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March 24, 2001
Column #1021

IS AMERICA SPIRITUALLY STAGNANT?

     America is ''spiritually stagnant'' according to pollster George Barna.

     Over the last five years, there has been a five point increase in the percentage of adults who say they are ''absolutely committed'' to the Christian faith, and simultaneously, a five point drop in the proportion who had attended church in the last seven days, Barna reports.

     Since 1991, the percentage who say they read the Bible in the past week fell from 45 to 37 percent, church attendance dropped from 49 to 42 percent. Volunteering at church is down from 27 to 20 percent and adult Sunday school attendance is down from 23 to 19 percent. 

     Yet the number of Americans who say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ which is still important in their lives and who believe they will go to heaven because they had confessed their sins and accepted Jesus as their savior - rose from 35 percent of the nation in 1991 to 41 percent in 2001. These people are usually called ''born again.''

     How can there be a rising commitment to Christianity with declining church attendance, volunteering and Bible study? 

     Hypocrisy is one answer. ''Spiritual stagnation'' may be a more apt explanation.

     Four out of ten born again Christians do not attend church or read the Bible in a typical week and there are ten million people who have accepted Jesus but don't worship Him in church. 

     There are major differences in religious behavior between Catholics and Protestants. While similar numbers attend church on Sunday, 47 percent of Protestants say they read the Bible while only 25 percent of Catholics do so. Protestants are much more likely to attend adult Sunday school (28 percent vs 3 percent), to participate in a small group (22 vs. 9 percent), or volunteer at their church (25 to 15 percent). 

     However, Barna reports more than one-third of Protestant church-goers are not born again. ''Most of those people have been attending Christian churches for years and years, without really understanding the foundations of the Christian faith and its personal implications,'' he says.

     ''America certainly did not experience the spiritual revival that many Christians prayed for,'' said the pollster. ''Christian ministry is stuck in a deep rut. Our research continues to point out the need for behavioral modeling, strategic ministry, and a more urgent reliance upon God to change people's lives.''

     Barna charges that ''Too many Christians and churches in America have traded in spiritual passion for empty rituals, clever methods and mindless practices. The challenge to today's Church is not methodological. It is a challenge to resuscitate the spiritual passion and fervor of the nation's Christians.''

     I am not wholly convinced by this analysis. People in the South are more likely to report being absolutely committed to Christ, to reading the Bible, attending Sunday School and being born again. But they are also more likely to divorce their husbands and wives.

     The states with the lowest divorce rates are in the Catholic Northeast while twice as many divorce in the Bible Belt states of Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama and Oklahoma. In half of Oklahoma's counties, there are more divorces than marriages!

     What good is it to say one accepts Jesus Christ as their personal savior, if one is unwilling to exhibit selflessness and commitment toward a husband, wife or children? 

     What is the answer?

     I would like to hear more practical sermons. I don't care if I never hear another sermon about Abraham. Once I sat through a 20-part series on Abraham. I'm ready to let the old man's bones rest. But I've rarely heard sermons on how we are to love our spouses and children. 

     Jesus said we are to ''love our neighbor as ourselves.'' Who is a closer neighbor than a husband, wife or children? 

     What are we to say to our adult children who are living with someone of the opposite sex? 

     In America 4.2 million adults are cohabiting at any moment of time. Over a year's time, probably six or seven million people are shacking up. It is the dominant way male-female unions are now formed in the United States. 

     Yet only 2.3 million couples marry a year, and more than half are cohabiting at the time.

     The University of Wisconsin reports that those who marry after cohabiting are 50 percent more likely to divorce than those who never lived together. St. Paul wrote in I Corinthians 7:18 that we are to ''flee fornication.'' Surely, cohabitation is fornication squared.

     Yet have you ever heard a sermon on cohabitation? 

Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.

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