Resilient Faith | Book Review


Christianity in the United States is a mile wide but an inch deep.

The faith, especially its Protestant variety, has exerted considerable influence on the nation’s history and culture. A supermajority of citizens continue to identify themselves as believers. On the whole, evangelical churches — where evangelical serves as a theological descriptor, not a political one — are holding steady even as liberal Protestant congregations and Roman Catholic parishes shed adherents.

Despite these things, many Christians feel that their influence on the broader culture is slipping away. A partial explanation comes from the last two decades’ rapid rise of the “Nones,” that share of the populace that picks “None of the above” when asked by pollsters to select their religious affiliation. Radical shifts in public opinion about moral issues such as same-sex marriage, drug use, and voluntary euthanasia constitute an additional explanation. And the once unheard-of criticism of Christian charities, such as the Salvation Army, for continuing to uphold biblical standards of sexual morality offers still another explanation.

None of these explanations, it should be noted, entail that America has entered a post-Christian phase. They do indicate that the nation is trending that way, however. If that trend worries you, I encourage you to read Gerald L. Sittser’s Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World.

Sittser is professor of theology at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, where he also serves as a senior fellow and researcher in the Office of Church Engagement. In Resilient Faith, he offers an account of how the Early Church forged a “Third Way” between accommodation to the surrounding idolatrous culture and isolation from it. He states his thesis at the outset of the book:

[T]he early Christian movement became known as the Third Way because Jesus himself was a new way, which in turn spawned a new movement — new in theology, in story, in authority, in community, in worship, and in behavior. Christian belief was so new, in fact, that it required Christians to develop a process of formation in the Third Way to move new believers from conversion to discipleship. … Rejecting both accommodation and isolation, early Christians immersed themselves in the culture as followers of Jesus and servants of the kingdom of God.

Over time, this third-way approach gained followers, and with increased followership, increasing influence. By the time Constantine converted to Christianity in A.D. 312, Christians already constituted a significant, though occasionally persecuted, minority within the Roman empire. Over the next century, they became the only legal imperial religion. The once powerless Church became powerful.

Ironically and tragically, this power began to deform the Church. The Third Way became the First Way, integrity giving way to accommodation. Whereas the early Christian movement assumed that idolaters needed a rigorous form of discipleship, the so-called catechumenate, to mold converts into the faith and life of Jesus Christ, the post-Constantinian Church began to assume that everyone under the sway of a Christian emperor was Christian by default. The real faith of early Christians became the nominal faith of Christendom.

And that tension between the real and the nominal brings us back to the feeling so many American Christians have that our cultural influence is slipping away. If it is — and I believe that it is — how should we respond?

One response is simply for American Christians to engage in cultural and political warfare. While I am a proponent of informed Christian engagement in politics and culture, I worry that this response, however effective it may be in the short term, is ineffective in the long term. Sittser captures the gist of the dilemma when he writes:

If anything, the harder Christians fight, the more precipitous the decline will be, for cultural power and privilege will come at an increasingly high price. Christians will either accommodate until the faith becomes almost unrecognizable, or they will isolate until their faith becomes virtually invisible.

The better response — the one called for by Jesus Christ himself — is the way of discipleship, “baptizing [the nations] in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20). According to that way, success is not defined in terms of the accrual of political power or cultural influence, though they may come, but by fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ regardless of whether they come. He is the Way, so His way must become our way too.

Until American Christians decide that fidelity is more important than power and privilege, their Christianity will continue to be a mile wide and an inch deep, though getting narrower and shallower every day.

Book Reviewed
Gerald L. Sittser, Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2019).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

America’s Religious History | Book Review


American Christians, generally speaking, are ignorant of the history of their own religion in this country, let alone of other religions here. This is not due to a lack of excellent scholarly resources. If anything, there is a surfeit of excellent studies of American religion. The problem is that most Americans won’t read them because they are either too academic or too specific. (Or too long.)

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. His faith perspective is evangelical Christian generally and Southern Baptist specifically. His scholarly expertise is colonial and early U.S. history. Earlier this year, he published a two-volume survey, American History, for college students. Now, he’s published America’s Religious History, a single-volume introduction to that topic, also intended for college students—it’s published by Zondervan Academic—but readily accessible to a broad readership.

America’s religious history did not start with Christianity, of course, which was only introduced to the Western hemisphere beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1492. Kidd touches briefly on aspects of indigenous religious before colonization, but the main line of his story starts with first Catholic and then Protestant colonization efforts. While Catholicism always played an important role in the history of those lands that eventually became the United States, Kidd’s main focus throughout the book is on “the fate of Protestantism in America,” which is the nation’s “most powerful religious strain.” He does mention developments in other religions too, as well as in nonreligious, skeptical points of view.

As a Pentecostal Christian and ordained minister in the Assemblies of God, I was delighted by Kidd’s treatment of Pentecostalism in the last few chapters of the book. While I acknowledge that our tribe has problems—televangelist scandals, prosperity gospel preachers, etc.—our history also demonstrates a spiritual vitality and ethnic diversity that bode well for our future.

Kidd begins the book with three sentences that identify a thread running throughout America’s Religious History: “The story of American religion is a study in contrasts. Secular clashes with the sacred; demagoguery with devotion. Perhaps most conspicuously, religious vitality has existed alongside religious violence.” Readers looking for a chirpily cheery national history of Christianity specifically or religion generally will be disappointed by Kidd’s work. There’s much in America’s “lived religion,” its daily practice of faith, that is heartening, of course, but disheartening episodes abound too, especially when it comes to evangelicals and politics.

Kidd closes each chapter with a list of “Works Cited and Further Reading.” This list makes an excellent next step for readers who want go deeper on the historical developments surveyed in that chapter. While the publisher probably intends this book for use in a college classroom setting, I think it can also be used profitably by Sunday school classes, small groups, and book clubs. Or, of course, for the solitary reader seeking a better understanding of this nation’s religious history.

Book Reviewed
Thomas S. Kidd, America’s Religious History: Faith, Politics, and the Shaping of a Nation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Yes” on my Amazon review page.

The Battle over Religions Liberty in America | Influence Podcast


“We’ve long lived in a country where religious freedom was secure, and we didn’t need to give it much thought,” writes Luke Goodrich. “Now we’re realizing the country is changing and we might not enjoy the same degree of religious freedom forever. If we don’t start thinking about it now, we’ll be unprepared.”

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine, coordinator of Religious Freedom Initiatives for the Assemblies of God (USA), and your host. In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Luke Goodrich about the contemporary state of American religious freedom.

Luke Goodrich is vice president and senior counsel at Becket Law, a leading non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths. He was part of the Becket legal team that won four major Supreme Court cases in four years: Little Sisters of the Poor v. BurwellHolt v. Hobbs, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. He is the author of Free to Believe: The Battle over Religious Liberty in America, published this past Tuesday by Multnomah.

This episode of the Influence Podcast is brought to you by My Healthy Church, distributors of Help! I’m in Charge:

No matter what kind of leader you are, the pressure to get everything right can plague you with worry. That’s why in Help! I’m in Charge, Rod Loy offers the candid advice you need to face the fears and challenges of leadership. Straightforward, light-hearted, but never sugar-coated, Help! I’m in Charge will guide you to develop the kind of practical, Scripture-based leadership skills that can fortify your confidence for years to come.

For more information about Help! I’m in Charge, visit RodLoyBooks.com.

The Booming Marketplace of Replacement Religions | Influence Podcast


Stories about the rise of the “Nones,” that share of the American populace which identifies with no religion, give the impression that religion in America is in steep decline. “What they fail to report,” writes David Zahl, “is that the marketplace in replacement religion is booming.”

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to David Zahl about the contours of this new secular religiosity. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influencemagazine, and your host.

David Zahl is the founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries, whose mission is “to connect the Christian faith with the realities of everyday life in fresh and down-to-earth ways.” He’s also editor-in-chief of the popular Mockingbird website and cohost of the Mockingcast. Most recently, he’s author of Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It, published by Fortress Press.

The Myth of the Dying Church | Influence Podcast


Read the headlines, and you just might come to the conclusion that Christianity in America is dying. “Christianity Faces Sharp Decline as Americans Are Becoming Even Less Affiliated with Religion,” according to a Washington Postheadline. A BeliefNet story was titled, “Declining Christianity: The Exodus of the Young and the Rise of Atheists.” According to National Public Radio, “Christians in the U.S. on Decline as Number of ‘Nones’ Grows, Survey Finds.”

So is American Christianity really declining? That’s the question I ask Glenn Stanton in this episode of the Influence Podcast. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influencemagazine and your host. Glenn Stanton is the director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and author of The Myth of the Dying Church, just out from Worthy Publishing.

P.S. Check out my review of The Myth of the Dying Church here.

Seculosity | Book Review


American organized religion is declining. According to Gallup data, only one percent of U.S. adults claimed no religious affiliation in 1955. By 2017, that percentage had grown to 20. The younger the adult, the likelier the lack of religious affiliation. For adults ages 30–39, the percentage is 28. For those ages 21–29, it’s 33. If you’re looking for evidence of secularization in America, this rise of the Nones is Exhibit A.

And yet, David Zahl claims inhis new book that “the marketplace in replacement religion is booming.” Those replacements don’t look or feel religious, however — at least not in the capital-R sense of the term, which Zahl describes as “robes and kneeling and the Man Upstairs.” They don’t necessarily look like “folkloric beliefs” or “occult belief systems” either: things like charms, telepathy, or astrology.

Instead, replacement religions center around everyday concerns such as — to list the topics of the book’s chapters — busyness, romance, parenting, technology, work, leisure, food, and politics. Zahl calls each of these replacements “seculosity,” a portmanteau of “secular” and “religiosity.” Seculosity is a religious impulse “directed horizontally rather than vertically, at earthly rather than heavenly objects.”

Why does Zahl considers these secular concerns religious? And why should we do so too? Those are fair questions, good ones even, because they go straight to the heart of what our culture thinks religion is.

We typically think of religion in of capital-R Religion terms, that is, organized religion with its concerns for doctrine, ritual, community, and institutions. Those are the outward manifestations of an inward impulse, which Zahl calls “the justifying story of our life.” According to him, religion is “what we lean on to tell us we’re okay, that our lives matter.” It is “our preferred guilt-management system.” In other words, religion is what “we rely on not just for meaning or hope but enoughness.” This search for enoughness characterizes religious Nones just as much as it does the traditionally religious. It is a universal longing.

Take the everyday concern about busyness, for example. Ask people how they’re doing, and they’ll probably reply, “Busy.” I certainly would. Between work, marriage, parenting, and life in general, it feels like every moment of every day is accounted for…and then some. I tell myself to rest, but the moment I start to do so, the nagging suspicion takes hold that a book needs to be read, an article needs to be written, a chore needs to be accomplished, my kids need to be helicoptered over, my wife needs to be date-nighted, the latest blockbuster movie needs to be watched, etc. (Notice, by the way, that even our leisure activities such as dating and movie-watching become have become to-do items.)

These nagging suspicions arise from what Zahl calls “performancism.” He writes: “Performancism turns life into a competition to be won (#winning) or a problem to be solved, as opposed to, say, a series of moments to be experienced or an adventure to relish. Performancism invests daily tasks with existential significance and turns even menial activities into measures of enoughness.”

And woe betide those who fail at these tasks, because “if you are not doing enough, or doing enough well, you are not enough.” Zahl doesn’t quote Blaise Pascal at this point, but there’s a lot of wisdom in the latter’s statement, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” (Now that I’ve quoted Pascal, however, I’m feeling guilty that I’m not checking off that to-do item either.)

Performancism is “one of the hallmarks of all forms of seculosity,” their underlying assumption, affecting how we approach everyday life. It cripples seculosity’s practitioners with anxiety (Am I enough?), shame (Do they think I’m enough?), and guilt (Have I done enough?). “The common denominator [in all forms of seculosity] is the human heart, yours and mine,” Zahl explains, referring to what motivates our behavior. “Which is to say, the problem is sin.”

In theological terms, you see, seculosity is just the latest example of a “religion of law.” It is a form of self-justification or works-righteousness. And like all such schemes, it is doomed to failure because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We are not enough. We have not done enough. We cannot do enough.

The antidote to seculosity is a “religion of grace,” Zahl concludes. “Sin is not something you can be talked out of (‘stop controlling everything!’) or coached through with the right wisdom. It is something from which you need to be saved.” And that salvation depends on the sacrificial love of the One doing the saving. He is enough, and only in Him can you be too.

Book Reviewed
David Zahl, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What To Do About It (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is from the July-August 2019 print issue of Influence magazine and is cross-posted here with permission.

The Myth of the Dying Church | Book Review


The rise of the “Nones”—that share of the American populace that claims no religious affiliation—is one of the most important religion stories of the past decade. Unfortunately, its import is often misunderstood. Rather than portending the decline of American Christianity per se, the rise of the Nones portends the decline of certain kindsof American Christianity.

In The Myth of the Dying Church, Glenn T. Stanton presents a rollicking account of which forms of American Christianity are thriving and which are declining. The myth consists of two claims. The general claim is that “Christianity has been declining over the last decade, with people simply losing interest in it and going elsewhere.” This claim is the one readers typically come across in secular media. The specific claim, one that readers often come across in Christian media, is that “our children and their friends…are highly unlikely to hang on to their faith as they get older.”

Stanton debunks the myth’s general claim by pushing past headlines and pointing out details typically buried at the bottom of  news stories. Similarly, he goes beyond the topline summaries of leading statistical reports and pointing out the nuances of the numbers. While his presentation of the details has the feel of a blog article—Stanton writes for TheFederalist.com—his endnotes show a clear familiarity with the relevant literature.

So, how does Stanton debunk the general claim? By pointing out three statistical trends: “the greatest movement of growth within Christianity is found among the evangelical nondenominational churches. The nones are not a new or growing category, but merely a change in identity. And the greatest movement in decline within Christianity over the last fifty years, right up to today, is liberal Christianity.”

The first and third trends are mirror images: Evangelical Christianity is holding strong while the bottom is dropping out of mainline Christianity. Pew Research indicates that most Nones are coming out of mainline churches and Roman Catholicism, not evangelical—or more conservative forms of—Christianity. And statistically speaking, it would be more accurate to describe Nones as denominalizing rather than deconverting. In other words, it is people with weak ties to Christian faith and practice who are shedding their nominal affiliation, not people with strong faith and practice who are apostatizing.

What about the specific claim? It’s pretty common in evangelical Christian circles to hear that the vast majority of young adults raised in church will abandon that faith in young adulthood. Stanton concedes that most Christian young adults experience fluctuations in the intensity of their religious commitment and consistency of their spiritual practice during the college and post-college years. This is an almost inevitable aspect of passing from a faith you learned from your parents to a faith you own for yourself. It’s called growing up.

But studies from Vern Bengston, Christian Smith, and others demonstrate that traditional forms of Christianity are very effective at passing along the faith to the next generation. Moreover, attendance records demonstrate that, in Stanton’s words, “more young people are attending evangelical churches today than they have in quite a long time; more than twice as many who did forty years ago.” Both points call into question the notion that evangelical young adults in particular are leaving the faith in large amounts.

Of course, evangelical youth in general might not be leaving the faith, but your own kids might be doing so. Stanton addresses that problem by outlining the kinds of parental practices that help moms and dads help their daughters and sons own the faith for themselves. These practices are “neither a crapshoot nor rocket science,” as Stanton humorously puts it, and consist largely of “teaching and modeling spiritual disciplines” and helping kids form relationships with other “trust and dependable adults who function like additional parents, but in some uniquely influential ways.”

On the whole, I think Stanton’s reading of the statistical evidence is right on target. His advice to parents is also quite helpful. If you’re a Christian, you don’t need to be a “Chicken Little” about the future of American Christianity.

At the same time, though, I think Stanton may underestimate the impact of the decline of mainline Protestantism. Let’s stipulate, for the sake of argument, that a lot of people who used to identify with mainline denominations but no longer do so had weak ties with Christian faith and practice to begin with. Let’s also stipulate that mainline Christianity has gone off the reservation in terms of theological orthodoxy. (I have mainline friends who would dispute both points, but just go with me for a second.)

Even stipulating that, the fact that nearly one quarter of Americans now claim no religious identification—and even high percentages of younger generations—creates problems for those with active Christian commitments because it indicates that a growing share of Americans no longer consider Christianity a plausible alternative. In previous generations, evangelism consisted of turning nominal Christians into born-again Christians. Now, evangelism consists of converting people from post-Christianity back to authentic Christianity. It’s one thing to convert pagans to something new. It’s another thing entirely to convert people to Christianity when they’ve already rejected it culturally, even if only at a surface level.

Additionally, the rise of the Nones creates new difficulties for American public discourse. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr.—a Baptist minister, remember—was able to use biblical imagery to unite Americans around the cause of civil rights. This religious language united Americans across race, class, and region. When King cited Scripture, even his racist critics knew what he was talking about. The loss of even nominal Christianity, in my opinion, means that American culture no longer has that kind of unifying religious language that King was able to access in his monumental struggle.

It’s a bit unfair of me to critique Stanton for failing to address my concerns about the religious trends he writes about. His writing purpose is to debunk the myth that American Christianity is dying. It isn’t. If you don’t believe me, read Stanton’s convincing book. But don’t get too comfortable once you know the myth has been debunked. American Christianity isn’t dying, but its cultural context is changing, and those changes portend challenges that will only get harder in the near term.

Book Reviewed
Glenn T. Stanton, The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Thriving in America and the World (New York: Worthy Publishing, 2019).

P.S. If you like my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Thinking Christianly about American History | Influence Podcast


“Christians believe the kingdom of God is our ultimate commitment, and we should confuse no temporal nation with that kingdom,” writes evangelical historian Thomas S. Kidd in his new, two-volume history of the United States. “But we are also thankful for the ways God has moved in American history, redeeming untold millions of people and building his church in each generation.”

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, Influence magazine Executive Editor George P. Wood talks to Thomas S. Kidd about how to think Christianly about American history. Kidd is distinguished professor of history, James Vardaman Endowed Professor of History, and associate director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. A noted scholar of colonial America, he is author most recently of American History, a two-volume textbook just published by B&H Academic.

P.S. This podcast is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

The Challenge of Sharing Faith in America Today | Influence Podcast


“Almost Half of Practicing Christian Millennials Say Evangelism Is Wrong,” reads the headline of a storyabout a new report from Barna Group. Titled Reviving Evangelism, that report details the erosion of support for evangelism among next-generation Christians. In Episode 169 of the Influence Podcast, I’ll be talking about this report with David Kinnaman.

David is president of Barna Group, a leading research and communications company that works with churches, nonprofits, and businesses ranging from film studios to financial services. He is also the author of several bestselling books, including Good Faith,You Lost Me, and unChristian. He and his wife live in California with their three children.

P.S. This podcast is cross-posted form InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

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