Reasons for Church Decline in the West
*Editor’s Note: Recently, Dr. Carol Swain interviewed Dr. Bobby Harrington on her podcast Be the People. They talked about the post-Christian trajectory we are experiencing in the US, as well as the need for Renew.org in these confusing times. This is the second of two articles excerpted from their conversation. For Part 1, click here.
Carol: Are we witnessing a falling away from the faith in America?
Bobby: It sure looks like at least in the West, that’s the way we’re going. On the other hand, we see the opposite trend in places like China—where now 10% of the population claims to be practicing Christians—and in Africa, Christianity is spreading rapidly. Having said that, though, my friends who are experts in church planting and disciple making tell me that many Christian movements around the world right now are greatly influenced by America.
Carol: I would also comment that for many of the young people that are moving away from the church, it has a lot to do with the hypocrisy they see among Christian adults, whether it’s their parents or church leaders. And whenever there’s a scandal involving the pastor or youth leader, I believe those help lead to a falling away.
Bobby: Yes, and my opinion is that there are two key things going on that the church has not addressed well enough. The first thing that I want to mention is wealth and prosperity. I call this the “Deuteronomy 8 Principle.” In Deuteronomy 8, Moses predicted to the Israelites as they prepared to enter the Promised Land that things would go well for them. Their crops would be abundant and they would feel blessed. And when things went well for them, Moses explained, their tendency would be to say, “Hey, I did this. It’s the work of my hands.”
If they went down that path, they would end up forgetting God.
That forgetfulness is what happens with wealth and prosperity. Unlike other times in history, the West has so much prosperity that we often don’t have to give much thought to death and standing before God. Life doesn’t feel as fragile in times of prosperity. And when things go really well, we don’t feel like we need God.
The second factor I will mention is secularism. Unfortunately, secularism is how we have discipled all our children for a long time. By secularism, I mean a view of understanding life as though there were no God. This isn’t just an atheistic evolution kind of thing. Rather, we’re talking every area of life, living as if there is no God.
As one philosopher put it, in the 1500s you didn’t have to tell somebody to believe in God. They automatically knew life was fragile and they believed in transcendence. Now we actually have to help people to see God in their daily lives.
In both of these areas—prosperity and secularism—the Western church hasn’t discipled its people well.
Carol: Another thing that concerns me a lot is critical race theory. For example, last year at the Southern Baptist Convention, they adopted a resolution that said it’s okay to use critical race theory and intersectionality as analytic tools to understand race in America. What do you think of that?
Bobby: Let’s start by acknowledging that critical theory is the broad umbrella, and that subsets of that would be critical race theory and intersectionality. Critical theory is a way of looking at life that is actually based in Neo-Marxist ideas. So, at root, it’s an atheistic, neo-Marxist way of understanding everybody as being either part of an oppressor group or an oppressed group. The reality is, when churches adopt this framework of viewing reality, it’s terrible. It ends up only enhancing the conflict between people. Practically, what is the solution in critical theory? It ends up being that the oppressed group becomes the oppressor group.
Carol: Critical race theory also assumes that racism is permanent, and that white people are born pretty much superior. With CRT, it’s a racial superiority that you have to buy into. And that’s not biblical at all.
Bobby: That’s right. And it also takes away from some key biblical teachings. For example, forgiveness. Where is forgiveness in the whole national dialogue right now? Jesus said that, as you’ve been forgiven as a Christian, you should forgive others. And that includes everything. The second thing is our primary identity.
If we are disciples of Jesus, then our primary identity is not our race or our gender, but our identity as people who have been made new in Christ.
All of a sudden, we are finding more and more churches buying into critical race theory, and it’s undermining the beliefs of the Bible. It’s taking people away from looking at life the way God would want us to. It’s substituting in a Marxist ideology. I’m really sorry for every church whose leaders are taking their people that way.
Carol: So, in summary, what do people need to know?
Bobby: I believe that God can still do a work of revival. Throughout history, people have thought that it’s the end, but then God has often turned things around. God might just be ready to do a great work of revival. And even if God doesn’t do that for the masses, there are enough Christians in this country that if we go back to God and the path of renewal, we can see great things happen for many people whom we can bless.