Michael S. Horton
Some interesting things have happened over the last 18 months to justify my sense that contemporary evangelicalism is literally unchurching the churched. Admittedly, it's an odd conclusion, but it is supported by a number of developments. Not only has there been a decline in the percentage of professions of faith in American churches during the megachurch era; numerous studies over the last few years have documented a massive decline in the knowledge of even the basics of Christian faith and practice among professing believers.
However, I never thought I would see the day when high-profile pastors and church leaders would justify this unfaithfulness. In 2007, the Willow Creek Association published its findings that the most highly committed Christians at Willow Creek Community Church (in the Chicago suburb of South Barrington) were most dissatisfied with their own personal growth and the ministry of their church. Expressing their concern for deeper instruction and richer worship, these respondents were the most likely to be ready to leave Willow Creek. The obvious conclusion drawn by the church's leadership was that the church becomes less important for personal growth as believers mature and they should be taught to become "self-feeders." Believers grow out of their dependence on the church's ministry the same way children outgrow their parents' supervision, the leadership concluded. Over this same period, church marketing expert George Barna wrote two books urging that we move beyond the organized church altogether and find our "spiritual resources" elsewhere, particularly through Internet "communities." He offered statistics to back up his triumphalistic claim that this is already happening. People need spiritual coaches, he insisted, but not the church.
In the summer of 2008, Baker released a book titled Quitting Church, by Washington Times journalist Julia Duin, pointing to a growing exodus from evangelical churches, just as many of their parents had left mainline Protestantism. According to Duin, the reasons many people gave for leaving include shallow preaching and teaching, trivial worship, and a lack of any real sense that it makes any difference.
Ironically, Willow Creek and Barna interpret the failure of churches as evidence of the need for the sheep to become their own shepherds, while Duin and numerous writers for secular newspapers recognize that this makes the church virtually irrelevant.
In my book, Christless Christianity, I argue that we are entering an era of zeal without knowledge, fervor without content, faith without an object, and a bland moralism that is always our default setting as sinners. No one has to teach us that we are basically good people who need a few good plans and maybe a good coach to help us save ourselves and our world. No one has to catechize us in self-centered spirituality. On the contrary, we have to be taught out of this natural religion by the Word and sacraments that Christ has ordained.
I do not expect schools like Westminster Seminary California—or the churches they serve—to thrive under these conditions. However, we do have Christ's promise that he will build his church, through his means, with his enduring presence to the end of the age. At a time when many seminaries are capitulating to the market forces and trading crucial tools of biblical exegesis for courses in appealing to niche demographics, it is more important than ever that those who demand fidelity to Scripture support institutions committed to training future pastors, missionaries, teachers, and evangelists for the future. Jesus asked Peter, "Do you love me?" and followed his disciple's affirmative answer with the command, "Feed my sheep." Sheep are not self-feeders, although many are having to find sustenance here and there wherever they can outside of the ordinary ministry of the church. Shepherds need first to be fed themselves and to be given the resources to find lush pastures for their flock. If we want more faithful shepherds, we need to be more willing than ever to contribute to their training—and the schools that train them—for a lifetime of ministry.