Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics – An Interview

I am not a fan of Diane Rehm, by any measure.  Not only do I find her views unpalatable, her voice grates my ears.  But as I was driving to an appointment today I clicked the NPR preset on my JEEP radio and in the matter of seconds had my attention arrested by the discussion between Rehm and her guest, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.  Earlier this week Douthat released a book provocatively titled Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.  This book was only on my “To Read” list – or at least, it was on the list to put on my list, but now it on my “Definite Read” list.

I have no doubt that there are areas of doctrinal difference that I have with Douthat, but as I listened to him make his points and respond to Rehm and some of her regulars, I could not help but nod in agreement.   Douthat offers some astute cultural observations that, being missional, I cannot ignore.

To listen to today’s interview click: Bad Religion

5 Causes of the Decline of the American Church

Previewing Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,  which hit bookstore shelves yesterday, Tim Keller draws five observations about the causes of decline in the American Church.

As Keller notes:

In his second chapter, Douthat attributes the change to five major social catalysts that have gained steam since the 1960s…

Here are the five factors:

  1. First, the political polarization that has occurred between the Left and Right drew many churches into it (mainline Protestants toward the Left, evangelicals toward the Right). This has greatly weakened the church’s credibility in the broader culture, with many viewing churches as mere appendages and pawns of political parties.
  2. Second, the sexual revolution means that the Biblical sex ethic now looks unreasonable and perverse to millions of people, making Christianity appear implausible, unhealthy, and regressive.
  3. Third, the era of decolonization and Third World empowerment, together with the dawn of globalization, has given the impression that Christianity was imperialistically “western” and supportive of European civilization’s record of racism, colonialism, and anti-Semitism.
  4. The fourth factor has been the enormous growth in the kind of material prosperity and consumerism that always works against faith and undermines Christian community.
  5. The fifth factor is  that all the other four factors had their greatest initial impact on the more educated and affluent classes – the gatekeepers of the main culture-shaping institutions such as the media, the academy, the arts, the main foundations, and much of the government and business world.

I find these observations significant. As God’s missional people, it is important that Christians recognize not only the reality of the decline of our influence within our culture, but the specific contributing factors.  Simply wishing things were the way they used to be won’t accomplish anything.  It is akin to sticking our heads in the sand.  But when we discern what is going on in the world around us, a number of signs direct us toward ways we may address the causes,  both directly and indirectly.

Read Keller’s entire article: Redeemer City to City

95 Theses for the American Church

Just as Martin Luther offered some suggestions for the Church of his time in Germany, Jared Wilson has some ideas for us to consider.  On his blog: The Gospel-Driven Church, Jared has posted 95 Theses for the American Church.

A Jesus Manifesto

“Christians have made the gospel about so many things… Things other than Christ.”  So opens the document, written by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, titled: A Jesus Manifesto.

I’ve long been a fan of Leonard Sweet, our theological differences aside. But Sweet’s love for Jesus, his love for God’s people, and his amazing story-telling ability make his books and articles a pleasure to read. Besides, I’ve not found our differences to come up that frequently in the things he writes. His focus is spirituality, not systematic theology.  At the very least Sweet always makes me think – and often makes me laugh.

I don’t know as much about Frank Viola. I’ve heard of him, but I don’t recall having ever read anything he has written – at least nothing before A Jesus Manifesto.

But as I read through this manifesto I found I appreciated the heart of both men. I also appreciate their effort to put into words something that needs to be said in this generation.  Paraphrasing the words of the old hymn, we need to “Turn our Eyes upon Jesus.”

To read the document click the link above.  On that blog you will also find links to download the document in .pdf, listen to the authors read their manifesto, and listen to Steve Brown interview the authors at Steve Brown, Etc.  Facebook users will also find a link to a group page discussing the manifesto.

Faith in America: Not What it Used to Be?


I appreciate the perspective of this editorial from the March 12, 2009 Kingsport Times-News. The editor integrates both history and contemporary polling data.  It eschews any alarmist inclinations and refutes any distorted notions that America was a distinctively Christian country upon it’s founding. 

I think this perspective is helpful.  I am especially hopeful that it will help in preventing Christians from mistaking either patriotism or isolationism as being synonomous with being a Christian in America. 

Whatever the current data indicates – and I suspect it changes day-to-day – our focus is not changed.  Fundamentally we are called to personally grow in grace and live out the gospel in the communities where God has placed us; to plant churches in areas underserved by faithful congregations; and to partner to see churches planted among Unreached People Groups around the world.


KINGSPORT – This week, the results of a new poll were eagerly distributed by national news media as evidence that faith is on the skids in America and that more and more U.S. citizens have no religion at all.

According to the latest American Religious Identification Survey, 15 percent of respondents say they have no religion, compared to 8.2 percent in 1990. The survey also recorded a decline in those identifying themselves as a member of an institutional Christian church. In 1990, 86 percent made that claim; it’s now down to 76 percent.

This isn’t necessarily evidence of anything terribly new or irreversible in the religious life of the nation. Nor do these percentages represent anything even approaching the low point in the history of American church participation. To do that, you have to go back a long, long time.

On the eve of the Revolutionary War, records show fewer than 20 percent of American adults adhered to a church in any significant way — a far cry from today when church membership stands at 146 million or roughly half of the population.

In colonial America, New England was the most churched. Between 1630 and 1660, adult church membership in most New England towns approached 70 or 80 percent. Membership was never universal, however, as these percentages demonstrate. Moreover, the cities of Boston and Salem quickly lost membership. By 1650, for example, fewer than 50 percent of Boston’s adults were church members.

By the 1680s, many New England towns reported church membership rates of no more than 10 to 25 percent. In 1690, on the eve of the Salem witch trials, that town’s churches could claim only 15 percent of its adults as members, including only half of the town’s well-to-do selectmen; yet today, Salem is a byword for religious fanaticism.

Church membership rates in the South were even worse.

In Virginia’s Charles Parish, for example, 85 percent of newborn Caucasian children went unbaptized between 1650 and 1680 — even though the parish supported a clergyman and sustained regular worship throughout the period. South Carolina had the highest church membership of any Southern state during the colonial period, at 16 percent. North Carolina had the lowest, at a mere 4 percent.

In 1780, the great church leader Samuel Mather guessed that scarcely a sixth of Boston’s adults attended church. Historians estimate that in New York City and Philadelphia, church membership probably did not approach 10 percent at that time.

Records also show that most church members during the colonial period were women. Indeed, from the 1680s — and continuing for several decades afterward, well into the 18th century — women constituted about 60 percent of church members in most congregations.

True, revivals temporarily brought more men into congregations, especially in the 1740s, but the women’s numerical majority surfaced again when the revivals faded.

Taken as a whole, at the time of the American Revolution, between 70 and 90 percent of all European colonists in America remained unattached to any church.

Such history demonstrates our ancestors were not the Christian giants they are often made out to be. On the other hand, this week’s Religious Identification Survey merely records that more Americans are opting out of organized religion, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve abandoned faith.