WASHINGTON, December 23, 2014 – The chipper greeting of “Happy Holidays!” provokes hostility every year from people who worry that secularists are out to destroy Christmas. Every holiday season brings the same hand-wringing over “X-mas,” “happy holidays,” the disappearance of crèches and Christmas trees from public spaces, and “holiday breaks” rather than “Christmas breaks” from our public schools.
Is Christmas at risk? Are secularists trying to kill it?
If American Christian churches were healthy, these questions would be meaningless. If people were filling the pews and if young people were embracing their churches, nothing that any school board, municipality, or shopping mall could do would be any threat to Christmas.
But America’s churches are in trouble.
According to Gallup International, in 2013, 39 percent of Americans said they went to church in the previous seven days. That’s down from a high of 49 percent in the mid-1950s. And that number is certainly too high.
Gallup can only report what people tell it, and people lie to pollsters. They claim they drink less than they do, that they vote more than they do, and that they watch classier TV shows than they do. They give answers that they think are more socially desirable.
Over-reporting on church attendance is believed to be two-to-one. That is, the real rate of church attendance is probably much closer to 20 percent. The unchurched population – those who don’t attend church at all – is now over 100 million. And especially troubling for churches: Young adults are increasingly joining the ranks of the unchurched.
When a faith is in trouble, it tends to fight more tenaciously in battles at the margins. A vibrant, robust church doesn’t need to concern itself with battles over “happy holidays.” A church that is in decline is desperate for any victory it can scratch out.
Why is American Christianity in decline? Ten observers will give you 12 answers to that question, but one important reason appears to be “relevance.”
American society faces some hugely divisive political questions that are not incidentally moral: Why are so many Americans poor, and what should we do reduce poverty? What is a fair wage? How can we better ensure that all Americans, black and white, are treated fairly by the law? Should we imprison as many people as we do? How can we provide better health care to more people?
Some people think that morality is all about sex. In a world full of deprivation and war, some Christian ministers think that God’s biggest concern is gays. In a spectacularly wealthy country that has millions of people uninsured, American Christians think that the battle they should be fighting is over the correct name for the season.
At issue here is the mission of the church. Is that mission to plant bottoms in pews, or is it to convert new disciples to Christ? And what exactly is it that Christ’s disciples do?
American churches adhere to an outdated model. They are trying to do what they’ve always done, and what until now has always worked: Get people into pews on Sunday. The problem now is that people see no reason to be in those pews. They have alternatives, and they’re pursuing them. Churches try to pull them back with various programs, ways to entertain the youth (I’ve visited some megachurches that come complete with gymnasiums and bowling lanes), jazzed up services, less formality (or more).
If people want a gym, they can go to a gym. If they want snappy music, they can go online and download a file. Churches are trying out gimmicks when they need to focus on the question, what is church for?
Politicians and economists often focus on GDP as a measure of the economy, but in fact, GDP can grow at a rapid clip and leave most people worse off. Why do we care about GDP? Because we can measure it. But the role of economic policy isn’t to grow GDP, but to make people better off. When we focus on GDP, we’re like the man who lost his keys in a dark field and is looking for them under the streetlight. Why? Because the light is better there.
This is the problem with churches and with education. Unable to define clearly what it is we want to do, or able to define it but not measure it, we opt to define our goals by what we can measure: people in pews, scores on standardized tests. Our churches are failing for the same reasons that our schools are failing: We don’t know how to measure real success, so we define success by what we can measure.
Churches must define themselves by what they are for, not what they are against, and they must show people that their priorities are worth the sacrifice and effort of joining the church. If their goal is to lead people to Christ, then they should show the world what it means to be a Christian. If the goal is to lead people to the gospel, they should show that living a gospel life is good for church members and for their communities.
Adlai Stevenson is often credited for the quote, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” The New Testament gives the same message: Christians should be the salt of the world and its light. They should be engaged in making the world a better place, not by fighting evil, but by doing good.
When Christian churches show that they care about the important moral issues of our time – not as matters of policy, but as a matter of encouraging their members to do what’s right – and that they understand discipleship, Christianity will be much healthier than it is. But for now it seems to be a numbers game that brings its members little joy and the world no profit.
There’s no sense fighting to keep Christ in Christmas if you don’t have him first and solidly in your heart.