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).

Movie Thoughts on “God’s Not Dead, 2”

God’s not Dead, 2 (2016)

A teacher is accused of proselytizing in the classroom simply because she answered a student’s question about whether Martin Luther King’s nonviolent protests were influenced by Jesus. The teacher affirmed it and quoted a verse from the Sermon on the Mount.

When word gets out, the teacher is vilified as preaching in the classroom and must take her case to court. She is assigned a young, inexperienced, but tenacious lawyer.

I won’t give away the plot. Rather, let’s consider some of the strengths of the film.

1. The lawyer decides that it is crucial to give historical arguments that Jesus existed and that the Gospels are credible. The plan is that the teacher could cite the saying of a teacher in history. Thus, we hear testimony from the real Lee Strobel, J. Warner Wallace at some length. Rice Brooks, the apologetic mind behind the film, and Gary Habermas gets to say a few things.

2. Like the first God’s not Dead, someone stands for Christ under pressure, this time the school teacher.

3. The lawyer representing the teacher destroys the claim that “the separation of church and state” has any bearing on the case, since it is not in The Constitution.

However, the plot and logic of the story have weaknesses.

1. The teacher is said to have broken a law by mentioning Jesus in class. That law is never stated or even paraphrased. Thus, we don’t know if she violated any law. I find it unlikely that an historical reference to Jesus as part of answering a student’s question could be construed (even by the ACLU) as illegal. Instead of legal specifics, it is set up as Christianity verses secularism, which is far too vague. US Courts don’t work that way.

2. I am not a judge or a lawyer, but I find it hard to believe that the judge would have permitted some of the behavior in the courtroom. It strained belief.

3. The tables are turned dramatically near the end of the film, and was nothing less than rhetorical genius. The move was a reductio ad absurdum. I won’t say more. However, the maneuver seemed to have nothing to do with the legal issue at question (inasmuch as we can figure that out).

All told, “God’s not Dead, 2,” was more believable than the first installment. It was moving in places. The acting was believable. Since I don’t sink to the absurdity of giving stars (unless a magazine, which shall not be named, makes me), I simply recommend this movie for Christians, seekers, those hostile to Christianity, and for believers in other religions.

Book Review: Dynamics of Spiritual Life

Books grounded me during my early Christian life. Along with The God Who is There by Francis Schaffer, Pensées by Blaise Pascal, The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis, and The Dust of Death by Os Guinness, The Confessions by Augustine (and many others), Richard Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Life offered a historically and theologically rich charter for living the Christian life in all its dimensions: individual, church, and culture. To this day, I know of no other book in this category. How pleased I was a few months ago to find a student at Denver Seminary reading and lauding this magnificent book.

I was in campus ministry from 1979-84 at the University of Oregon.  During that time I read Lovelace’s book. Most of my ministry time was spent in preparation for teaching. During the early 1980s, I taught from Dynamics in a yearlong course for upper division credit in Sociology. It was called, a bit pretentiously, “The Twilight of Western Thought.” Given the fear of micro-aggression, the advent of “equality officers,” safe zones and trigger warnings for those fragile souls traumatized by ideas not their own, this course would never be taught today. You see, it was taught from a Christian perspective. Free of any discrimination against non-Christian students or their work, Dynamics explained the Christian worldview in relation to other perspectives. True pluralism respects and listens to opposing viewpoints; it does not avoid them at all cost. That is how the head of the sociology department saw it, so he sponsored the class.

"True pluralism respects and listens to opposing viewpoints; it dose not avoid them at all cost."

What a feast it was to teach through every chapter of Dynamics of Spiritual Life. My copy is decorated with color markings, underlining, marginalia and my own index placed on the inner front cover. As C. S. Lewis wrote in An Experiment in Criticism, the literary person rereads his great books.  In his introduction to Athanasius On the Incarnation of the Word, he says that the older books should not be neglected for the new. This work, now thirty-six years old, deserves to be read and re-read.

Dr. Lovelace approaches the theology of renewal as a church historian, who draws wisely from many movements and thinkers, of whom Jonathan Edwards features prominently. While Reformed theologically, Lovelace appreciates the best of the Protestant traditions and accepted the ongoing power of the charismatic gifts. His winsome and sane approach stimulated me to rethink and eventually leave behind the cessationism I had picked up from the Dispensational theology I was taught in a Baptist Church. I found one could be a Calvinist Charismatic, and so I have remained.

The book proceeds in a linear and systematic fashion by considering the nature of renewal in some depth. He is not writing about revivalism specifically, although he cannot ignore that. Rather, he addresses the conditions for renewal given what the Bible and church history tells us. In Part I, Dynamics of Renewal, Lovelace measures the current situation (1979),  for the church, looks at biblical patterns of renewal, the preconditions for renewal (knowing God and our sinfulness), primary elements of renewal (our status in Christ), secondary elements of renewal (mission, prayer, community, theologian integration, and disenculturation). Renewal in the Church is the second and longer part of the book, and offers a cornucopia of insight on “the sanctification” gap, how revivals go wrong, the nature of orthodoxy and ecumenism, the Christian and the arts, a biblical account of social action, and “the prospects for renewal.”

Lovelace’s reflections are deeply biblical, theologically rich, and spiritually heartening. Consider one example. His discussion of justification and sanctification is deeply biblically, clear, and cogent. Our theology of justification and sanctification is foundational to any Spirit-led renewal in the church and in culture. Twenty years after I taught this material, one of my students emailed to say how significant this was in forming her young Christian life. I often return to this reality in my Christian experience. I am accepted in Christ, justified by his righteous and am loved. That is the foundation. From that foundation, I seek to grow in grace and truth, depending on the Holy Spirit in all things. Francis Schaeffer’s modern classic, True Spirituality, makes these same points in a bit more detail.

The American church desperately needs renewal and reformation, especially as our culture works out the sad implications of its increasing secularism concerning gender, human rights, and more.

The American church desperately needs renewal and reformation, especially as our culture works out the sad implications of its increasing secularism concerning gender, human rights, and more. Dynamics of Spiritual Life, though written in 1979, can help chart the way. I cannot think of any book as profound, wise, and challenging on these matters. Yes, it is high time to reread this modern classic. Thanks to InterVarsity for keeping it in print all these years and thank you, Richard Lovelace for this work of love and erudition.

The Book That No One Read

As the editor of a series of cultural critiques on compelling issues, Os Guinness wanted my work The Soul in Cyberspace to be “a shot across the bow.” I earnestly took up the challenge. At the time, Thomas Moore’s The Care of the Soul was a bestseller, and publishers were offering a proliferation of books on the Internet. Published in 1997, my book combined these two themes. My hope was that the book would sell well and help the church be more discerning.

The book was a flop. My success publishing essays from it in various periodicals and an interview in Christianity Today notwithstanding, it was dead after one small printing. As David Hume wrongly referred to A Treatise on Human Nature, it fell “stillborn from the press.” (For literary archaeologists, the book is available as a reprint from Wipf and Stock Publishers, and used copies of the original print can be found on Amazon.)

Why, then, did the book fail to engage the Evangelical world? Are there any lessons from it that apply to us today, especially given my last twenty years participating in the churning and ever-changing world of cyberspace?

First, it may have not been a good book. Perhaps it was written too quickly (as one reviewer put it) and/or without adequate research and nuance. God knows. I don’t remember any bad reviews; but there weren’t many reviews at all.

Second, it was written by a young curmudgeon, a social critic who did not (and does not) typically look on the bright side of things. In the middle 1990s, most Evangelicals (and everyone else) were agog with the teeming and wondrous possibilities of “life on the screen,” as Sherri Turkle put it. (She is now more nuanced and worried in her approach, as seen in her recent books, such as Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation.) Since Evangelicals yearn to reach as many people as possible with the gospel, we usually fall in love with whatever technology seems to have the broadest reach. Thus, we embraced radio to broadcast sermons, for example. I never denied the benefits of global connectivity—as much as I could glimpse of that in 1997. However, I pondered the unintended consequences that flowed from the nature of the medium itself, getting my chops and taking my cues mostly from Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul, and Marshall McLuhan. So, I was more of a nay-sayer than a cheer-leader. But, I was partly right. Let me explain.

All communication technologies amplify some human abilities and diminish others. They are, as McLuhan wrote, “extensions of man.” The radio and telephone extend the reach of the voice, but removes the embodied human presence from which the voice comes. It favors sound over image. Television extends and favors image over sound and rational discourse. Vinyl sounds better than digital, but is less portable. And on it goes. Trades-offs in meaning and knowledge are inevitable, but usually neglected or forgotten. Christians, of all people, should know this. God coming in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ is the consummate communication of God to humanity, improving on (but not negating) all previous forms of revelation.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word (Hebrews 1:1-3a).

The Apostles Paul (Romans 1:11-12) and John lamented that they could not visit the recipients of their Epistles.

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete (2 John 1:12; see also 3 John 1:13-14).

A 1993 cartoon in The New Yorker cartoon showed one dog saying to another, “On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog.” Being-there was endangered by novel and prodigious forms of high-tech mediation. Fakery was easier, authenticity harder. You could craft a web page to make you look other than you were, and gain much attention in doing so, given the novelty of the form.

I also warned of the cyborg, the human machine combinations beginning to find identities. How far might enter cyberspace? Might we thereby become less human?

If I was partly right in warning of the depersonalizing aspects of the Internet and right in advocating unmediated personal relationships in friendship and teaching and in the church, what did I miss?

Even the savviest techno-wizards would be stunned by many of the cyberspace eruptions from the last two decades. When I wrote in 1997, personal computers were tethered to desks or put on laps. Cell phones were new, bulky, expensive, and alien to the fledgling internet. There was no “Cyber Monday” and no texting. My attention is drawn to only two giants, who emerged in cyberspace since I wrote The Soul in Cyberspace—Facebook and Amazon. Space does not permit me to expound on three of their giant siblings—Google, Wikipedia, and the omnipresent smart phone (which often outsmarts us).

Facebook did not exist in 1997 and no one knew of Mark Zuckerman, who was then thirteen-years-old. The social nature of the internet was largely exhausted by chat rooms, emails, rather static web pages, and discussion boards. I flirted with Facebook for a few years, and even spoke out against it on a BBC radio program. I now find myself a dedicated citizen of this digital place, which I find vexing, annoying, and nearly indispensable.

Like all electronic media, Facebook is not unmediated face-to-face communication; and, it should never substitute for it. (Although it tries hard through video calls). It should it become an obsession or addiction, which it easily can. Often, we denizens of Facebook are better off reading books rather than our newsfeeds. (I must get to that new translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions!) Our posted selfies may reveal less than virtuous selves. Self-promotion takes on new dimensions on Facebook and it is easy to forget what Proverbs counsels: Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips” (Proverbs 27:2). I could go on. I hope you could you, too.

I did not know in 1997 that cyberspace might become, in some of its regions, a meaningful medium for insight, exhortation, commiseration, and prayer; yet, it can, indeed, carry existential weight. I have lamented on line, much of it on Facebook. Since my wife Becky was diagnosed with an uncommon and uncommonly cruel form of dementia in March of 2014, I have shared much of my grief before my Facebook “friends.” One long essay, written at the end of 2014, I called, “The Year of Learning Things I did not Want to Know.” The response was voluminous and heartening; it became a chapter in Walking through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament. Many offered prayer, Scripture, general concern, and tangible help for me and Becky. A friend set up a Go Fund Me account. I try to do the same for my siblings in suffering by posting my reflections on our journey into the darkness of primary progressive aphasia. No one can serve my wife communion on Facebook. That requires being there with her. But this social medium may be used as a conduit for genuine love and service. For that, I am grateful to God.

The Soul in Cyberspace said little about commerce in cyberspace. Amazon.com came into existence in 1994, selling mostly books and CDs. I went on line in 1995 and had not used Amazon until 1999, two years after I wrote the book. Like many, I was at first reluctant to buy anything on line. It was too dangerous, I thought. Amazon has made shopping quick, easy, and, all-to-often, irresistible. It eliminates the middle man of a physical store. The shopping is done on line; the ordering is done at home. The selection is vast and ever-increasing. Like Facebook, it is a staple of my life. But what should we make of this behemoth with “the largest inventory on earth,” as it says?

Customers of Amazon can become critics of Amazon through its rating system. This feature of customer evaluation was dubbed Internet 2.0 a few years ago. This, for me, has become a literary template for my hundreds of my comments, mostly on books and music. There are the obligatory stars (which are too reductionist), the headline, and the discursive comments, which may become essays. I have found essays worthy of academic publication—along with the emotive drivel, grammatical chaos, and sheer inanity. Nevertheless, the customer’s words can add understanding to the product. They can do more. My reviews usually contain an apologetic undercurrent. Granted, this is not like publishing in The New Yorker, and I do not have a category on my academic resume for “Amazon Essays.” Still, some souls might benefit from them and I benefit from some of the reviews. Moreover, those suffering from, or enjoying, hypographia (a form of literary hypomania) have their outlet. (You can write reviews on YouTube as well, but most comments are more sewage than salt, and it may not be worth the wading through.)

The arms of Amazon reach further and further into the world. The most ominous development is the Amazon Echo, called Alexa, the digital version of the ancient mystical oracle. This personal assistant (a title we once used for mere humans only) uses voice recognition to answer questions, order items from Amazon, and more.  Amazon advertises its magic.

Just ask Alexa to check your calendar, weather, traffic, and sports scores, manage to-do and shopping lists, control your compatible smart lights, thermostats, garage doors, sprinklers, and more

Alexa is always getting smarter and adding new features and skills. Just ask Alexa to control your TV, request an Uber, order a pizza, and more.

Your interactions are recorded and kept somewhere in the Cloud. To that, I say that the convenience is not worth the possible surveillance. And might we talk more to a machine than to the mortals in our midst?

There are many more souls in cyberspace today than when I wrote The Soul in Cyberspace. It is heartening to see a good number of serious evaluations of this medium appear in the last ten years. Nevertheless, we ought to be diligent in asking how cyberspace affects our minds, manners, and morals. Therefore, we must test the medium and how it affects us. As Paul said, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil” (I Thessalonians 5:19-22).