In his post, ‘Unherd’, on September 24, 2023, Peter Franklin comments on a new book, The Great Dechurching, by Jim Davis and Michael Graham (August, 2023). They observe that in recent years some 40 million Americans have stopped attending church.

Now it’s easy to say this is not surprising – perhaps because of the shocking abuses perpetrated in various churches, and also the trickle-down impact of the secular liberalism of influential universities, denying the existence of the divine.

However, it seems the reasons are not that simple. For example, Franklin observes that Davis and Graham comment that while it is most likely that young adults are staying away from church, ‘it is those with the most education in this cohort who are the least likely to quit’. Franklin also points out that the writers observe that ‘among people quitting evangelical churches, levels of conservative religious belief remain high’. They further comment that “evangelicals are dechurching at almost twice the pace on the right political flank than they are on the left”.

Significantly, Davis and Graham observe that of America’s absent evangelicals, “more than half […] are willing to come back right now”. To which Franklin comments, ‘They just need better churches.’ He also notes that ‘until then, there are millions of non-college-educated Americans whose religious and political views put them at odds with the secular liberal establishment, but who lack strong institutions of their own’.

Given the complexity of the American church-going scene, and with it, the reality that there is at least a Christian memory in the wider community, let me suggest that you may find it helpful to develop questions to ask family and friends over coffee. To that end you may find it useful to reflect on key points Paul the Apostle raised almost two millennia ago in the course of his address at the Areopagus in ancient Athens.

Responding to the questions amongst the Athenian intelligentsia who were asking, ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’, Paul stood up and said: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22ff).

It was an ingenious opening to what is both a defense and presentation of God’s good news. Without quoting from the Bible yet drawing from what it reveals about God, he engaged with contemporary ideas within Greek thought.

So, let’s begin by identifying the first of Paul’s key points with a view to developing questions we might ask.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands,” Paul began. “And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:24-25).

The view that we live in a world that has been created by one God who is Lord of all was a very different worldview from the Epicureans in Paul’s audience. They believed in chance and the pursuit of pleasure. It was also very different from the pantheism of the Stoics and their stiff upper-lip approach to life. And today, it is a very different worldview from the Hindus, the Buddhists and scientific atheists who all reject the notion of a creator God.

Yet it is a worldview many esteemed scientists today support. For example, Charles Townes who won the Nobel prize for his discovery of the laser has stated: “In my view the question of origin seems always left unanswered if we explore from a scientific view alone. Thus, I believe there is a need for some religious or metaphysical explanation. I believe in the concept of God and in His existence” (quoted in Henry F. (Fritz) Schaefer, Science & Christianity, Conflict or Coherence? Third Edition, 2023, p.70).

The universe in which we live did not come into existence by random chance. There is a creator God and logically he can never go away. The Athenians reckoned that they were independent, free spirits, able to make their own decisions without reference to any God.

Nothing much has changed! But Paul won’t have any of it: God is the one who continues to sustain the life he has created. It’s absurd to think that he needs to be sustained by us. And yet we want to domesticate him. We build grand church buildings and put him in there. We don’t let him loose on the street let alone in our lives.

‘No!’ says Paul. ‘We depend on God, not he on us.’ “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:24-25).

How important it is that we find ways to awaken family and friends to these profound truths – especially those who have stopped going to church.

Here are some questions you may want to explore:

  1. Do you agree that our capacity to deceive ourselves is endless? We tell ourselves that what we think must be true. But wanting a win in the lottery never created a win.
  2. Do you reckon that saying there is no creator God is a sign we have lost touch with reality and inhabit a dream world of our own?
  3. Would you prefer that God did your will and turned up only when you wanted him?
  4. What do think of Paul’s words?

More next week!

A prayer. Lord Christ, eternal Word and Light of the Father’s glory: send your light and your truth so that we may both know and proclaim your word of life, to the glory of God the Father; for you now live and reign, God for all eternity. Amen.

© John G. Mason

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