About two weeks ago I had the honor of speaking in chapel for a Christian grade school in my area. The age span was from first to the twelfth grade. I had to think and pray about this presentation a lot because it had to be done in such a way that it would interest the first graders and teach them something and at the same time have some substance to engage the twelfth graders. I decided to use an illusion (magic trick) and talk about the need to be able to ask the fundamental questions instead of being distracted by the slight of hand. Part of the talk was my testimony about growing up as an atheist and the process of coming to the faith. As an atheist I had hard questions which Christians typically ran from. The occasional retort of “That’s a stupid question” was unpersuasive to me. I prided myself at cultivating questions that required thought and evidence. Christian’s inability to answer helped to confirm my atheism to me. Eventually I discovered there were actual, credible answers to the hard questions. A pivotal point for me was the evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ.
While preparing for a number of upcoming speaking engagements I had a call from a good friend. As we spoke she raised the topic of the resurrection and the upcoming celebration of the anniversary of that event. Over the last several years a number of liberal scholars are trotted out on various television specials and in popular magazines like Time and Newsweek to claim that Jesus really wasn’t raised from the dead. The idea of His resurrection is simply religious myth and a faith fable. Last year Simcha Jacobovici and filmmaker James Cameron aired their film “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” on the Discovery Channel. We were both interested in the special last year because the one thing that proves Christianity is true is the physical resurrection. It is also true that the one thing that would prove Christianity is false would be if someone produced the body of Jesus. If this “Lost Tomb” was indeed where Jesus Christ was buried years after the resurrection spoken of in Scripture and history then there would be reason to question the validity of the biblical claims.
The “Lost Tomb” discussion is returning a bit again this year. My friend was a little distressed because this is a question that is not allowed as a valid question in the church she attends and indeed in few if any churches in her area. It is regarded as a stupid question.
On another front the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life came out with their Religious Landscape of the United States poll this week. Time Magazine called it America’s Unfaithful Faithful . The study shows a great deal of movement between religions and worldviews or what Pew called “churning.” One of the better commentaries on this was by tmatt at GetReligion.org titled Pew Forum marches on (post No. 3,000) . All of this actually ties together if you will bear with me a bit.
The Pew study is fairly large as studies of this type go having compiled data from polling 35,000 people. They show certain trends. For example, although it was reported last week that Jehovah’s Witnesses Fastest-Growing of U.S. Faiths that is misleading. The Pew study shows something else (which we have been saying for nearly 20 years) that the Jehovah’s Witnesses:
lose more believers than any other faith, with some two-thirds of adult members severing ties.
The study shows what is happening but doesn’t address why. For example, although the Jehovah’s Witnesses grew this year on percentage what the percentage growth doesn’t show is that they are adding only slightly more than they are losing. It doesn’t explain why some (or in the case of JWs, a lot!) are leaving or why others are joining. Like tmatt I haven’t poured over and dissected the study as yet but I think these two paragraphs from his article Pew Forum marches on (post No. 3,000) deserves consideration:
However, I hope to ring up the omnipresent John C. Green of the University of Akron and ask a few questions, like these: Are people changing faiths or is the content of these faiths changing? In other words, what role does doctrine play in all of this? People may flee one pew – in a splitting church – and try to find a pew in another church that is defending the doctrines that the old denomination used to defend. It may even be a church without pews.
You may have people who are exiting a church because they have lost their faith or radically changed it. Then again, it may be the faith of their old church that has radically changed. There are different reasons to hit the road on a personal pilgrimage…
Are Christians leaving churches that focus on “felt needs” nearly to the exclusion of teaching sound doctrine? Are churches that are geared primarily for reaching the “unchurched” losing people who actually want to learn the biblical faith and who then opt for house churches or experimental and in some cases experiential churches? That is at least possible and in my opinion probable. It is becoming increasingly more the case that biblically literate and discerning Christians are unwelcome in the seeker sensitive/Purpose Driven (did the church really have no purpose prior to the advent of Rick Warren?)/emerging church. Are churches being split because some of the die-hards who believe sound teaching is essential are being shown the door by emerging seeker-sensitive leadership with purpose? Where do they go? A new concept might be to start a church for believers where they can be taught the word and prepared to be missionaries to their culture.
My friend Dani had been raised in the church. She had hard questions and for most all of her church life was discouraged from asking them. She embraced a New Age religion as a result. Not because she wanted to rebel against God or Scripture. She loved God and still does. She switched or at Pew put is “churned” because the group had answers. The answers weren’t true but the group wasn’t afraid of her questions. When we met and I began explaining worldviews and how we can determine the truth or falsity of a worldview she was thrilled. A whole new world of knowledge opened up to her. She asked and continues wondering why she never learned this in church. As we discussed the evidence for the Christian claims and faith she grabbed on to it and loved the answers. More than the answers she loved learning that there are tools that can be used to find more answers and that questions are not the enemy. She deals with non-believers who hold to other faith claims and believers who have and are struggling with holding on to their faith. I think she is probably most alive while answering their difficult questions. Like me and others I know, she grieves because these questions cannot be asked in church. And so more people leave and become something else. When I speak on college campuses I have always had some who have talked to me afterward with the same question. “Why didn’t I learn these things in church?” They too had left to become something else. New Age, Wiccan, atheist …
As I spoke at the chapel in the Christian school I wondered how many of those that were there that day will still be a part of the church after they graduate high school? I know the pastor there encourages them to ask questions and he himself loves apologetics, discernment and defense of the faith. I don’t know about the elders or the parents of the children. Growing up in the faith, whether we are children or adults, is very much like growing up in life. Part of the process is asking and learning. Trial and error. For kids this needs to be done in the safety of family life where guidance and gentle correction can happen. There is not a day that goes by that my grandchildren don’t ask me something that is important to them. “Where does snow come from?” “Why was my sister in mommy’s belly?” “Does God have eyes?” “My friend as school is an atheist and says that people who believe in God are stupid. What should I tell him?” (I am not sure how much of an atheist a 7 year old can be). Of course, if I don’t take the time to let them ask whatever questions they have and work with them at finding answers there are others out there who will be more than happy to fill in the blanks. The same is true with the church. If the church doesn’t teach or respect and address the difficult questions there are plenty outside the church that will be more than happy to accommodate.