Christ and a Cappuccino

Richard Leonard

Christ and a Cappuccino

American churchianity: All style and no substance?
From the January 2005 Trumpet Print Edition

The United States appears to be one of the most religious nations in the democratic, industrialized First World. Developing countries have high percentages of “religious” citizens, but generally, those percentages drop as the countries develop and become wealthier, with the richest nations being the most secular. Most comparable countries, such as France, Germany and Great Britain, have regular church attendances at 5 to 15 percent. The U.S., however, has twice the percentage of regular church-goers per week: 30 to 32 percent.

So it is remarkable that the richest, most advanced nation in the world continues to have a comparatively high percentage of religious, chiefly “Christian” citizens.

But what about American religion? What about its Christianity? Unfortunately, America’s religious reservoir is a mile wide, but only an inch deep. And it’s only getting shallower.

This Sunday’s Message

This Sunday’s message in Yourtown, U.S.A., increasingly isn’t the typical program of hymns, altar calls and an hour-long lecture anymore. Chances are, your local church is moving away from the traditional format in an attempt to fill emptying pews.

To compensate for declining popularity, churches have resorted to non-traditional measures that are compromising what depth and influence on their members’ behavior they once had.

Many service times, for instance, are moving from their traditional Sunday-morning slot to more “contemporary” (read convenient) times. One example from the Christian Science Monitor provides a stark example of religious compromise: “As South Church in Andover, Mass., was debating when to hold an alternative worship service, the question wasn’t which day is holy. Instead it was: When do people have nothing else to do? A market survey gave them an answer: 5 p.m., Saturday. … With sports leagues and other things competing for weekend time, [one churchgoer] says, ‘there’s nothing sacred about Sunday morning anymore’” (March 29, 2002).

But the Aug. 8, 2000, edition brought out perhaps an even more glaring example of Christian compromise: At the Fellowship of Las Colinas in Texas, you can count on services ending in time for the real Sunday spiritual experience: the Dallas Cowboys football game, which is broadcast on a big screen outside the church as part of the congregational fellowship.

Many other traditional observances are being cut and pasted from their traditional times as a matter of convenience. The Catholic “Ascension feast,” the Presbyterian “Good Friday” and the United Methodist recounting of “the passion” story have all become subject to change, depending on whether attendance figures warrant lumping these observances into the more convenient Sunday slot.

Shuffling service and observance schedules is not the only indicator of American Christian compromise. Many churches are using near-last-ditch tactics to darken their doorways. The same Aug. 8, 2000, edition of the Monitor alluded to several instances ranging from the unconventional to the bizarre: One minister in Arkansas instituted his own version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” with two worshipers/contestants winning $1,000 cash prizes. The same minister also brought tigers and elephants to the building for the church’s Christmas pageant in order to “keep things visual.”

“‘When you have variety in a church, it adds to the experience,’ says Ann Weeks, a visitor to First Assembly of God …. ‘I’m looking for a church that offers various elements—like the Millionaire game. It’s not so much about the denomination, but what I am getting out of the service …. I certainly don’t want to be bored when I am sitting in a pew’” (ibid.).

Other examples of “merchandising the gospel” include sending bread and fruit baskets to visitors following their visits, and offering newcomers gift certificates to local restaurants. In an even more blatant display of bribery, one minister cruises the streets in poor areas of Bryan, Tex., in a blue bus with a sign advertising, “We will pay you $10 to come to church on our bus.”

The religion circus at many congregations—particularly monolithic “megachurches” of over 1,000 weekly attendees—comes complete with special effects and rock music, with a non-indicting, doctrineless “sermon” sideshow delivered by a charismatic speaker—all of which can be enjoyed over an iced latte and pastry from the church coffee bar and food court just down the hall. Supplementing this three-ring spectacle are athletic leagues and tournaments, clubs, parties and advertising gimmicks designed to bolster numbers and, as the ultimate goal, get more people to simply say the so-called magic words: “I believe in Jesus Christ.” It’s not the substance that so many churchgoers are looking for, it’s the style.

“We are not organized religion, we’re disorganized religion,” says Linda Skinner, associate pastor of a Redmond, Wash., megachurch equipped with a drum set, a video screen, and a baptismal pool with a man-made waterfall and a glass wall between it and the sanctuary. “We say we major on the majors and minor on the minors,” Skinner continues, emphasizing only two “majors.” “There are some things specifically in the Bible that are major: Jesus is the Son of God. He died on the cross so we may have forgiveness of our sins. But all the other things … we say are the minor things we can all disagree on” (USA Today, March 7, 2002).

By Their Fruits You Shall Know Them

This “religion lite” approach to Christianity seems harmless enough, though it affords non-religious and liberal critics plenty of ammunition. But America’s paper-thin churchianity has consequences much greater.

Christian teens, some of the most pliable minds in the shallow, “accessible” religion trend, are the most affected by this movement. “[W]hile they may profess the faith and indeed love Jesus, the vast majority of Christian teenagers in this country actually hold beliefs fundamentally antithetical to the creed,” writes Dale Buss for the Wall Street Journal (July 9, 2004). According to data cited in the article from the Barna Research Group, a widely acknowledged source for U.S. Christian statistics, about one third of American teenagers claim they are “born again,” 88 percent say they are Christians and 60 percent believe the Bible is “totally accurate in all of its teachings.” However, slightly more than half of those teens believe Jesus committed sins while on Earth, and about two thirds say that Satan is a symbol of evil and not a living being. Just 6 percent of teens believe that there are moral absolutes, and only 9 percent of “born again” teens believe that moral truth is absolute. In a different survey, conducted a few years ago, 91 percent of so-called born-again teens stated that there is no such thing as absolute truth—compared to 52 percent in 1992 (ibid.).

“Christian,” but in name only.

The faith farce continues daily, with headlines proclaiming increasingly repugnant examples of impotent religion.

In June, a group called the “One” organization released a “new, fresh and adventurous” Bible that, rather than condemning fornicators and homosexuals and encouraging marriage between men and women, encourages people to have sex with “a regular partner.”

One of the most telling signs of Christianity’s impotence is its lack of impact on Christians’ actual choices and behavior. Studies by secular and religious statistical organizations, including the Barna group, have found that an individual’s faith has little to do with the behavior of that person. According to a variety of researchers, most Christians’ conduct is indistinguishable from that of the adherents of other faiths in most areas, including divorce and adultery.

Fundamental Issues

Why the hypocrisy in 21st-century religion? Why do “Christian” teens believe Christ sinned and absolute truth does not exist? Why are “Christian” congregations entrusting their spiritual care to unrepentant homosexual pastors? Why are churches focusing less on doctrine and the difference between right and wrong, and more on doughnuts, rock bands and slick advertising? The truth lies in American religion’s fundamental flaw.

Today’s American churchianity is the degenerating result of its refusal to obey God. Though many Christian churches and organizations have outspokenly opposed the removal of scriptural monuments and plaques from public buildings, those same groups teach their members that those same Commandments, particularly the fourth, were done away with by Christ at His first coming. Most of the tenets these organizations do abide by have been derived not from Scripture but from human tradition and the votes of men and women. Sunday observance itself, for example, is a long-time tradition instituted by the Catholic Church that Abraham, Moses, John, Jesus and Paul took no part in. They taught that the Sabbath was to be kept holy—a day in which man is to do no servile work nor his own pleasure but is to worship God (Exodus 16:4-5, 22-26; 20:8-11; Luke 4:16; Acts 17:1-2).

Mainstream religion’s refusal to obey God has resulted in a toothless message of syrupy love about a God in heaven who wants you to be “good” and “accept Jesus”—a message without purpose and real potential, and certainly without credibility or legitimacy to a thinking mind.

No wonder the world is converting American Christianity rather than the other way around. Most of its traditional tenets (including Sunday observance, Christmas, Easter, weekly communion and the rejection of God’s law) were forged at the hands of men who compromised with God’s revealed truth, dooming imitation Christianity to the indefensible position in which it now finds itself.

Jesus Christ described this age-old human inclination when He was on Earth: “[I]n vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. … Full well ye reject the commandments of God, that ye may keep your own tradition” (Mark 7:7, 9). This perfectly describes today’s mainstream Christianity. We must recognize that there can be no true religion unless it is based on God’s law—the Ten Commandments (the ninth of which is covered on page 28 of this issue)—and that a true Christian lives by every word of God (Luke 4:4).

As we said in our January 2004 issue, it takes spiritual examination of God-given identifying signs to find true religion. Jesus Christ didn’t just leave it up to us to sift through almost 34,000 Christian denominations and pick whatever felt best. There is such a thing as pure religion (James 1:27), and when it is placed before us, with all the signs Christ gives in His Word to identify it, God expects us to act. For an in-depth biblical examination of true religion and the Christ-given signs which identify it, request Mystery of the Ages, by Herbert Armstrong, and read Chapter 6, “Mystery of the Church.” God expects us to “prove all things” from the Bible, and “hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Will we choose convenience, cash prizes, coffee bars and “keeping things visual,” or will we choose Christ?