Rebutting the ARIS Survey Results

RIP Christian AmericaToday I was reading a recent USA Today editorial piece, which examines the much discussed, recently announced “decline and fall of Christian America.” This op-ed was mostly a critique of the Newsweek thesis, that the recent ARIS survey showed a clear decline in Christian influence on American life.  Basically, Stephen Prothero points out that even though the percentage of Americans claiming a particular religion (or denomination thereof) has decreased since the study began in 1990, much of those within that group still claim to believe in “a personal god.”

While it does seem clear this lessens the idea that atheism is greatly on the rise in America, this statistic does not at all reduce the idea that Christianity is losing influence on American culture.  Prothero’s point would be correct if a belief in a personal god was equivalent to Christianity, but that is no more true than liking hamburgers makes one a frequent customer of McDonalds.  It may be argued that those who are true burger aficionados would be less likely to enjoy Mc-Ds, in the same way that those Prothero is discussing, would not be the people we would find frequenting the local Baptist church.

This exposes a critical question in this discussion: Is belief in a personal god outside the constructs of Christianity beneficial to a “Christian America”?  My answer is an unequivocal “no!”  In fact, I would argue that this is more dangerous to American Christianity than atheism itself.

[See Should we be a Christian Nation? For more on this issue]

The problem that this creates is that many Americans (even many who claim to be Christian) are taking a smorgasbord approach to faith.  In the paradoxical rules of post-modernity, all faith is good, and therefore any aspect of any faith can be replaced with any other faith.  It is the community property of math at work in the realm of religion.  One can grab a little Hindu here, a little Islam there, and oh, how about some teachings of Jesus for good measure.  As a pastor, I see this often when I meet people.  In fact, I had an experience this weekend that illustrates it well.

This weekend I went Hobie sailing with a good friend.  On shore, I talked to one of the club members who was generously running the barbeque.  We had a great time talking, and pretty soon he asked what it was that I do.  When I told him, he asked me about our church’s worship.  He said that they were attending a church with a very stogy worship style, and he might like to visit.  In the same breath, he told me how he believed that all religions are good, and he didn’t believe in committing to any one of them.

People seem not to understand that comments like that could not be more offensive to me (they dismiss my whole career and life’s work), though I try to be gracious when I encounter this.  But inside it is troubling, because when people look at Christianity as a salad-bar item they are devaluing it far more than by rejecting it outright.

When a person says “I reject Christ,” although they are refusing an allegiance to Him, they are doing nothing to damage or devalue Christianity.  That is not to say that they aren’t trying to work against Him, but in doing so they are still defining themselves by Him.  This is the reason why Christians actually have very little to fear from Atheist bus ads and Darwin-fish car bumper stickers.  The statement they are making, in effect, “I don’t believe in God, and I hate Him,” is less damaging to God, than it is to the atheist cause.

In the case of the barbequing Hobie-enthusiast, he is not rejecting Christ outright, but accepting a warped version of who Christ is.  This isn’t new in history (see most of the Old Testament narrative and several of Paul’s letters in the New Testament), but is on the rapid increase in America.  When this version of the gospel becomes the common understanding, as it rapidly is becoming, then its essence is completely destroyed.   It is an easy step to go from that to saying that Christianity has nothing special to offer humanity at all, and there will be few left with the ability to make a case otherwise.

It should be the main goal for American Christians to stop worrying about whether we have the influence over culture and policy that we might have once had, but instead focus on making clear the true Jesus in our land, in a way that people hear and understand.   -Ryan


Should we be a Christian Nation?

Jesus Loves AmericaIn order to look at American post-Christianity, it is of the utmost importance to examine the question of whether it should be a goal for America to be considered “Christian” in the first place.  Now, I don’t have a desire to get into the political quagmire of the intentions of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers.  In fact, my purpose is to look at this from the exact opposite angle.  So then, the question is not whether it is good for America to be Christian, but instead is it good for Christianity for America to be called “a Christian nation.”

Of course, American Christians should in some sense want our country to be Christian.  Even avid abortion-rights supporters, for instance, would say that they would prefer to live in a country where abortion is rare.  Christians would agree (abortion-rights issue removed) that the best thing for our country is for Christian values and morals to be embraced, and therefore, for the question of whether a woman should want an abortion to be one that is not often even considered.  Most American Christians also understand the important mandate of God to be a light to those who have not been freed from sin and death, and would therefore hope to live in a country where everyone had been saved by the grace of Jesus.

What is at issue is how and why these values should be embraced.  Most sincere Christian would say that Christian morality should be welcomed because people are deeply committed to following Christ.  They will then order their lives around what He would want of them, and what would be best for their relationship with Him.  Therefore, it is best for Christianity for a commitment to Christ to be a thing of supreme value, and a Christian morality to flow down from that.

The problem is that this is not what appears to be happening in American culture as a whole.  Much of Christian morality is seen as normative in American culture still, but a commitment to Christ is often believed to be secondary to a devotion to Jesus by many at best, or a even a distasteful thing when pop-culture is taken into account.

I therefore, strongly believe that American Christians need to run far from the idea that getting people to live more Christian-ly will make them followers of Jesus.  It is irrational for people to want to follow any value-set when they have no commitment to the source of that value-set.  Don’t believe me?  Try walking up to a random person in a store and telling them to organize a shelf of merchandise.  They won’t follow your command at all, and might use a few expletives.  But if you were a manager at that store and they were an employee, the situation would play itself out exactly the opposite.  In the first example, you won’t be heeded because you have no power or authority over that person, but in the second you have both.  It is the same way with morality.

Whenever Christianity becomes a lifestyle instead of simply a commitment to Jesus, it loses the essence of what gives it power.  When Christians lose “Christ” as the primary source of their identity, they become just “ians,” which are no different than Australians, or politicians, or librarians.  So, in one sense it is very good for America to be a Christian nation, when Christ orders everything we do.  But when we are anything but that, we put ourselves in a corner where we are forced to prove our lifestyle as a powerful force for good in the world by only our moral code.  We will never win that battle.  Without Christ as the center, Christianity is neither powerful, nor good at all.   -Ryan


Things Not to Do (1)

Do not put “Welcome to our little website,” or any derivative of this on your website.

People know that it is your website.  They just clicked or typed the url to get there.  You can say “welcome” if you really feel the need, but the full message just really sounds hokey.  It also gives the feeling of being really amateur.  When I see this on a site, I automatically throw it in the mental wastebasket.

By the way, these “things not to do” are not necessarily meant to be massive paradigm-shift kind of things.  I am not saying that if you don’t have that message on your website you will have a great online ministry.  I am just saying not to do this.

Finding Meaning in Leviticus

I spy a great sacrifice Many of you know that I just recently finished going through the Bible cover-to-cover in 90 days.  It was a challenge in many ways, but in another sense it was exciting and refreshing.  I don’t think that reading so much scripture so fast is necessarily the best way to study always.  I often counsel students to whom I minister to read it slowly, in bite-sized chunks, and think about it.   I did learn different things than when I’d read the Bible through in a much longer period of time, though. Continue reading

What I Want to Want


I started out the day re-reading a section of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.  I tried to allow his section on Christian meditation to sink in as I ate lunch, and then headed out.  It was a perfect day today, one of those Texas days that you just can’t waste.  There were no sweeping Spring hailstorms, or silent freezes of winter, and the summer furnace had not been stoked yet.  Outside, there was nothing but miles of blue sky and all of creation going through its April busywork.  I went to the park.

As I turned off the car in the parking lot, I grabbed my Bible.  I was looking for a passage in Philippians, but ended up reading 1 Thessalonians 5:5.  “You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.” I let that seep in, and I began to walk, meditating on being a son of light and day. Continue reading

What Makes a Good Church Web Ministry (Part 4a)

I am sure that I will regret posting this.  I weighed the options in my mind: Don’t post-it doesn’t sound polished, there is no main point, I have no idea what I’m saying.  Do post-I won’t sleep if I don’t get this out.  I’m posting.

I just watched a video webinar from Drew Goodmanson and Cynthia Ware that was linked from Drew’s site.  It presents the data from a survey that they helped conduct.  I must say that it is making me re-examine some long held preconceptions of church social networking in my mind.  I am coming to realize that much of what I had thought two years ago is not working out socially the way I expected.  It is one of those slap-in-the-forhead moments.

I am still working out a lot of this.  Here are some things that I learned over the last 45 minutes:

The manin desires that the people in churches who were surveyed have for their church websites:

  1. Church events on an online calendar.  They want to be able to sign up for things online.
  2. Prayer requests online.  They want to be able to post prayer requests through the website.
  3. Serving connection.  People want to be able to find out how their gifts can fit into an area of service at the church.
  4. Home group connection.  People want to be able to connect to and interact with a home group.
  5. Church email/directory.  They want a way to be able to contact the church and church members using the website as a resource.
  6. Bible study connection.  They want to be able to study and connect with a Bible study online.

You know what was missing?  Social networking.  People did not feel that they needed a social network within their church.  Why would they?  Can we do Facebook better than Facebook?  If we could, should we?  Now that I think about it that way, I realize that even my answer is “no.”

Here is what they said they didn’t want:

  1. The ability to blog
  2. Classified ads
  3. A way to post their own photos
  4. A job posting board
  5. The ability to post things to a social media site

I do believe what they said regarding this day and age of new media is correct.  Building upon their base, I believe that Christians are going to have to use mostly existing social networking with excellence, and our success in Web Ministry will depend on our ability to do the following:

  1. Not add an additional network or online activity that church members don’t have time for.  I have been mulling this a lot lately.  It is becoming a full time job for people to keep up with all their networks.  In the very near future either one network is going to beat all of the others so badly that no others will exist, or social networking will completely disappear when everyone gets tired of it (not likely), or a solution will appear to completely integrate all major existing networks so that no one goes to or any of the others anymore.  One blogpost will go out simultaneously on all, and these portals will cease to exist in the eyes of the average user.
  2. Make their Web Ministry a completely interactive place.  I can’t stress my belief in this point enough.  I am almost willing to say that an e-brochure style website is almost more of an embarrassment than a benefit.  I stop short though, because if a church doesn’t have their vital info linked online, they should think about shutting their doors.
  3. Provide instant gratification.  Things like podcasting and video have got to be available and accessible.
  4. Be decentralized.  Church Web content cannot be done in a top-down way.  Content has got to be available from more than one direction, if that makes sense.  I’m still working this one out.
  5. I really think that there needs to be an open-source nature to Web Ministry as well.  It needs to be collaborative, and allow some of the more tech-savvy people to do what they do best.

There will be more.  Like I said, I am still working this out.  This has been very stream-of-consciousness, I know, but now I am going to go to bed a little depressed.   I don’t like not having things worked out in my mind.

The Christian Saint Patrick’s Day

Easter 2009 has come and gone.  Into the closet goes the little bunny decorations; into the tummy go the eggs, candy, and chocolate bunnies; into the compost go the dying lilies.  Now we turn the calendar page to things like Pentecost and summer.  Many of us have gone to church in order to do our twice yearly duty and are no worse for the wear, although less and less of us are doing this little dance each year.  Coninue Reading…