Roger Olson recently wrote an article about American Christianity today based on a recent study carried out from 2003 – 2005 called the “National Study of Youth and Religion“.

One of the conclusions from this study stated that Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian from the perspective of historical Christian religion. It is not so much that it is being secularized but worse yet, it is degenerating into a “pathetic version of itself” – Christianity is actively being displaced by a different religious faith.

This new faith, called “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism” of MTD for short.  It has five core beliefs:

  1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fairt to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

The author of the study calls these characteristics  as “the American way” with a goal in life of being nice to others as well as being successful, accumulation of goods…etc. 

Olsen asks where do these trends come from. He suggests that Oprah Winfrey explains much of it.  Winfrey is one of the most powerful and influential people in American culture.  She promotes a spirituality of self-actualization and morality of being nice under the guise of a kind of stripped-down, easy to believe and live Christianity.  He contrasts Phil Donahue as someone he preferred because he was openly hostile to traditional Christianity and he knew where he stood.

Olsen states that when he reads the New Testament and Christian history and puts them alongside contemporary American mainline “Christianity” he finds the “contrast stark and shocking”. He makes a powerfully simple statement – “The only way someone can think most of what goes on in American churches is authentically Christian is not to read the Bible, the church fathers, the reformers, and the great thinkers and evangelists of all denominations.”

This influence on Christianity today is affecting both liberal churches and to varying degrees more conservative churches – every church is being influenced in some fashion.  Importantly, the end result is subversion of the gospel by culture’s alien habits, customs, beliefs, and practices. Olsen states that he doesn’t mean contextualization but rather these other full blown results. 

However, I would disagree somewhat on that statement – Where I would add to his comments is that contextualization is just a segment of the mix that is leading to these end results.  The “EMERGING CHURCH movements and some of its offshoots such as the MISSIONAL CHURCH (each to varying degrees), have shifted many in the church (in both liberal and conservative churches) in a postmodern view of life.  A watering down of doctrine, teaching, authority of the Bible, preaching and sermon delivery, a focus on the social gospel over discipleship and evangelism (& traditional missions), the idea that truth can’t be known, a non-literal interpretation of creation aligning itself closer to the popular scientific view of the day, as well as an accommodation of contemporary cultural trends on social issues such as homosexuality,  questionable interpretations on core doctrine such as the atonement, hell (universalism)…..etc. 

Olsen sums up the end result of where Christianity in America is today  – “I am afraid that it is becoming increasingly harder to find the gospel in America. It is either wrapped so tightly in the flag as to be virtually invisible or relegated to a footnote to messages about “success in living,” being nice and including everyone.”

A comparison to other countries that have gone down this path – A German theologian said that when he goes to church he listens for the gospel but comes away thinking the gospel was what should have been said (or sung) but wasn’t. The German Christians of the 1930s certainly didn’t think they were accommodating the gospel to a culture alien to it; they thought they were discovering new dimensions of the gospel that would bring revival to their churches. How strange, we think. But when I really press my students from other cultures to say what they think of American Christianity they’re generally not very complimentary.

Is it that difficult to see this happening in America?  I don’t think so.  Take an issue such as homosexuality.  Look at how freedoms are being taken away in our country just over the last couple of years.  It is getting to the point that even disagreeing with the homosexual lifestyle by quoting Scripture ends up heaping a vast amount criticism through the media.  What church wants to take on that negative image presented by these situations?

Is H. Richard Niebuhr’s prophetic quip about liberal Protestantism fitting for even many “evangelical” churches today – “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Smith’s and Denton’s conclusion is stark and frightening and hopefully extreme. But we American Christians should heed it anyway and consider ourselves in its light.   Olsen doesn’t go on to say too much as to what we need to do.  As a start –  I think the first step is identifying the error that has crept into the church. Stop accommodating other religious beliefs into Christianity and resist the temptation to just look at numbers in the pews.  Being popular or attractive isn’t the way that Christ and the Apostles used to grow the church. A return to God’s word as authoritative is critically important to lay down a foundation that could then be built upon.  Question the plethora of new ideas on evangelism, being “missional and incarnational”…..etc. and ask yourself first and foremost what does Scripture say.  God does speak through His word – are you listening to what He is saying or are you trying new ways to read the Bible, engage society, and looking at other religions that may sound spiritual but may not be biblical?  Will it take persecution to bring back the church?

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