In In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace, published on the 17th of this month, the Pew Research Center released the findings of its latest surveys on the continuing rapid decline of Christianity on the American landscape. While this is certainly not news to anyone who has been paying attention the past two decades, the response to this trend within the traditional churches bears reflection. Having spent the better part of the past 20 years serving in various roles as a Christian youth worker—including 17 years as the director of a thriving camp program, and 18 months as the National Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministries Director of the Orthodox Church in America—I have watched this trend from a front row seat. The number one question I was asked by clergy and parents alike was, “How do we keep the young people from leaving the Church?”
My response has always been and remains the same: You don’t. The Father did not stop his prodigal son from leaving even when his son essentially said, “I wish you were dead,” and ran off to squander his inheritance in a foreign land. People must be left free to choose the love of the Divine. If we want them to return home, we must sing love songs instead of throwing stones. We can’t stop anyone from leaving, but we can provide a home that is worth returning to. The survey cited above reveals that the trend seen in previous polls, which cite the decline of Christianity, continue to list the fastest growing religious group overall in the US as those who claim no religious affiliation at all. The term for them is “The Nones.” Notice it does not reveal that this group has no faith, simply no religious affiliation. Interesting. The burning question from so many clergy and older members of the Church is still a baffled Why?
Why indeed. Most conversations around the subject often jump right to blame. We blame it on the “culture” or the “evils of society” around us. On the LGBTQ+ community. On the “liberals” or “the media.” On the lack of attendance at church services. On promiscuous lifestyles. On the immigrants and other religions. On those people. We blame whomever or whatever we wish, so long as we don’t point the finger at ourselves. All of these external things become just like the scapegoat of old, and the shifting of blame becomes the great pacifier and we feel safe again in our little group.
It is precisely the failure of the institutional church, and each one of us in the Body of Christ, to live up to the high calling which Jesus modeled for us that is directly responsible for the decline of Christianity. I am reminded of the famous quote attributed to G.K. Chesterton, where he answers a London Times essay contest question, “What is wrong with the world?” with the simple answer: Dear Sir; I am. He further says in his book of the same title as the essay question: The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried. (Chesterton, G.K. What’s Wrong With The World. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1956.)
Christianity, and especially current Orthodox Christianity here in the West, has become something it was never intended to be: an institution, a system of rules, an exclusive club of the worthy or a beautiful distraction from dealing with reality. Some clergy go as far as to spew hate-filled rhetoric from the pulpit, rather than preaching the Gospel of grace and the infinite love of God for everyone. This narcotic-like addiction to cassocks and crosses, beards and bros, and all things external, has made us a hard people—judgmental bigots who turn a blind eye to so many of our own corporate sins, but quickly condemn everyone else. We choose instead to focus on our own little group and traditions in an effort to massage our ever-growing self-righteous egos. In so doing we are missing Jesus when He shows up in the alcoholic drifter disrupting Sunday service, the gay son or daughter who would rather contemplate suicide than reveal their orientation, or the desperate immigrant pleading for refuge.
Over 2000 years, the Church has been responsible for great works of mercy and compassion and living the Gospel with our lives. We have also been responsible for some of the greatest atrocities in the name of God, including but not limited to racism and slavery, genocide, homicide, fear-mongering, and bullying. This is especially true for those who don’t fit our “moral ramifications” or we find unpleasant or undeserving of God’s love.
The hard truth is that Christians are the primary reason for the decline of Christianity in America. Cold, cruel, unwelcoming pharisees who have all the answers and right doctrine, but very little love. We have strayed from the path laid before us. Jesus charged us to be His hands and feet, salt and light, life and love to a fallen world—not by drowning out all other cultures and religions with our own noise and ensuring white Christians stay in the majority—but by proclaiming the love of God for everyone through our very lives, and by how we treat everyone and everything around us, not just by what we say. We are called to resist the temptation to divide everyone into us and them and, restore, as the Prophet Isaiah said, the ruined houses and fallen places of the Empire, and cause the paths between them to rest. We are the people of peace, not the prophets of doom. Christ is risen and all has been redeemed. What is left to fear but fear itself?
In all those years working with youth, the one thing that made all the difference in the world was not the services, the prayers, the teachings, the sermons, etc. It was the communion of friends. A vast majority of the campers and kids that we ministered to still have an active faith to this day and are still very involved with the friends they met at summer camp, and the relationships that surpass shallow religion. In the end, if we do not rediscover our roots, based in compassion, communion, and love, Christianity will continue to decline.
It is not enough to sit idly by in our beautiful homes and amongst our comfortable comrades, speaking of the beauty of God’s House and the Christian Faith, if the least of these, our marginalized and outcast brothers and sisters—of all races, colors, religions, creeds, genders, and sexual orientations—are literally drowning with land in sight. Our Father will hold us accountable for our brothers and sisters. Indeed…that is the entire point, isn’t it?
Why is Christianity on the decline in America? Perhaps it is because we never tried it in the first place, having found such radical grace and love for our enemies to be too difficult. Jesus said that the world would know we are Christians by our love. It would appear that we continue to be lacking in that department.
Thank God it is never too late to try again.
See also Message from Orthodox Youth to the Church: Stop. Hurting. Us., Fleeing for Your Life…from the Divine Liturgy?, and Father Oliver Herbel’s The Side of American Orthodoxy that Orthodox Are Loath to Admit.
Luke Beecham is the founder of Raise & Restore, an Indianapolis outreach for the impoverished and underserved in West Indianapolis IN, former site operator at Shower to the People, and a subdeacon in the Orthodox Church in America. Among his many endeavors, he is the former National Youth, Young Adult, & Campus Ministries director for the OCA, Director Emeritus of St. John’s Camp Programs, an author, musician, and IT wizard. He resides in Indianapolis with his wife Janna and goddaughter Tessa, and publishes his personal reflections on faith and life on his blog, Chanting Down Babylon. He works to raise and restore the old foundations in the forgotten corners of the Empire, and cause the paths between them to rest (Is 58). He tweets @RealLukeBeecham.