Monday, February 14, 2005

How "transformed" are we?

This book caught my eye this past week:

Ten years ago, Mark Noll wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, asserting that "notwithstanding all their other virtues, . . . American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking." Now comes Ron Sider's The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, which asserts that we evangelicals aren't exemplary for our virtues, either.

In the latest issue of Christianity Today's Books and Culture (a fantastic bi-monthy that should appeal to any thinking Christian) Ron Sider writes what must be a sort of condensation of the conclusions of his book. It's loaded with statistics, but if these statistics are reflective of the truth about Evangelical Christians, then we must face up to a sobering truth -- we do not live like people whose lives have been transformed by Christ. In fact, on the whole we're not much different than those whose lives we would say need transforming.

The findings in numerous national polls conducted by highly respected pollsters like The Gallup Organization and The Barna Group are simply shocking. "Gallup and Barna," laments evangelical theologian Michael Horton, "hand us survey after survey demonstrating that evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general." Divorce is more common among "born-again" Christians than in the general American population. Only 6 percent of evangelicals tithe. White evangelicals are the most likely people to object to neighbors of another race. Josh McDowell has pointed out that the sexual promiscuity of evangelical youth is only a little less outrageous than that of their nonevangelical peers.

Alan Wolfe, famous contemporary scholar and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, has just published a penetrating study of American religious life. Evangelicals figure prominently in his book. His evaluation? Today's evangelicalism, Wolfe says, exhibits "so strong a desire to copy the culture of hotel chains and popular music that it loses what religious distinctiveness it once had." Wolfe argues, "The truth is there is increasingly little difference between an essentially secular activity like the popular entertainment industry and the bring-'em-in-at-any-cost efforts of evangelical megachurches." It is not surprising that George Barna concludes, "Every day, the church is becoming more like the world it allegedly seeks to change." We have very little time, he believes, to reverse these trends. African Christian and famous missions scholar Professor Lamin Sanneh told Christianity Today recently that "the cultural captivity of Christianity in the West is nearly complete, and with the religion tamed, it is open season on the West's Christian heritage. I worry about a West without a moral center facing a politically resurgent Islam."

Sider quickly points out that our first concern "must be internal integrity, not external danger." (Although, to phrase that last statement another way, there should be some concern whether an America with no moral foundation can face an enemy with a strong foundation of anti-Americanism.)

In the article, Sider cites a series of statistics that should be cause for self-examination in the church, if not a call for outright reform.

In a 1999 national survey, George Barna found that the percentage of born-again Christians who had experienced divorce was slightly higher (26 percent) than that of non-Christians (22 percent). In Barna's polls since the mid-1990s, that number has remained about the same. In August 2001, a new poll found that the divorce rate was about the same for born-again Christians and the population as a whole; 33 percent of all born-again Christians had been divorced compared with 34 percent of non-born-again Americans — a statistically insignificant difference. Barna also found in one study that 90 percent of all divorced born-again folk divorced after they accepted Christ.

. . .

John and Sylvia Ronsvalle have been carefully analyzing the giving patterns of American Christians for well over a decade. Their annual The State of Christian Giving is the most accurate report for learning how much Christians in the richest nation in human history actually give. In their most recent edition, they provide detailed information about per-member giving patterns of U.S. church members from 1968 to 2001. Over those thirty-plus years, of course, the average income of U.S. Christians has increased enormously. But that did not carry over into their giving. The report showed that the richer we become, the less we give in proportion to our incomes. In 1968, the average church member gave 3.1 percent of their income—less than a third of a tithe. That figure dropped every year through 1990 and then recovered slightly to 2.66 percent—about one quarter of a tithe.

. . .

Popular evangelical speaker Josh McDowell has been observing and speaking to evangelical youth for several decades. I remember him saying years ago that evangelical youth are only about 10 percent less likely to engage in premarital sex than nonevangelicals.

True Love Waits, a program sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention, is one of the most famous evangelical efforts to reduce premarital sexual activity among our youth. Since 1993, about 2.4 million young people have signed a pledge to wait until marriage to engage in sexual intercourse. Are these young evangelicals keeping their pledges? In March 2004, researchers from Columbia University and Yale University reported on their findings. For seven years they studied 12 thousand teenagers who took the pledge. Sadly, they found that 88 percent of these pledgers reported having sexual intercourse before marriage; just 12 percent kept their promise. The researchers also found that the rates for having sexually transmitted diseases "were almost identical for the teenagers who took pledges and those who did not."

Read the whole article here.

Sider is the president and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action and a professor of theology and culture at Eastern Baptist Theolgical Seminary. A lot of people would call Sider a "liberal," including Tony Campolo, perhaps the poster boy for liberal Christians. But I don't know if Sider is that easy to nail down.

Here's an article in Christianity Today on Sider -- from 1992, I'll grant you, and people certainly change over time -- but it may be a good starting point.

Here's an interview with Sider regarding the "Evangelical Agenda" for Bush's second term.

I haven't had the time to read either of these two articles yet, but plan to soon.

In the meantime, I think I'll pick up Sider's new book. If even half of what he says is true, then all of us need to pay attention.


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