I graduated from Dartmouth College in 1982.Throughout my undergraduate years, I went to Mass regularly, often daily. Theology was in fact a consuming interest. I read the Church Fathers and the great Catholic classics: Saint Augustine’s Confessions, large segments of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Newman’s Apologia, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and The Everlasting Man. I read Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Thomas Merton, and became something of an expert on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. During my years at Dartmouth I was, a staunch Catholic.
But then something happened. I joined the ranks of the millions of fallen away Catholics who identify themselves with the faith but do not possess it. The fallen away, I read in a recent Gallup survey, now make up more than one-quarter of all baptized Catholics. Less than half even bother going to Mass on a regular basis. I stopped going to Mass about two and a half years ago.
The main reason for this was that I became totally disenchanted with the direction of the Catholic Church in America, which I saw as becoming increasingly secularized and politicized. I didn’t walk away lightly. In fact, because I saw the Roman Catholic Church as the institution transmitting the Christian faith in its fullest form, I endured quietly sermons on the homeless, nuclear war, Central America and South Africa, in the hope that the priest would eventually get to the point of why we were all there. Despite my discomfort, I believed very strongly that it was important to stay with the Church during this troubled period, lest it be abandoned to people who saw Christ as the world’s first Marxist.
But I found myself becoming increasingly angry about what I heard coming from the pulpit. When I moved to Washington, D.C., in 1982, I must have tried 15 different churches, not one of which seemed satisfactory. Anger was the dominant emotion that I felt after leaving Sunday Mass. I think the last Mass I attended was one at which excerpts from the bishops’ pastoral letter on nuclear weapons (implying that taking steps necessary to defend ourselves was immoral) was read from the pulpit. The subsequent letter on the economy, suggesting that socialism was preferable to economic freedom, merely confirmed in my mind that the Catholic Church in America was morally and spiritually bankrupt. Politics was evidently more important to the Church leadership than spreading the Gospel.
But leaving the Church without an alternative was not helpful either. I began to backslide substantially in my spiritual life. I did not attend a church service of any kind, Catholic or Protestant, for almost two years. The eternal questions, the fate of my soul, occupied very little of my attention. This was not something I was pleased about. I knew, regardless of the probable content of the homily, that I should have been devoting time during the week to God. But, in the final analysis, I could not convince myself that it was really worth getting out of bed on Sunday morning to go to Mass.
It wasn’t long before faith had diminished to a condition of virtual irrelevance in my daily life. I had not changed my mind intellectually about the truth of Christianity. But I had lapsed into indifference, and there seemed to be no priest and no parish in the Washington metropolitan area that could make the faith come alive in my life. The routine of the Mass had become a vain, irrelevant, and somewhat irritating exercise.
About a year and a half ago, I went to McLean Bible Church in Virginia, mainly out of curiosity. I heard that it had an especially dynamic preacher, a Jewish convert named Lon Solomon. During the six years since he took over, the church had grown from an anemic 250 members to well over 1500. His reputation as a compelling evangelist was spreading throughout the Washington metropolitan area. A number of my friends had started attending and often discussed his sermons. I wanted to see what all the commotion was about: a curly-haired Jew who had become an evangelical Bible- thumping Christian and was winning converts by the hundreds? It seemed at the very least worth checking out.
I must admit, when I first walked into McLean Bible Church I was immediately put off. It was, without a doubt, the ugliest church I had ever seen. The walls were cinderblock. There was no crucifix, no candles, no stained glass, no statues of Mary. There weren’t even any pews, just metal fold-out chairs. It looked more like a gymnasium than any church I had ever seen. But there was another unique feature about this church. It was full. In fact there weren’t enough metal fold-out chairs to accommodate what must have been almost 100 people in attendance at the 9:00 service. Most were under the age of 30.
The service began with thirty minutes of music, followed by a 45 minute sermon by Lon Solomon.
There was enthusiasm in this congregation. A chorus of “Amens” often punctuated the pastor’s points. “The mission of our church is revival,” said Solomon. “Only spiritual revival will turn this nation around.” “Amen,” said the crowd. It was clear from the outset that the focus of Solomon’s message was not that we should be tolerant and learn to live with one another, that nuclear weapons are dangerous, that apartheid was wrong, that the war in Central American is a tragedy, or that something ought to be done about the homeless — as true as these things might be. His purpose was not to conduct a seminar on public policy, it was to lead people to a knowledge of Jesus Christ; to show people that there really is an answer to the problem of death; and that not only is Jesus Christ reality, he actually does love sinners. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Solomon never tires of drawing people’s attention to this passage, and exhorting his congregation to get excited about this good news.
But, I thought to myself, I’ve got some serious sins in my life. I haven’t been to church in almost two years. I haven’t confessed my sins in almost three. And I’m not sure I’m ready to make the changes in my life that Jesus demands. “We can’t change our lives before inviting Jesus in,” Solomon told the people. “It’s Jesus who gives us the power to change our lives. So many people fall into the trap of saying, ‘I’m going to change my life first. Then I’ll accept the Lord.’ But that’s backwards. We can never be right before God on our own. ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,’ Scripture says. Without Christ, we’re doomed. But to believe that Jesus won’t take us because we’re not good enough is Satan speaking,” said Solomon, “because that’s what he wants us to believe.” There was another loud “Amen” from the crowd.
At that moment, I saw that the root problem with the Catholic Church in America is not just inane political statements emanating from its leaders. These are only symptoms. The real disease is an overemphasis on man to solve man’s problems, the result of which is an increasingly secular message. When the gospel becomes the “social gospel,” it isn’t long before it becomes “liberation theology” and Jesus Christ is presented as a political revolutionary. But people don’t go to church to hear a political diatribe. People go to church because they are hurting, or because their spiritual lives are dead. In short, people go to church because they know they are lost, doomed, and without hope. Their life seems pointless. Mainly they are worried about death. Sermons about economic redistributionism and apartheid do not remotely help them face their most basic fears.
Even though it’s 200 years old, the Gospel is what heals and it’s what people want to hear. They want to listen to a preacher who can bring it to life, someone who can lead them through and draw their attention to the critical passages, those passages that provide the keys to the kingdom of God. People, at least those who have made the effort to go to church, do not want banalities on how we must learn to love each other, to get along in a nuclear age, to be tolerant of other viewpoints, and how everyone is really okay. We’re not okay, according to Scripture — that’s why we need God.
The Bible has rarely been taught at the Catholic masses that I have attended. There are, of course, the set pieces surrounding communion, and passages from the Old and New Testaments are read at the beginning. But little is done to give these passages meaning in the lives of individuals. After a while the prayers, which everyone has memorized by rote, become mere repetition.
I’ve never heard of a group of Catholics getting together and forming a Bible study for Catholics. I know many Catholics who are members of Bible studies, but they are evangelical Protestant Bible Studies. I’ve never seen a Catholic carry a Bible into Mass for reference. Instead, Catholics read from missalettes, which are of course excerpts from Scripture along with other additions. But wouldn’t it be better if people studied God’s word right from the source?
The typical Catholic sermon is deadly dull. One, of course, can point to exceptions to the rule. But most homilies I have heard offer no fresh insight into the day’s readings, and little attempt is made to explain why we should think all this ceremony important. I understand the meaning and symbolism of the Mass because I have spent a good deal of time studying its development. I still find it tedious. Even in the best of Masses, the truly joyful, and indeed essential message of salvation through Jesus Christ often becomes obscured in ritual and deadening repetition.
In recognition of this problem, the Catholic Church has tried to counteract the boredom by protestantizing its Masses. This was partly the strategy of Vatican II. But the church has done this largely by substituting the strongest features of Catholicism for the weakest aspects of Protestantism. The strength of Catholicism is its history, intellectual tradition and ironclad adherence to doctrine. Who can name a great Episcopalian theologian on the level of, say, Thomas Aquinas?
Historically, the Protestant strength is its opposition to philosophy and contrivances of the human mind, and reliance instead on the bare letter of Scripture, God’s work, as the primary authority in matters of faith. “All Scripture is God breathed,” and therefore infallible (II Tim. 3:16).
Oliver Cromwell summed up the essence of the Protestant Reformation as getting to “the root of the matter,” peeling away the intellectual debris that had accumulated over the centuries, and going back to pure Christianity as espoused in the Scriptures.
The early Protestants believed the authority of Scripture to be absolute. But the mainline Protestant churches have since veered away from Scripture. Even more than the Catholic Church, the mainline Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Methodist churches have embraced the social gospel as their creed. Some never mention Scripture at all; many church services have come more to resemble Rotary Club meetings.
The born again evangelical, fundamentalist, and Charismatic churches, most of which are independent of any mainline denomination, are attempts at a second Protestant Reformation. Their aim is to go back to the “root of the matter,” to pursue simple apostolic Christianity as it was practiced in the Book of Acts. The thousands of independent Bible believing churches now dotting the country believe firmly that the Bible is inerrant, that it is the only reliable guide in matter of faith.
“Do you really believe all that stuff about Adam and Eve?” someone asked Pastor Solomon. “I mean do you really believe all those stories about Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel, the parting of the Red Sea, David and Goliath, the battle of Jericho?”
“Absolutely,” Solomon replied, “Every single word of it. If a single statement in Scripture were ever proven false, it would cast doubt on the truth of entire faith.”
Biblical inerrancy, in other words, is a risky proposition. It is also a serious test of faith, one that the mainline Protestant churches have shied away from. As a substitute, they have embraced human fashion and conventional opinion. Many of them did this to become “relevant”; ironically as a result they are losing members. People would just as soon stay home and read the same opinions on the editorial pages of The New York Times. Protestant mainline church buildings, once full, have become hollow shells, not because the people have lost interest in Christianity, but because the churches have lost interest in Christianity.
Tragically, the Catholic church has chosen to follow the example of the Episcopalians, Presbyterian, Congregationalists, and Methodists, to downplay the unadulterated Gospel message, and to hedge on the issue of biblical inerrancy in order to sound more sophisticated and up-to-date. “We’re Christians,” the Catholic Church seems to be saying. “But we don’t want to be obnoxious about it.” But to not be obnoxious about it is to suggest that the essence of the Christian faith is unimportant, which is why the American Catholic Church, too, is losing people like me. Imagine if St. Paul had said, “Christianity is fine, but let’s not go around offending people.” This is exactly the position of the American Catholic Church, which no longer stresses either the inerrancy of Scripture or the unpleasant aspects of its dogma.
There is no sense of urgency in its message. As good as Pope John Paul II is, we will never hear him stand up before a crowd of people and tell them that without Jesus Christ they are damned and going to Hell. I have no doubt that he believes this to be true, because it’s a fundamental Christian teaching. “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him,
He will sit on His throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on the right and the goats on His left. . . . Then He will say to those on His left, Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and all his angels” (Matthew 25:31-41). If we forget that people really are going to Hell, we begin to lose sight of our evangelical mission. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” says Jesus, “No one come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
The mainline churches, including the Catholic church, and even the Pope, prefer to downplay the damnation aspect of Christianity because it sounds intolerant, and might offend unbelievers. What would The New York Times or the American Civil Liberties Union think? It’s easier to talk about other things. The Catholic Bishops were very pleased, for example, with how their pastoral letter on nuclear weapons was received by the world at large. Why spoil the congenial atmosphere by discussing Christianity and all that talk about dividing the wheat from the chaff? So the Bishops decided to write another letter about the economy. How nice it is to be complimented by the very people who hate the church for its stands on abortion and premarital sex.
Suppose the apostles had behaved in this way. Life for them would have been so much easier. It’s no accident that Bible preachers have come under such intense fire in the national media. Much of what they say, because much of what Scripture says, grates on elite sensibilities. They are ridiculed for saying that Christian morality, not condoms, is the solution to the AIDS epidemic. It sounds fanatical and doctrinaire. But, contrary to intuition, it’s this message that’s selling. People are streaming into the independent Bible churches by the thousands and for good reason. The Bible churches, whether they call themselves born again, evangelical, Fundamentalist, or Charismatic, are preaching basic New Testament Christianity, unvarnished by conventional taboo.
Recently the Catholic Church has embarked on a massive campaign to win back the lapsed and fallen away. The archdiocese of New York has hired Batten, Barton, Durstine, & Osborn, Inc. — better known as evangelists for Pepsi than Christianity — to design its ad campaign, which will cost in the neighborhood of $500,000 dollars and will feature an electronic billboard on Times Square. “We want to collar a few good men,” reads one ad running in national magazines.
Now there is nothing especially wrong with all this. At least the Church recognizes there’s a serious problem: it has a lot of nice buildings, but few new converts coming. I rather suspect, though that a better approach would be to go back to Christian basics, what Lon Solomon calls “spiritual boot camp.” The apostles, after all, did not rely on Madison Avenue to increase their numbers. They merely told people about Jesus’ offer of eternal life with God and how they could be secure in their salvation: “Whoever comes to me will never drive away…Everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life” (John 6:37-40).
Somewhere along the way mainline churches — Catholic and Protestant — got rich and complacent, fell victim to the comforts of the world and subsequently lost their evangelical zeal. Instead of the Bible, they turned to Madison Avenue to bring the people back. Instead of salvation through Jesus, they turned to salvation through politics. Instead of risking being ostracized by “respectable” opinion, the churches began downplaying the really tough and meaningful passages in Scripture and wound up diluting the Christian message into irrelevance. Today’s evangelist, equipped with a Bible, aims to rekindle the fervent missionary spirit found in the Book of Acts. “Revival!” is their battle cry, and the people are responding.