The evidence is weighty and undeniable—Western Christian religion is crumbling, its authority and influence is fading, its adherents are disengaging. The erosion started slowly, but has picked up steam. Christianity as we know it is becoming irrelevant.
For example, the April 4, 2014, MIT Technology Review began an article about the relationship of the Internet to religion with this: “Back in 1990, about 8 percent of the U.S. population had no religious preference. By 2010, this percentage had more than doubled to 18 percent. That’s a difference of about 25 million people, all of whom have somehow lost their religion. That raises an obvious question: how come? Why are Americans losing their faith?”
Dozens of similar reports and studies (just do a quick Internet search on “decline of Christianity”) are basically saying the same thing—Christianity in its traditional power base of Europe and North America is in decline. Fewer people are claiming it, and even fewer of those who claim it are actually seriously practicing it.
I’m a Christian, and I couldn’t be happier.
The happy/sad conundrum
Happier? Because the silent voice of the masses walking away may finally grab the attention of those who have been ignoring the few voices crying out, “Something’s wrong!” Maybe the “church is irrelevant” message will be the “hello, it’s not working!” wake-up call we desperately need to hear.
At the heart and core of Christ’s teaching is the need for change—deep, personal, relevant, transformation into a better person and society—and the path to it.
So, connect the dots: The turning away from Christianity is telling us that what its proponents are offering is not motivating people, not producing relevant change, not satisfactorily explaining life’s biggest questions.
I’m happy it’s not working, because it’s only in seeing the reasons for Christianity’s problems that we are going to see the solutions and the need for the reemergence of what God originally intended Christianity to be.
But it’s also sadly tragic, because the “tossing out the baby with the bathwater” syndrome means many, while tossing out the bathwater of religion, assume the relevance of God should go with it.
And what takes religion’s place? The popular mantra “I’m spiritual, just not religious” is leading many to opt for creating their own belief systems. So they are going to the cafeteria of religious ideology and saying, “I’ll have some of this, a little of that.” In other words, they’re becoming their own god, creating their own religious universe.
Time will prove that approach to be like drawing water from an empty well.
So, while studies are pretty consistent in describing the changing landscape of Christianity, what is inconsistent are the analyses of why.
At the risk of stepping on a lot of religious toes, what follows are three simple, but scripturally based, answers.
Christianity immediately started becoming irrelevant when irrelevancy started becoming Christian.
Irrelevancy has become Christian
One: Christianity immediately started becoming irrelevant when irrelevancy started becoming Christian.
What does that mean? First, a little biblical history: We humans have always had trouble doing even the simple things God asks of us. The Old Testament story of Israel and Judah reveals repeated cycles of their following God for a while but inevitably being drawn away. Often they were tempted to integrate their neighbors’ religious practices or to substitute their own ideas of righteousness.
We’ve been doing the same ever since. Christianity came on the scene; but from its inception, people quickly started altering nearly everything about it.
For humans to try to “improve” on God is not only arrogant and presumptuous, it also renders our religions irrelevant. The legitimacy of Christianity is totally dependent on whether its creator—Jesus the Christ, who was God on earth—is involved and active in it.
If He isn’t, it’s irrelevant.
Wouldn’t it seem logical that whatever Jesus and His apostles did, we should do; what they said, we should say? When churches desperately try to reinvent themselves to appeal to what people want, as so many are doing today, they abandon what’s relevant to God. True Christianity is about changing to find our relevance in God—not God finding His relevance in us.
And if Christianity isn’t changing people, it isn’t relevant.
Jesus’ own words remain a devastating indictment of Christianity today: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven,” He said. “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-23).
He wasn’t talking about Islam, Buddhism, Judaism or any other religion. He was targeting those who claim to represent Him—modern Christianity. He’s pretty clear: Slapping the “Christian” label on yourself doesn’t necessarily make you so.
If God says something is irrelevant—meaningless to Him—then all the popular customs, Bible-quoting and righteous talk of humans cannot somehow override that. And what’s more, sooner or later, human religious inventions will fail to satisfactorily explain the spiritual questions for which we seek answers.
Human explanations cannot satisfy spiritual voids, and people will eventually start looking elsewhere for relevancy. Like they are today.
Bad produce at the fruit stand
Two: Most people eventually stop eating bad fruit. They may move on to other bad fruit, but move on they will.
Jesus had a lot to say about fruit when He came on the scene some 2,000 years ago. The mainstream religious institutions and teachers of the day smugly assumed they were leading people to God, but to Jesus they had long ago become irrelevant.
“By their fruits you will know them,” He said, and He was unsparing and withering in His assessments. Jesus’ harshest words were not aimed at the pagan Romans, but at the religious leaders claiming to follow God! Their carefully crafted religious practices made them appear pious, but He cut through their facade, calling them hypocrites, “whitewashed tombs” that are beautiful on the outside but inside are full of dead men’s bones (Matthew 23:27).
They marketed their religion well, but their spiritual lives were reprehensible!
What would Jesus say if He was observing the fruit stand of Christianity today? A big reason people cite for walking away is the bad fruit of its leaders—abuse of people and power, scandals and immorality, cover-ups, confusion and opposition over moral and social issues, hypocrisy, greed and opulence, doctrinal disunity, embarrassing extremists.
Bad fruit doesn’t just bring shame and embarrassment on churches. It makes Christianity appear irrelevant as a genuine, life-changing entity.
Three: Counterfeit money works only if it’s fooling people. Once everyone knows it’s fake, it’s irrelevant. But until then, a lot of people can be cheated.
The same is true with counterfeit Christianity. Here are Jesus’ own words of warning: “Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many” (Matthew 24:5).
He established Christianity with two strong assertions: It would never die, He promised, but it would be corrupted. It didn’t take long for the “many” deceivers to come.
Within just a few years, they began creeping into the Church; and in only a matter of decades, “Christianity” began to morph into something resembling little of His original church. It wasn’t long before the counterfeiters overwhelmed—both in numbers and popularity—the remaining “little flock.” Their primary tools of deceit—false doctrines—are now the unquestioned norm.
But Jesus’ words then are just as true today: “You have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Matthew 15:6-9).
That didn’t slow anything down, though. A history of the first few centuries of Christianity reveals a magnitude and pace of doctrinal change that was staggering.
Regardless, Christianity’s real credibility is based on the truth of God, not ideas of man. The Bible’s testimony is that man’s ideas and ways have never ceased to fail. So if Christianity is failing today, a core reason is that so much of what masquerades as Christianity is man’s way, not God’s.
The foundation on which Christianity stands is the truth taught by Christ and the apostles as faithfully recorded in the New Testament. Humans cannot change the essence of something God created and expect success. False teachings may create an attractive building that looks great, but it sits on a foundation of sand that eventually will not stand the test of time.
God will not be mocked, and He does not suffer lies. Truth will eventually expose the many distortions about God and life that false doctrines have foisted off on people.
It’s time for hard questions
If Christians are alarmed by their faith’s waning influence, it’s time for a long look in the mirror. It’s time for religious leaders to ask, Why haven’t we learned that we can’t take the Church Christ founded and turn it into whatever we want? If our spiritual forefathers took what Jesus taught and turned what was relevant to God into what was relevant to people, do we have the courage to admit it and turn it around?
It’s time to ask, If Jesus didn’t endorse the religious institutions of His day, what makes us confident that when He returns He’ll endorse the followers of nonbiblical practices and false doctrines that have been slowly integrated into mainstream Christianity?
It’s time to ask, Where do I go from here?
What can you do?
True Christianity IS relevant—it’s meaningful, life-changing, and it gives sensible answers. But anything that masquerades as Christianity isn’t. The masqueraders have fooled millions of people for hundreds of years. It’s only the truth, Jesus said, that can make you free.
As Jesus told the Samaritan woman who was struggling to sort through conflicting religious views, the standard is truth. “The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him,” He said. “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).
Are you willing to swim against the tide and go on a quest for the truth? To “test all things; hold fast what is good,” as Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:21?
If you know God exists and know the Bible is His Word, start by searching out what it really says, not what religious spin doctors tell you. How did the people in the Church Jesus built worship God? What does the Bible say about what He, and His followers, believed and practiced?
Once that’s established, ask, How did the plain, simple teachings of the Bible and the practices of His Church come to be changed? Why were the practices of His Church discarded and substituted, mostly with ideas and traditions borrowed from old pagan religions?
Finally, find out from God—from His words in His Bible—whether or not it makes any difference to Him! Did all these changes mean anything to Him, or is He okay with our choosing any way we want to worship and relate to Him?
A humble, sincere quest for truth—and then a willingness to live it—will make Christianity relevant in your life!