Thursday, March 26, 2009

The rise of the "nones"

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Dear pastor: I’ve been praying for you.

As if your 24/7 ministry weren’t challenging enough, the economic crisis has you working hard to reassure church folks who have lost jobs and homes — or fear losing them. You might be wondering where your own job will be this time next year.

You’re probably not in the mood for yet another report on the rise of American secularism. Even so, I recommend two new perspectives on the changing American scene. They contain some enlightening information about the potential future hurtling toward your church.

The “American Religious Identification Survey 2008” (ARIS), released in March, was conducted by the Program on Public Values at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. (Read more at The national survey found the percentage of Americans claiming no religion has nearly doubled since 1990 to 15 percent of the adult population. Those claiming “none” as a religious preference increased in every state, every race and every ethnic group.

The “nones” aren’t necessarily atheists or agnostics; only 1.6 percent of Americans specifically chose those categories to describe themselves. Many “nones” consider themselves personally religious or spiritual, but they tend to shun denominations and organized religion generally.

Self-identified “Christians” of all varieties still comprise 76 percent of the adult population, according to the ARIS report. But that percentage has fallen more than 10 points since 1990. Most of the recent decline (since 2001) has come among the dwindling “mainline” Protestant denominations. Roman Catholic numbers also fell nationwide. Baptists of all varieties, the largest non-Catholic American faith group, have grown by 2 million since 2001, but continue to decline as a percentage of the population.

The numerical growth that has occurred among American religious believers has come primarily among people identifying themselves generically as “Christian,” “Evangelical/Born Again,” or “nondenominational Christian” (more than 8 million Americans now put themselves in the third category). These three groups have expanded from 5 percent of the population in 1990 to 11.8 percent in 2008.

“(T)he alleged decline of Christianity is largely occurring within mainline denominations, while many of the theologically conservative and Pentecostal churches are thriving,” writes Konstantin Petrenko in the online magazine Religion Dispatches. “If this trend continues, American society may find itself increasingly polarized between evangelical Christians and the ‘nones,’ creating a fascinating, albeit potentially explosive, cultural dynamic.”

So, the pundits waving the ARIS report around as more evidence of the imminent demise of U.S. evangelical churches are wrong — at least for now. But what about the future?

In a much-discussed piece published March 10 in The Christian Science Monitor, Michael Spencer predicts a “major collapse of evangelical Christianity” within 10 years that “will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.” (Read it at

Spencer, a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes the blog. He warns that this supposed evangelical collapse “will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.

“Millions of evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I’m convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.”

Hysterical alarmism? Quite possibly. Spencer offers little evidence for his assertions. At the very least, his 10-year timetable for doom contradicts the slower religious and cultural shifts in the United States indicated by the ARIS report and other recent studies.

As to outward opponents of evangelical faith, there’s no shortage of them in America — and many of them would love to silence the church’s voice in the public square altogether. But this isn’t the Middle East or the communist world, or even secularized Europe. We still have a Constitution and a vibrant tradition of freedom of speech and religion.

Spencer, however, eloquently diagnoses one self-inflicted wound that could kill us. In his words:

“We evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing and media have produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey Scripture, the essentials of theology or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures. ... Even in areas where evangelicals imagine themselves strong (like the Bible Belt), we will find a great inability to pass on to our children a vital evangelical confidence in the Bible and the importance of the faith.”

Christian pollsters have been telling us essentially the same thing for years. Are we listening?

If we fail to make disciples, biblical disciples, of our own children, will we be able to transform an increasingly pagan culture at home — or continue taking the Gospel to unreached cultures across the world, as God commands? Unlikely.

Collectively, we should seize on these hard times to take a long, Lenten look inward. Let us ask God how we can become more faithful disciples, how we can share our faith more authentically with our own families, how we can become a brighter, purer light amid the gathering darkness of our times.

“Despite all of these challenges, it is impossible not to be hopeful,” Spencer writes. “We need new evangelicalism that learns from the past and listens more carefully to what God says about being His people in the midst of a powerful, idolatrous culture.”

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Fatima's story

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I still think about Fatima, a 15-year-old girl who almost became a perishable product.

She ran to greet us five years ago at a Christian shelter in north India — a safe place for women and children rescued from slavery, forced prostitution and human traffickers.

Her smile shone as brightly as her yellow sari. She was learning to read and sew, to sing and laugh. She recited the Lord’s Prayer by heart and was getting to know the One who taught it. She didn’t go to bed hungry anymore. She knew someone cared whether she lived or died.

Fatima’s father pulled a rickshaw in Kolkata (Calcutta). She never went to school. When she reached age 6, her abusive stepmother forced her to start cooking and cleaning for the rest of the family. She also worked cutting rubber to make sandals — one rupee (about 2 cents) for 12 straps.

When Fatima was 14, her stepmother took her to a “youth hostel” and left her there. It turned out to be a brothel.

When her first customer came to her room, Fatima hit him on the head with a hard-soled shoe and fled. She walked 20 kilometers to the main train station in Kolkata. A child protective agency found her there and sent her by train to the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. On arrival she was taken to the Christian shelter.

“She was very tense and afraid,” recalled the shelter director. “She shouted, ‘Leave me alone!’ She thought she was being brought to another brothel.” But Fatima was among friends at last.

If only every child in her position could find such a sanctuary.

Human trafficking is a business. More to the point in these brutal economic times, it’s a very profitable business. Like any other business, it has employers and employees, buyers and sellers, supply and demand.

The only difference: The products of this business are people — like Fatima, who was about to be consumed when she jumped off the shelf and escaped.

These human products are bought and sold, used and abused via prostitution, pornography, “entertainment,” slavery, forced labor and other forms of exploitation. When they reach their “use-by” date, the industry tosses them aside and goes after new inventory.

That’s the case in north India, one of the biggest crossroads of human trafficking. Beset by too many mouths to feed, poor villagers often sell young daughters outright to sex traffickers, who turn a profit by selling them to urban brothels.

When I visited the region in 2003, traffickers could buy a village girl from neighboring Nepal for 10,000 rupees (about $200 at the time) and sell her in Delhi for up to 60,000 rupees ($1,200) — “depending on her color, texture and size,” according to a local observer.

Sometimes, parents “mortgage” a daughter for a few years. By the time they save enough to redeem her, “she has suffered a lot,” said a local Christian leader who fights the sex trade.

“These girls usually start around age 14,” he said. “By the time they are 18 or 19, they’re finished” — exhausted, brutalized, infected with AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases, turned out on the street to beg or starve.

Between 12 million and 27 million people worldwide are involved in some type of forced servitude, according to various estimates.
Up to 800,000 are trafficked across international borders each year – the majority being women and children swept up into the sex trade.

Lest we think it’s all “over there” somewhere, more than 14,000 foreign nationals are imported annually into sexual or domestic/sweatshop slavery in our own land of the free, according to U.S. government statistics. An estimated 200,000 American children, meanwhile, are “at risk for trafficking into the sex industry,” reports the U.S. Department of Justice.

Recent investigations of the growth of globe-spanning organized crime syndicates miss the true magnitude of “how far people themselves have become merchandise, as indentured laborers, domestic slaves, child thieves, child soldiers, child prostitutes, babies for sale … and organ suppliers,” writes Peter Robb in The New York Times. “All move around the world with the collusion of customs, immigration, police, social services, charities and aid agencies.”

Bear in mind, also, that human trafficking is only the third-largest criminal enterprise on a global scale. Drug dealing and illegal arms trafficking are even bigger operations. And the United States is the world’s largest recreational drug market, with Mexico being one of its largest suppliers.

That’s why civilians reportedly ran a higher risk — more than three times higher, per capita — of being killed last year in the Mexican border city of Juarez than in Baghdad, Iraq. Out of a population of 1.6 million, some 1,800 people were gunned down in 2008 in Juarez, where heavily armed drug gangs battle police and government forces in broad-daylight shootouts for access to key entry points to the United States.

Many evangelical Christians have become passionately involved in fighting human trafficking and other global evils through education, social action and legislation. That is in the best tradition of biblical justice.

But it’s not enough.

Laws, no matter how aggressively enforced, cannot change hearts. Nations that tolerate or participate in the buying and selling of human beings need something more fundamental. They need spiritual transformation — and we must seek it on their behalf through the transforming power of the Gospel.

That’s what William Wilberforce preached as a follower of Christ and an impassioned supporter both of missions and social change, even as he fought successfully as a member of Parliament to end the slave trade in the British Empire.

“Evil and injustice are rampant in our world today; carnal values and immorality are pervasive in our own society and throughout the world,” writes International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin in his new book, Spiritual Warfare: the Battle for God’s Glory (B&H Books, 2009; order at

However, the notion that human evil has somehow grown beyond God’s power to defeat it, Rankin warns, “is not biblical and clearly demeans who God is and His power. It also dismisses the victory Christ has won on the cross and God’s redemptive activity as irrelevant.”

If the Lord’s declaration in Psalm 46:10 is true, He promises: “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

That includes India, the United States, Mexico and every other nation that is robbing Him of His glory today.