The previous article looked at the Church of Rome and its loss of influence in Ireland. We turn now to ask the same question regarding ourselves: Protestant evangelicalism. Is Protestant Evangelicalism losing its grip on the world? To put the question another way; can we understand why people are leaving, do we hear their complaints, and are we interested in the cries of the hurting?
The complaint of many pastors is that the Church is losing its influence. We may cite many reasons for this and make many excuses. In a recent documentary a young filmmaker Philip Leclerc chronicles his journey through the modern youth ministry culture and its effect on the church. He asks the question why 88% of children from evangelical homes leave the church in spite of the massive drive in youth ministries. This is an excellent documentary and indeed a must-watch for every church leader and father. But there is a bigger issue at stake. The burden is broader than the backs of youth ministry and a lack of fatherly discipline.
First, many churches testify to the fact that it is not just the youth, but adults who are leaving. Furthermore, there are young people who have walked away who were not infected by the youth culture ministries? They sat in a “family integrated church” but found no satisfaction in it, nothing to grip them. Another move we see in the church is the move to other churches, from conservative, fundamental or reformed churches to ‘non-theological,’ contemporary-styled churches. These people have not denied the faith but have rejected a particular presentation of the faith for another.
My question concerns conservative evangelicals, reformed and or fundamentalist churches whose leaders are acutely aware of the fact that they have lost traction in society. Many in leadership feel that they are “spinning their wheels” or, to change the metaphor, “marking time.” We must ask ourselves the question why this is, why has the Church lost traction in the world?
Let me try to answer this question by considering another question; which is more important, the picture or the frame that holds the picture? Any artist will say the picture. We can go to the framing store and admire the frame, but we understand that once the picture is in place the frame loses the attention; it is there to draw attention to and enhance the picture. If you have ever been given a personal invitation to an art display to see the work of a particular artist you will understand the hurt that would be caused if you reached up and removed the painting to see the frame alone or you eulogized the frame and said nothing of the painting. The church is losing its grip on society because it either makes imperious that which is important or it makes central that which is peripheral, it removes the picture to preserve the integrity of the frame or it focuses more on the frame than on the picture.
Are we making imperial that which is important? “Organized religion” is important, but it is not to be made superior or domineering. The Roman Catholic Church, as we saw previously, in its defense of the “primacy of the institution” has removed the picture in order to preserve the integrity of the frame. But the same mistake is made in areas of Protestantism. This is what Packer chastised the Anglican Church in Canada for (“idolatrous institutional defensiveness”). In recent months a branch of the Fundamentalist Church came under attack when it was represented as a “cult” because of its abusive “unaccountable authoritarianism.” Dominance of external codes of dress and conduct and a heavy-handed control of these trump the care for and patience with individual souls. Individuals are left tortured in mind and emotions in order to preserve the integrity of the movement. This is a real and widespread problem and the reason why many are rejecting “organized religion.” This sort of institutional imperialism produces a people with a “form of godliness” (II Timothy 3:5), people who have a frame (of conduct or adherence) but no picture.
Another important element in church life that many have elevated to the point where it controls is numbers. Every pastor if he loves the truth he preaches wants to broaden his influence in presenting that truth. But to deny, dilute or defer on truth is to remove the picture for the sake of the frame. The Seeker Sensitive movement whose flagship Church with the Willow Creek Community Church saw the primary goal of the Church in numbers, it removed the picture in order to enlarge the frame. Willow Creek Church was forced to admit failure in 2007. The failure of the Willow Creek model was the same; it had the people but not power (II Timothy 3:5).