The Good News is that Most of the Bad News is Wrong: A Review of The Myth of the Dying Church By Glen Stanton

Church leaders can become discouraged, or even desperate, when they hear repeatedly that “the church is in decline” or “we are losing the youth,” or even “we are one generation from the death of Christianity.” The sources of these Chicken Little reports may be anecdotal, informal, or from respected sources. Consequently, Christian workers may be dispirited, since they are trying to buck deep trends in reaching the lost and keeping the found. The declinist narrative seems to fit the coarsening of American popular culture, the debauchery of legal decisions on abortion and same sex marriage, and our general sense of malaise and fatigue.

Although I am something of a professional curmudgeon, I must say that the good news is that most of this bad news is wrong.  The United States is certainly not experiencing a religious revival. Nor can we be happy with larger cultural trends, which come under God’s judgment. As the prophet Isaiah warned:

Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter (Isaiah 5:20).

Still, according to several significant indicators, Evangelical Christianity is not losing ground in America. Reports of its decay, or even demise, are greatly exaggerated. We should thank Glenn T. Stanton for making this case in his new book, The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity is Actually Thriving in America and the World. Stanton, author of eight previous books and director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family, makes a convincing case that the stats demonstrate growth; he is even optimism about the state of the church in America and the world. I will review some of his findings and add insights of my own.

To start, it has been known for at least twenty years that the  “secularization thesis” is false. This sociological theory, which was propounded in the 1960s, claimed that as societies became more modern—that is, more industrialized and pluralistic—they became more secular as well. Church attendance would decline. Christian beliefs would dry up and blow away in the winds of modernity. Liberal theologian Harvey Cox even wrote a book called The Secular City (1965) which celebrated a secular version of Christianity, which was no Christianity at all. More radically a “God is dead” theology (or a-theology) sprung up to accommodate this inexorable trend toward unbelief and atheism. The cover of Time Magazine sported the words, “Is God Dead?” on April 8, 1966.[1]  Beatle and wannabe philosopher, John Lennon famously said in 1966 that “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. . . . We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary.”  The December 26, 1969 cover of Time said, “Is God Coming Back to Life?”

Sociologists such as Peter Berger, who had championed the secularization theory, later admitted it was wrong. He notes that some societies became more secular as they modernized, as in Western Europe, but many, such as America, did not. Berger, a confessed Lutheran, was happy to report the failure of his theory. This is old news, but new news to many who will read Stanton’s book.[2]

More recently, headlines tell us of “the rise of the nones” and that churches are in decline, partially because of this. What of the nones? This category describes those who claim no religious affiliation. They may or may not be atheists. On surveys, when asked for their religion, they will check “none.” They are sometimes called “nons” since they are non-affiliated. Their numbers are up, but what does it mean? Stanton, citing Ed Stetzer primarily, tells us that the nones are just being more honest about not being involved with the church. Stetzer calls this a “clarification” more than a decrease in church participation. That is, if she has almost no association with, say, the Baptist church of her youth, instead of identifying as “Baptist,” she says she has no religious affiliation.

More good news is that we are not losing young adults to the secular world in droves. Yes, some teenagers who go off to college stop attending church during that time. This may be part of exercising their independence and trying to get their sea legs as an adult. That doesn’t excuse their behavior, but many will return to the church, especially after they marry and have children. Further, fewer are failing to be involved with the church than is often reported. Stanton cites sociologist Christian Smith, the preeminent expert on the faith of teens and young adults, to make his case.

In more old news that is new news to many, Stanton reports that Christianity is not declining but exploding in what is called “the global south,” particularly in Africa. Here he draws mostly on the work of prolific  historian Philip Jenkins, whose 2002 book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity alerted many to this heartening trend. But both Islam and Christianity are growing in African. Both oppose secularism, but neither can be reconciled to the other. These two most influential missionary religions will vie for the future of Africa in our century.[3] As I write, thousands of Christians in Nigeria are being martyred by Muslims. Muslims and Christians compete with each other using very difficult rules and strategies.

One other misleading factor should be noted. Some research claiming the decline of Christianity lumps all churches together in the data. But when liberal and conservative churches are sorted, it is clear that liberal churches (those that compromise biblical truth to be relevant) are in decline while evangelical churches overall are not. This, too, is old news, going back to Dean Kelly’s book 1972, Why Conservative Churches are Growing. But, the trend Kelly noted continues. Stanton speaks of the steep and rapid decline of an evangelical church that shifted its doctrine to accommodate LGBTQ morality.

I commend Stanton for bringing this research to a wider audience. His chapter on how to read social science research regarding religion is quite helpful, since so many are bamboozled by misleading research. Stanton writes: “I am a huge fan and advocate of teaching young people and adults apologetics and worldview. . . . But some of those offering help with apologetics—the very pursuit and explanation of truth—are ironically some of the biggest offenders when it come to the false Chicken Little narratives” (p. 165). As an apologist, I was challenged when I read this. After reading this book, I conclude that I have sometimes erred in this way, but I am happy to accept the good news that I was sometimes too pessimistic.

Stanton’s chapter, “The Holy Spirit is not Asleep At The Wheel,” offers an encouraging theology of the Holy Spirit’s power to advance the gospel no matter what the obstacles or the odds against it. Stanton reminds us that, as Jesus said, “the gates of hell will not prevail against the church” (Matthew 16:18). Who knows what Christians might do and how the church would grow if Christ’s followers fully submitted themselves to be filled with the Spirit of Truth? However, the book suffers from a few weaknesses, which, if addressed rightly, can help the church grow even stronger.

First, the author tends to put the cookies on a low shelf intellectually. The main points are repeated too often, and the sense is that the reader has to be cajoled into thinking hard about the matters at hand. I am all for popularizing important information, but some readers may feel a little insulted and wish that the author got to the point more quickly.

Second, despite the good news that much of the bad news is wrong, there is much bad news about the influence of Christianity in American culture that the author doesn’t take up in any detail. Church participation is one thing, but orthodox beliefs and intelligent social engagement are another. Stanton does note that “a very slight majority of evangelicals today say they believe many religions can lead to eternal life” (p. 47. Oddly, he does not give the exact percentage, but does rightly say that “is very troubling…” (p. 47). Indeed it is, since Jesus is the only way to be reconciled to God and because the Gospel must be preached to the nations (Matthew 11:27, 28:18-20; John 14:6; Acts 1:8, 4:12; 1 Timothy 2:5).

Many evangelical churches are weak in doctrinal preaching and apologetics. Even if many high school students come back to the church after college, it is a tragedy that many of them abandon the church during the time when they are most in need of the intellectual resources that only a robust Christian worldview can give them.

Third, Stanton does not address the rise of the “new atheism” of the past fifteen years or so. Led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett (the group’s only real philosopher) and the late Christopher Hitchens, the new atheists have galvanized many unbelievers in the West to be more militant in their unbelief and to attack Christianity (and all religion) as not only false, but dangerous to society. For example, biologist and atheist scion, Dawkins likened parents teaching their children religion to child abuse. The rhetoric is often vitriolic. Some bookstores now have a separate section for “Atheism,” which usually come after the Philosophy section.

The wind may be out of the sails of the New Atheism, but it has motivated atheists to attack religion more aggressively. I am not sure that this movement increased the percentage of atheists or merely recruited more them for combat. Perhaps it is both. But, given the publication books such as Religion for Atheists by Alain De Botton and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris and in light of the rise of atheist clubs on college campuses, Christians should take this seriously as a challenge to a rational Christian faith. I recently talked to a young man for two hours who had lost his faith to the arguments of the new atheists. I endeavored earnestly to show him that none of these arguments held water. The arguments of the new atheists are neither new nor strong, but they are influential.[4]

Of course, Stanton’s book is not a work of apologetics, so we should not expect him to respond to specific attacks on Christianity. Still, it seems that he has discounted some rather significant recent anti-Christian trends that affect people’s willingness to come to Christ.

Despite its weaknesses, The Myth of the Dying Church is a tonic to the popular defeatism and pessimism that dogs too much of evangelicalism in the United States. Of course, even if everything is getting worse, we soldier on in the glad service of the gospel, come what may because “The gates of hell will not prevail against the church” (Matthew 16:18).

[1] See L. Lilly Rothman, “Is God Dead?” At 50” Time, 2016. https://time.com/isgoddead.

[2] For a careful look at secularization theory, see Harold Netland, “Secularization, Globalization, and Religion,” Christianity and Religious Diversity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2015).

[3] Buddhism is the third most significant missionary religion. See Netland, “Buddhism in the Modern World” in Christianity and Religious Diversity.

[4] See Douglas Groothuis, “Understanding the New Atheism, Part I: The Straw God” at bethinking https://www.bethinking.org/atheism/understanding-the-new-atheism and Douglas Groothuis “Understanding the New Atheism, Part II : Attacking the New Testament” at bethinking: https://www.bethinking.org/atheism/understanding-the-new-atheism/2-part-2-attacks-on-the-new-testament. For an in-depth defense of the existence of God, see Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011).

Lessons from Seven Churches

I found my home in Evangelical Anglicanism in early 2007. My denomination is the Anglican Church in North America (ACNC). I visited Wellspring Anglican Church and never left. As I reflect on my church life, I am grateful to several churches for their faithfulness to God. My list is not inclusive of all the churches I have attended. Having been a Christ-follower for over forty-two years, I will recount a few ways in which God has led and sanctified me for worship and service. Perhaps my reflections will edify you and stimulate you to enter deeply into the life of the church that Christ bought with his own blood (Acts 20:28).

I cannot remember my first church experience. My parents had me baptized as an infant at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Anchorage, Alaska in 1957. I am grateful for my parent’s concern and the church’s faithfulness to its doctrine. My first memory of this church was of attending a Sunday school class for a short time. I went a few times, but my parents didn’t insist on it. I was involved in a junior high school group with First Presbyterian, but don’t remember any biblical teaching—at least nothing that made an impression.

The church conducted my father’s funeral in November of 1968 after his death in a small plane crash near Point Barrow, Alaska. The pastor, whose name I forgot, said that Dad served those who “worked with their hands.” Indeed, he did. He was Business Manager for Labor’s Local #341 at the time of his death. He had been the first president from 1958-1968. In the summer of 2008, I attended a fine service at First Presbyterian and had lunch with the Pastor and his family. It was a sentimental time for me. However, I did not come to know God in Christ through this church.

During my first year of college, God opened my soul to this truth through reading and witness. When I returned to Anchorage from Greeley, Colorado, half of my friends had become Christians. Both sides wondered what I would do. After many conversations with Christian friends and some remarkable experiences, I professed Christ in a public meeting and was soon baptized at Abbot Loop Community Chapel, the first church I knew well. Abbot Loop was a large and growing Pentecostal church. Nearly all my Christian friends attended there.  It was part of a movement that affirmed “the fivefold ministry” of Ephesians, chapter four. As such, the church had an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a pastor, and a teacher. Given my nearly non-existent church background, I had no other ecclesiology to compare this with.

From Abbot Loop, which I attended in the summer of 1976, I learned the importance of evangelism and expressive worship. When my friends converted, they gave up drugs, sex outside of marriage, alcohol, and secular rock music. So did I. I heard preaching for the first time and began to learn the Bible. The first sermon I ever heard was an exegetical and theological disaster, however. We were told that Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins referred to two kinds of Christians: regular Christians and those who were “in the bride of Christ.” The bride-Christians, because of their zeal for the Lord, would be spared the Great Tribulation. The others would have to suffer through it, but could be saved in the end. The preacher said that he was not yet “in the bride,” but sought it out. It was a dramatic moment in the message and one that, most likely, made nearly everyone nervous about their eschatological status. I was, and I had just become a Christian a few days before that. I questioned my salvation much that first summer of my Christian life, despite my desire to live as a committed Christian. It seemed that my spiritual experiences did not match those of others, and I wondered—and worried.

In the fall of 1976, I began my second year of college in Eugene, Oregon. I attended First Baptist Church. There I heard excellent preaching and grew in the knowledge of Holy Scripture. I made friends with serious Christians and was involved in church every way I could. First B (as we called it) was not just non-Charismatic, but anti-charismatic. So, I left tongues and the quest for the miraculous behind in favor of Bible study, strong involvement in the college group, and a growing interest in apologetics and all aspects of Christian belief and practice. Jack MacArthur was our senior pastor and preacher. He was a grand orator and read his hour-long sermons. I ate it up. He had a capacious vocabulary and strong opinions, like his more well-known son, John MacArthur. Dr. Jack preached a series on the charismatic movement and one on cults. From Dr. Jack, I learned the confrontational nature of Christianity. If the Bible is true, then the defining doctrines of Mormonism and Christian Science are false. The Bible was the guide. If something was unbiblical, it was untrue. I will forever be grateful for First B and Dr. Jack, despite my later re-embrace of the charismatic dimension of Christianity.

After graduating from the University of Oregon in 1979, I attended Orchard Street Community Church, a small congregation that grew out a house church that started in the early 1970s as part of the Jesus Movement. We met in another church on Sundays. Many of the members lived in community homes, although I never did. Orchard was part of no denomination, but was strongly Evangelical. The ethos emphasized simple living and community. Coming Together in a World Falling Apart was a book that influenced the church. Our service included worship, a sermon, and periodic communion, sometimes served by non-leaders. (I led communion once, but am trying to forget that.) After the sermon, we took a short break and came back and were seated in a circle. Our repertoire for this largely unstructured time was prayer, silence, singing, and saying what was on our heart. The Quakers inspired us in this. Sometimes, people thought they had “a word from the Lord.” My anti-charismatic days were over  and I began to learn the meaning of silence.

The leadership asked me to join the preaching team in 1980. In baseball argot, I was the equivalent of the fourth starting pitcher. I was assigned a text to preach exegetically. I learned to submit myself to the text and was critiqued formally by other preachers. I also received encouragement from others in the church. During a sermon on a text in Malachi, I felt the power of God in preaching. There was a holy hush that was filled by God himself. I then knew that when I preached the Bible after careful study, the Spirit could work far beyond what I anticipated. My aspiration is to preach “as an oracle of God” (1 Peter 4:11).

Stuart Smith was one of our pastors and became a lifelong friend. He was an able teacher, a gentle spirit, and a man whose cheerfulness and determination continues to amaze and inspire me. Stuart suffers from a rare degenerative condition that progressively robbed him of his physical strength, but only deepened his spiritual strength. My chapter, “Rejoicing in Lament,” in Walking through Twilight, is about my dear friend.

Geneva Chapel was the Christian Reformed Church that Rebecca, my departed wife, and I attended during my two years of graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin (1984-86). Although I have a Dutch last name, I am half Italian and had no history with this fine denomination. When we visited, we both sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit through the worship. People were friendly and liked my last name. At Geneva, we found stability and dependability in both the leadership and in the church members. I was introduced to liturgy, although less involved than what I now experience at, Wellspring Anglican Church. One Sunday, I served as “liturgist,” which meant that I selected a few hymns and Bible readings. I liked that. Little did I know how significant liturgy would become. Geneva also asked me to preach several times. After one sermon, a man said, “I think you missed your calling. You should be a pastor.” I was encouraged by this but continued to pursue a more academic and campus-ministry-based service. However, I would continue to preach over the years in many churches. Besides preaching, the Spirit has made me more pastoral over the years of study, suffering, and living.

While on sabbatical from Denver Seminary in 2006, Becky and I lived in Sun City West, Arizona. At this time, I served as a part-time pastor at Covenant of Grace Fellowship in Phoenix, a nondenominational, charismatic church.  The pastors, Len and Sharon Griffin, are long-time friends and earnest servants of Christ and his church. I served this fellowship through teaching, preaching, and mentoring. Sadly, Becky was too ill to attend the services or events. Covenant of Grace was a haven for many African immigrants, particularly those from Liberia. I was impressed by the church’s willingness to adapt to a new people group who unexpectedly began to attend about fifteen years ago. Their worship was expressive and charismatic. At the time, I was more reserved. Len and Sharon reviewed my time of service there. Two things stand out. First, I could improve my introductions to sermons. True enough. Second, I should be more expressive in my worship. True enough—although this took some time to learn. Now I endeavor to throw myself into worship as much as I can, regardless of how I feel.

I will unfairly skip several churches which benefitted Rebecca and me over the years and conclude my ecclesiastical journey with my present fellowship, Wellspring Anglican Church, in Englewood, Colorado. After returning from my sabbatical in Arizona, I visited Wellspring because of my growing interest in liturgy and because it was pastored by two outstanding Denver Seminary graduates, Billy Waters and Rob Paris. While in Sun City West, Becky and I attended the Saturday afternoon service at Crown of Life Lutheran Church, which was only a few blocks from where we stayed. We appreciated their liturgy and welcoming spirit. One of the pastors quipped that when we attended, it lowered the average age in the congregation to eighty. (Sun City West is a retirement community.) After my first visit, I have never attended any other church, unless I was traveling, sick, or preaching elsewhere. I found my home after a long sojourn through many churches with many strengths and some weaknesses. Let me explain, starting with preaching.

As an intellectual Evangelical, preaching is essential to my appreciation of a church and my spiritual growth. The truth of Scripture should be carefully and convincingly expounded. This is nonnegotiable. Many years ago, Becky and I visited a reputable and large church in Seattle. The pastor was renowned as a superb preacher. He was not. He was an excellent speaker, but we referred to his messages as “balloon sermons.” They were colorful, but quickly floated up in the air and out of sight; they lacked gravity. I have heard some of the best preachers, and I have heard not a few bad ones. (One message I heard contained five logical contradictions.) For a time, I felt almost a spiritual obligation to dislike most sermons, because my standards were so high—and, often, because I was so arrogant, thinking that I could do better. This is never true at Wellspring, except for the occasional visiting preacher coming from outside our denomination. The sermons (or homilies—I’ll explain that shortly) are biblically based, exhorting, and encouraging.

Rob Paris planted a new church a few years ago, so our regular preacher is Billy Waters. Billy is the best preacher I have sat under. In his messages, I always feel the warm urgency of the gospel. He encourages and exhorts; it is not one or the other or neither, but always both. Pastor Billy casts a consistent vision for the church and, by God’s grace, Wellspring is glorifying God through worship, formation, and mission. We want to serve our local community and plant churches throughout Denver in gospel-deficient areas. We serve the underserved in Englewood through our food bank and medical services.

But why did I use the word homily and refer to my Pastor as Father Billy?  A homily is one aspect of the church’s liturgy. It is vital, but it is not necessarily the most significant part of the service. Since the enactment of the liturgy happens in several well-orchestrated stages or movements (and never without the Eucharist), the homily cannot go on forever without robbing the other aspects of the service of their sacred significance.

I have written a short primer on liturgy called, “Liturgy for the Low Church,” which can be found on line, so I will not belabor the elements of it here. The homilies in my church usually last no longer than twenty-five minutes. These are not “sermonettes for Christianettes.” However, as my pastor says, “Even if I preach a C- sermon, I know that the Gospel is proclaimed throughout the whole service.” (He never preaches C- sermons, by the way.) Everything of spiritual significance does not depend on the skill of the preacher or the quality of the sermon, as it often does in non-liturgical churches.

Rebecca noticed that for several years that when I returned from a Sunday service, I was often angry. (She was usually too ill to attend with me.) Much of my dismay was due to my own arrogance or judgmentalism, but not all of it. I never feel that way now. Thanks be to God!

Each church along life’s way has helped sustain and deepen my Christian existence. I am grateful for all of them. Perhaps this recounting of my journey will encourage you to find and commit to a godly church. Church involvement for the Christian is not optional. How can you believe that Jesus said that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18) and not be a living, growing part his unstoppable church? Christ bought the church with his own blood (Acts 20:28). Since it is that important to God, should it not be important to you?