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America Has a Trust Problem

February 8, 2022

“Trust is to capitalism what alcohol is to wedding receptions,” suggests Jerry Useem in an article in The Atlantic last November, “a social lubricant… ‘If trust is sufficiently low,’” he continues, quoting economists Paul Zak and Stephen Knack, “‘economic growth is unachievable.’” Public trust, specifically of the federal government, began to erode in the 1960s. The series of unfortunate events in the decades that followed—wars, Watergate, economic struggles, impeachments, ever-deepening political divisions—only contributed to what has become a steady decline of public confidence in the federal government. The only notable exception came with the brief spike in national unity in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. During the last two years, like so many other social conditions that pre-existed the COVID pandemic, the numbers hit an all-time low. Our national distrust is not only aimed at Washington D.C.. According to a 2019 Pew Study, almost two-thirds of Americans believe trust in each other is falling. The inherent connection between interpersonal trust and social stability, has an impact on the economy, among other things. In their report, titled Trust and Growth, Paul Zak and Stephen Knack describe that “low trust environments reduce the rate of investment and thus the economy’s growth rate…very low trust societies can be caught in a poverty trap.” On the other hand, when social trust improves, so does interpersonal trust..This can actually lead to economic growth. Americans’ trust in each other, however, dropped from 45% in 1973 to just 30% in 2014. Useem thinks that had trust among Americans been stronger during that time frame, more like New Zealand for example, “(our annual GDP per capita would) be $16,000 higher.” In addition to our pocketbooks, the loss of trust is affecting work. According to one study, 42% of employees think that their employers do not understand their pandemic experiences. Conversely, employers are showing a decline in trusting their employees. Since the pandemic started, the employee monitoring software industry has grown by 50%. According to one study, 74% of remote workers are concerned their employer is monitoring when and how much they work. As one Forbes article that predates the pandemic put it, a lack of trust in the workplace “demotivates employees and is costing businesses dearly.” Trust is a significant ingredient of what can be called “social capital.” Just as an individual needs financial, relational, and labor resources to start and grow a business, so a society needs financial, relational, and labor resources in order to grow and flourish. It only makes sense that a collective loss of trust, particularly at the scale we are now experiencing, would be felt in economic terms. As opposed to more short-term factors like monthly job creation or a particularly volatile stock price, social trust points to more consequential concerns about longer-term stability and sustainability. Christians, of course, care about social trust for far more important reasons than the economy. The economy, in fact, is just one of many indicators of human flourishing, but there are others, such as family stability, mental health, upward mobility, education, and creativity. Trust is critical in each of these aspects of social capital. Starting tonight, and continuing for the next four weeks, a new Colson Center short course will tackle this crisis of trust. Taught by Dr. Bruce Ashford and Dr. Yuval Levin, the course will begin with Dr. Ashford exploring where authority is grounded in a Christian worldview, namely the character of God. Next Tuesday night, Dr. Ashford will explore some of the social factors and historical shifts that have led to the current crisis of trust and authority. In the third session, Dr. Ashford will teach on how Christians can cultivate discernment, an essential ingredient if we are to rebuild trust in the context of our fallen world and broken cultural moment. Finally, to close the course, Dr. Yuval Levin will talk about the crisis of trust in social institutions and how we can work to rebuild them. As Useem wrote in the Atlantic article, “A trust spiral, once begun, is hard to reverse.” But what choice do we have but to confront it? If we are to be faithful to Christ in this cultural moment, Christians must embrace the call to be agents of reconciliation in their own spheres of influence. That’s why this short course is so important right now. “The Crisis of Authority and Loss of Trust: A Christian Response” course begins tonight, at 8 p.m. Eastern, and will continue for the next four weeks. Each session is live online, and recordings are made available for anyone enrolled in the course not able to make the live session. To register, please visit www.colsoncenter.org/events.

No Fault Divorce Harms Children

February 24, 2022

A couple of weeks ago, Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister for the United Kingdom, praised what he called an “important” debate in Parliament. He was referring to a law effective April 6, under which married couples no longer have to name any faults before seeking a divorce. Ironically for a member of Britain’s Conservative Party, this idea flies in the face of what “conservative” means. It certainly cuts against conservative foundations articulated by the likes of Edmund Burke and T.S. Eliot. According to these thinkers, family and tradition are the only real bulwarks against the chaos of our atomistic age. As we noted recently, “If we lose our belief in marriage and the family as the foundation of a healthy and flourishing society, there will soon be very little left for ‘conservatives’ to conserve.” But Mr. Raab’s comments got worse. He went so far as to claim that this new law was a positive good, not just for parents seeking divorce, but for children. As he put it, “This vital reform will remove unnecessary conflict from the process by ending the blame game—helping [to] spare children from the harmful effects this can have.” This, “the kids will be fine” line, is not just nonsense: it’s dangerous nonsense. It flies in the face of everything we know about the impact of divorce on the most vulnerable among us. Over 20 years ago, Chuck Colson said, “People who divorce are more likely to die from stroke, heart disease, cancer, and hypertension. Kids from broken homes are more likely to fail in school, abuse drugs and alcohol, commit crimes, and have children out of wedlock.” What Mr. Raab and our friends across the Pond should do is look before they leap. A look at the American experience reveals how this so-called “freedom” has played out here, and the enduring scars it’s left upon children. In the early 1970s, an incredible (and incredibly sad) study was launch, which was later published in book form under the title The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. It told some of the tragic stories of these children. Drs. Judith Wallerstein and Julia Lewis interviewed over a hundred children of divorce in California, hoping to get at the real-world impact of divorce on the increasing number of children growing up in broken homes. They didn’t only interview these individuals as children, but also followed them over the next 25 years. What this study found was devastating. As one reviewer described their findings: [O]nly seven of the 131 children from the original sample experienced a post-divorce home in which they had a good relationship with a step-parent. At this 25-year mark, only 60 percent had contracted for marriage. Two-thirds of the sample decided not to have children. Only 30 percent of the sample received financial support for college, as contrasted with 90 percent of children whose parents were not divorced, an indication of the nature and quality of their troubled relationships with their parents. This story is about far more than stats. It’s about the heartbreaking impact divorce had on these kids’ lives. There’s the woman who almost 30 years later could still see in her mind the details of “the sun striking the patterns on the living room carpet” the day her father left when she was only 4. There’s the boy who refused to take off his heavy coat at school despite the day’s heat in case he’d have to leave at a moment’s notice. There’s the little girl who kept telling her teacher about her new baby brother, except there was no baby, only her little heart’s plea to imagine her parents were still together. Then, there was the 5-year-old who said she needed a new mommy because hers had been “a tense, cranky, unavailable stranger.” There are times when divorce is necessary, but it is always tragic in the same sense as when catastrophic cures like amputation or chemotherapy are necessary. To pretend otherwise is a dangerous fantasy. The Bible sees marriage as a lifelong bond between a man and a woman, but, recognizing the frailty of human nature after the Fall, it allows for divorce in extreme cases, such as abandonment, adultery, or abuse. Highlighting the “wholesome” effects of no-fault divorce is even more reckless than praising the upside of amputation. Divorce is a messy, sometimes necessary, side effect of living in a world full of sin and folly. But while we may have to deal with our human weakness in this way, it’s never something we should excuse by saying that it is for the kids’ good. The cost to children is too high. Its effects on children are too long-lasting for society to allow, let alone encourage. To do so is to ignore the data, the stories, and reality itself. By: John Stonestreet and Timothy D. Padgett

Summit Ministries is Immunizing Students from Bad Ideas

February 18, 2022

Many Christian parents worry about passing on the faith to their children. Sadly, statistics suggest they should. In 2020, the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University found that just 2% of millennials, a generation now well into adulthood, have a biblical worldview. That’s the lowest of any generation since surveys began. Lifeway Research reports that two-thirds of those who attend a youth group as teenagers will drop out of church as adults. A significant aspect of the battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation has to do with ideas. Helping students think correctly about life and the world, God and themselves would be hard enough if they weren’t facing such strong cultural headwinds. But they are, and bad ideas are like viruses. They spread from the mind to the heart, and from person to person, even infecting entire populations. Many young people today leave the faith because they lack the necessary immunity from the bad ideas of our culture. Christian parents must not only present the truth to their kids, they must find ways to immunize them against lies. To do that, we need to know which teaching methods work and which don’t. Dr. Jeff Myers of Summit Ministries points to the work of a Yale psychology professor from the 1950s. Dr. William McGuire suggested that bad ideas behave like viruses. Specifically, the more exposure one has to bad ideas in a controlled setting, the less likely they are to fall for those ideas later. McGuire performed a series of experiments in which he tried to convince subjects of a lie, that brushing their teeth was actually bad for them. Those with no preparation for what they were about to hear were more easily convinced to stop brushing, and those who were warned against a specific bad argument they would hear were harder to deceive. No real surprise. More surprising were the groups that were easiest and the hardest to dupe. The group most vulnerable to falsehoods was not the one with zero preparation, but the one who’d merely had the truth reinforced. In other words, the subjects most easily deceived were told things like, “You know brushing your teeth is good for you, right? You’ve been taught this since you were little. Trust us.” When they heard arguments they’d never heard before, this group felt sheltered and even deceived. The least vulnerable group were those who had not only been warned against a bad argument they’d hear, they were also taught how to respond. And, they were warned they could face additional bad arguments, so they needed to be aware and vigilant. What does this experiment teach us? Well, for one thing, that the method many Christian parents and churches use to pass on the faith—reinforcement without taking seriously counter ideas—is doomed to fail. In fact, it can leave young people more vulnerable to lies. It also teaches us that we don’t have to give kids all the answers, but they do need to be aware and ready to think for themselves. This requires that we give them a framework, or a pattern, of responding to bad ideas thoughtfully and confidently. This is what the team at Summit Ministries has been doing with students for decades: immunizing them against bad ideas and preparing them for challenges to their faith. The results are measurable and impressive. An independent 2020 survey of Summit alumni showed that just 40% felt able to defend their faith against challenges before attending a student conference. After attending, that number skyrocketed to nearly 90%. Before Summit, only 44% claimed a strong commitment to Christianity. Afterward, 77% did. And, almost 97% of Summit alumni indicate they are currently attending a church that holds to the truth of the Bible. Chuck Colson called Summit Ministries “the gold standard” for training young adults in Christian worldview. I agree. I’ve personally witnessed and been part of the transformation that happened at Summit. Each 2-week student conference—held at Covenant College in Georgia and at the Summit headquarters in Manitou Springs, Colorado—shapes a robust, biblical worldview in young people, while also preparing them for divisive topics like abortion, doubt and deconstruction, evolution, gender identity, God’s existence, sexuality, and more. If you know a student who needs to attend a Summit conference this summer, get a $100 discount with offer code “BREAKPOINT22.” You can also save $200 when you register before March 31 for any in-person Summit Student Conference. Simply visit summit.org/breakpoint. The numbers speak for themselves. Passing on a Christian worldview to our kids requires much more than just telling them the truth. It requires us to help them love the truth, and gain spiritual immunity against infectious bad ideas.

The Metaverse and a Disembodied Church

February 17, 2022

Futurists and tech industry gurus have long promised a utopia where humans aren’t dependent on pesky biological or geographical realities. Behind yesterday’s cyberspace and today’s “Metaverse” is the same idea: In a brave new world of digital existence, humans can be freed from bodies, specific locations, and other physical limitations. Digital technology made it possible for churches to pivot and continue in the early, uncertain days of the pandemic. Many congregations have chosen to keep their live-streaming option on offer, in order to accommodate their older, more vulnerable, or physically distant constituents. Other churches have taken it a step or two further. Some have opted for an online-only congregation, abandoning a physical building and physical gatherings altogether. Others are starting “churches” in Facebook’s new Metaverse, where people, or their avatars, can “come” to church from anywhere in the world with other people, or their avatars, who join from anywhere in the world. D.J. Soto, a pastor at what is called VR Church in the Metaverse, recently claimed, “The future of the church is the metaverse… in the church of 2030, the main focus is going to be your metaverse campus.” On one hand, such innovation is just the latest chapter in a longer history. Churches have long employed new technologies and methods to reach the sick or infirmed, particularly in times of crisis, and keep them connected with the wider Church. Evangelicals, in particular, have a long tradition of using new technologies in the service of evangelism, including the printing press 500 years ago, the newspaper 300 years ago, the radio in the early 1900s, and the TV in the late 1900s. This commentary, BreakPoint, got its start on the radio. But new technology and communication methods must be evaluated on more than whether or not something new “works.” This new chapter is also about what the Church is. Decades ago, Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” Put another way, the means used to tell a story will shape what is said. When it comes to Church, it can change the nature of what we kind of people we are. People aren’t just inviting the world into the Church through new technology, they’re moving the Church into the new realm of that technology. Such a move can have unexpected consequences. While there’s certainly cause for attempts to “reach people where they are,” what we reach them with is what we reach them to. We must make sure any effort to communicate the Gospel doesn’t reduce the Gospel to anything less than It is. Remember, Christ spoke of those who, in the Parable of the Sower, initially received the Gospel with joy, but, lacking root, turned aside when growing stopped being as convenient. But there’s also something else to consider. A disembodied Church assumes that a disembodied faith is possible. A Christianity lived only online encourages America’s already existing “choose your own adventure” understanding of religion. Christianity is about more than content. Rather, its content cannot truly be lived outside of the context of real people in the real world. As Tish Harrison Warren put it recently in the New York Times, “[B]odies, with all the risk, danger, limits, mortality and vulnerability that they bring, are part of our deepest humanity, not obstacles to be transcended through digitization.” In contrast, a cyberspace “church” can be something akin to 2013’s “Her,” where an imaginary relationship with an online persona becomes preferable to the often painful and inconvenient nature of tangible reality. As someone from that movie puts it, “You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of dealing with anything real,” a line that could describe what too many seek from the Bride of Christ. The faith of our fathers is not simply attending a performance, or even embracing a set of ideas about God or Jesus. A church without doctrine is a mere social club or an arbitrary special interest group, but a “church” that remains doctrinally correct but only connects online is a mere chat room. A disembodied online existence makes it too easy to hide who and what we really are from those God has called us to love and be loved by. The Christian life cannot be fully lived online. God has called us to this time and this place, to times and crises that are uncomfortable and to people whose issues and ailments are unpleasant. The world in which God is making all things new is filled with real people and real problems, and these won’t be mended in the illusive world of an online existence.