The Wrong Boogeymen

Two weeks ago the American Religious Identification Survey [ARIS] released its findings and announced that “secular” Americans now account for 15 percent of the population. That is up from 8 percent in 1990 and just 2 percent in 1962. Among the young the trend is even higher. Only 25 percent of people between 21 and 45 years old regularly attend church. Who is responsible for this dramatic downturn in commitment to church attendance? According to Al Mohler there are two culprits: the government and single adults. In a blog post from March 19, Al Mohler discusses a column in The Wall Street Journal by W. Bradford Wilcox who believes “the expansion of the government sector to offer cradle-to-grave social services contributes to the secularization of society.” According to Wilcox, and Mohler who affirms the logic, as people become increasingly dependent on government programs for their daily bread, they become less dependent upon their local social networks, family, or themselves. And the church-traditionally a source of personal enrichment, education, and compassion-is replaced by the nanny-state. Mr. Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, warns:

A successful Obama revolution providing cradle-to-career education and cradle-to-grave health care would reduce the odds that Americans would turn to their local religious congregations and fellow believers for economic, social, emotional and spiritual aid.

Wilcox recognizes that many people engage religious institutions for reasons other than material aid, but then reminds his readers that “many of those who initially turn to religious organizations for mutual aid end up developing a faith that is as supernatural as it is material. But first they need to enter the door.” Mohler shares this viewpoint saying that Wilcox’s article “is not only an article that should be read, but an argument that must be heard.” Am I the only one who finds this line of reasoning dubious? Are we supposed to believe that the number of secular Americans has nearly doubled in the last 18 years because of liberal government programs? The argument becomes even more incongruous when we remember that conservative Republicans ran the Congress for 12 of those years and the White House for 10. And are we supposed to oppose health care reform and better schools because healthier, more educated Americans may be less likely to attend a worship service? Government has always been a popular boogeyman for conservative cultural crusaders, but this is bordering on the absurd. What if the exodus of young people from the church isn’t the government’s fault but ours? And what if the solution isn’t opposing the political agenda of President Obama, but working harder at building relational trust with the young adults in our churches, families, and neighborhoods? What about Al Mohler’s second explanation for secularization-singleness?  Mohler has regularly focused his spotlight on the immaturity exhibited by many modern adults, as well as the prolonged adolescence our culture celebrates. This trend includes the fact that the average American now delays of marriage until age 28-six years later than just a generation ago. He writes:

Looking at this from a biblical perspective, the most tragic aspect of this development is the fact that these young people are refusing to enter into the adult experience and adult responsibilities that is their Christian calling…. The experiences of marriage and raising children are important parts of learning the adult experience and finding one’s way into the deep responsibilities and incalculable rewards of genuine adulthood.

In his March 19 blog post, Mohler also contends that “delay of marriage is a primary driver of secularization.” He believes that most adults are driven to the church to seek support for their marriages and families. But with more people postponing marriage and families, fewer feel the need to enter the church. He concludes, “The extension of adolescence into the twenties (maybe now even the thirties) is highly correlated with the rise of secularism and with lower rates of church attendance.” Believe it or not, I agree with Mohler on one significant point-adolescence is extending and adults are behaving less maturely. I discuss this trend in chapter six of my book, The Divine Commodity. But I depart from Mohler on the role of marriage as a vehicle to maturity. He seems to believe that if young people would just get married they’d grow-up. He dismisses research that says earlier marriages have a higher rate of failure by citing Fredirica Mathewes-Green: “Fifty years ago, when the average bride was twenty, the divorce rate was half what it is now, because the culture encouraged and sustained marriage.” Once again I fear Mohler is attacking the wrong enemy. Is the church really unable to reach young people because they’re waiting too long to get married? Should we be advocating more 22-year-olds marry as a way of boosting church involvement? And since when did marriage become a prerequisite to hearing the gospel and entering the Christian life? The problem isn’t the large number of single adults-the problem is a church built upon the gospel of marriage and family rather than the gospel of Christ. By being so “focused on the family” most churches have unknowingly alienated more than half of the household in the U.S. that are not traditional families. If the church has predicated its ministry around the Western nuclear family, and if the church appeals to outsiders by targeting the felt-needs of parents, then the decline in marriage may prove catastrophic. And if marriage rates continue to plummet as they have in Europe, the North American church may soon find itself in the same position as buggy whip manufacturers at the dawn of the automobile age-selling a great product nobody needs. Al Mohler finds himself in a classic Constantinian trap. He sees the culture becoming increasingly secular (or post-Christian) and doesn’t know how the church can survive or its mission advance once it loses its place of privilege. Therefore, he is striving to reverse the perceived causes of secularization-government and singleness. Rather than calling the church to adjust it’s strategies to the new realities of its mission field, he expects the mission field to adjust to the church’s old ways of operating. His blog post also reveals the unimaginative nature of the Religious Right’s strategy. After 30 years of combating liberal policies and striving to protect “traditional marriage,” they seem incapable of seeing anything else–like the church’s own shortcomings and failure to take a missional posture in a post-Christian mission field. Somehow, according to this logic, if we can just manage to cut taxes, shrink the size of government, and keep young people celibate until their wedding day (at age 22), the church will thrive again. Is it any wonder why both the evangelical church and the Republican Party are failing to win a hearing with my generation?

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