I must insert as a prolegomenon that I am, in fact, a devout Protestant, even though I break some rules as all who have been reading this may know. The aim here is to consider what exactly is going wrong in the Church, and why people are leaving it, based on an experience I had in Charleston.
I was raised in a church that boasted a great pastor. This particular pastor, who’s retiring soon, is named Greg Holiday, and his sermons are easy to find if you’re curious. What was notable about his teaching style was the fact that, rather than preach, he almost lectured as a university professor would.
Let me explain: We would sing a few hymns, then the pastor would get up and begin preaching. He would decide one day to teach on a verse or two. The whole sermon would revolve round a few dozen words at most. He would analyse each sentence aloud, explain the Greek and Hebrew meanings of each word for clarification, and cross-reference with other verses to show that he wasn’t inventing an interpretation out of thin air. He would then stay on topic, occasionally share anecdotes that were pertinent, and return directly to the verses he was discussing. Everyone in the congregation took notes. The sermons lasted approximately forty-five minutes per week. As you can imagine, it took us six months to get through Jude, one of the shortest books of the Bible, because of this meticulous preaching.
What was particularly special about this preaching? For one thing, he always preached doctrine. He always appealed to the Bible itself, commentaries, church thinkers, or even the Talmuds for explanations and clarifications. The idea was to train us all in apologetics, meaning “defence” from the Greek, so that, rather than simply believe something, we were sure why we believed it and could cite precisely the information’s provenance.
This church had its problems, naturally, as humans are infallible and this church’s very conservative congregation could take very insignificant things a bit too far. For example, and this makes me laugh to this day, we used to have a small band in the church. My dad played congas, another guy played drum set, someone played bass, and the pastor’s wife played piano. Remember, we’re still playing hymns. One time, during practice, the guy on the drum set played a fill, which is drum terminology for a little thing you throw in here and there so that you’re not just playing the beat and nothing else. It keeps it from getting boring. The pastor’s wife instantly upbraided him for making the music about him instead of about God. After that, only the pastor’s wife, on the piano, was allowed as acceptable music. It’s a bit ridiculous, obviously, but it’s minor and no one really cared since he wasn’t calling on us to revolt against the New World Order or something.
By contrast, this church in Charleston represented much the opposite, and is exemplary of what is wrong with many churches to this day.
The church was enormous, which is not necessarily bad in and of itself if they’re teaching correctly. But Protestants generally hate nice buildings that aren’t austere, so this was a warning bell at once.
To begin, we sang Christian rock songs before the sermon. I personally hate it, for multiple reasons. First, if I mayn’t shoot up heroin while listening to it, it’s not rock. Second, as I think that show King of the Hill put it, “You’re not making Christianity any better; you’re just making rock worse”. Third, it’s the equivalent of sugar in a diet. Hymns are often scripture put to verse or doctrine put to song; Christian rock is just repeating Jesus’ name a gajillion times until it sounds like they’re cursing rather than praising. Hymns edify, whereas Christian rock is merely charismatic. I think the South Park episode astutely observes that Christian rock is merely popular music with ‘Jesus’ thrown in instead of ‘baby’.
So once these jokers left the stage, which was, by the way, in the church’s gynmasium(!), the screen that had once displayed all the words to the songs now displayed a professional video enumerating the matters of the church. Let’s note a few things here: The church had a freaking gymnasium! Is this really what tithes should be spent on? It was pristine, as well. It’s no sin to have a nice church but you’d think there would be a better use for it. Then the video really made me question what was going on. The quality was, as I already said, professional level. The cost of video equipment would shock you, so this was a second dubious expense. Added to that was the editing, which made it look as if it were a newsroom with the bulletins appearing next to the guy’s face. Everything was clean and almost corporate, which began to get on my nerves. I didn’t want to go to this place to begin with, but my sister had invited us, so we went with her.
The strangest thing about all this was the sermon or, rather, how it was presented. They were renovating the main sanctuary, so they had stashed us all in the gym in the meantime. Apparently, there was also a crowd in the auditorium, which was separate from the sanctuary, and the pastor was preaching from there and he was being sent via live feed into the gym. So that was weird.
The sermon itself was underwhelming, and typical of what ‘Jesus freaks’ like to hear. There is a great difference between Christians and Jesus freaks, which is something I must clarify. I’m a devout Protestant but, to be perfectly honest, lots of Christians really get on my nerves, and Jesus freaks especially. Every five seconds they use they words ‘blessed’, ‘encouraged’, ‘convicted’, ‘glorify’, etc. For example, someone at uni said, “I was so blessed to have that exam at 9AM instead of 8AM”. Were you? Were you really blessed? Or was it just the fact that finals never begin at 8AM at McGill anyway? I just walk in, pray silently before the exam, and walk out. I realise there’s a difference between bureaucratic norms and divine intervention.
They’re also obsessed with preaching the Gospel. This is actually a good thing, because if you saw someone drowning, wouldn’t you help no matter how much they resisted? (Obviously, you should never jump in with a drowning person) But they do it in the most inopportune ways, seeking to turn every single conversation into a Gospel discussion. And everything has to be justified by doing something for God. This interaction actually occurred between two people I knew at uni:
“I’ve been working out recently, trying to get in better shape and all, but I’m really concentrated on making sure I devote the time to God and not to getting girls.”
“Oh cool, what does that look like?”
That’s another thing they always say: “What does that look like?”, as in “How do you demonstrably devote that time to God?” Frankly, I’ve been chopping wood to get muscle because I hate being skinny and not sculpted in any way, and, even though girls don’t really care about muscle, it never hurts. Plus it’s just healthy and I can be a snob by saying, “I don’t work out in the sense you mean it”.
Within the first few sentences of the sermon, this pastor had managed to throw in a few dozen ‘blesseds’ and ‘convicteds’. He read the verse he was supposed to study for the morning. Then he never referenced it again. The rest of the sermon was occupied with personal anecdotes encouraging us to be more giving, humble, etc. He quoted the 5th Edition of the American Psychological Association Handbook to diagnose anyone who has ever taken a selfie with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is far more complex than just taking trashy pictures of yourself every three seconds, and which affects far fewer people than he made it seem. Kim Jung-Un, he mentioned, suffers from this disorder like a lot of people in the West. He later quoted Calvin, which is always a bit dodgy knowing what he did to Geneva and which I won’t repeat here (even Luther can be a bit sketchy when you remember he wrote a volume called The Jews and Their Lies). All the while, he never touched the Bible verse he had begun with in order to explain it, opting instead to qualify the Bible through personal stories and occurrences.
What specifically is dangerous about this? It doesn’t clarify doctrine to anyone. People come in, hear a few stories that aren’t related to the Bible, and walk out having learnt nothing about why they believe what they believe or how to defend the faith. They are equipped with mediocre stories that reveal a very little bit of what the Bible claims indirectly. They’re only learning what to believe, and only a few things at that. And, worse, they aren’t being exposed to a lot of what sits inside the Bible, and only to the charismatic sections that everyone agrees with anyway, like “Don’t be a jerk” or “Trust God”.
Granted, new believers need this, as it gives them the very basic overall picture of what the Bible says and what the most important sections of the Bible are, namely you need to believe wholly in God to be saved, everyone is a sinner even after being saved, etc. But these people come here every week, and some of them in the auditorium were no spring chickens, and had probably been attending church since before the War of Northern Aggression (the Civil War). It’s the same as telling someone what a car is, and then never teaching them to drive it: Sure, you have to be exposed to the basic idea first, but after a while you should be able to pilot it and change the tires on your own, and know how everything functions and why.
This turns people away from the church for a few reasons. First, there’s no substance. People hear the same thing every week, and it is only the wishy-washy and presentable sections of the Bible about love and prosperity and such that make it to their ears. Second, they’re told everything is going to be awesome. This is a blatant lie, as the Bible states over and over that your life is going to worsen because you have accepted God, and that that is a test of your faith. Yes, God is looking out for you, but he has a very “que sera sera” attitude about it all. People quote the verse that says “I have plans for you, declares the Lord: plans to prosper you….” but they always forget that that verse applies to Jews and was spoken to Jews about Jews, not about Christians. Third, they are never told anything to justify what they are being taught.
“Why does God disapprove of women preachers?”
“I don’t know, he just does.”
“Why does the Bible speak multiple times against homosexuality?”
“It just does.”
“Why do we ignore all those rules about not eating bat meat and stoning adulterers?”
On and on. By the way, in order, the first question is still a bit open and it’s kind of unclear in many places but generally we think it’s because teaching the Gospel incorrectly can result in double punishment in Hell so God wanted to spare women from that, but again there’s not a whole lot on the topic; that’s because the Bible supports that morality on the basis that children need a man and a woman as parents and there’s really no scientific reason given in the Bible; and because these rules were given to the Jews to be practised by Jews while they possessed a kingdom under God’s direct rule in ancient times, and therefore don’t apply to any group of people aside from them.
But see, even if I don’t believe these answers to be true, I know what they are and why the Bible says what it does. And it really ticks people off to be deflected every time they ask a question with a “Oh, because Jesus said love and stuff” and “Yeah we shouldn’t judge but also I don’t know how we can’t because we have to judge things every day anyway” (the verse in the Bible everyone quotes about judging applies to choosing your friends so that you’ll make yourself better through them, and not calling people out on things you’re doing anyway, which does not mean you can never call anything out, but is a reminder you sin and they sin as well).
But again, people aren’t being taught these defences.
And for these reasons, as well as a host of others, the belief in the Church and the membership thereof are either falling catastrophically or simply plateauing, depending on whom you ask. People who come to drink wine are not going to be happy with grape juice; eventually you’ll have to give them the real thing and teach them how to drink it wisely.