I recently returned from teaching in a Third World country. It is, in many ways, typical. There is growing starvation, a massive epidemic of AIDS, an equally massive epidemic of governmental corruption, ethnic conflicts, and great political uncertainty. Bibles are few, the church is poor, and it has few trained pastors. Yet I ministered to people who were hungry for the Word of God. Whenever I spoke, I was followed by eager and earnest attention.
By contrast, here in America, where I work, we have more Bibles than we know what to do with, churches in abundance, religious institutions, religious presses, political stability, more food than we can eat, and the world’s best medical care. And yet, our appetite for the Word of God, for His truth, is tepid. The Africans among whom I worked are poor in the things of this world, but, I suspect, they are rich toward God. We are rich in the things of this world, but am I wrong in thinking that we are poor in the things that really matter?
What has gone wrong? Let me try to put my finger on one aspect of this problem.
In two national surveys this year, George Barna explored the question of whether people believe that moral truth is unchanging or whether circumstances should be taken into consideration in deciding what is right. In the nation as a whole, only 22 percent thought there are moral absolutes that should remain unchanged by circumstances, while 64 percent opted for relativism. The findings were even more dramatic among teenagers, among whom 83 percent opted for relativism and only 6 percent opposed it. And among those who claimed spiritual rebirth, only 32 percent of adults expressed belief in moral absolutes, and the figure for teenagers was only 9 percent. Barna’s conclusion is that with such overwhelming capitulation to relativism, the church is in deep trouble.
It would be quite reasonable to suppose that grasping this fact might lead to some rethinking. Where have we gone wrong? How can we recover what we have lost? If Christianity is not about truth, both by way of belief and moral behavior, what does it have to offer? Can it survive?
These, however, are not the questions that Barna and those like him are asking. “Continuing to preach more sermons,” he reasons, “teach more Sunday school classes, and enroll more people in Bible study groups won’t solve the problem since most of these people don’t accept the basis of the principles being taught in those venues.” This may be true as long as the worldview of those in the church is left unchallenged. But can the church be the church if it is not summoned by the Word of God, addressed by the Word of God, and rebuked and nourished by the Word of God? The disappearance of truth from the church, driven out by a loss of appetite for it and an unwillingness to take it seriously, really does put the church in jeopardy.
This loss of truth has not happened overnight. It is the result, I believe, of three main developments: the intrusion of the postmodern ethos; the unraveling of the post-war evangelical coalition; and the attempt to redefine the church in terms of consumption.