Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Faith Only Lasts Three Generations?

In his book, The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman quotes a Chinese proverb, "Wealth only lasts three generations." The proverb means that when someone becomes wealthy through hard work and wise decisions, they normally pass a little bit of this ethic to their children along with the wealth they leave behind. Their children usually pass down the wealth to the third generation, but not the work ethic, so the third generation squanders the wealth. Friedman's warning is that the ethic that made America great is missing in the rising generation and that without major changes the future could be bleak for the American economy.

As the question of the hour for the American evangelical church is, "Why aren't twenty-somethings in the church?" I wonder if perhaps the Chinese proverb could be applied to faith. Maybe "Faith only lasts three generations."

Americans of three generations ago were great. They made our nation great, and they made evangelicalism great. In the hard years of our country—during World War 1, The Great Depression, and World War 2, a huge number of people became evangelical Christians. Theirs was an authentic faith birthed out of struggle. They experienced first-hand loss, poverty, and gross evil. They had to rely on God. They saw first-hand what the world looked like without God, and the prayers they prayed in fox holes stuck with them when the wars ended.

The generation after them inherited this faith, but they didn't have to work as hard for it. My generation in turn has inherited that faith, but we haven't had to work at all for it.

Essentially, we have a generation of trust-fund Christians who are living off of the faith of their grandparents. It’s no wonder we are leaving the church.

So, what does the future look like for evangelicalism? I think the prediction of our loss of numbers and influence is accurate. I think that when someone has a radical conversion to Christ as an adult, the effects of this conversion will spill over for about three generations. Right now our numbers are high because there were such a large number of adult conversions three generations ago. But the effects of this "revival" or "awakening" are wearing off as the older people are passing away and their less-committed descendants are walking away. So, one of two things will happen:

1. America will continue as it is and Christianity will decline in influence to the levels of Europe. There will continue to be genuine conversions, and these conversions will leave ripples for three generations. But unless the younger generations undergo significant spiritual experiences that cause them to "own" their faith for themselves, the ripples will stop after three generations.

2. America will undergo a catastrophe or in some other way experience "revival." World War 3 or an economic meltdown throws all predictions of the end of Christendom out the window, as they may lead to another time of mass conversion. These conversions may not be to evangelicalism, but to whatever branch of Christianity that best offers hope and an explanation of the catastrophe. The numbers of that branch will swell for three generations.

Regardless of which scenario plays out, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, we have a big God who is in control of history. He knows where it is going, and He's going to win in the end. Second, not everyone in the church is a Christian. Just because evangelicalism has large numbers and great influence doesn't mean that "Jesus is winning." The church will always consist of genuine believers and those who just show up for sociological reasons. We should expect nothing more. Third, Christianity is a global movement, not an American one. Ours is an age of a post-Christian west and a post-western Christianity. While the numbers may be down here, the Gospel flourishes in South America, Africa, and East Asia. More and more we will look to them for spiritual leadership. Finally, our kids have to embrace the faith for themselves. They can't inherit our faith. We can do our best to model Christianity for them (and we should, because they can tell what we really believe), but ultimately God has to speak to them, and they have to respond for themselves. So we need to pray for them.


johhny said...

Great thoughts Matt! Is this in your prep for the generations series?

I agree with a lot of what you are saying. Brooke and I are in the midst of "band of brothers" and see how you would have to rely on something bigger than yourself when going through the horrendous injustice at the time.

But do we not have intellectual battles? Are those not enough to sharpen our faith and force us to rely on God?

Do we not have social justice issues to rally behind? What can we look to and see to realize we need God in this world?

The recession we are going through puts our thoughts inward as opposed to outward. But after it is over does it go back out?

What I mean is, personal revival can happen through the bleak times ahead, but then what?

Matt said...

Thanks, Johnny.

No, this isn't prep for the generations series. I think I am going to be more positive in that series. (I save the doom and gloom for the blog.)

I do think that we face struggles today and I do think that these struggles can generate faith. But these struggles will have varying degrees of lasting impact.

In the case of WWII, veterans of the war remained friends for their entire lives. What happened out there was life changing in every sense of the word.

While the current economic crisis is bad, I question whether it is "life-changing." I can only speak for myself, but my lifestyle has not been significantly cramped by the economic downturn.

Part of this post comes out of my wrestling with the question of how to get the younger people in our church to be as committed as the older folks.

I think the building of this church (the literal building, as in pushing the walls up) was instrumental to the success of the church. Those who were around then put their lives on hold to get this church going. They came out to the building site every night for over a year to make sure that this thing got going. The result is incredible "buy-in" to what happens here.

What is one thing that a lot of the "old-timers" have in common? They are all adult converts. Something happened in their lives that made them leave their old lives and follow Jesus. While I think that children's ministry is essential, childhood conversions don't carry the same conviction that adult ones do. (You remember in Kainos how hard it was to get cradle Christians to "own" their faith.)

What's it going to take to bring "revival" (either personal or corporate)? I don't know.

Personally, I think the recession could be the best thing to happen to the Jesus movement in America in a long time. How many people in our congregation have had to pray for God to pay their bills in the last 18 months compared to the five years before then? Those kinds of prayers help you grow.

It may even be better for the church in the long term if the economy gets worse. Sure, we'll struggle. But those who make it through will be the committed people of the future.

Johnny said...

The recession is effecting the "younger" generation the most. Even the ones coming out of college...where are the jobs for them?

My lifestyle hasn't changed drastically either, although, I think we are on the lower end of the "norm" where we didnt' have a lucrative lifestyle to begin with. If it gets bad enough, our income is directly related to the income of the church. long will it take? How bad will it get?

How come the WTC incident on 9-11 didn't effect us in a more positive way? I feel like that was a "pearl harbor" event yet more cynicism against the war came out than patriot-ism. Why do you think that is? If instead of Iraq, we went full speed into Afghanastan more, and then as intel showed that Iraq was also involved...we then go there for those reasons as opposed to other reasons?

All questions that I have no answers for. I do think that if war came onto American soil it would be different...but then again, it sort of did.

Matt said...

Good point on the recession hitting the younger generation more. I was struck by Rob's observation at men's group on Monday that 40% of our group was looking for work. That's way higher that Pierce County's 10% rate. I think there is something to be said about younger people getting hit harder.

It's true--our income is directly related to the income of the people in the church. Brooke and I have already started cutting back in preparation for the day on which the church has to make cut backs. Maybe that day won't come, but it has already come for just about every other church in the area.

As far as the war, I read somewhere that 9/11 hasn't had the effect that Pearl Harbor did. The author attributed the difference to the draft. After Pearl Harbor there was a draft and everyone had to take ownership of the war. One of the more human scenes in Saving Private Ryan is when they find out Tom Hanks is a school teacher back in America. The war affected everyone, not just a "professional army."

Now we have a professional army, so the war only affects a minority of the country (but it affects that minority a lot as they have to go back to Iraq and Afghanistan 3 and 4 times).

Isn't it interesting how quickly Iraq dropped out of the news when the recession hit. It shows you what we really care about. Even Obama's campaign went from "I'm the only guy who voted against Iraq" to "I'm the guy to bring change and fix the economy."