Can Christianity Be Repaired?

by Karen A. Bellenir

All across America, statistics keep suggesting that Christian churches are failing. They are failing to maintain respected reputations in their neighborhoods. They are failing to sustain members, and they are failing to retain the loyalty (or even the attention) of their members' children. An entire generation is turning its back on the way church has traditionally been practiced.

In "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Religious Affiliation: Diverse and Dynamic," the Pew Research Center reported that the fastest growing religious segment in America is comprised of people who are unaffiliated with a specific religious group. Among unaffiliated adults, 25% are under the age of 30.

For traditional churches, the news just keeps getting worse. Another Pew Report issued earlier this year examined the religious affiliations of Hispanic people in the United States and found similar trends. One in four U.S. Hispanic people are former members of the Roman Catholic Church. They were raised in the Catholic Church but made a decision to leave. While some changed their affiliation to other Christian denominations, an increasing number—especially among those under 30—simply abandoned organized religion.

Why are these people walking away from churches? According to the report, the top four reasons are these, in this order: 1. They just drifted away. 2. They stopped believing what they had been taught. 3. They found a different congregation that was better at meeting people's needs. 4. They left because of a deep, personal crisis.

In other words, people walk away from churches because churches are failing in their mission to bring good news to the world. People drift away when churches lack relevance. People stop believing when churches fail to teach and fail to demonstrate a kind of faith that endures. And, when church communities fail to meet the needs of their members, people seek alternatives—or they withdraw entirely.

How has contemporary Christianity gone so wrong? In the face of challenges, some churches have adopted a strident, exclusive attitude. They try to win members by threatening outsiders with eternal condemnation while promising special rewards to a tiny cadre of the elite. This sort of aloof mentality might appeal to an inward-focused group, but doesn't work in a multicultural society where people love and respect family members, friends, and neighbors who hold a broad variety of spiritual interpretations. On the other hand, some churches have discarded all the trappings of their traditions and attempted to create faith communities seemingly contemptuous of their own histories, documents, and long-established beliefs. This results in a lack of substance that can leave people unsatisfied when their worlds are shaken and they need something solid to embrace.

In his book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that Are Transforming the Faith, Brian D. McLaren offers a different type of solution. By candidly examining the past and the present, he reaches insights that can help churches transform themselves into vital communities that exist for the purpose of bringing God's blessings to a world in need. Here are the ten questions he addresses:

  • What is the overarching story line of the Bible?
  • How should the Bible be understood?
  • Is God violent?
  • Who is Jesus and why is he important?
  • What is the Gospel?
  • What do we do about the church?
  • Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?
  • Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
  • How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
  • How can we translate our quest into action?

Discussing these issues may indeed lead to a new kind of church, possibly even a vitally alive church. But I wonder if the kind of Christianity McLaren describes is really an innovation.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a repaired Christianity. The kind of faith that would emerge from following the path McLaren describes seems more in accord with the teachings ascribed to Jesus and his earliest followers than the current interdenominational squabbling that is driving people away from modern churches in hordes.

If you haven't yet read, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that Are Transforming the Faith, Brian D. McLaren, I recommend it. It may even transform and revive your faith.