So much ado has been made about a recent Pew Research Center report on the decline of Christianity in America. Many have weighed in on what the results of the research mean. Many things I have read are insightful, such as United Methodist Bishop Ken Carter's post on the matter. I have found other analyses to be extremely wanting (I won't link to any of those posts). All I want to do here is throw out some random thoughts on this matter for your consideration. What I say is certainly not the last word (I am not smart enough to have the last word on anything.), neither are my musings beyond refutation (let the refuting begin). Rather, I am just posting some thoughts as a pastor of thirty years and a professor of twenty, who finds all this stuff of interest.
First, there is really no definitive evidence that active worship attendance in the United States has declined over the past two centuries. Dean Merrill in his book, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Church, written over twenty years ago, has demonstrated that active church attendance in the U.S.A. has always hovered between thirty to thirty-five percent of the population. Whatever percentages we have today are approximately the same as two hundred years ago.
Second, the church in the United States is imbued with the model of Western consumerism. We are not nearly as interested in the hard work of making disciples as attracting people who will basically assent to Christians beliefs, putting enough money in the plate to sustain our current ministries and especially our buildings. The focus on prayer, devotion, and service must be at the center, or we will end up not the disciples of Jesus who desire to serve, but consumers who are only interested in how they can be served by the church.
Third, and let's talk about our buildings... let's be frank... for many of us pastors, we are so focused on keeping up the viability of our physical plants that it so often drives our ministry. We have to make sure that whomever we minister to and attract to the church must also have the financial ability to support the budget, that we too often ignore the ministry opportunities to the poor and disenfranchised living around us who need ministry. Yet, they are ignored because we are only interested in people who can help us pay the bills. So our ministry is focused not on who needs Jesus, but on what can they do for us. I will never forget the Sunday a couple of years ago when we took in seventeen new members of our church. Two of them were homeless. I was so proud of the fact that two homeless people were so accepted by our church that they wanted to formally belong. After worship during our welcome reception, I had two different people come to me and say, "So what that they joined the church. They don't have any money to put in the plate."
Let's admit that our buildings are too often an albatross around our collective necks. The church needs to be driven, not by the monthly utility bills, but by the kingdom vision being displayed each week.
Fourth, and finally, let's finally admit that the church in America is a product of Christendom. I don't care whether as a Christian you call yourself conservative, evangelical, liberal, or progressive, you are mired in a context in which you think it is more important to influence the state than for the church simply to be a witness in its life and mission of what the kingdom of God looks like without nation state politics.
Let's be honest-- when Christians of all earthly nation state political stripes hear the word "politics," they don't think church, but nation state. Too many Christians are more beholding to Reinhold Niebuhr than Jesus Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ cannot be what God wants it to be until it sheds its conservative/liberal, evangelical/progressive posture to focus on what God really has in mind in Jesus Christ.
In Matthew 4:8-11. we read,
Again, the devil took him [Jesus] to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
I will tell you this-- when I listen to nation state political activists on the left and on the right, if they were with Jesus at his temptation, they would be arguing to bow down to Satan that they might control the kingdoms of the world for the common good, for social justice and for traditional family values. After all, what's a little devil worship if it will bring social justice and family values to the world?
Am I wrong?
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)