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Demographics, Theology, Culture and Relationship

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The Communications Director of Yale Divinity School, Tom Krattenmaker, has written a piece for the Religion News Service entitled, “Why a stout theological creed is not saving evangelical churches.”  That’s a provocative headline – sucked me right in.  I was hoping he would be making the same point I so often make, that theology that does no change people does do much.  That the thing that really attracts people to church is changed lives, not just a belief structure.  But alas, I was in for something quite different.

Mr. Krattenmaker looks at a new book by Robert P. Jones, “The End of White Christian America,” and uses its essentially demographic argument to explain that it is in fact the hard line stances on sexuality and and other social issues that account for the decline in Christian impact.  Demographics could indeed account for church decline, but I really don’t understand how that is related to theology and social issues. Apparently Mr. Krattenmaker thinks theology is somehow specific to a given demographic which is quite odd.  The same truths of physics apply to a WASP that apply to a west African, why would the truths about God be any different?

The fact that church decline correlates with demographic shifts does indicate that the theology of most American churches is not as robust as it should be, but it is more likely the problems are in communication of the theology than they are in the theology itself.  Or maybe, just maybe, its because your average white American Christian is not sufficiently transformed by his or her own faith to really want to communicate it outside of their own demographic?

The bottom line is this, Mr. Krattenmaker clearly thinks theology has to respond to culture rather than culture respond to theology.  Whether cultural changes are a result of demographic shifts or social media and value shifts, Mr. Krattenmaker thinks theology must change with those changes.   It should be obvious I disagree.

Mr. Krattenmaker does have a point; however, in noting that the church does not appear very attractive to the current culture.  That is an issue the church has to solve – How can we remain culturally distinct and yet be attractive?

It has been my good fortune to travel extensively, both in the US and out of it.  I have run into numerous people that have left one culture for another.  Almost universally they have done so for reasons of relationship.  Whether it be a personal relationship or a business one it is the relationship that motivates the cultural leap. Similarly, when people do join a church and you ask them why, almost universally it is because they were brought by a friend and/or made friends there.  You know the old adage about real estate, “location, location, location.”  Well, when it comes to attracting people to church it’s  “relationship, relationship, relationship.”

But in this social media driven world, genuine relationship is harder and harder to come by.  Which is, I think, the key.  We need to build relationships.  Relationships outside our churches, relationships outside our demographics – relationships with people we disagree with.  I’m not talking about a Facebook relationship either.  We tend to want to blame other people for staying inside their virtual internet bubble, but doesn’t that mean we are doing the same thing at the same time?

There is a reason God had to incarnate.  Maybe it is time we follow His example.


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