Late in 2015, the 30th anniversary of the “Back to the Future” film series was celebrated, as we took the chance to discuss the differences between 1985, the 2015 they predicted, and the world as it is today. One of the most interesting concepts from those movies is that of a polaroid photo from the movie’s present day. Depending on Marty McFly’s actions in the past his family could disappear from the photo based on how those actions would alter the course of the future.
So as we stand today in what some are calling a post-Christian nation, let’s look at a picture of the church in America 30, 60, or 100 years from now. What are our actions in the present doing to affect it? Is it disappearing from view?
Consider where our friends across the Atlantic find themselves today, after years of decline in their congregations. A recent study in the UK found that if the decline rate among their Christian (in the broadest sense of the term) population continues at its current pace, there won’t be any one left who claims the name of Christianity in just 50 years.1
While they’re clearly ahead of us at the present, it’s not absurd to think that such a disappearance of Christianity will also occur in America over time. As we at Focus Press constantly emphasize, the faithfulness rate among youths who grow up in the church is devastatingly low, with anywhere from 60-80% leaving the church after high school, depending on the study you consult. Sadly, this is one of those scenarios that doesn’t just exist on paper, as the stats are easily confirmed by the eye test. Just look around most congregations in America on a Sunday morning and ask where the twenty-somethings are. I’ve heard Christians in a number of congregations talk about their glory days, where the pews were full and the baptistry stayed busy, only to have their sentence tail off before reaching the stark reminder that those days grow further in the past by the second.
So consider that photo from the future again. The way it stands now, the church may be disappearing from the scene. It’s entirely possible that there will come a day that this country that so many proudly call a “Christian nation” will be completely absent of Christianity. What can we do to change that? How can we reach into the future and ensure the strength of the church here in America?
The plight of Christians in America is no different than that of God’s people since the beginning of time. When love for God grows weak, one of two things can occur: either a time of apostasy, falling into sin and adopting the false worldviews it creates, or a period of repentance and restoration. As we can observe repeatedly in the book of Judges (and in human history in general), the period of repentance and restoration rarely occurs without the era of apostasy happening first.
But that doesn’t mean it has to happen that way. People like Josiah show us that the cycle can be broken, that we don’t have to completely stray from God before subsequent generations wander back. It was people like him who helped buy the Southern Kingdom of Israel over one hundred years of extra time compared to their northern relatives.
So what was the key? Josiah simply got serious about God. When the book of the Law was found, Josiah listened and tore his clothes as he realized their guiltiness for not following God’s commandments (2 Kings 22:11). After hearing it for himself, Josiah then gathered the people together and read it in their presence (2 Kings 23:2). He then made a covenant before the Lord, that he would walk after God’s commandments. But here’s where we can really say Josiah got serious about following God. His covenant wasn’t just lip service. His tearing of his clothes wasn’t just an outward act. He immediately got rid of the false priests, removed the idols, and tore down and defiled the high places of worship.
Of course, our tendency always seems to be to compare Old Testament Israel to America, but we have to keep in mind that Israel’s modern counterpart is the church. This wasn’t just a nation that needed to repent—it was God’s people. It is once again God’s people who are in need of getting serious to change their future. Thankfully, Josiah showed us just what it means to get serious about restoring God to His proper place in our lives.
First, we have to hate our sins. None of the reforms would’ve happened if Josiah wasn’t convicted in his own heart to the point of tearing his clothes—one of the highest displays of sorrow in his culture. Until we have that same hatred for the things that separate us from God, we won’t change anything, either. Instead of trying to strike a balance between being holy enough to get to heaven but not so holy that we’re afraid life won’t be any fun, we have to get into the Word enough to realize the horror of sin. Sin put Jesus on the cross. Who are we to think that we can hold onto it and still please Him? We have to get serious about hating our sins and loving our God before any change can take place.
Second, we have to learn what God wants. Josiah both had the law read to him and read it again in the midst of his people. He was serious about obeying God, and He wanted to get it right. Without open Bibles and open hearts to receive the message, nothing is going to change. As long as we bristle against teachings that step on our toes and push us to get out of our comfort zones, the church of the future in our culture will continue to fade. But when we open God’s Word and allow it to convict us, things begin to change. We start seeing what we’re doing wrong (and what we’re not doing right).
Third, we have to make up our minds and get to work. When Joshua made the famous statement that he and his house would serve the Lord in Joshua 24:15, the people all joined in in agreement. But it wasn’t long before that was all forgotten. As humans, that’s what we do. We forget. When we look at the case of Josiah, we see that he made a covenant to follow the Lord, and the people made the covenant with him. But in the very next verse, the covenant hasn’t been forgotten. It’s already being acted upon. Josiah was serious about getting back to doing things God’s way, even if it meant taking time to clean out all the filth of idolatry that had permeated Israel first. Josiah wasn’t a perfect man, but we would be wise to act just as he did here in 2 Kings 23. Don’t just say you’ll follow God only to follow it with “see you next Sunday.” Make that commitment, and start tearing down everything in your heart and in your home that is standing between your family and serving Him.
I want to be able to look into the future (should the Lord will us that time) and see a church that is growing and thriving, not one that has faded from memory in places where it was once so strong. Let us never be naive or proud enough to assume that what happened to Israel and what has happened to the church elsewhere can’t happen to us. Apostasy is never more than a generation away, as they say, but it’s the choices we make today that make the difference. So, the question is, are you serious? Are you ready to get serious about preserving and strengthening the church? Are you ready to get serious about following God in your life? Are you ready to get serious about teaching your children to love God?
By Jack Wilkie
This article first appeared in Think magazine. For more info, or to subscribe, click here.
 – Damian Thompson, “2067: The End of British Christianity,” The Spectator, http://new.spectator.co.uk/2015/06/2067-the-end-of-british-christianity/.