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Friday, November 1, 2013

What Is The Missing Message Link To Today's Church


Tullian Tchividjian is the grandson of Billy Graham. He is the senior minister of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, which is the same church where D. James Kennedy was the senior minister. He also has a blog on The Gospel Coalition website (click here for his blog).

Not too long ago, Tchividjian wrote an article that was published in the Washington Post about the missing message in today's churches (click here for the article). The reason for his article is the growth of the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation. Tchividjian claims that the reason for this decline is that society has caused people to fall into the trap of "Performancism" and the Church has failed to preach against this. Tchividjian describes this performance as tying one's identity to what one has earned, has achieved, or possesses. Binding our significance to what we have or accomplish has caused people to see themselves as always having to prove themselves and where fatigue or the fear of loss eventually takes over a person's life.

Rather than preaching against performancism, Tchividjian claims that the Church encourages it. This is especially true when some popular Christian books encourage people to follow a more "robust and radical" definition of the Christian faith than what has been described before. According to Tchividjian, the Church should be providing a shelter from the "pressure cooker" of performancism rather than offering a spiritualized version of it. 

What I want to emphasize here is that it isn't his doctrinal beliefs that I disagree with, it is with his analysis of why more people are distancing themselves from religion, organized religion to be specific, which I am challenging. 

Tchividjian cites two sources when introducing Americans' declining religious identification. The first source comes from a Pew study (click here) and the second comes from a CNN article on millenials and religion (click here). Information from the Pew study indicates that those who have no religious affiliation see  religious institutions as being preoccupied with money, power, rules, and politics. Thus, if we were to judge by that general statement, we would be inclined to see much merit in Tchividjian's analysis. 

However, when we examine some of the details, we get a different picture of the problem. One of the reasons for the increase in the number of people who have no religious affiliation is the fact that the newer adults, the millenials, as well as the Generation Xers and even the Baby Boomers, are expressing less interest in religion. In addition, more people are being raised without a religious influence. And we should note that many of the religiously unaffiliated believe that religion can do good in the community and can help the poor. At the same time, they tend to identify themselves as liberal Democrats. In addition, the article that Tchividjian cites on millenials adds that millenials tend to believe that Evangelical Christianity is too old fashion especially with regard to sexual mores, it excludes too many people, it ignores social justice issues, and it is "hostile" to the LGBT community. From this, millenials are leaving the Evangelical Church, the leadership of which is predominantly conservative Republican, because they have different political and social morals.

My own experiences as a Leftist activist support the lack of shared values as being a reason why many don't affiliate with the Church. Some of my fellow activists are surprised that the Church puts so much emphasis on sexual mores while neglecting the poor and overlooking the sins of the rich. And though these activists do not understand the need to be sexually pure, they do understand that part of the mission of the Church must be to minister to those who are vulnerable. 

So Tchividjian refers to articles to draw attention to the problem while, at the same time, he ignores the rest of his referenced articles when explaining the why of the problem. And that raises the question of why. Why wouldn't he at least address the reasons stated in the articles he uses to show that there is a declining interest in being religiously affiliated?

The possibility exists that Tchividjian did not write this article to fill in the blanks of what is missing in the Church's message. Rather, Tchividjian wrote this article to do damage control. That is he wrote this article to put an evangelical spin on why fewer people desire to have a religious affiliation in order to not lose even more people. For in claiming that the preaching of the Evangelical Church contributes to people leaving the Church by encouraging performancism, he is projecting on to those not interested in the Church the concerns of those who are. This keeps the Church from having to change part of its message in ways that would offend current members.

Here we should note that Tchividjian's comforting message that opposes performancism plays into the personal feelings of insecurity which many Conservative Christians try to cover up. For here, by identifying performancism as the problem, Conservative Christians can easily find assurance for their salvation while maintaining in a Righteously Selfish way of life. But the emphasis that my fellow Conservative Christians place on being assured indicates that it is an ongoing issue. And we could add here that the combination of being in such need of assurance with living for oneself in ways that do not violate certain taboos tells many who are outside the Church that the Evangelical Christianity shares a problem with narcissism with some of the world. The difference between how Evangelical Christianity handles narcissism from how others do is that we have learned how to spiritualize it.

We American Christians live in one of the richest economies of the world where the wealth disparity and incarceration rates are among the highest in the world. On the political side, many of us Conservative Christians do not want society to treat gays as being fully equal while, at the same time, we defend the notion that corporations should be granted the rights of rights of personhood without bearing its responsibilities. When it comes to society, we want control and when that control is not granted, we feel persecuted and then we withdraw. When withdrawing from the public school system, for example, we want society  to pay for our choice to leave public schools while ignoring the fact that in so doing we divert much needed funds to the struggling school system that serves those who don't share our choice. 

So why doesn't Tchividjian and others ever point to the similarities that exist between many American Christians and the letter to the Laodiceans in Revelation 3? The Christians in that church were rich like many of today's American Christians. Perhaps the reason is that if they offend many Conservative Christians who are living the good life now and would thus motivate them to leave the Church, then there would be no one left to preach to.

Yes, more people are leaving the Church. However, we should not feel pressured into giving answers that satisfy the choir only since a significant majority of Americans remain religiously affiliated. And if we want an explanation on why fewer are coming to Church, perhaps we should listen to and report on what the non affiliated have to say for themselves rather than putting words in their mouths. That is what we should do if we hope to effectively reach out to them later. Tchividjian fails to do this in his article.



2 comments:

Bill said...

Thanks for this insightful, thought-provoking post. It seems to me that the millenials are craving meaning that they would find in the Christian faith if it was radically counter-cultural, with an emphasis on social justice. Instead what they see when they look at American evangelicalism is anti-intellectual flag-waving warmongering gay-haters, seemingly indifferent to the poor and the environment. I realize that is an unfair stereotype, but it has enough truth in it to make the Church unappealing to them. That has to change if the trend toward the decline of the Church is to be reversed.

Curt Day said...

We have to distinguish between stereotypes and general characteristics. And one difference is whether we make assumptions about people. Another difference is in how one reacts to an error. Do we want to correct a tendency or use an error to marginalize a group? I think you are trying to describe general characteristics.

Thank you for your note. I see the observations you make here all too often.