Richard Luscombe, writing in Scotsman.com, declares that "the land of Evangelicals" is losing it's Christian faith as Americans spurn "church" in an alarming exodus from mainstream denominations. In his February 26th article he states,
"Americans are turning away from the Church at a rate never seen before, according to the surprising results of a major study of the country's religious landscape. And many of those who remain are switching between faiths as freely as flicking television channels."
I have mixed reactions to this article, primarily because it hints at something very real that is occuring on the religious landscape of America, but is poorly written by someone who seems to be gazing in from across the sea and interpreting the events through a misunderstanding of what the "church" is.
On the one hand, he is reporting on something very real. There is a massive exodus underway as people are leaving the institutional church in droves. Here Luscombe quotes Roger Finke, a sociology professor at Penn State:
"Right now there's a dropping confidence in organised religion, especially in the traditional religious forms."
I agree with his statement as the evidence for what he is saying is indisputable. The cracks in the foundation of the institutional church are finally giving way and the structure is collapsing under its own weight of faulty architecture and poor workmanship. In the words of Thom Rainer, people are leaving the institution not because they are losing their faith, but to save their faith.
And this is where my difficulty with Luscombe's article arises. He seems to be using the words "denomination" and "faith" interchangeably. To read his article, without thinking deeply, would give the impression that the exodus from institutional church is evidence of an exodus from the belief in and worship of Jesus Christ. This simply isn't the case. The exodus is not comprised of people leaving institutional church to follow Islam or Bhuddism, or any of the other religions. Though there are, undoubtedly, some who are, the overwhelming majority of those in the exodus are people who are believers in and followers of Christ, but are simply trading the institution for a more organic way of Christian faith. Consider this portion of his article, referring to the results of the recent Pew study:
"Although the Pew Forum found that more that 78 per cent of Americans describe themselves as having some kind of Christian affiliation, the rate of those with no ties to any church or faith [here he means denomination] was rising quickly, and older churchgoers are dying off far faster than new converts can be recruited."
Throughout his entire article I see so clearly the toxic misunderstanding that the "church" is the institution or organization and to separate yourself from the institution is to separate yourself from the "church." How can we make this clear? The "church" is not a particular organization. The "church" is the global, collective body of people who worship and follow Christ. To leave a particular institutional framework is not to leave the "church."
The institutional church is crumbling. I believe it is God Himself who is doing the shaking. And as the pillars, steeples, belltowers, and clergy elite fall away, the Way of Jesus Christ is being reborn as the unstoppable movement He promised it would be.