The Christian church in the US (and the western hemisphere) is in undeniable decline. Despite the recent surge of influence of “evangelicals” in our political environment, the reality is that we are less and less likely to be affiliated with Christianity in the US, and the influence of churches is waning. Church leaders have been wrangling with this for several years; numerous explanations have been offered and various approaches to addressing the decline have been discussed. Pockets of change are out there, but as a general rule, the decline continues, and seems to be picking up steam.
I’ve been pondering several things lately, and I think I see something worth considering. The idea started forming when a friend recently talked about a spiritual conversation she’s been having with her 5-year-old daughter. The little girl, who has not been raised in a “Christian” home, informed her mom, “Mommy, when you die you go to Heaven if you are good. When you are bad, you might go to Heck. God says so.” My first reaction was a mix of “how cute” and amazement that a 5-year-old was processing something so complex. Her mom had not taught her this, and was unsure where the little girl picked up the idea.
My second thought was, “NO! You’ve got it all wrong!!!” But, really, she hasn’t. This is in essence what the Church is teaching today. It’s been what the Church was teaching since I was a little boy. Oh, sure, I was told, “God loves you,” but that was peripheral. The message I received for most of my 52 years has been some version of, “when you die you go to Heaven if you are good. When you are bad, you might go to Heck. God says so.” My learned theology was founded on being good enough (which really meant following all of God’s rules well enough) that he loved me, then I could go to Heaven when I die. If I wasn’t good enough, I was bound for Heck, or a less censored version of it.
How Religion Works: If I obey, then God will love and accept me.
The Gospel: I’m loved and accepted, therefore I wish to obey.
— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) January 22, 2015
Tim Keller’s tweet is profound, and points to the idea that I’ve been considering: Maybe the Church is losing members and influence because we’re teaching religion, and not the Gospel. I know as a younger person, I had trouble with the God I’d been taught: He seemed mean. He WAS mean! A God who says, “follow my rules well enough to earn my love, or else I’m going to torture you endlessly”? If a husband or employer behaves like that, we call them an abuser. Why would I want to sign up for that?
Consider it another way: Why would HE want that? Suppose you paid for an “arranged marriage” with a person from a third world country, brought them to the US to live with you, then told them that if they showed you affection, you would treat them well, but if they broke your rules, you would punish them severely. When this spouse hugs you, kisses you, says “I love you,” do they really love you? Or are they following your rules out of fear?
Our God is different. He loves us. Period. He pursues us with love! He offers love to us with no preconditions. We just receive it. This life is not a crucible to be run, in order to win a prize or avoid eternal damnation! It’s an opportunity to know our Father, the one who loves us, cares for us, and wants to be with us.
It was terrifying to me growing up fearing a God who was waiting for me to break the rules so he could smite me. Or even a God who, at the end of my life was going to make a judgement of whether I was “good” or “bad” to determine if my eternity involved a cloud castle, or a lake of fire with barbed-wire floaties. I spent most of my life with some version of that God in my head, and knowing that I couldn’t measure up… I just hoped he wasn’t paying attention to me too closely, or that I lived long enough to shift the scales once I was too old to be bad anymore.
It would be one thing if the God I was taught were true; it’s a travesty (heresy?) that we are teaching this when it’s NOT TRUE! Can you see how this false God is driving people away from the Church?
You might object that my perception of Christianity isn’t the common one in our culture. I am not going to argue with you; instead I’d ask that you just take a look with fresh eyes. With 5-year-old eyes.