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.
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