Mass Defection

The church in America is growing steadily weaker from the bleeding loss of its children. An article in Moody Monthly has reported that in "evangelical" churches, a broad category apparently including churches that would prefer to be called fundamental, seventy percent of the young people fall away within two years after graduation from high school (1). Probably few of these quick dropouts ultimately return to a good church. And probably many of the remaining thirty percent either fall away later in life or remain in the church only as clutter and dead wood, spiritually speaking. So, the number of churchgoing youth who attain Christian maturity must be quite small—perhaps ten percent of the total.

The magazine article states that if churches wish to curb defection by the young, they should put more "relevance" into their ministries. In particular, they should give the young effective training on how to overcome daily temptations. Relevance in this sense is certainly a commendable goal. But many in today's Christian world who plead for relevance want a watered-down Christianity that the young will find more palatable. I am reminded of efforts to deal with student unrest back in the Sixties. For the sake of relevance, many educators were willing to scrap traditional methods and subjects in favor of simplistic alternatives. Soon after these alternatives began entering the schools, American education skidded into the ditch. In Christianity also, the relevance many desire will mean a disastrous turning aside from a proper course. The need is not for lower standards, pandering to the current life styles of youth. Nor is the need for modernized beliefs, paying homage to the secular philosophies familiar to youth as a result of their indoctrination by public schools and mass media. Rather, the need is to uphold authentic Christianity as a high refuge from all the evil currents of the day.

But throughout Christendom there is a pronounced movement away from orthodox faith and practice. Many churches, schools, and ministries are far removed from positions they held only twenty years ago. Standards are much looser. The plain teachings of Scripture are openly derided by higher criticism or denied by modern hermeneutics. What is the cause of the apostatizing trend on every hand? The liberal drift of some organizations is spearheaded by a single leader, who sees change as the price of survival. In other organizations, the liberal drift simply mirrors the growing worldly sophistication of its members.

We, as individual believers, must resist the apostatizing trend if we wish to keep our children from ruin. Though people we love beckon us to easy positions of compromise, though a sliding church or ministry exerts all its weight to push us downward, though the evil one tries to catch us with ropes of career and comfort, we must not lose our foothold in Biblical truth. Always, we must stand firm on the high ground of good doctrine and practice.

Good doctrine may be equated to the articles of faith widely known as the fundamentals. Good practice, however, is not so easily defined. Yet, any system of Christian practice necessarily involves rules, for rules are the briefest and most efficient way of giving instruction concerning good things to be pursued and bad things to be avoided. Of all the rules favored by Bible-believing Christians, the most visible and controversial are those against worldly amusement: "Do not drink," "Do not smoke," "Do not play cards," "Do not attend movies or theatrical shows," "Do not dance." Until recently, some or all members of every nonliberal Christian organization were required to promise obedience to a set of these rules. In a church, the rules were usually applied to officers. In a school, missionary operation, or other ministry apart from a church, they were applied to everyone.

During the Fifties, however, codes and pledges began to lose their grip on Christian practice, ironically at the very time when technology was creating new forms of worldly amusement deserving condemnation by the church. Already, Christian discernment had been weakened by radio and photojournalism. Now, television emerged from Satan's laboratories. Instead of being recognized as a great threat, TV was gladly received by the Christian world as great fun. The fateful decision was made not to classify TV as another form of cinema or commercial theater, both of which were already condemned by the rules. Consequently, the rules became very inconsistent. Christians were not allowed to drink or smoke, but they could stare unprotestingly at endless commercials for beer, wine, and cigarettes. They were not permitted to dance, but they could look at the dancing featured in variety shows. They were prohibited from playing cards, but they could see game shows in which contestants gambled with prior winnings. They were forbidden to watch a Hollywood movie shown at a theater, but they could watch the same movie telecast into their homes. As a result of mounting contradictions, the whole system of rules lost credibility. Rules of conduct had always provoked a multitude of objections, but during the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, under the pressure of these objections, the rules began to crumble and collapse. Pledges were abandoned, pared down, or de-emphasized. The preaching in many churches veered away from forthright denunciation of worldly practices.

Today, rigid prohibitions against drinking, dancing, and so on are regarded with disfavor even by many Christians who claim to accept Biblical standards of conduct. I have often heard people murmur that none of these practices is actually condemned by Scripture. Such thinking usually leads to the conclusion that to forbid these practices is unscriptural and Pharisaic. The thesis of these studies, however, is that the church cannot pass Biblical truth to the next generation unless it readopts the traditional prohibitions, and unless also it devises new prohibitions to combat the latest forms of sinful amusement. The devil is always building new armament to send against the church under siege, and the new armament must be countered by new fortifications. Negative rules ("do not drink") help the church defend itself from attack, just as positive rules ("love thy neighbor") help the church carry out evangelistic sorties into the enemy's territory.

Biblical Principles

"For by grace are ye saved through faith" (Eph. 2:8), but, "Faith without works is dead" (James 2:20). A vital faith springs up from the heart and pushes outward in a radiance of works. The curious and the skeptical who gather to watch growing faith see it blossom forth in pure religion. According to James, the same author who warns of dead faith,

Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

James 1:27

This censure of worldliness is hard reading for a contemporary Christian. Because he has great wealth and leisure to spend on himself, he is unwilling to deny himself a good time. But the Bible is clear in what it says. "If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (1 John 2:15).

Obviously, the term "world" does not embrace everything in the world around us. John gives further explanation.

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.

1 John 2:16

The world, then, may be defined as anything that offers satisfaction to sinful lust. When seen correctly, the world is a danger rather than a delight, an object of loathing rather than longing, a lethal rather than a luscious fruit from the tree of sinister knowledge. So, to protect himself as well as those under his authority, a Christian must build a fence of rules, each identifying and blocking an avenue of dangerous approach to the world.

Lust is essentially the misdirected desire for pleasure. Pleasure in itself is not evil or shameful. It is simply our response to anything perceived as good. If we had no capacity for pleasure, we would not prefer good over bad. God Himself has legitimized pleasure by endowing us with a capacity for innocent pleasure here on earth, and by promising that pleasure will be lavished upon those who live eternally in His presence.

Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.

Psalm 16:11

But as we travel through this world on a path of righteousness, we find, besides opportunities for innocent pleasure, many opportunities for pleasure that can do harm to ourselves or other people. Harmful pleasure tempts us with ever greater insistence, as modern civilization rapidly builds up Vanity Fair along every byway of life, and as modern technology furnishes the merchants of sin with new thrill-making contrivances.

Thus, in formulating a code of conduct, a Christian must name many illegitimate pleasures that did not exist in Bible times. Some Christians argue that such a code, including prohibitions that do not appear in the Bible, is unscriptural. But the ancient Word of God should not be denied a cutting edge against sin in the twentieth century. Sin must not be allowed to escape condemnation simply by putting on a contemporary guise, slightly altered from the various guises exposed by Scripture. The Old Testament prophets did not shrink from denouncing all the specific forms of loathsome sin in their own time. So, in our time, we must shine the light of divine holiness into every corner where sin lurks. We must identify sins by name, as did the prophets, as did John the Baptist, as all other spokesmen for God have done.

Exactly what worldly practices should a Christian avoid? The Bible says,

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

Psalm 1:1

These vignettes compare two men, one who receives the blessing of God and another who forfeits His blessing. The difference between them lies in their response to the world. The one who is blessed turns away from it. The other is pliable to it and, by degrees, comes under its complete control. At first, while conducting his own business, he happens to meet the ungodly on the road. Attracted to their company, he travels beside them and listens to their conversation. Later, he seeks them out in public places and lingers in their presence. Finally, he follows them into their homes, sits down, and joins in their scornful way of thinking and speaking. His downfall is the result of engaging the world under circumstances allowing the world to affect his thinking. We conclude that a believer should shun any practice that would make him receptive to worldly influence.

But a believer need not withdraw altogether from ungodly people. Scripture permits us to mix with them for a variety of purposes. We can use the marketplace for buying (1 Cor. 10:25) and selling (Acts 16:14). We can work in the employ of unsaved men (1 Tim. 6:1-2). We can locate our dwellings in the midst of people who do not know Christ (Phil. 2:15; 1 Pet. 1:1). We can enter into social relations with unbelievers, so long as these relations display rather than compromise our Christianity (1 Cor. 10:27). We can enter the world to do charitable deeds (Gal. 6:10). We can hold public office (Rom. 16:23) and perform civic duties (Luke 20:25). We can—we must—treat all men graciously rather than rudely (1 Pet. 3:15). And we must show friendliness and love in every situation (Eph. 5:1-2).

Some contact between the church and the world is necessary so that the world will not be cut off from divine grace. God intends the church to mediate His grace to the world. Through the grace of preaching, men are saved, and through the grace of righteous living, the world is preserved from immediate divine judgment. But the influence moving between the church and the world must be a one-way traffic. The outflow of grace must not be obstructed by any inflow of worldly values and thinking.

Before a Christian interacts with the world, he must first measure the likely effect on his own innocence and faith. If these are endangered, the Bible admonishes him,

Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.

2 Corinthians 6:17


  1. Dennis Miller, "Christian Teenagers—They're Leaving the Flock," Moody Monthly 83 (September 1982): 11.