Evangelical faith and the numbers around it are not all puffery, and that, of course, is what makes the truth so hard to find. Underneath the hype, there is a true foundation, a real faith that still inspires, a power that all the gods of modernity can never match. Science, psychology, individualism, freedom, democracy—all are wondrous but limited. None can give divine purpose, eternal comfort, ultimate justice, enduring community. Old-time religion does. Now more than ever, in the fearful, lonely days we live in, those gifts are worth their price. Considering that Americans are a practical people, always able to know a good deal when they see it, evangelical faith should not be dying in America. And therein lies the paradox. Because it is dying. And it has been since the 1900s.
As I continued to research, a split-screen picture formed. On one side of the screen were the believers. Many of them showed dazzling lives of triumphant faith that exceeded any expectation I might have had. Then I looked on the other side of the screen. That’s where the numbers were. As I studied those numbers, I began to hear the preachers’ warnings with new ears. Where I
had once heard exaggeration, I now heard an urgency bordering on panic. They were frightened. They knew the numbers, and they knew what they meant. It was the rest of the country that was being deceived
Before we’re through, I’ll show you a lot of those numbers. I’ll show you that there aren’t nearly as many true, rock-ribbed evangelicals in the country as we’ve been led to believe. I’ll show you that baptisms are down and dwindling. I’ll show you that devout believers are abandoning the Christian faith in droves. I’ll show you that the behavior and the attitudes of the great mass of evangelicals aren’t what we think they are. I’ll show you that the mightiest of the evangelical churches are on the edge of a fall.
To get a complete picture of how strong evangelicals appear to be in contrast to how weak they actually are, you must toggle back and forth between those two screens. First we’ll look at the stories of transforming faith; then we’ll look at the numbers that belie them. Both represent a true reality. As you’ll see from the stories I’m about to tell, if evangelicals really had the numbers they say they have and were growing the way people think they are, they would be unstoppable. But they don’t have the numbers, and they aren’t growing. The demise of evangelical faith in America is the crash of a titan, a loss of enormous proportions. Underrate it and you will also misunderstand the enormous strength of the forces that are killing it.
Who’s to blame? When evangelical insiders aren’t blaming Satan for the decline, they blame the churches. They can’t blame God, and they can’t blame the Bible. So they blame the churches. If the churches were at fault, fixing the problems would be easy. Change the churches, and people will start being saved again. But the churches aren’t to blame. Modern life, changed circumstances, the new realities that we live among are to blame. The churches are doing a bang-up job delivering what evangelical faith promises. To show how good a job, I’ll take you inside a
Southern Baptist church in Rockwall, Texas, called Lake Pointe Church.
Lake Pointe is a ten-thousand-person organization of volunteers who give hundreds of thousands of hours and more than $12 million each year to their cause. Evangelical churches all over the country inspire similar behavior and giving. After months of research on them, my biggest question was one I had never imagined asking: “Why isn’t everybody joining?” I’ll warn you before we start that some ideas and behavior in these stories are going to sound so strange that many people will be tempted to reject them straightaway. Partly that’s because evangelicals use spiritual language that’s no longer heard in common parlance and because, like every strong group, they learn to communicate in a sort of verbal shorthand that has depths of meaning to it but sounds like jargon and nonsense to others. The truths evangelicals tell about their lives also confuse outsiders because we live in a society where many functions of religion have been taken over by psychology. This transformation has been so widespread that people outside evangelical circles have largely lost the ability to understand the truths of inner experience when they are expressed in religious language. Whenever I can, I’ll translate this language into concepts that will let outsiders understand better.
We will start with Van Grubbs, the man at Lake Pointe who is in charge of giving away a quarter of a million dollars every year. I hope his story and other stories of evangelical faith I’ll tell later will cause you to doubt the assertions I’ve made about the death of evangelical faith and influence. I hope you start to think I must be either deluded or a liar. You’ll be exactly where I was every time I went back to Lake Pointe.
EACH MORNING, MAKING
his way toward Lake Pointe Church, which waits for him like a green concrete dirigible grounded in
the heavy fume and growl of Interstate 30, Van Grubbs passes Rockwall city hall. Each morning Van, the community-ministries director for the church, raises his hand, palm flat out, toward the car window that faces the civic building and prays, “Oh, Lord, I love you so much. Thank you for what you’ve done for me. Use me in a mighty way and to your glory not mine. May my mouth be yours. May my ears be yours, my arms be yours. Tell me how to use the atoms in my body for your glory.” Christians are nothing but God in skin, he likes to say.
Contrast Van’s morning routine with those of the drivers around him, listening to news of another day’s disasters, laughing at raunchy repartee from radio’s latest shock jocks, cursing the traffic, speeding to make the light, worrying, regretting, planning. Van, meanwhile, is positioning himself amid the greatest good conceivable. He’s affirming that he is part of that goodness, that he is powerful and true-hearted, someone of eternal importance. As he spends the next eight hours disbursing the church’s $250,000 annual benevolence budget, he and God will communicate many times. His God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and intimately connected with everything that’s happening in his life. He and God have a relationship. Who wouldn’t want that? Especially when that relationship helps Van in every way, particularly in doing the good work at hand.
It is easy for the needy to reach him and easy for him to respond creatively. No bureaucracy surrounds him, no barbed-wire cage of regulations. During his day he’ll speak directly to the longtime poor, who know exactly what the church has to give, when it gives it, and when they’re eligible to get again. About 50 percent of his visitors are these regulars, who always return on exactly the day they’re eligible for another handout. He generally gives it to them. He’ll entertain travelers who saw the church at the side of the road on their way across Texas and figured that a quick stop might garner easy gas money. He’ll be visited by the newly unemployed who sometimes need big bucks,
enough to pay the mortgage for their six-hundred-thousand-dollar lakeside homes.
Rockwall County, which sits on Lake Ray Hubbard about twenty-five miles east of Dallas, is in one of the best-educated and wealthiest counties in the nation, but the dot-com bust hit Rockwall and all of Dallas’s upper-income suburbs hard. Texas Instruments and the telecommunications industry are big employers in this area of North Texas, which means the hits haven’t stopped coming. Rockwall County’s foreclosure rate has been going up every year for years. The church’s average attendance of ten thousand comes not only from wealthy Rockwall but from cities and counties around the town that are far less prosperous.
Those who seek help from Van come through the double glass doors, up the wide staircase, and are announced by women at the front desk, who read the Bible between visitors and phone calls. Van, a thin fifty-four-year-old with brown curly hair worn long enough to halo around his head and fall in a thick pile over his collar, will rise from behind the desk in his windowless office and come forward into the hall with his hand outstretched. Petitioners sit on hard-back chairs around a little table as they plead their need. First thing Van likes to say is: “If you get anything good out of this, it’s coming from God. If it’s bad, I apologize. It came from me. It slipped through.”
Van never goes home worrying that he made the wrong decision that day. It’s in God’s hands. He often cries with those who need his help, but he never lies awake at night depressed by what he’s heard. One reason, he told me, is that a problem in brain wiring impedes communication with the left and right hemispheres of his brain, which keeps him from remembering much. He counts his forgetfulness as one of God’s blessings, a preparation perhaps for the work God had in store for him. If he couldn’t forget all the sad stories he hears each week, he wouldn’t be able to do his work.
He is also at peace because he believes that his faith has transformed him completely: “It is through my faith in that I become righteous because God can’t stand me as a sinner. He can’t stand to be around me. In order to be around me he’s got to make me righteous. So even in my sin when I am sitting here, and something comes through and it comes from me and not from God, I am still fully righteous. So I can put my head on my pillow tonight. I don’t have to feel bad or guilty, because God has made me fully righteous. That’s what the Bible tells me.”
Pretty strong stuff. “I tell people your esteem is in Christ,” Van continued. “When you’re fully loved, fully forgiven, fully whole, even with Jesus, your esteem is in Christ. You’re perfect. Don’t let anybody tell you different—not your mother, not your dad, not your boss.”
From morning to night, Van knows who he is, where he stands in the universe, and what he is to do with his life. He knows that God is always ready to help him. Van and his church also know exactly what their benevolence office is about, and it isn’t charity. That’s only a sideline. They are giving away money so people will feel touched by the love of God and respond to it. They consider God’s love the most precious gift they have to give. Some people take that gift by accepting Jesus as their lord and master, but even in the lavish setting of a megachurch, where the great riches available to God’s people are amply evident, most of them don’t. It’s not because Van shirks the task of offering it.
One of the first things he asks is whether a person has been saved by the grace of Jesus, wants to be, or is still thinking about whether he wants to. To supplicants who protest, Van says, “The church is not a grocery store or a gas station; it is a spiritual institution. So the first thing we’re going to do is spiritual. Yes, I have a food pantry. Yes, I have some gift cards for gas. Yes, we do those things, but that’s not what we are. Our mission at Lake Pointe Church is ‘Share Christ, build believers.’ Everything we
do must have that as its purpose or we’re not being true to our mission.”
In the first half of the interview, as supplicants fill out a financial sheet and tell their story, Van plays good cop, and in the last half he is often bad cop.
“I repeat back what I’ve heard. I look at the sheet. I say, ‘Here’s what I feel that God is saying that you need to hear right now,’ and at the end they’re still wondering, ‘So how much of my utility bill are you going to pay?’ They’re not hearing most of it.”
So he draws them a picture, a diagram that demonstrates what he’s saying. Sometimes he doesn’t give people what they want. “Say someone comes in and they don’t have a job,” he said as an example. And he quoted, “‘He who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat.’ That’s biblical.” Some people go away mad. Some people go away and never return. And that’s all right.
“If they come in here, they’re going to hear what God has to say to them. If they don’t want to hear it…?” he asks, a rhetorical question that he answers with a dismissive shrug.
“What God has to say through you?” I ask.
“How do you know these messages are from God?” Van was the second Lake Pointe person I’d asked that question of and the second person to tell me that my question is one that can never be fully understood by an unbeliever. They both used the same analogy.
“When you talk about being a Christian and when you talk about faith and you talk about God speaking, it’s like, go to a blind person who has never seen and try to tell him about the color violet. It can’t be done,” Van explained to me.
True enough. How anyone might be in a relationship with an invisible entity who never speaks audibly is a mystery to outsiders, but plenty have tried to figure out what’s going on. One of them was Carl Jung. He believed that religion allowed the conscious mind to connect with the universal unconscious. He saw
the unconscious as the great unknown of human experience, a repository of knowledge and wisdom that transcended individual experience. Others might reject Jung’s universal unconscious and say religion connects people with their own personal unconscious and that is reward enough. Whichever explanation you accept, Van’s sense that he is in touch with something more powerful than himself, something that is defined by an ancient, infallible book, allows him to offer a gift beyond reckoning—eternal safety.
“I have people come in here and say, ‘Van, if I don’t get five hundred thousand dollars right on up to one million dollars, I’m going to be dead in six months. I need a liver transplant.’ Ummm. Oh, man. My heart goes out to them. I say, ‘I have good news and I have bad news. Good news is you are going to be OK. Bad news may be that you’re going to be in heaven sooner than you thought, ’cause I don’t know who’s got five hundred thousand dollars or a million dollars to pay for that liver transplant. That is an entitlement issue.’” Van doesn’t have that much money, but he does have something else to offer:
“That gives me a great opportunity to really look at their salvation and find the peace that passes understanding. This isn’t me. It’s God. I get no glory. God gets all the glory, OK?”
Because Van believes he can ensure an eternal happy ending, he can make reality-based statements about the nature of life that would seem heartless in other circumstances. Sometimes you die. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes life doesn’t get better. Those things are terrible but true, and Van is able to say them without being cold or uncaring or even utterly despairing because he believes that no matter what you’ve lost, he has something better. Eternal forgiveness; heaven; divine comfort. A higher, nobler purpose; a new identity.
Van never worries that people will conceal their finances or fudge on frivolous spending or say they are Christian when they
are not, because he believes God will tell him the truth. Sometimes God tells Van to help people, and sometimes he tells Van to act prophetically, which is Van’s way of saying he confronts people. God is unpredictable, and Van doesn’t always agree with what he dictates. “I’ve had people, in all honesty, sitting out there and I know their case and I go, ‘I’m not going to help them this time.’ They make me mad. And God will say, ‘Oh yes you are.’ And I do.
“We’ve had people come to the Lord in this office. I’ve had Satan in this office twice. I actually threw my hands up and I said, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ, Satan be gone.’ And I slammed my hands on the table.
“How did I know they were Satan? By what I was hearing, being challenged by, what they were demanding, I don’t know. God just said to me, ‘Whoa, you need to do an exorcism on this person.’
“There was an aura and a presence. The people at the reception saw it, too. It wasn’t mental illness. Your heart just goes out to them, but when someone comes in here with evil intent, to take you down, or to do something to affect you as a bodily person, man, I put on the armor of Christ and do battle.” Both men left Van’s office without violence. But Van wasn’t worried.
“If someone were to come in here and kill me, I know where I’m going. So I don’t care. I’m not afraid. It doesn’t scare me. I just do what God tells me to do. That sounds real trite and I don’t mean to sound that way. That’s just how I run my life.
“Your life here is nothing but a little dot.”
People who want him to show them the money and shut up would be best advised to deny intimate acquaintanceship with Jesus, and they certainly should not admit to being a member at Lake Pointe. Van, and presumably God through him, takes a special interest in making sure believers are held to the proper standards.
“I have Christians who come in here, and I say, ‘I’m not going to doubt your salvation, but if he’s the Lord of your life why are you in such deep crisis right now? You’ve been in control of your life a little bit too long.’
“I will have people come in here who I will challenge. Man was sitting there and he said, ‘Van, I need six thousand dollars tomorrow or I’m going to lose my house.’
“‘You’re a member?’
“‘You have an ABF?’” ABF is short for “adult Bible fellowship,” a better-organized, more demanding megachurch version of what used to be called Sunday school and now is commonly called small group.
The man answered that yes, he was a member of an ABF.
“‘Have you shared this problem with your ABF?’
“‘Why? Pride. OK. Can’t give what you don’t have. Can’t accept what you don’t have room for. You’re not going to see God’s love until you get rid of pride, till you get rid of some junk in your life and make room for what is good.’
“‘I have good news and bad news. The bad news is you’ve lost a job making six hundred thousand dollars a year. You’re going to lose your house tomorrow. That’s reality.’
“We cried together. I do a lot of crying in here. Good news is God is going to give you what you need. Not what you want, not your entitlements, not your lifestyle—what you need.”
What happened next to the man who was about to lose his house still brings tears to Van’s eyes. “He shared it with his ABF. Three families went over to his house, with their children, while they’re packing, and said, ‘You know what? Your kids need a party. This has got to be stressful. We’re going to have a party for your kids. Here’s fifty dollars and tickets to the AMC movie theater. You need a date. We are so concerned about your marriage. You’re about to lose your home.’
“Man!” Van says, pumping his fist in a victory salute. “It’s the body of Christ putting on skin and helping each other and people outside the body of Christ.
“End of story, the man now makes forty-two thousand dollars working at the airport. They have a little house in Garland. He sat here and I said, ‘The four walls you live in is about to change and what you drive is about to change because you’re here with a lifestyle issue.’”
I ought to add, in closing this chapter, that Van Grubbs was once a minister in a more liberal Christian tradition. His faith was transformed while attending Lake Pointe. He has experienced many of...