“Organized religion will all but vanish from nine Western-style democracies.” - Daniel Abrams
Let’s Host a FuneralWhen I first read this prediction, as a Christ-following pastor in a growing evangelical church, my heart grew worried. Are we failing as a faith? Are we being disobedient to God’s mission? Have we lost the ability to present Jesus to our time? When the anxiety passed, I was able to see this issue from a totally different perspective: organized religion is dying, so let’s host the funeral!
Now do not mishear the point, I love the historical Christian faith and believe the local church is the hope of the world (Ephesians 3:10). I firmly believe there will never be a time when the true church of Christ dies (Matthew 16:18). There will never be a time in human history when the Kingdom of God is not actively expanding for the glory of Jesus (Matthew 13:31-33). There will be no funeral for the Christian faith. However, the church in America is shrinking at an alarming rate. This might sound crazy, but could a blessing in disguise?
In the past decade, many books, endless blog-posts, and countless conference sessions have illuminated this exodus away from organized religion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard (and used) the statistic that 3500 churches will close their doors this year, never to reopen. In many cases, the death of these churches is not a tragedy. Looking at a recent Pew Forum survey will help make this point.
Researchers from Pew Forum discovered the following when surveying a cross-section of adults who claim to be evangelicals (Southern Evangelicals are the subject here only because they tend to have a higher adherence rate than evangelicals in other regions – this is best case scenario):
- 98% of all southern Evangelicals believe in the existence of God
- 41% of southern Evangelicals believe there is only one true interpretation of the Bible’s teachings
- 36% of professing Evangelicals in the South believe their religion to be “the one, true faith that leads to eternal life”
If 98% of Southern Evangelicals are certain about the existence of God, but only 36% of the same group believes their faith is uniquely true, then 64% of professing Evangelicals in the South believe in a gospel contrary to that of the Bible. Simply put, the average church and the average Christian in America do not understand or believe the Gospel. When a church loses the revolutionary power of the Gospel, legalism and religion replace it. Churches are dying because they are nothing more than organized religion, which cannot change the heart of men. When a legalistic dinosaur dies, that’s a good thing!
Churches that live, teach, and believe the Gospel are prevailing; not even the gates of Hell can stand against gospel-centered churches!
Legalism is Dead!
The death of organized religion rooted in legalistic churches is a thing to celebrate. We should declare to the world, “Legalism is dead!” We should lead the way in celebrating the fact that moralistic religion has no place among the sons of God. Our faith is based in the Gospel of Jesus, and as Veith says, “Being a Christian is not a matter of behaving rightly; rather, it is a matter of being forgiven for behaving wrongly.”
The gospel of Jesus is the most revolutionary force known; it is the only thing that changes hearts. It says definitively in 1 John 4:19, you were first loved. The Gospel says God loves you so much that He did not even spare His own Son so that you might have life (Romans 8). The Gospel says all that He did, you have done. The Gospel says all that He is, you are. The Gospel says you have lived a perfect life because you are “in” Christ who did in fact live a perfect life (Romans 8:39). Churches that live, teach, and believe the Gospel are prevailing; not even the gates of Hell can stand against gospel-centered churches!
Nothing to Fear
Someday, we will look back on this period of history and realize we witnessed an amazing transformation. We will have watched as thousands of churches closed due to the fact that the core of their existence was based on legalism instead of the Cross of Christ. Moral-based religion is dying, yet there is nothing to fear as followers of Jesus.
On the contrary: the Kingdom of God is expanding each day. We, in this time, have the great privilege to participate in the Spirit’s movement of planting thousands of new churches and revitalizing hordes of existing churches. Through churches rooted in the truth of the Gospel, people will be saved from the lie that morality saves, that legalism brings life. If we labor to lift up the Son, He will draw people to Himself. That’s our call, that’s our mission, and He is already victorious.
Tyler Jones will be speaking with Tim Keller, Eric Mason, Darrin Patrick and others at the upcoming Advance 2011 conference in Raleigh, NC.