 debases the faith? Is Christianity the only faith that's tormented by these USA trends, or is it faith itself? TV pundit O'Rielly seemed to have a pretty on-target book aimed at youth. I'll bet most youth ministers have read it. I'll also bet those smart youth ministers run two operations: one for pleasing their numbers-bosses, and another that's "the real deal." Remember the Superstar rock opera refrain: "...tell me that I'm saved, can't you see I waved?" Instead of just deploring the growing superficiality, let's peddle a "build-on-what-you-have" practicality, and see how many can be made curious enough to find out "what they have." Leads right to that pesky worldview thing, doesn't it?

Response from : Brian  

May 11, 2009 9:32 AM

I think you're missing the point. Your statistics are correct & the trends you've discussed are indeed happending, but thinking that you can reverse them is, in my opinion, in error. I believe these trends are inevitable and are due to more base physiological, psychological, technological, and socialogical reasons. The trends will carry with them their own destructive consequences. At that future time, parts of the world where the church is currently growing will send missionaries to the Americas. I believe that wherever modern multimedia technology takes root, we will observe these negative trends; I hypothesize that the trend occurs as the result of the interaction of the innate neurological/psychological make-up of humans as we interact with this form of technology and the way our brains then wire themselves as we grow up using these technologies. The part of our brains, the "right brain" (as opposed to the "left brain") is not as receptive to systemized theological truths nor is the right side of the brain capable of thinking in a linear, logical fashion. In short, we use the multimedia technology, it affects the brain development of youths as they use it, then the population craves more of it and the society becomes predominantly "right-brained." This part of the brain deals better with images and quick associations. Society, over time, will then reflect a demand for and a responding to images and quick associations.

Response from : Martin Van Dyk  

May 11, 2009 9:34 AM

You stated...."Let me also add any impending collapse of evangelicalism as we know it is not the result of any flaw inherent to Christianity. It would be, without a doubt, the result of God’s providence. We cannot know why, but given the state of the church in America, could it be God’s judgment?"

Yes we can know why...everything that God smiles or frowns upon is a 'judgement'. Why? The status of any aspect of our humand culture(in this case evangelicalism) is a calling... A REFORMATION AWAITS US.

To deny this truth is to accept aspects of our humand culture to be "good enough" (from our perspective). We require an awakening in all aspects of creation.

Let us stand side by side with Martin Luther to nail to the church door that a reformation awaits us.



Response from : S Michael Craven  

May 11, 2009 9:52 AM

Dear Brian,

Thank you for your very thoughtful and cogent response. However, as a point of clarification; I did not state that I thought we could reverse them nor do I think that is necessarily our goal. Our goal is faithfulness and that is all I am calling for. The outcomes belong to the Lord.


Response from : Cecilia Dean  

May 11, 2009 12:25 PM


Response from : Rhonda Calvert  

May 11, 2009 12:50 PM

Is it ok to print out and make copies of Michael's articles and put them in our church info area for people to take?

Response from : Anton  

May 11, 2009 9:38 PM

In response to: “Historian Philip Jenkins adds, ‘Once, the prospect of a non- or post-Christian Syria or Mesopotamia would have seemed inconceivable, as the Christians of these lands knew incontrovertibly that they stood at the heart of the faith. …’ And it was not so long ago (within our time) that the ordination of one who openly admits to the sinful practice of homosexuality (with no seeming remorse or regret) would have been just as inconceivable. Multiply that reality across the whole ‘current events’ spectrum of the state of modern day Christianity in the United States, and it is not so difficult to presume that: “any impending collapse of evangelicalism as we know it” (or as we used to know it) might very well … “be God’s judgment. But we also know that He always leaves Himself a remnant of those who remain faithful, in spite of the mores of the religious establishment of the day- and so there is hope.

Response from : Steve McNeilly  

May 11, 2009 11:47 PM

The obvious disconnect between young people and the evangelical church is both a problem and an opportunity. I believe the evangelical church has failed to give young people a solid cultural identity, a concept explored in detail in the book I sent you, Michael. "Our Culture in Christ". Did you receive it? And if so, have you read it? I believe it offers a different but valid perspective on this issue.

Response from : Ken Quick  

May 12, 2009 7:00 AM

The biblical terms for "Youth Pastor" and "Youth Ministry" are "father", and "family" respectively.

The church in the west is in the deplorable state that it is in because men have ceased to raise their children "in the fear and admonition of the Lord". The primary responsibilty for sound biblical teaching rests with fathers. If we are looking for how to reform the church today, this is where it must begin. Every corrupted aspect of the church and our western society can be traced back to christian men shirking their responsibilities to God in how they lead their families.

Christ is refining his church and our problems of this day are unmistakably God's judgment upon us. We need to repent and return to the Lord and His Word. There is hope in the Lord. I believe there is a hunger for sound biblical teaching. The majority of sermons downloaded from our church web site are on the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms! In our daily family worship we have just finished 5 years working through the Westminster Confession of faith and the Shorter and Larger Catechisms (the former being memorized by my 13 year old twin sons). It both sad and encouraging that my sons thorough understanding of the gospel and the Word far exceeds that of most visitors to our church. I take no credit for this, it is by God's grace. I am 51, a Christian for 10 years, and reformed for 6 or so. It is never too late to repent and seek the "renewing of our minds by the washing of His Word".

Response from : Kenneth Tremble  

May 13, 2009 1:40 AM

As far as youth is concerned, they do not know what it is to be totally committed to our LORD. Older members & Pastors are showing examples of NOT being totally committed to their spouses with adultery & divorce being greater than general population. So Church is Laodician Church.

Response from : Walt  

May 13, 2009 8:32 AM

Mr. Craven,

Thanks for this blog and for telling a truth that seemingly no one wants to hear. The fact of the matter is that "youth ministry" as a subset of overall ministry is failing terribly, but no one wants to admit it. We are trapped by the very things we condemned earlier generations for: we have always done it "this way." Well, "this way" does not work and probably has not worked for more than a decade, at least. But I find that as I try to introduce change to what is broken, I am getting resistance from the very students and families I am hoping to help and grow in the Lord. We may very well lose the war before we win the battle.

Response from : Christine  

May 13, 2009 10:14 AM

Good Morning. Thank you for confirming my morning prayers. I would just like to add,for example, that many adults/parents have become a generation of "do as I say,not as I do" representatives of the church to their children. Adultery has run rampant in our churches, but no one addresses it. In way too many cases, we have all accepted "no fault" divorce as ok. Throw that in with lying, stealing, drinking, etc and are we really surprised? Do we honestly think our children are not affected? Keep up the good "word" and work. Thanks

Response from : Steven A. Knotts  

May 14, 2009 4:23 AM

Excellent article! Accurate in every aspect. I would have to say that at least getting the young people in the door is the first step. Keeping them there and focused for the right reason is the next. Mere attendance is essential in providing an atmosphere conducive to their acceptance of Christ. Jesus taught us to be "fishers of men" and just as in fishing, sometimes one must change the type of bait! When competing with secular temptations we must offer at least an equal or more alluring diversion. However, once we have their attention the real work begins. Pastor Steven A. Knotts

Response from : Brian Mahon  

May 16, 2009 10:49 AM

Wonderful, insightful and very truthful article. The pressure is on many churches to 'keep the numbers up'. Unfortunately, in so doing, we are watering down the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus chose 12- He could have chosen dozens or more- HE began with a solid core from which to expand - why are we afraid to do the same?!


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