Christians in the Canton area are doing great things in ministry. Having lived here for some time now, I continue to be amazed by the students I encounter through Malone and the work many do after graduation – devoting themselves to Canton and other communities in highly creative and sacrificial ways. As I write this, I can think of literally dozens of current and former students, and if you are from the Canton area, you know of people in ministry (lay and clergy) doing similarly wonderful things.
However, we should be concerned about the vitality of Christian witness even amongst all of the good being done. Although Christians here and elsewhere are as busy as ever, churches face serious challenges, and confronting these challenges will require hard work, critical thinking, a great deal of cooperation, and of course, divine grace. So what are some of the challenges we face? These are just a few of the challenges that I believe are especially noteworthy:
- Have you heard about the growth of the nones? According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center,
The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.
The most shocking statistic in this report has to do with the “under 30” age group. Many churches are simply failing to pass-on the faith to the next generation. Obviously, this means that many Christian traditions continue to experience numerical decline, and, if you are interested, you can find easily accessible, if somewhat rough, information on Stark County by clicking here.
- Surely, we are all aware of the decline of Mainline (and other) denominations. Although the rapid growth of the nones is a relatively recent development, traditional mainline denominations have been in numerical decline for decades, and the rate of decline has only increased in recent years extending even to once steady groups like the Southern Baptist Convention. Although some evangelical Christians might celebrate mainline decline, this would be a mistake for more reasons than I can mention here. For example, the old mainline denominations were once key to keeping Protestantism connected to previous generations of Christians – the great Christian intellectual tradition. With the decline and current disarray of many mainline denominations, churches today find themselves, often without knowing it, reading scripture, preaching a gospel, and generally practicing Christianity in ways that have very little in common with the faith of our ancestors. The prosperity gospel’s growth and wide appeal offers an obvious example. This is concerning if we are serious about contending “for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).”
- Moralistic therapeutic deism is replacing orthodox Christianity. As though the growth of the nones and decline of traditional Protestantism weren’t enough, there is mounting evidence that many of those churches holding their own or growing numerically, are passing along a faith that is only marginally or vaguely Christian. If you are not aware of the work of Christian Smith and others, then you really should read this report, which ends as follows:
The language—and therefore experience—of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be being supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward. It is not so much that Christianity in the United States is being secularized. Rather more subtly, either Christianity is at least degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.
- Biblical illiteracy. Christians have always believed that the bible is the language of the Holy Spirit. If, therefore, we seek the Spirit’s power and renewal, we will need to know the scriptures deeply in order to follow the Spirit’s lead and join in God’s work in the world. And if the Spirit is among us, then He will be planting Jesus Christ, the Word, in us – causing the Word to dwell in us richly (Colossians 3:16) and bringing us into communion with God the Father. An increase in biblical literacy must always be a key sign of Christian renewal, but biblical literacy is in decline, especially among young Christians.
- Faddishness. The challenges that I’ve described above are well-known and much discussed among Christian leaders of various persuasions. However, the way forward is anything but clear, and those claiming to have a “solution” are plentiful. Indeed, I often worry that the variety of Christian responses to the challenges above are sometimes doing as much harm as good. In typical evangelical fashion, sincere and well-meaning Christian leaders are proposing all kinds of formulas and “solutions” intended to help us overcome the current challenges we face. Perhaps you have heard of the emergent church movement, the simple church movement, the vertical church movement, the organic church movement, the missional church movement, the house church movement, etc., etc., etc.,? I should mention that I find much of the work associated with several of these “movements” quite compelling and clearly biblical. However, I worry that younger people, if they are very thoughtful, will become exasperated when these new movements (aggressively marketed as “solutions”) don’t usher-in the Kingdom of God in “remarkable” ways or produce truly “amazing” results. Can our faith survive and even flourish among continued numerical decline? We may need a faith prepared for precisely such a future.
- Identity politics. Christians have always maintained that human beings truly discover themselves only as they come to identify themselves in and with Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul put it this way: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). For St. Paul, identity is a gift received by God in the context of Christian community rather than something internal to be identified by gazing within. Yet, more than ever, persons are clamoring to find their identity in some interior “essence,” whether it be sexual orientation, gender, race, or political ideology. Yet, the great theologians have always affirmed that personal identity is illusive and that human life is characterized by a restless search for peace, stability, and love. Answers to our deepest and most anxious questions about personal identity cannot be found by looking within; this is the confident proclamation of classical Christianity. The gospel can offer a deep and compelling alternative to the confusion of identity politics, but we need to understand the depths and beauty of our own gospel much better in order to regain the confidence needed to offer a compelling witness.
It is not possible to engage our culture in a way that is winsome, wise, compelling, and hospitable without deep roots and a broad understanding of Christian truth and its bearing on all spheres of life. The Center for Christian Faith & Culture was created with these challenges in mind. While the culture at large is likely to continue its current trajectory, key institutions can make enormous differences within particular communities and geographical regions. We hope to make a significant difference to the Malone community, to Northeast Ohio, and to everyone with an interest in the substance of our work.
On the bright side, we can be supremely hopeful, because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, and His gospel is the very best good news in this age as in every age. Moreover, those serving our communities in creative and sacrificial ministries are doing work that matters profoundly. The Center for Christian Faith & Culture wants to support these ministries by helping them remain grounded on a foundation that will survive over the long-haul. We don’t promise any new solutions. Instead, we hope to be one institution among others “contend[ing] for the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints.” Toward this end, our mission and vision are as follows:
The Center for Christian Faith & Culture exists to explore the wisdom of the Christian intellectual tradition in order to foster theological literacy, prayerful contemplation, and faithful reasoning within the Church, the academy, and other areas of professional life.
We aim to foster a rich Christian culture characterized by theological literacy, practical wisdom, and spiritual discernment. We envision Christian families, churches, schools, as well as business and community leaders better equipped to navigate these confused times with Christian wisdom and moral integrity.
Our approach is both ecumenical and orthodox, and our theological orientation is captured by what C.S. Lewis described as “mere Christianity.” The Center aims to promote the spiritual substance of (to use another phrase from Lewis) a “deep church.”
Affiliated with the Evangelical Friends Tradition, Malone University’s faculty, staff, and student body are ecumenical and highly diverse. The Center for Christian Faith & Culture is deeply invested in this diverse community, and we are grateful to have “a seat at the table,” where we can consistently and passionately represent the classical Christian tradition in our work on campus and beyond.
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