Thursday, December 16, 2010

6 Major Patterns of Change in the U.S. Church

Change usually happens slowly in the church. But a review of the past year's research conducted by the Barna Group provides a time-lapse portrayal of how the religious environment in the U.S. is morphing into something new.

Analyzing insights drawn from more than 5,000 non-proprietary interviews conducted over the past 11 months, George Barna indicated that the following patterns were evident in the survey findings.

1. The Christian church is becoming less theologically literate.
What used to be basic, universally known truths about Christianity are now unknown mysteries to a large and growing share of Americans--especially young adults. For instance, Barna Group studies in 2010 showed that while most people regard Easter as a religious holiday, only a minority of adults associate Easter with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Other examples include the finding that few adults believe that their faith is meant to be the focal point of their life or to be integrated into every aspect of their existence. Further, a growing majority believe the Holy Spirit is a symbol of God's presence or power, but not a living entity. As the two younger generations (Busters and Mosaics) ascend to numerical and positional supremacy in churches across the nation, the data suggest that biblical literacy is likely to decline significantly. The theological free-for-all that is encroaching in Protestant churches nationwide suggests the coming decade will be a time of unparalleled theological diversity and inconsistency.

2. Christians are becoming more ingrown and less outreach-oriented.
Despite technological advances that make communications instant and far-reaching, Christians are becoming more spiritually isolated from non-Christians than was true a decade ago. Examples of this tendency include the fact that less than one-third of born again Christians planned to invite anyone to join them at a church event during the Easter season; teenagers are less inclined to discuss Christianity with their friends than was true in the past; most of the people who become Christians these days do so in response to a personal crisis or the fear of death (particularly among older Americans); and most Americans are unimpressed with the contributions Christians and churches have made to society over the past few years. As young adults have children, the prospect of them seeking a Christian church is diminishing--especially given the absence of faith talk in their conversations with the people they most trust. With atheists becoming more strategic in championing their godless worldview, as well as the increased religious plurality driven by education and immigration, the increasing reticence of Christians to engage in faith-oriented conversations assumes heightened significance.

3. Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life.
When asked what matters most, teenagers prioritize education, career development, friendships, and travel. Faith is significant to them, but it takes a back seat to life accomplishments and is not necessarily perceived to affect their ability to achieve their dreams. Among adults the areas of growing importance are lifestyle comfort, success, and personal achievements. Those dimensions have risen at the expense of investment in both faith and family. The turbo-charged pace of society leaves people with little time for reflection. The deeper thinking that occurs typically relates to economic concerns or relational pressures. Spiritual practices like contemplation, solitude, silence, and simplicity are rare. (It is ironic that more than four out of five adults claim to live a simple life.) Practical to a fault, Americans consider survival in the present to be much more significant than eternal security and spiritual possibilities. Because we continue to separate our spirituality from other dimensions of life through compartmentalization, a relatively superficial approach to faith has become a central means of optimizing our life experience.

4. Among Christians, interest in participating in community action is escalating.
Largely driven by the passion and energy of young adults, Christians are more open to and more involved in community service activities than has been true in the recent past. While we remain more self-indulgent than self-sacrificing, the expanded focus on justice and service has struck a chord with many. However, despite the increased emphasis, churches run the risk of watching congregants’ engagement wane unless they embrace a strong spiritual basis for such service. Simply doing good works because it's the socially esteemed choice of the moment will not produce much staying power.

To facilitate service as a long-term way of living and to provide people with the intrinsic joy of blessing others, churches have a window of opportunity to support such action with biblical perspective. And the more that churches and believers can be recognized as people doing good deeds out of genuine love and compassion, the more appealing the Christian life will be to those who are on the sidelines watching. Showing that community action as a viable alternative to government programs is another means of introducing the value of the Christian faith in society.

5. The postmodern insistence on tolerance is winning over the Christian church.
Our biblical illiteracy and lack of spiritual confidence has caused Americans to avoid making discerning choices for fear of being labeled judgmental. The result is a Church that has become tolerant of a vast array of morally and spiritually dubious behaviors and philosophies. This increased leniency is made possible by the very limited accountability that occurs within the body of Christ. There are fewer and fewer issues that Christians believe churches should be dogmatic about. The idea of love has been redefined to mean the absence of conflict and confrontation, as if there are no moral absolutes that are worth fighting for. That may not be surprising in a Church in which a minority believes there are moral absolutes dictated by the scriptures.

The challenge today is for Christian leaders to achieve the delicate balance between representing truth and acting in love. The challenge for every Christian in the U.S. is to know his/her faith well enough to understand which fights are worth fighting, and which stands are non-negotiable. There is a place for tolerance in Christianity; knowing when and where to draw the line appears to perplex a growing proportion of Christians in this age of tolerance.

6. The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible.
Christianity has arguably added more value to American culture than any other religion, philosophy, ideology or community. Yet, contemporary Americans are hard pressed to identify any specific value added. Partly due to the nature of today’s media, they have no problem identifying the faults of the churches and Christian people.

In a period of history where image is reality, and life-changing decisions are made on the basis of such images, the Christian Church is in desperate need of a more positive and accessible image. The primary obstacle is not the substance of the principles on which Christianity is based, and therefore the solution is not solely providing an increase in preaching or public relations. The most influential aspect of Christianity in America is how believers do--or do not--implement their faith in public and private. American culture is driven by the snap judgments and decisions that people make amidst busy schedules and incomplete information. With little time or energy available for or devoted to research and reflection, it is people’s observations of the integration of a believer’s faith into how he/she responds to life’s opportunities and challenges that most substantially shape people’s impressions of and interest in Christianity. Jesus frequently spoke about the importance of the fruit that emerges from a Christian life; these days the pace of life and avalanche of competing ideas underscores the significance of visible spiritual fruit as a source of cultural influence.

With the likelihood of an accelerating pace of life and increasingly incomplete cues being given to the population, Christian leaders would do well to revisit their criteria for "success" and the measures used to assess it. In a society in which choice is king, there are no absolutes, every individual is a free agent, we are taught to be self-reliant and independent, and Christianity is no longer the automatic, default faith of young adults, new ways of relating to Americans and exposing the heart and soul of the Christian faith are required. Although there were a few subgroups that were more likely than average to experience church-based accountability, there was not a single segment for which even one out of every five people said their church does anything to hold them accountable. The segments that were most likely to have some form of church-centered accountability were evangelicals (15 percent), adults living in the western states (10 percent), people who say they are conservative on social and political matters (9 percent), and Baby Busters, who are known to be a highly relational generation (8 percent). Amazingly, while 7 percent of Protestants claimed to have such accountability there was not a single Catholic adult surveyed who claimed to be held accountable by his/her church.


Friday, December 3, 2010


I am appalled by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Y.B. Dato‘ Seri Mohd Nazri aziz’s response to my call to the A-G Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patial to clear the air on the mounting issues afflicting the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission.

I have much respect for YB Dato‘ Seri Nazri for taking the stand that he is Malaysian First and Malay Next. I was amongst the first who quickly applauded his stand as a truly Malaysian. Likewise, I pray that YB Dato‘ Seri Nazri will display similar wisdom, and not emotions.

1. On Tuesday November 30, I gave a Press Conference to clarify the role of the MACC vis-a-vis the A-G Chambers touching, amongst others, on :

a) allegations of selective prosecution and victimisation;

b) acquittal in high profile cases for failure to establish the threshold of a prima facie case;

c) failure to institute prosecution in the losses suffered by Malaysia Airlines during the time of Tan Sri Tajudin Ramli;

d) allegations surrounding A-G Tan Sri Gani Patail’s personal conduct in consorting with the proxy of Tan Sri Tajudin Ramli during a recent Haj pilgrimage; and

e) allegations by former Kuala Lumpur CID Chief, Dato’ Mat Zain Ibrahim, of manipulation and tampering with evidence in the “Anwar Black Eye Incident” by A-G Tan Sri Gani Patail and former IGP Tan Sri Musa Hassan.

2. The Star report quoted Dato’ Seri Nazri Aziz, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, to have said that – “I don’t have to explain to him (Phang). I am not accountable to him and there is no necessity for him to pressure me.”

3. Let me be clear that my statements were directed to the Attorney-General Tan Sri Gani Patail and not to the Honorable Minister. As such, the issue of me trying to pressure the Honorable Minister does not at all arise.

In fact, I am surprised that the Honorable Minister considers my statements as being any form of pressure. Therefore, I am saddened that Dato’ Seri Nazri Aziz has seen it fit to rebuke me for trying to hold A-G Tan Sri Gani Patail accountable for these matters which are already in the public domain.

4. If the press reports are accurate, I am also saddened by the Minister’s statement that “he owed it to Parliament to reply on the issues, but not to any ordinary citizen on the street.”

5. These are very harsh words coming from a Senior Minister to a senior citizen like myself by likening me to someone in the street. I would like to remind the Senior Minister that respect begets respect. Not too long ago, we hear the slogan popularised by the Government “Yang Tua dihormati, yang muda disayangi.” We would not want our younger and future generation to be nurtured into a “kurang ajar “generation.

6. More importantly, I would like to remind the Minister that he is an elected representative of the people. His own honorific title ‘Yang Berhormat Wakil Rakyat in the Dewan Rakyat” are clear enough that the government, indeed all public functionaries, are accountable to the people- the ordinary citizen, who voted them into Parliament and into power. I therefore appeal for circumspection in the statements made by Ministers of the Government.

7. Surely but truly, the Rakyat would like to ask these questions:

a) What is so wrong for me to voice the people’s concern and frustration over these matters which are already in the public domain?

b)Why is the Minister shielding A-G Gani Patail from explaining his actions which may constitute conduct unbecoming of a public officer?

c) Does the Minister consider it not to be improper for A-G Gani Patail to consort with people who have been implicated in investigations by the law enforcement agencies?

8. I also repeat my questions to A-G Gani Patail to answer to allegations that he is consorting with one En Shahidan Shafie, said to be a proxy of Tan Sri Tajudin Ramli, for the Haj Trip. The blogs have published documents to show that these people have been implicated in a recommendation made by former Police Director of Commercial Crimes Investigations Dept (CCID), Dato’ Ramli Yusuff, to former PM Abdullah Badawi for causing the losses suffered by Malaysia Airlines.

9. As a senior citizen and social worker, I should echo to the Minister and the A-G, that A-G’s relationship with En Shahidan Shafie breeds more than just suspicion. The public is questioning whether the A-G has been compromised by that relationship? I also do not need to remind the A-G of section 16(B) of the MACC Act that it is an offence “IF” he, as a public officer, forbears to prosecute Tan Sri Tajudin Ramli because of his relationship with Shahidan Shafie. Section 23 of the MACC Act also makes it an offence “IF” A-G Gani Patail uses his office to receive gratification for himself, his family or his relative.

10.These are matters of paramount concern to the public. The personal conduct of the A-G must be beyond reproach if the institutions of government are to have any credibility. Otherwise, the public will perceive that the allegations made by Dato‘ Mat Zain Ibrahim in the following words to be true:

“It only shows that MACC and the Chambers are prepared even to go to the extent of affirming false affidavit to screen Gani Patail from legal punishment.”

11 Civil servants and politicians are definitely answerable to the Rakyat and it would be wise for the Government of the day to listen to them.



Thursday, December 2, 2010

Who's Watching Whom?

by Dennis Ignatius

Anyone who is serious about safeguarding our image and protecting our nation’s standing in the world would be well advised to first consider how developments at home are affecting our image abroad.

According to a Bernama report, Deputy Foreign Minister A. Kohilan Pillay recently indicated in Parliament that Wisma Putra monitors Malaysians who travel abroad as well as those who reside overseas “to ensure that they safeguard the good name of the country and government leaders.”

He went on to add that “irresponsible” Malaysians are tarnishing our good name abroad and suggested that such people are “traitors.”

It is an odd admission that only serves to underline much of what is wrong with our country today and our misplaced priorities.

As someone who has spent over 36 years in the foreign service, much of that time living abroad, I can attest to the fact that Malaysia’s image is rarely tarnished by what Malaysians residing abroad do or do not do.

Of far greater significance is what goes on in the country itself.

More than anything else, it is the long and seemingly unending list of scandals involving corruption, mismanagement and the abuse of power that has done great damage to our international standing in recent years.

It has also caused international respect for our judiciary and law enforcement agencies to plummet.

There are the racial and religious incidents as well — church burnings, the cow-head incident, conversion issues, vitriolic racist rhetoric, etc, all of which have badly dented Malaysia’s reputation as a peaceful and tolerant multiracial nation.

It is no secret that these developments have had the cumulative effect of undermining foreign direct investment, worsening our standing on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index and weakening our competitiveness as measured by the World Economic Forum.

Our diplomatic missions are, of course, expected to promptly respond to negative reports about the country. It can, however, be a daunting task at times.

In these days of the Internet, when news travels around the world at the speed of light, even the response of an ambassador is often not enough to undo the damage that is done by events at home.

Anyone who is therefore serious about safeguarding our image and protecting our nation’s standing in the world would be well advised to first consider how developments at home are affecting our image abroad.

While Malaysians abroad ought to do whatever they can to safeguard the image of our nation, they have no obligation to defend politicians or political parties.

Politicians and other leaders will have to nurture their own reputations, like everybody else, by the way they behave, carry out their responsibilities and respect the trust that has been given to them. If they fail to live up to the expectations of the people who elected them, they should expect criticism.

Indeed, it is the politicians, of whatever stripe, who need to convince Malaysians, both at home and abroad, that they are deserving of our support and respect. In democracies, it is the citizens who monitor their government, not the other way around.

Only in countries like North Korea are all citizens expected to uncritically sing the praises of their dear leaders.

Malaysians living abroad have generally been loyal and supportive of their country. Indeed in many respects they are even more patriotic that those who never leave home at all — perhaps absence does make the heart grow fonder!

During my time as High Commissioner to Canada, for example, the Malaysian community worked enthusiastically with the High Commission to put on an amazing display of culture and cuisine to commemorate the 50th anniversary of our independence.

As High Commissioner, it gave me much pride and joy to see my fellow Malaysians of all ethnic and religious backgrounds working together as a team to promote our country. Our guests were truly impressed by the vivid display of multiculturalism in action.

That is the spirit that largely infuses Malaysians living abroad.

Of course, Malaysians travelling or living abroad have sometimes been critical of the government, and for that matter, of the opposition as well. However, they are merely exercising their fundamental right as citizens of a free and democratic nation to express their opinion. Hardly the stuff of treachery.

Kohilan also does our diplomats a disservice by suggesting that they have been mandated to spy on their fellow Malaysians. It certainly does nothing to engender the kind of trust and goodwill that is so needed to foster closer cooperation between our missions and Malaysians living abroad.

What is it with us Malaysians that more than 50 years after independence we are still questioning the patriotism and loyalty of our fellow citizens and condemning as traitors those we don’t agree with?

And why do we seem to make a big thing about the mundane in distant lands and miss the monstrous right in front of us?

Kohilan might want to give some thought to these questions, unless, of course, it is treachery to ask.

Datuk Dennis Ignatius is a 36-year veteran of the Malaysian foreign service. He served in London, Beijing and Washington and was ambassador to Chile and Argentina. He retired as High Commissioner to Canada in July 2008.