Is the Church Really Dying?
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Glenn StantonGLENN T. STANTON is the director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family. He debates and lectures extensively on the issues of gender, sexuality, marriage and parenting at universities and churches around the world. Stanton also served the George W. Bush administration for many years as a consultant on increasing fatherhood involvement in the Head Start program. Stanton is the author of eight books on marriage and families and a regular columnist for various blogs. He is also the c...more
It’s been implied that Christianity is on the decline. But is it really? Researcher Glenn Stanton doesn’t think so. Stanton reminds listeners that the Holy Spirit is on the move and always will be.
Is the Church Really Dying?
Bob: Let’s be honest; we, at times, are reticent to be too bold about our faith; because we’re concerned that, if people know we’re Christians, they’ll marginalize us/they’ll tune us out. Glenn Stanton says we ought not be concerned about that.
Glenn: I work with a lot of secular academics in my work. Even around our office—like, “Oh, yes, those people hate us”; I don’t find that to be the case. They either don’t know any Christians; so they’ll go, “Oh, I love what you guys do,” you know; and they have no church experience whatsoever. That’s the thing—people do not have such a negative view of Christians.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, June 11th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You’ll find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Glenn Stanton joins us today to talk about how we, as individuals, and how we, as a family, can develop confidence and be bolder about what we believe. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We did a survey, years ago, asking listeners: “In the area of parenting, what’s most important to you? Do you need help on conflict resolution, sibling rivalry?” We kind of listed: “…discipline, your kids…” Do you know what the number-one thing was?
Ann: “That my kids will follow the faith.”
Bob: Yes, it’s spiritual formation for kids; right?
Bob: It’s the reason why we sometimes get into conversations here about “How is faith doing in our world?”; because as we raise our kids, we look at some of the indicators and we think: “Are we raising kids in a more hostile culture?—a culture where it’s going to be nearly impossible for them to hang onto their faith?” There are some strong headwinds that kids are facing today.
Dave: And you’re guessing that every parent and every generation has felt that.
Bob: Yes; we have a friend who is with us today to help us understand where things are in the church. Glenn Stanton’s joining us on FamilyLife Today. Glenn, welcome.
Glenn: Thank you. It’s good to be with you.
Ann: Glenn, are you going to alleviate our fears today?
Glenn: Absolutely. [Laughter]
Glenn: We will end up with no fear whatsoever. [Laughter]
Ann: That sounds good to me!
Glenn: Yes, everybody will be luxuriating. [Laughter]
But no; it’s interesting—what you just said—I mean, to just jump in here—is the phrase, “kids these days.”
Glenn: Every parent has said that. In fact, Adam and Eve—Cain and Abel—right? [Laughter] Yes, things went south pretty quickly.
Bob: Glenn gives leadership to the Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family® and has been here before. We talked about a book you wrote called The Ring Makes All the Difference that was really a landmark book, I felt.
Dave: Was that about winning the Super Bowl?
Bob: No! [Laughter]
Dave: The ring makes all the difference? I’ve been trying to get one of those!—that was 33 seasons when I was. [Laughter]
Bob: That was the sequel.
Ann: —the sequel. [Laughter]
Bob: It was really a great book about the importance of marriage as opposed to cohabitation and why marriage matters in our culture.
You’ve just finished a book called The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Actually Thriving in America and in the World. People read that subtitle and go: “No, it’s not! It’s not thriving!”
Ann: “That’s not what we’ve heard; that’s not what they’re telling us.”
Bob: We’re hearing about how many are now identifying as atheists, the rise of the nones—you’ve heard all of this. Are we just reading the wrong stuff?—or are is it fake news? What’s the story?
Glenn: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, I was with a group of apologetics worldview educators down in Mexico; we were doing a conference. I was telling them about my book coming out. They were like, “So, what about all this other research?”—I mean, all this other research that they had been citing—I mean, this is something different. I just said, “Well, it’s bad research.” [Laughter] You know, what are you going to say?
The thing is—the problem—and I try to solve it in my book—is a lot of these bad news stories just come out of the secular press, but they also come out of the Christian press. They’re based on a research report here or a research report here; they’re typically from organizations that are not academic organizations.
When I say, “academic,” I don’t mean highfalutin’; but sociologists of religion from major universities, who study this stuff in and out, and have been doing it for the last 30 years. These sociologists, who just do good research—they come up with very different stories. We think, “Okay, secular/academic—they’re not going to tell a good story about Christianity.” You know what? They do; they’re quite strong about it.
The book, Myth of the Dying Church—I think the big thing that it offers is a 30-year view of the high points, if you will, of the academic research/the highs and the lows of what that body of literature says. You take, if you will, kind of the mean conclusion—or the medium/the general conclusion—of what that data has been saying over the last
30 years. The conclusion is quite strong that the church is bigger today; it’s more influential today; it is more vibrant today than it really has been ever.
Dave: And that is not what we’ve been hearing. I mean, what you just said—and I know you know this better than we do—it isn’t just being said in the press, secular.
Dave: Pastors like me have stood on the stage and quoted that research data, and you’re saying, “…in a wrong way.” Again, it’s almost like the marriage/divorce myth; right?
Glenn: Right; oh, absolutely. I’ve been fighting that for a long, long time. But that’s exactly the thing.
I mean, I say a couple of things in the book, tongue-in-cheek: “For the people who are the people of good news [the gospel], we sure can be attracted to bad news”; right? [Laughter]
Glenn: This idea—and I end the book this way, and it really hit me—is, not only is the dying church story bad sociology, it’s bad theology.
Glenn: Because it’s like, you know, you think—the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—not to be disrespectful—but they’re having their meeting, “How’s it going with the church?” And the Holy Spirit’s like: “I just can’t break through! I mean, it’s not like it’s ever been. I’m just having a hard time convicting people of the truth.”
No! The Holy Spirit is life-giving; He cannot be otherwise. “The gates of hell”—even—“will not prevail against My church,” Jesus says.
Bob: I’ve heard, for years, “If you want to know what America’s going to look like in
50 years, go to England today, with empty cathedrals and spiritual malaise.” Is that not the trajectory we’re on?
Glenn: You know what? Fascinating, and that’s exactly the right question to ask in the beginning.
Dave: Bob always asks the right questions. [Laughter]
Ann: Yes, that’s why we’re with him.
Glenn: There was some research, and relatively recent, that came out of jointly Harvard University and Indiana University—two sociologists, secular. What they did was—they wanted to test what they call the “Secularization Thesis”; that is, basically: “As cultures develop politically, economically, technologically, that they turn more secular, like Europe.”
They tested that in the United States. The way they tested it was to look at what they called “vibrant faith,” meaning: attend church more than once a week; really pray, not just pray over your meals, but pray about stuff and expect that it; take the Bible seriously/authoritatively. They said, “We are just absolutely amazed that there is no decline in that kind of faith.” They say that America is not and doesn’t look like it will be following Europe in any way.
They came out with a follow-up study to that. Basically, they say: “You know what we’re finding as we look around the world? Europe is the outlier.”
Glenn: You look at different places in the world: America, faith is just coming along; it’s not so great in Canada, but they’re more European, even though not geographically; but in China, in the Middle East, in Africa, in South America, faith is exploding like crazy. I mean, it’s—and that’s a definitive academic term—“exploding like crazy.” It just is, and the sociologists are finding that to be the truth.
Dave: And when you’re saying that—because the pushback would be: “Okay, it is in the older generation, but not in the new/in the next generation,”—but you’re saying that’s not true.
Glenn: It is not true.
Dave: It’s got to be; right?
Ann: And we’re not living in a post-Christian culture in America then.
Glenn: Well, yes and no. In a way, we can get into this, you know. “Is the church shrinking?”—the answer is “Yes,” and “No.” You have to break it up where it is. “Are we living in a post-Christian culture?” Well, we hear these bad things that are happening—I mean, Hollywood in many ways is getting worse, the press is getting worse, academia’s getting worse in some ways.
But if you look at Americans across the board, “No, it’s not.” I mean, you think about this—in any town, how many churches are boarded up?—gone out of business, the pastors are laid off, youth pastors are laid off. Flying yesterday—in airports, you can find Christian books in any store there. You can find them in Target®; you can find them in Walmart®. You cannot go anywhere in the United States where you cannot dial the radio and find about three different Christian radio stations; same thing with TV. I mean, these things are continuing. No! Look around you; Christianity is just not going out of business like Sears® or some of these different places.
Bob: I heard Tim Keller talk about the shift this way—he said, “Fifty years ago, even among non-Christians, there was a general sense that thinking Christianly about thinking existed.”
Bob: Secularists had an underlying Christian morality that right and wrong were defined in Christian terms. He said, “The shift we’ve had has been that, among secularists, there’s no longer an assumption that a Christian way of thinking about things is the case.”
Bob: For people of faith who used to, in the culture, be able to go out and say to their neighbors, who don’t go to church, “You know, that couple shouldn’t be living together; they ought to get married”; and their neighbor would go, “Yes, that’s wrong for them to do that.” Well, now it’s like, “Well, what’s wrong with that?”
It can feel to us like the world is changing; but what you’re saying is that, among the faithful, that hasn’t changed.
Glenn: It hasn’t changed; and in some ways, it’s growing. But this is an interesting indicator along those lines too. I’m not disagreeing with what you’re saying, Bob. But you think about when Barack Obama was running for President; he was very strong to communicate, “I am a Christian.” Even Donald Trump, you know, “I am a Christian; I’m with you.”
Why would they do that if that was no longer, if you will, even fashionable or politically expedient? It’s interesting—Pew [Research Center] tells us that only seven percent of Americans have a wholly negative view of the church. The overwhelming majority of citizens in the United States, secular or not, have a generally high view of the church: that they do a good job of encouraging moral standards, that they do a good job of helping the community, and things like that.
Surprisingly, not a majority/but close to it of atheists and agnostics hold that positive view of Christians.
Dave: That’s really true?!
Dave: Because they don’t live on Twitter, any of those people. [Laughter]
Dave: Yes; I mean, you go on there; and you would think,—
Ann: —we are hated.
Dave: —just based on the pushback and the comments, that it isn’t that positive. But you’re saying the research says that actually is still.
Glenn: It shows it differently. It’s interesting; because I work with a lot of secular academics in my work. Even around our office, it’s like, “Oh yes, those people hate us”; I don’t find that to be the case. They either don’t know about Focus or they don’t know any Christians; so they’ll go: “Oh, I love what you guys do! I use the Plugged In things.” They have no church experience whatsoever. That’s the thing—is people do not have such a negative view of Christians.
Bob: When I’m out talking to people—and they say, “Where do you work? What do you do?”—I say, “I work for FamilyLife®.” “What is FamilyLife?”—these are folks who’ve never heard of us. I say, “Well, we try to help build stronger marriages and families; we think that’s important in the culture.” Almost everybody I’m talking to goes, “Boy, we sure need that.”
Dave: Let me ask you this: “If they ask what you do and you say, ‘I’m a pastor,’ what do they say?”
Bob: Right; I don’t get pushback on that either. I mean, people go, “Tell me more about your church.” If I’m on an airplane, then they put on their headphones right there. [Laughter]
Ann: We have a son that played in the NFL a little bit. He said, “When people asked me what I did and I said, ‘I’m an NFL player,’”—he said—“it was amazing how this conversation would go.” Now he’s a pastor. He said, “It’s a little different now.”
Ann: When they say, “What do you do?” and he says, “I’m a pastor,” they kind of turn away.
Glenn: Right; yes.
Dave: I do feel this, though—tell me, Glenn, if I’m feeling the right thing—it feels like, because I’m a pastor of a bigger church, it feels like there’s a negativity toward mega when it comes to church. I might be wrong, but I feel that—like, “I like pastors, and I like churches; but when you’re the bigger churches, we have suspicion.”
Glenn: Yes; now, see, and that’s another thing—again, I’ll go back to the yes and the no—I always say, being a researcher: “The truth typically lies somewhere in between.” I think what you’re referring to, as a pastor, is un-churched people typically think, “Okay, he has to be a pretty slick operator,”—they think, “TV evangelist”—that kind of thing.
But in terms of it’s the non-denominational churches that are growing—
Glenn: —in fact, this guy Barry Kosmin, he is the sociologist that coined the term, “the nones,”—those who report no particular faith. He’s kind of famous in that world: “Hey, there’s that guy that coined the term!’ [Laughter] He’s cool; he’s like the Bono of sociologists in that way, right? [Laughter]
I called him—I called him and talked to him/interviewed him. He goes: “You know what, Glenn? One of the things that I was most frustrated about was my research. The nones thing took off.” He goes, “But what they didn’t report was the nones are not the biggest-growing religious or irreligious group; it’s the nons.” I said, “Well, explain that to me.” “The non-denominational churches”—he said—“I found that that is the biggest-growing community of religious folks out there in this.
Ann: Why do you think that is, Glenn?
Glenn: I’ll answer it with this. There were some Canadian scholars, and they wanted to look at mainline denominations. It’s the mainline denominations that are tanking. They [scholars] asked the question, “Are there any mainline churches that are growing?” They found a few; and what they found out—and they titled their study “Theology Matters”—and what they found out was mainline churches that: teach the Scripture, that call people to discipleship, that have vibrant worship as if a real God forgave real people of real sin—those churches were growing.
I think that’s the answer to your question. These churches—people can relate to them: “You know what? That pastor, this worship; they have small groups—I can really meet God there in a very simple way. This guy—he’s teaching the Scriptures. He’s not compromising; he’s not trying to make it relevant or change it to the modern age.”
Again, those churches that are like: “Well, maybe Jesus wasn’t God,” or “Maybe the resurrection was just a symbol,”—those churches are hemorrhaging members/they’re leaving quicker than they can imagine. It’s the non-denom churches that are growing, because they’re preaching and teaching the Word of God. God said, “My Word will not return void,”—“…will not return void.” We’re seeing that exact thing today.
Dave: Yes; I know that in our city, Detroit, that is what I’m seeing. The mainline churches that are dying—and again, that’s the message out there—they’re all dying. There are some that are hemorrhaging, and they’re being bought and taken over by non-denom churches—
Dave: —in a beautiful way—because they’re coming to the non-denominational churches and saying: “We don’t want this to turn into a business or a club.
Dave: “Could the gospel continue here? But we are not able to sustain ourselves. Would you can come in and partner?” Actually, it’s been a beautiful thing.
Glenn: —“and do what you do.”
Bob: Is your message to parents, “Hey, it’s going to be okay; relax,” or is your message, “No, we need to be on guard, and vigilant, and be concerned; because there’s some drift occurring”?
Glenn: You know what? Here we go again; it’s both!—[Laughter]—right? It’s: “Parents, be vigilant,”—as you guys say all the time.
You know, parenting is 90 percent just showing up/being on the ground there. The research is very, very clear on this—and I have a whole chapter in the book—that parents, who live a serious Christian life—not a perfect Christian life—but you know what? We attend church more than we don’t; we read the Scriptures, not every morning at 7:30, but it’s a part of our life; we pray together; we talk about the faith—it’s what the Stantons do.
The research is very clear: those kids, growing up in those homes, are extremely likely—some scholars say, “nearly guaranteed”—to carry that faith into adulthood in their own way/with their own application. I do that different than my parents; you guys are the same way.
Glenn: I mean, that’s the nature of things.
But it’s important for us to understand that: “Yes, faith is—when we transmit it to the younger generation in a good, faithful—but again, not perfect way; God grades so much on the curve with parenting in that—but if you’re never giving your kids a kind of serious faith, you know what?—they can’t hang onto what they never really had.”
Dave: Boy, I tell you what, Glenn—I don’t know what you guys [Bob and Ann] are thinking; I’m excited! I mean, when you hear good news—and again, you said earlier, we’re the people of the good news—why are we not preaching good news?
I think of this: when you go to church—you’re a typical couple; you go to church, and you sit there and you hear the pastor say, “Hey, by the way, you know, the divorce rate in the church is the same as the community; it’s 50 percent,”—you sit there and go: “Well, what am I doing here? This doesn’t help. We’re as bad as everybody else.” Then you find out later that was never true.
Glenn: Right; yes.
Dave: And now, when you hear this very same thing—the church is not dying/the kingdom of God is advancing; the gates of hell will not prevail—you sit in church, or you just hear this broadcast, you go: “I’m excited! That is good news! I’m going to get involved!
Ann: “We’re not losing.”
Dave: “I want to go to church; I want to get involved; I want to help my kids; I’m on a winning team!”
Dave: We’ve never been on a losing team.
Ann: Dave likes to be on a winning team. [Laughter]
Glenn: Who doesn’t like to be on a winning team?
Ann: Yes, exactly.
Glenn: It’s interesting; I mean, this is so significant in what you’re saying; in that, yes, it is good news. We are the people of good news. And it’s good news—not because we’re great marketers; it’s not because we’re relevant; it’s not because our logos in our church and our name is going to one-name churches: Elevate, Forward [Laughter]—things like that—it is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will honor churches and places, where Christianity, where the Scriptures, where discipleship, where worship is authentic.
That’s what we need to know. So yes, the good news is we are led by the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit cannot not be lifegiving.
Dave: God is on the move; He’s never stopped being on the move, and we are on the move with Him.
Bob: If you want some good news, read your Bible first—[Laughter]—because that’s the source of it; and then get a copy of Glenn’s book, The Myth of the Dying Church. That will encourage you that there is a path forward that is a vibrant, faithful path for us to follow. We have copies of the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Order from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FLTODAY. Again, the book is called The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Actually Thriving in America and in the World. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to order; or call 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY,” to get your copy of Glenn’s book.
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Now, tomorrow, we’re going to talk more about how, as parents, we can be actively engaged in helping our kids develop a strong, resilient faith—the kind of faith that lasts into adulthood. Again, no guarantees on this, because our kids make their own choices, but what is it that God’s calling us to do? We’ll talk more about that tomorrow. I hope you can be with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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