Tuesday, October 22, 2019

It's About Jesus, Or It's Nothing

The latest Pew Research Center report on the decline of Christianity in the U.S. came out last week, noting that the decline is continuing at a rapid pace. A good article on the report can be found here, and the report itself can be found here. As with all surveys, there are always flaws in methodology, but Pew does a better job than most on admitting such and how they perform their interviews, publish their sample sizes, etc.

Here's some of the things that the survey reveals about the United States:

  • trends toward increased church disaffiliation continue
  • church attendance is in decline
  • "religiously unaffiliated" is most pronounced among young adults
  • both Democrat and Republican church numbers are swelling in decline
  • the U.S. population is increasing, but numbers of Christians are decreasing in absolute numbers (in other words, we aren't even maintaining our own)
  • the largest decrease of Protestants is in the South

What does the report reveal? I think it implies that we are beyond being a post-Christian culture, and are instead what Southern Baptist Russell Moore calls "pre-Christian." Before you argue too much, consider how many generations have now been unchurched. Now, more than any time in recent history, there are lots and lots of folks who haven't been introduced to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For that reason, I would assume NOTHING regarding religious background, basic Christian beliefs, or past experiences when (1) a first-time visitor comes to church, or (2) if I were to invite someone to come to church.

We are now missionaries. (Hint: We always were - but most of us in the U.S. Church have never seen ourselves this way!)

In short: this could be a time "ripe for the pickin's" where evangelism, sharing the Gospel, and making disciples is concerned. It could also be a time where we could royally screw up the opportunity - basically, by remaining ourselves. The definition of insanity: doing the same thing, yet expecting different results.

Shirt/swag purchased from the
podcast  Crackers and Grape Juice.
Here's what Christian churches, members, disciples, and pastors/priests/ministers will have to be willing to consider, ponder, and do:

  • All the fighting and infighting by and within denominations, autonomous churches that split and split and split, etcetera - has got to stop. We've created a culture of distrust of anything institutional or organized. No one wants to join another special interest group. Fellow Christians are not against us; they are for us, and we are diminishing in number.
  • We've got to get on our game regarding hospitality. Christians were once known for their hospitality: welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. 
  • Quit the blame game. "Today's culture" isn't causing a decline in Christianity. Homosexuality isn't causing it. Liberals aren't causing it. Conservatives aren't causing it. Christians are to blame for not spreading the Gospel. It's that clear, and it's that easy. It's a hard pill to swallow.
  • Folks on the Left and Right, make peace with each other, and with the Middle. Before you say, "The middle of the road is where dead animals end up," remember that they initially got hit by someone from the left or right side of the road... those that didn't end up thrown into or left in a ditch, that is.
  • More and more young people don't trust politics or our government. Don't give them reason to distrust the church by sounding the same as our media outlets or your favorite political candidate on social media, casual conversations, etc. Do an audit of your personal social media, daily conversations, and bank accounts: how much of a Christian witness is coming through? Who would be more apt to ask you to follow them: Jesus, or your favorite political candidate?
  • With fewer folks and diminishing resources, what is the best use of our money re: buildings, staffing, missional outreach, and program? All those will need hard discernment and reconsideration. We won't always like the answers.
  • Don't major in the minors. 
It's all going to boil down to change. Deep change. HARD change. What's clear is this: whatever we did for the past 50-100 years ultimately didn't work. Even the stuff that we Christians love so very much, but might not have that much to do with the Gospel.

Bill McAlilly, my bishop, preached in our town a couple of nights ago, and reminded us that on the Day of Pentecost the Church started with five thousand-some families. Two centuries later, there were five million followers.

It can be done, if we remember Thy will - not my will - be done.