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"Christianity in America is 3,000 miles wide and half an inch deep" -- Dr. J.I. Packer

"Christianity in America is 3,000 miles wide and half an inch deep" -- Dr. J.I. Packer


By David W. Virtue, DD
September 19, 2023

In an article entitled "What is the Future of Evangelicalism?: Evangelicalism Now", the late Dr J. I. Packer, a distinguished Canadian Anglican theologian and author, lamented that North American evangelicalism had entered a "winter" from which it is unlikely to emerge any time soon.

A recent book The Dechurching of America by three authors, Jim Davis, Ryan Burge, and Michael Graham argue that 40 million Americans have left the church with most not likely to return any time soon, if ever.

"We are currently experiencing the largest and fastest religious shift in U.S. history," an excerpt from the book summary reads. "It is greater than the First and Second Great Awakening and every revival in our country combined but in the opposite direction."

Sex abuse and corruption scandals that have rocked the evangelical community -- also well-documented by the media -- have played a role in growing disillusionment with the church. It is not just about COVID. The Gospel Coalition research team found that the dechurching phenomenon is far more complex. They drew their conclusions from an in-depth analysis of data drawn from a trio of surveys of 1,000 individuals, with100 data points per person surveyed. These data points included "demographics, size, core concerns, church off-ramps, historical roots, and the gravity of what is at stake."

More than half of the entire group of dechurched evangelicals surveyed fell into the category of "cultural Christians." Graham explained that this group is predominantly male and white, with high marriage rates, education, and income. This group also leaned left on the political spectrum. Its members were labeled as "cultural Christians" because they scored the lowest of any group on Christian orthodoxy. For example, only 1% of this group said that they believed the statement: "Jesus is the Son of God" and just 22% agreed that "the Bible is the literal word of God." That speaks volumes.

Then there is this morsel: "The biggest reasons for these groups dechurching were things like moving, inconvenience, political disagreements, other priorities, clergy scandal and their faith just not working."

Let us return to Dr. Packer's statement. If true, and I believe it is, then the real problem 40 million Americans left the church lies squarely in the pulpit not the pew.

Sermonizing on a range of social justice issues like topical preaching, prophetic sermons that turned out to be anything but, health and wealth prosperity preaching, unprepared or off-the-cuff sermons, try harder sermons, with vacuously thin sermons leaving millions spiritually hungry and short-changed has not worked to get people coming back to church. "The people look up and are not fed."

Where are the generation of preachers like Martin Lloyd Jones, John Stott, and evangelists like Canon Michael Green. Sadly, they are not to be found. Whatever happened to old fashioned exegesis of the text, (not to be confused with eisegesis), with sermons expounding scripture and then relating it to present day cultural and social realities.

Recently I introduced my young Hispanic pastor to Bishop J.C. Ryle's book HOLINESS. He has been preaching solid sermons on redemption, justification, and sanctification ever since. He can't get enough. No one recommended this book to him in seminary. Some of the ex-Catholics who come to our small church have never heard that word in their lives. It is a revelation to them and their lives are beginning to change.

Where are the preachers teaching redemption, justification by faith, sanctification, holiness of life, lifelong discipleship? They are not be found. Is it any wonder that liberal mainline denominations are emptying out faster than beer from a two-punctured barrel. It is not just wokeness, it is weakness of sound biblical preaching. Preachers have gone from orthodox to heterodox in a generation over the failure to preach biblical sexual ethics and now we have sexual chaos from the pulpits. One article I recently read said preachers are afraid of talking about 'theology.'
https://www.getreligion.org/getreligion/2023/9/16/what-do-seminaries-do-in-an-age-in-which-many-believers-are-afraid-of-theology Really! That's like a chef refusing to talk about the joys of cooking filet mignon.

The former Episcopal Bishop of Arizona, Kirk Smith became the canary in the coal mine when he revealed the true state of four Episcopal seminaries he has taught at since he retired.

"My time at these institutions quickly dispelled my idyllic fantasies! about theological education within the Episcopal Church."

The bishop described several "troubling trends."

The concept of a "core curriculum," encompassing subjects such as Scripture, theology, and liturgics (as defined by the canons), has largely become a thing of the past. Although these subjects are taught (sort of), the real energy and enthusiasm seem to be reserved for "elective" classes that often align with the current cultural debates, he wrote.

Smith went on to say that three of the four seminaries did not have a full-time faculty member dedicated to teaching the New Testament. Instead, adjunct instructors, some of whom are not Episcopalians, were entrusted with this crucial task. He went on to lament that the elective offerings in areas of hot-button cultural issues were disproportionately emphasized.

Of course, this is what happens when you dump Scripture and talk endlessly of inclusion and diversity with the core emphasis on love that Oprah could embrace but not necessarily Jesus. According to the bishop there is no exposition of books of the Bible, no teaching the 39 Articles, the history of the Church; nothing on Cranmer, Ryle, Toplady, Stott, Packer, to mention just a few notable Anglican figures.

Smith, who is no conservative, gets it right when he says; "If the church is to grow, it must prioritize meeting the deep spiritual needs of its members, rather than merely tinkering with the prayer book."

The reality is mediocrity and the bishop seems to understand that.

Churches are desperate for a new generation of leaders who do not presently exist and probably never will. They are not coming. The jig is up. Is it any wonder that millions of church-going Americans walked away from their churches? Sunday sports brings people to their feet. Spotty revivals are not enough to turn the local church situation around. Old fashioned crusades are not filling pews, their day is done.

How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? And how will they be discipled if they are not studying Scripture.

Jeremiah found something to sate his and his people's desire: "When I found your words, I devoured them; your words were my joy, the happiness of my heart" (Jer. 15:16). The image of eating God's written word is one of the most powerful in all of Scripture. Perhaps we can start there, and perhaps begin a long slow recovery.


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