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Is America Spirtually Healthy?

By Mark Dever

(excerpted from an interview with Mark Dever and Matt Schmucker)

MS:  Let’s think about the church here in America a little bit more.  Do you agree that the statistics look pretty good regarding church life in America?  I mean, it appears that church attendance and membership have largely stayed the same over the past few decades.  Most of America (statistically anyhow), believes itself as being religious.  What do you think?

MD: I think you’re statistics are right.  I think that from what we can tell, church attendance has stayed pretty stable (now it varies a lot from region to region in the country, and certainly in urban areas I think it has tended to go down), but on the whole America is seen by sociologists as the great exception, to the rule that the more industrialized a country becomes, the less religious it becomes.  But America’s level of church attendance and professions of belief when asked by opinion pollsters, are as high as what we would think of as undeveloped, or just developing nations.  So it’s American exceptionalism in religion is noted by scholars, people understand that’s the case, and we can tell it in the country.  Having lived in England for a few years, it is in many ways a much more popularly secular place than our country.  So yeah, there are things that I see as I look around America that I’m very thankful for, as far as the knowledge that people have of the Bible.  Now, it may be much less than it was thirty years ago and sixty years ago, but its much more than it is in many other places in the world.  So I think there are good things about that.  But I don’t think I would say that because of that, Christianity in America is healthy or looks as good as it does in a poll. So for example, one thing I think of as a member of our nations largest Protestant denomination, is that we have a lot of nominalism, in our own Southern Baptist Convention, and in other Evangelical denominations.  There are a lot of people who will happily say that they believe in Christ, that they prayed to receive him as their savior, that they’ve invited him into their hearts, but who don’t give any evidence of truly being converted.  So we see lots of people—I remember one time picking up a drunk, giving him a ride in my car, I began to talk with him about the gospel.  He finished the gospel presentation for me.  Said that he believed it.  Well, what am I supposed to do?  But that seems to be typical of a lot of American Christianity.  We have suggested that someone needs to sort of take care of their business with God, and then they’re sort of done.  A good illustration of this is when we were driving around in Northwest DC and there was this beautiful home on the right (I don’t know if you remember this), but the walk came down from it, and there was this nice gate, and I think it was white painted, and there may have been flowery stuff around it, whatever—there’s a nice gate, and we noticed that there was no fence on either side of the gate.  There was just no fence.  And I don’t remember which one of us said it, but it struck me what a picture that was of so many churches.  There’s a way in, you have to fulfill some sort of membership requirements (whether its attending a class or being baptized or being confirmed or something, some way in), but once you get in there’s no distinction between the church and the world (the yard and the sidewalk), there’s just no distinction.  People can live in the church in whatever way they want, regardless of how scandalous it was.  So American Christianity may look healthy statistically, but I think that there are some real problems with it.  A lot of times I here Evangelicals say that they think the problem is that there are no good follow up programs that we have.  Well, I think that the problem may be deeper than that.  I think the problem may be trying to follow up with people who aren’t truly converted.  I think we need to rethink our evangelism, and we need to rethink what exactly the gospel is, what does it mean to repent and believe?  Well, it’s not simply to assent that Jesus is the Savior in some merely mental fashion.  To repent and believe means to be convicted by God of your sin against Him, and for Him to change your heart so that you trust in Christ.  So I think a lot of what’s going on in American Christianity in some ways, it appears healthy, but I think there are also some deep problems in what our understanding of what it means to be Christian.