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An Apology for Apologetics: ‘Good Soil’ for ‘Good News.’

I am four parts into a series organizing my thoughts in advance of an event I’ll be speaking at.  The other parts are important.  You should read them.  (1, 2, 3, 4).

In the context of the rise of ‘religious nones,’ in the last part I highlighted the fact that the Church cannot compete against hostile ideologies because young people are exposed to them 40 hours a week (minimum) but spend comparatively little time within the scope of the Church’s influence.  But, even when the Church ‘has’ them, churches foul it up, making it more likely that a young person will leave the faith if they go through a congregation’s educational programs than if they hadn’t at all.

I concluded with a statement of the obvious:

A person raised in a healthy ‘traditional’ family (eg, a happy mom and dad) where the parents are well-grounded in the faith is much more likely to grow up to be a Christian and remain one.

and:

Moreover, research shows that it is profoundly crucial that the father in the family is the one that spearheads the transmission of the faith.  (There are obviously going to be exceptions.  We’re looking at the aggregate, here.)

The obvious implication is that if we wanted to reverse course, we would be investing our 2-3 hours a week in equipping Christian parents with deeper understanding of the truth of Christianity, especially the men.  And… and this is important… we would be investing our time in ensuring that those parents have healthy marriages.

Now, I think it is clear that the American church in general has missed the mark on this.  Oh sure, many American Christians, especially of the conservative slant, understand that there has been a pervasive war on the family which has only intensified.  If they didn’t think so before SCOTUS disenfranchised tens of millions of people who opposed gay marriage, they know it now.  However, the Church in America has been very tepid in its response, decade over decade, and I think I know why:

The defense of the traditional family has moved to the political arena, and aren’t Christians supposed to stick to the preaching of the Gospel?

Certainly, this is the tact that secularists have taken over the last fifty years or so.  They love this idea, because it means that they get a free hand to do anything they want in society.  Our hands are not merely tied, but we tie our own hands, ourselves, out of a sense of ‘fair play.’

Meanwhile, the secularists move as many things as they can into the political arena.  Remember how it used to be that if you wanted to have a polite conversation, you limited it only to talking about sports or the weather?  Even that has become political.

And Christians are to stay out of things political.  It is not hard to see how this plays out in the long term.

Yet, if I am right in my analysis–and I am–a healthy and happy married man and woman are not merely the ideal framework for raising a child that is likewise healthy and happy, and yes, godly, it is God’s actual design.  Which means that if it gets mucked up, we can expect unpleasant things to occur.

Thus, the sound maintenance of ‘traditional’ marriages are an essential part of the proclamation of the Gospel.  You know, that ‘one’ thing that Christians think they’re supposed to stick to.

It is not essential in the sense of “you must be happily married to be saved.”  It is essential in the sense that the Gospel is ‘good seed’ which will flourish if it falls into ‘good soil’ (and it is always God that gives the increase).  Happy and healthy family relations are instrumental in creating that ‘good soil.’

And so, inversely, broken family relations facilitate the creation of ‘bad soil.’

Now, I think with a little introspection, most Christians will be able to see how it all works (eg, its hard to talk about a loving father if in fact the only father someone knows–if they know the father at all–is an ass).  It is not my purpose in this essay to get into the mechanics.  Instead, I want to jump off of something I said in part 4:  “research shows that it is profoundly crucial that the father in the family is the one that spearheads the transmission of the faith.”

Again, I think most Christians already have a sense of that, from their own experience, etc.  But as it relates to the rapid rise of the ‘religious nones’ (part 1 and 2 of this series), I think it will be good to present some of that research, or at least some direction for those who want to pursue their own.

My purpose here is to double down on my assertion that a defense of the family is crucial to a defense of the faith, showing that it is not simply my opinion.  The connection is real.  That being so, what are you going to do about it?

From Sticky Faith by Dr. Kara Powell and Dr. Chap Clark:

… our research shows a relationship between this parental support and Sticky Faith. But parental support, while important is not the only way you influence your child.  More than even your support, it’s who you are that shapes your kid.  […] How you express and live out your faith may have a greater impact on your son or daughter than anything else. [pg 23-24, emphasis added]

From David Kinnaman’s UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity:

… it is no exaggeration to say that Busters and Mosaics are fatherless generations. […] Our research consistently underscores this reality:  efforts to connect people to God are frequently undermined by the lasting negative influences of absent, abusive, or negligent parents.  [pg 139, emphasis added]

From How Families Still Matter:  A Longitudinal Study of Youth in Two Generations, by Vern Bengston:

When there has been a parental divorce, the transmission of values from parents to children is weaker.  In the divorced LSOG [longitudinal study of generations] families there is little correspondence between the values of parents and those of their children.  By contrast, among two-parent families there is a sizable resemblance between the values that parents hold and the values that their children hold. [pg 147]

What inferences do you draw from this quote from Robert Wuthnow’s After the Baby Boomers:  How Twenty-and Thirty-Somethings are Shaping the Future of American Religion:

No matter which age group they are in or whether they have children or not, married men and women are more likely to attend religious services than unmarried men and women.  This pattern again underscores the significance for religion of the fact that fewer people are marrying now than they did a generation ago and that those who do marry, marry later. [pg 65]

Wuthnow also makes this intriguing observation:

The other thing these data demonstrate is that young men are significantly less likely to attend religious services regularly than young women, no matter what their family status is. [pg 64]

Given that women make up a significantly larger proportion of those who identify as religious, but the presence of good, godly men in a relationship is a stronger indicator of whether or not the faith will be transmitted to the next generation, the fact that young men–whether they are growing up in happy families or not–are not going to church as often as women are, does not bode well for future generations.

Pew’s 2015 RLS reports that those who self-identify as Christian are 54% female, and 46% male.   The ‘unaffiliated’ are 41% female and 59% male; atheists are 70% male.

Connect the dots.

There really is no shortage of data to accompany our experience and intuition that shows that healthy, intact, ‘traditional’ marriages are a huge factor in generating what Powell and Clark called ‘sticky faith.’  So, the real question is why is this not our primary emphasis?

I have been researching this issues intensively for almost ten years now, and talking about them pretty openly, but I have rarely been asked to speak directly on them.  Is it because it is so obvious?  If it is so obvious, why are we investing so little in it?

I see many speakers addressing the defense of the Christian faith, ie, apologetics, and I see many speakers talking about the war on the family, but rarely do I see anyone who puts them together as I do, even though in the great scheme of things, we all know that they are intimately tied together!

Allow me to illustrate.

I quoted Kinnamen.

Despite indicating that his research “consistently underscores” the relationship between connecting people to God and “lasting negative influences of [bad] parents” there is literally no mention, whatsoever, of meeting the challenge of the rise of ‘religious nones’ by strengthening and equipping Christian parents.  Literally nothing.

His book, and Barna’s research more generally, certainly does a good job of summing up what people think, what their impressions are, etc.  The observation is made that ‘Busters’ and ‘Mosaics’ are fatherless generations, and hints at the implications, there isn’t a peep about how those generations became fatherless in the first place, or any suggestion that perhaps things could be reversed by re-introducing fathers into the picture.

Yes, his recommendations are not all bad, even if dated.  (In 2007, there was still the belief that despite the decline in attendance at church, most people remained ‘spiritual.’  Ten years later, we know that this was a passing phenomena.  Many ‘religious nones’ are spiritual, but they are increasingly secular and atheistic.)  However, they must be seen as touching only on the symptoms.  The ‘disease’ is that the very framework for the transmission of the faith which God himself established has been fractured.

Powell and Clark also seem to understand the importance of godly parenting in transmitting the faith, but nowhere in their recommendations is any suggestion that perhaps we could head off most of our problems at the pass if only our churches were filled with thoroughly grounded married men and women who didn’t delegate the transmission of the faith to the churches–where, I would remind the reader, the young people will at best spend only 2-3 hours a week at.

Dan Kimball’s book, They Like Jesus But Not the Church, also offers decent recommendations, although it is dated in the same way Kinnaman’s is.  I have no doubt that he is very familiar, on a practical level, with the brokenness of this generation.  And yet, all the solutions center around what the congregations can do based on how the church is perceived by those turned off by the faith.  Congregations, where at best, people will only spend 2-3 hours a week interacting.

I like Wuthnow and Bengtson’s contributions, but they also merely describe what the ‘nones’ or ‘unaffiliated’ etc are thinking, rather than how they came to think that way in the first place.  Bengston came closest with his observations about value transmission in two parent households.

Wuthnow, I think, very helpfully leads the horse to water, but he himself does not drink.  In describing the characteristics of the current generation (this is again from 2007, though), he lists these trends:  Delayed Marriage, Children–Fewer and Later, Uncertainties of Work and Money, Higher Education (for Some), Loosening Relationships, Globalization, Culture–An Information Explosion.

As if all these things just happened by accident!  Think about all the ‘political’ elements intrinsic to these topics these days.

Bengston is only slightly better; he does not deny that [pg 32, emphasis added] “the high rate of divorce [is] a major assault on family functioning.” He allows that “divorce diminishes parent-child contact, especially with fathers.”  And that, “Divorce often leads to a decline in children’s living standards due to the greater likelihood they will live with their mother, whose income is often far less than the family income prior to the divorce.”  He concedes that there will be a decline in the “quality of parent-child relations.”  However, after all that, he thinks that perhaps the difference is made up by others in the family.  Well, sometimes, sure.  But are we not straining a bit to deny the obvious interpretation of the data?

The various surveys I have already mentioned suffer from many of the same problems.  For example, in the 2015 Pew Research Study reports that in 2007, 56% of Christians were married, while 46% of the ‘unaffiliated’ were.  In 2014, it was 52% and 37%, respectively.  Certainly, when we take into account what we’ve already discussion about marriage being an indicator of church attendance, and note the decline in marriage rates, it helps us see very clearly where the winds are blowing.

However, what would have been most interesting here is knowing the family structures the ‘unaffiliated’ themselves had growing up.  Yea, its good to know where they stand now, but how were they raised?  Was an ‘unaffiliated’ person raised in a single parent household to begin with?  Probably;  we can infer it from demographic studies more generally, but it would have been helpful if Pew had sought out concrete data on the matter.  (If they do, I have missed it).

Even one of my closest ‘allies’ as far as my perspective might go failed to measure this.  Ken Ham’s Already Gone definitely puts his finger on it when he says,

If you, as a parent, have been putting the responsibility for the religious education of your child on your church’s Sunday school, you need to realize that the statistics say the job isn’t getting done.   As we have seen, in many cases and for many different reasons, it’s not helping, it’s hurting.  So this Sunday, don’t feel like you have absolved yourself of responsibility when you drop your child at Sunday school.  This is your job.  Do not totally delegate it to someone else — as, sadly, many parents seem to do.  [pg 50]

Ham commissioned a study that specifically and exclusively targeted non-Christians, asking them about their beliefs, their current family structure, family’s church attendance, and so on.  It was a unique opportunity to also ask, “When you were growing up, who was the biggest influence on your religious upbringing?  Were your parents divorced?  Did you believe your parents were well-informed about their beliefs?  Etc.”

But despite all the clues and signs showing that these questions concern the most foundational areas related to the effective transmission of the faith, Ham and Beemer, like most of the others I’ve mentioned and consulted, did not even ask them about those items!

Now, you could say that each of these sources had their own particular purpose in mind, and what I’ve been talking about wasn’t that purpose.  You could mention that each had their own limitations and scope.  They focused on things easier to measure, such as church attendance.  Fine, fine.  I won’t object.

Nonetheless, what almost all of them seem to know is that the decline of the traditional family corresponds roughly to the ‘anti-revival,’  and all fail to exhaustively connect that dot.

Like most everyone, it seems.  Well, we wouldn’t want to connect that dot, would we?  That would mean venturing into the ‘political,’ would it not?

Was God being ‘political’ when he ‘connected this dot’ explicitly in Malachi 2?

You cover the Lord‘s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”

 

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