The Washington Times has this story: Americans Leaving Churches in Droves.
In it, we read several anecdotes about people not going to church any more for various reasons, and also some statistics that seem to bear out that church attendence is dropping. In a follow-up discussion, I also read some comments that hit on most of the usual talking points, from the atheistic to the arrogant self-religious “Christians”, including some anecdotes about full church parking lots and music that is too loud.
One comment though really caught my attention. It stated plainly that the commenter hated Protestant churches. He did not expand much on his comment, but it certainly piqued my interest as to why someone would make a comment like that. We can break it down a bit, and reach some conclusions, because while it was a comment that made me feel a bit angry and frustrated, it reflects a lot of popular thinking. And if Protestantism is to blame for the dwindling church attendance, then the Protestants should man up and humble themselves before God and reverse the trend in so doing.
So for me, the key issue is what the original article writer, and the subsequent commenter meant with “church” and with “Protestant”. What has church become in America? Are evangelical churches also Protestant churches by default, or are they mostly truly non-denominational?
Are we just being defensive and pedantic, or is there truly a difference between all of these? From what I have seen, any church that is not Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox, is described as a Protestant church. That includes all the evangelical, word-faith mega-churches, non-denominational, Baptist, Lutheran, pentecostal and other traditional churches. But while it is true that all of these came into existence after the reformation, as a consequence, is it fair to describe them as Protestant?
As a reminder, here is a quick recap of the principles that came out of the reformation, and forms the backbone of what can be truly described as a Protestant church. It is centered on God, based on God’s Word alone, committed to faith in Christ alone for salvation, and devotion to Christ as Priest, King and Prophet. The reformed faith further recognizes and believes in the radical corruption of humanity, God’s sovereign choice, the specific atonement of Christ, the effective and effectual call of the Holy Spirit, and the preservation of God’s people.
On a personal note, I have experienced the whole spectrum. I grew up in a traditional reformed church, had a period when I did not go to church due to being in a country where churches were few and far between, and English churches limited to one weekly liberal meeting, attended mega-churches and smaller non-denominational churches in the USA and finaly completed the circle back at a smallish conservative reformed church. I dealt with some of the same feelings described in the article, yet, without being judgmental to those in the article, or those who choose to leave their churches and not go to church any more, my outcome was different.
After that journey, and many conversations with the head pastors of the various churches, I can honestly say that it would be a stretch to describe them as Protestant or reformed. Yes, I know that it is high fashion to characterize the teachings of the reformation as “Calvinism” or even “hyper-Calvinism”, and use that as if it is a reason to stray away from reformed teachings towards a men-centered, works-based doctrine. Others, specifically in non-denominational churches love to say that they preach only the Bible, no doctrine is needed.
This brings us to some conclusions. Firstly, it is not fair to describe all non-Roman Catholic churches as Protestant, simply because they clearly do not teach the principles of the reformation. Some of the popular churches are stunningly theologically shallow, in fact. Secondly, the Gospel is by its very nature offensive, and is not meant to win public popularity contests, but rather convict souls unto salvation.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, what I read in the article was somewhat upsetting. Have Christians become consumers, instead of servants? Audiences, instead of participants? Anonymous, instead of leaders? Ignorant, instead of knowledgable? Spiritually fat, lazy and content, instead of thirsting for the knowledge of the things of God?
To borrow from a well-known political quote, it seems as if for some church leavers the question was: What can my church do for me, and not, what has my God called me to do? And that kind of question can only arise when there is no serious research, contemplation and meditiaton on the things of God. It can only come from an environment where the expectation is set such that God is at the call of man, as some kind of celestial conscierge.
And that is why proper doctrine matters. It reinforces the teachings of the Bible, through careful scholarship and prayerful and thoughtful mediation, so that we may serve, praise and be saved. It analyzes and expounds on the deeper meaning of Scripture. It starts and ends with God, and His will for His people. It inspires confidence in our beliefs, and deepens our understanding of Scripture. It tests and evaluates worldviews for logic and consistency in the face of secular or sectarial attacks. It allows us the freedom to trust our church and its leaders to be consistent and Biblical, so that we may concentrate on service and stewardship.
I believe that no church that teaches solid Biblical doctrine, starting and ending with trusting Christ alone for our salvation, will ever run empty. And no believers attending such a church will ever play the victim as an excuse to leave.