On the first Sunday in March, my husband and I were in New York and attended a lovely old mainline church near our hotel. We arrived a few minutes before the service was scheduled to begin, only to find the sanctuary virtually empty.
An organist was softly playing a grand pipe organ, which seemed to indicate that the service would, indeed, start shortly. We settled into a pew, and soon a trickle of worshippers began to arrive; by the time the service began the sanctuary which could seat between 250 to 300 people eventually held 10 to 12, including the organist, an ancient drummer, the liturgist, and the worship leader. Many of those attending were international Christians who knew the hymns and seemed to be there to worship; several other people seemed to be hanging on desperately to a Sunday ritual in that church that obviously held a special place in their hearts.
It turns out there was no pastor, and various speakers from the nearby United Nations headquarters filled the pulpit on Sundays. The homily was no more inspiring than (and did not differ significantly from) the addresses to the delegates within the United Nations building. The bulletin listed the week's activities at the church; in addition to a Sunday service and a Bible Study on Thursday nights, there were three groups (an art group, a dance group, and a French ministry) that meet in the church building for one hour a week.
It was an intensely sad experience to witness those few valiant individuals trying to hold on to the shell of a once-vibrant church. As a 4th or 5th generation Methodist, I work for reform and revitalization of my own denomination, while increasingly aware that, as David French wrote in the "Corner" for National Review OnLine, "the story of religion in America over the last two generations is a story, not of outright secularization, but of institutional decline." As II Timothy 2:3-5 says so succinctly, They have a "form of godliness but deny its power." Two of my friends, Mark Tooley and Joseph Bottum, have written powerful books about the ways that politicizing the church has led to the decline in the mainline denominations and directly -- as well as indirectly -- been a factor in the disintegration of American culture.
Far too many Evangelicals are following the path of those mainline denominations by becoming more attuned to political rather than spiritual solutions. Critics point out that evangelicals today have "unprecedented influence on presidential outcomes." Those same critics rightly say that we have become quite powerful at the ballot box, while our influence on the values and mores of the general culture has diminished dramatically.
French laments that, while we are focusing on politics, America's "cultural foundation rots away beneath our feet." What a succinct and stunning indictment!
I would add that, while we evangelicals are lamenting the breakdown of the family and the cultural disintegration all around us, as church goers, we need to look to the "beam in our own eye." Name the social problem -- drinking, divorce, cohabitation, etc. -- and it is nosing its way into evangelical lifestyles.
According to research reported by the Guttmacher Institute, eighty percent of unmarried evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 29 have had sex, sixty-four percent have had sex within the current year. The National Association for Evangelicals points out that these figures mean nearly four-fifths of young evangelicals are living like their non-believer contemporaries. Further, 30 percent of these single evangelicals have been pregnant or, in the case of males, gotten someone pregnant. Worse, Guttmacher and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy report that thirty-two percent of all unplanned pregnancies among evangelicals end in abortion. So, 80 percent of unmarried evangelicals have sex, 30 percent get pregnant, and 32 percent of those pregnancies end in abortion.
Mark Regnerus, author of Premarital Sex in America, points out that these sexually-experienced singles have drifted too far away from a Biblical worldview and will thus experience too much cognitive dissonance to remain active in church, further weakening the future and effectiveness of the church. Regnerus believes that the increasing erosion of the link between sex and marriage will lead to an affirmation of the "shifting boundaries around marriage" as Christians shift from basing their beliefs and behavior on authentic Christian teaching to looking at "what other Christians in their lives are actually doing" as a guide for their own behavior and beliefs.
While many church members are out doing politics, no one is "minding the store" in our churches. Too many believers have compromised their ideals in order to fit into the prevailing cultural mores. This leaves the Christian community with fewer role models of true believers for the next generation. Evangelicals are losing both adult and young believers to the decadent culture that surrounds us.
French reminds us, "Not even the best presidential candidate will fix the family, nor will our most generous service project save a soul."
While his indictment may be a bit too cutting, his basic point is important. If our churches and Christian believers only do political activism and only have well-intended concern for the physical well-being of the unfortunate and do not make these actions a means of addressing the spiritual well-being of immortal souls, we have become de facto materialists rotely reciting the words of a creed whose salvic power in individual lives and communities is no longer our central and controlling purpose.