Americans’ religious beliefs and practices are changing. According to the Barna Group, participation in church activities has decreased among Protestants.
Americans’ religious beliefs and practices are changing. According to the Barna Group, participation in church activities has decreased among Protestants. Fewer people are attending worship services, Sunday School and volunteering at church. Similar changes are occurring among Catholics.
This trend is not merely sociological; it is theological. It reflects a real change in the way Americans think about God. We are no longer (if we ever were) one nation under God, but many individuals under gods, a reality that casts doubt on the whole idea of national indivisibility.
Americans are, according to Barna, less likely to draw their theology from the Bible than they once were. Personal Bible reading has dropped by 7 percent among both Catholics and Protestants since 1990.
From what sources then, are people getting their theological ideas? From casual conversations, the media and secular education. People can now customize God the way Dell shoppers customize a computer. This God we are piecing together might turn out to be some kind of cosmic Frankenstein’s monster or (as is more likely) he might turn out to be one of us.
Every year Professor Scott McKnight gives his new students a test that begins with 24 questions about what Jesus is like. This first set of questions is followed by a second set of similarly worded questions asking what the student is like. McKnight and others who administer the exam have noted a consistent result: People think that Jesus is just like them.
What is true of Jesus (theologically, and in this case, practically) is true of God. Left to ourselves, we will, as Voltaire pointed out long ago, make God in our own image.
Does Americans’ decreasing church attendance tell us anything about our ideas of God? It tells us that we want a Bohemian deity who cares more about personal freedoms than he does about institutional practices. “Forget about Church and marriage,” this God says, “and all those archaic institutions. You don’t need them; you just need me.”
That idea does not enlarge our lives, it diminishes them by narrowing our field of vision to our own likes and dislikes, within the closed sphere of our ignorance and prejudices.
The fact that fewer of us believe in absolute moral truth implies that more of us believe in a God who is into camaraderie, not creeds. We chant our mantra, “It is not a religion, it is a relationship,” but ignore the fact that relationships always develop in a larger context.
That most Americans no longer believe in a sinless Jesus (including 38 percent of self-identified “born again” adults) suggests that the God we are selecting from the menu is not too concerned about sin.
How well do these ideas match up with biblical statements about God’s nature? Not very well. The Bible, for example, states that God is righteous and loves justice, but hates lying tongues and scheming hearts. The biblical God takes good and evil very seriously.
We may ignore the Church but the God of the Bible does not. He is deeply involved in the Church’s life, intending “to display his wisdom in its rich variety” through her (Ephesians 3:10). The idea that a person can have a rewarding relationship with God while ignoring his Church is popular enough today, but it is completely foreign to the writers of Scripture.
A pick-and-choose theology allows us to avoid the tough things about God, but we pay a price for it. We get a God who is easy to be around, but powerless to act. We manage to sidestep the God who hates sin, but we miss the one who “pardons ... and forgives,” who “does not stay angry ... but delights to show mercy” (Micah 7:18).
That’s a price we can ill afford.
Shayne Looper is the pastor at the Lockwood Community Church in Michigan. He can be reached at email@example.com.