Thursday, November 28, 2013

Hinch on Evangelicals and Secularism

Two trends have contributed to a decline in religious belief in much of the world, rising secularism and declining fertility.  I write about these trends in “Does an Aging World Explain Lower Convert Baptisms?” and “Secularism.”  Secularism may be one cause of falling birth rates.  Secularists believe that fulfillment of an individual’s desires is central to happiness.  Religionists believe that restraint through obedience to God’s commands brings happiness.  These belief systems are diametrically opposed.  In “Tough future for evangelicals, numbers reveal,” Jim Hinch writes about a decline in membership in evangelical churches and names growing secularism as a cause.  I whole heartedly recommend the article but I will focus on several points that I believe will have particular interest to Mormon readers.

Cultural Christianity is dying.  Hinch quotes Rick Warren who said,

Cultural Christianity is dying.  Genuine Christianity is not. The number of cultural Christians is going down because they never really were Christian in the first place. They don't have to pretend by going to church anymore.

Warren’s statement belies the problem.  Christianity is less important because marginal adherents are now comfortable eschewing Christian beliefs when they did not in the recent past. 

Very few people who call themselves evangelicals attend services.  Pastor David Olson estimates that only nine percent of American evangelicals are in church on a given Sunday.  Because fulfillment through self-restraint requires more effort than fulfillment through self-expression, I argue that not attending is a step toward secularism.  I also believe that the affect may be generational.  If parents don’t attend, their children are less likely to accept evangelical or other Christian beliefs.

Hinch also refers to research by Ed Stetzer who finds that 70% of young adults who attend services in high school drop out of evangelical churches at some point.  The article does not provide estimates of the percentage of those who return although Stetzer was quoted as saying  that evangelicals are among the most effective at transmitting their religious beliefs to their children.  Hinch asks how attendance can be declining if parents are effectively transmitting beliefs to their children.

Finally, Hinch notes that secularism is strongest among the young, creating a demographic cliff.  John Dickerson, another evangelical researcher, found that political activism by evangelicals was driving away young in droves.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is certainly less politically active than evangelical churches but we do share similar moral views on abortion, cohabitation, out of wedlock births and gay marriage.  Let me offer that dissonance is created when personal beliefs diverge from Christian teaching, political activism only enflames the dissonance. 

The challenge for Christian is to use the gospel to create consonance in people’s lives rather than dissonance.  Research by Arthur Brooks finds that the devout experience more happiness than the secular.  Many secularist feel the need for group action.  Religious organizations lead in charitable work, educating the poor and caring for the sick.  Christianity has much to offer. 

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