Believers in the West have more religious options and liberties than ever, but the church seems to be struggling in direct proportion, so what’s the problem?
“Marriages these days are breaking like biscuits,” laments Sima Taparia, otherwise known as Sima Aunty to her clients in Netflix’s popular show Indian Matchmaking.
Taparia is touted as Mumbai’s top matchmaker, putting compatible young couples and their families together like a human dating app. Her job is far more complicated than simply finding two available young people with similar interests, though. “We don’t say ‘arranged marriage.’ There is marriage, and then there is ‘love marriage,’” she says, adding, “In India, the marriages are between two families.”
Individuals choosing their own partner are the anomaly rather than the norm for many Indian families. In fact, it’s estimated that between 75 and 90 percent of young Indians would prefer to have an arranged match rather than a love or free-choice marriage.
They’d almost be crazy not to, given the divorce rates among arranged couples is vanishingly small and they report higher levels of long-term satisfaction, Sima Aunty’s complaints about brittle, modern marriages notwithstanding.
So why are arranged marriages so much more successful?
Dr. Utpal Dholakia, professor at Rice University, explains, “From a decision making perspective, choosing a marriage partner through arrangement has at least two major advantages. The first is that people that one respects and trusts, aka parents or elders, prescreen the available options, leaving a small and manageable choice set.”
The other advantage is that “In Indian arranged marriages, in particular, many people give greater weight to compatibility and financial security over romantic love, further contributing to restrained expectations. As research on satisfaction judgments shows, when expectations are low, they are more likely to be met or exceeded….”
Why are we happier when we have fewer choices? Doesn’t more unfettered freedom and higher expectations lead to not ‘settling’ and greater achievement?
Insights Offered by the Asian Church
Restrained options and lower expectations leading to greater contentment isn’t limited to marriage. As one reader recently noted on our social media, “In the persecuted church (globally), they are denied freedom, but they are faithful. In the American church, they are given freedom but often are not faithful.”
Given a buffet of church options in the Western world — the United States alone has around 200 different Christian denominations — it seems passingly strange that church attendance even before COVID-19 was sinking.
The Pew Research Center found that between eight and 20 percent of people in U.S. or European countries who were raised as Christians had left their faith.
Most of them cited that their reason for leaving the church wasn’t because of scandal, marrying a nonbeliever or even disagreement with church leaders’ stances on political hot topics. They simply said that they’d ‘drifted away’ from the religion of their childhood.
Amid the wealth of possibilities and preferences, people chose nothing.
Meanwhile, Christianity in Asia has been attacked and oppressed by governments and other religious groups for decades now, and yet they have some of the fastest growing church networks.
Open Doors shows that out of the most oppressive countries to be a Christian, four of the top ten are Asian countries. Many believers there like this young man in Vietnam face death threats as a result of their faith, yet they have incredible joy in knowing God. For some, the only fellow believers they have may be their immediate family. For others, they are forced to flee their home to seek shelter with a church in a nearby village; the church leaders and faith community becomes their family in cultures where familial ties are everything.
Rather than discouraging new believers, the persecution and restrictions seem to cement many of them in their faith.
The South China Morning Post reported, “From a little more than 62 million Christians in East and Southeast Asia in 1970, by 2015 the number of faithful had grown to more than 266 million. The World Christian Database estimates that by 2050 there will be 431 million Christians in Asia, nearly 20 per cent of the projected population.”
One can’t help but look at the declining Western church in all its options and the explosive growth of the persecuted Asian church and speculate at correlations.
Unearthing Our True Priorities
When it comes to choosing a church family, many Westerners don’t have a good set of close friends or relatives to help them evaluate and narrow down their options. Fluid and far-reaching job opportunities mean that people are less likely to live near family or know anyone in the area where they relocate to help them select a church. Meanwhile, expectations for churches have become increasingly demanding.
The music needs to be top-notch, and the preaching must be dynamic and entertaining. The space should be relaxing and inviting but with a certain level of professionalism. The congregants must be friendly, and the staff should be engaged, willing to repeatedly reach out as well as always available, flexible and undemanding.
These expectations often lead to disappointment as church group after church group fails to reach the golden standard.
L. Nelson Bell wrote for Christianity Today, “Many of our choices today are made at the point of personal pleasure. There is a way which seems narrow and there are crosses of self-discipline which, when looked at in the context of the immediate, seem so unnecessary. And there are so many attractive things in the world, things which appeal to the appetites and senses and which are indulged in by most of the people around us….
“’This present world’ probably dictates most of our choices. Seen from the standpoint of immediate advantage and without consideration of the ultimate effect, so many of our decisions seem natural, even ‘smart,’ to the world; but they are utterly foolish in God’s sight.”
Leave your church because they talk about a social issue that you disagree about? Naturally. Staying true to your personal convictions is the most important matter. Drop the Bible study group because it’s on an inconvenient night? Of course. Everyone will understand. Skip church because Saturday was busy and you want to sleep in? That’s reasonable; you’re just looking out for your own health.
Crisis has a way of revealing our priorities like nothing else, and when they’re uncovered, will we like what we find?
When God Takes Away Our Options
If we’re lucky, God takes away our options before we get into too many bad choices. One of the best biblical examples is probably Jonah.
Jonah first appears in 2 Kings 14:23-25, serving King Jeroboam II. Israel at this stage had a lot of opportunities for worship and service, though very few that genuinely submitted to God. Of those options, though, Jonah picked a bad one. Jeroboam II was one of Israel’s worst kings, but here’s Jonah, serving him and prophesying that the king would regain a bunch of territory at the same time as the prophet Amos was prophesying that this same territory would be lost because God’s justice was against Israel (see Amos 6:13-14).
From all appearances, Jonah was on a bad path until God called him to go to Nineveh and then didn’t give him any alternatives. Jonah was bitterly resentful and tried to escape this divine command at first but finally submitted (kind of).
The entire book is a bit of a satire. Jonah was experiencing what any prophet would long to see — mass repentance and revival — but all he did was complain.
Musing on Jonah’s story, Gary Wilkerson wrote, “God’s direction can sometimes make us uncomfortable, but I encourage you to be faithful to what he has called you to. You will experience different seasons, so be faithful in every season. Say to God, ‘Whatever you have for me, even if is not exactly what I choose, I will fulfill your calling. You choose, and I will follow.’
“When Jonah obeyed God’s call, there were wonderful results. Nineveh experienced a massive revival — an amazing awakening — and, likewise, you can have a powerful, joyous breakthrough in your life when you repent of your disobedience and obey the voice of the Lord.”
The final chapter shows Jonah resenting God’s interference in his life, bitterly criticizing God’s mercy and compassion, but then the book ends with God’s words about how his values are always the most important things we can choose. Choosing God’s options, as limited and restricting as they may feel, will always ultimately bring the greatest amount of blessing to our souls and others around us, if we’re willing to submit to him.