2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
On Pentecost, you may recall that the congregation was invited to write a dream, or a vision, that you had for the church on a 3×5 note card that were passed out with the bulletins.
Well, I read through the cards I began to see what you hope for the church’s future. For example, you hoped:
* That the church would be a discipling church, making strong Christ followers
* That we would become a haven for young adult Christians looking to rediscover their faith
* That we would be a people of welcome and comfort
* That the church would be a place to raise our children with a strong sense of faith.
* Many people wrote (in a verity of different ways…) that they dreamed that the pews would be full once again. They dreamed that this meetinghouse would be busting at the seams with people seeking to worship God on Sunday morning.
These are all great dreams for the church! Dreams that we need to be talking about and pursuing! For they are in line with the commission that Christ gave us when he said
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)
Well, at the same time we were writing about our dreams for the church the results of the 2014 Pew Research Foundation’s study on the changing National Religious Landscape were being released. Coincidence? I think not.
So, I’m looking at today’s message as Part 1 of 2. I’d like for us to consider our dreams as a gathered Body of Christ along side what is happening in the greater Christian movement across the country. Then next week, perhaps we can talk about how we can embrace some of the opportunities that these changes present to our own worshiping community.
So, let’s talk about this study. For it is meant to be a snap shot of what is happening in the greater Body of Christ across the nation.
Just as a note of background first… the Pew Research Center did their first survey on the National Religious Landscape back in 2007. And the study that was done in 2014 is the first one to happen since. They left the project alone for 7 years. So the results were eagerly anticipated.
The study was done by randomly calling people from all over the place. They interviewed over 35,000 over the phone. Now, no study is without its flaws of course… and as I was reading about how the study took place I couldn’t help but think… “Wow if they talked to 35,000 people over the phone, I wonder how many people hung up on them before they got to the first question!” How many of you would hang up as soon as you heard “Hi I’m Sarah with the Pew Research Center, would you mind taking a quick survey about your religion?”
So, the study is limited to American adult that don’t mind gabbing on the phone about their faith.
Some of the highlights of the study include:
* The Protestant (including the Evangelicals) and Catholic churches are both showing a decline
* The Non-Christian faiths are showing a little bit of growth
* The Unaffiliated group just took a giant leap, especially among Millennials
* The Unaffiliated group grew across the board in every generation, including the Silent Generation.
Now, what is tempting is to look at a study like this and think that they sky is falling. After all, if we trust in these percentages it means that we use to have 244 million Christians in this country now we have 219 million Christians in the United States. And if you were to search this study out online and read through what the commentator and bloggers are writing in response, you will read a lot of hyperbolic gloom pieces as people try and explain the shifting landscape. You’ll read commentary about America’s failing morality and how we are drifting away from traditional/ conservative beliefs and values. Some are saying that the “liberal mainliners” are drawing in disenfranchised Millennials left and right.
Now, from my perspective, much of this is something that is coming from the study seems like things we already knew. As a Millennial myself, the only church I’ve ever know is a church in decline. (I concur with my fellow Millennial, Pastor Erik.)
When folks talk about packed churches on Sunday mornings or a time when the shops closed down on Sunday in order to protect worship and Sabbath time… I’ve never known that era. Cooperate prayer in schools, where a teacher would led the students in the Lord’s Prayer, seems absurd to me- I’ve never experienced that in my life. It’s a quaint idea to me.
From where I sit, the Golden Era of the Church, (and it seems like most churches have a era that fits into that idea) is what seems abnormal to me. The shrinking church… that’s what familiar. So, if you all are finding this latest Pew Research study to be a bummer or if you feel yourself panicking for the future of the church…
Let’s pause to do the brave thing and look between the lines of this study/ dig into the sub-text and find the potential/ the opportunities this information might bring to our collective Christian ministry.
Here is the beam of hope radiating from the study! The “Unaffiliated.” These are what the commentators are calling the “Nones”, and they are on the rise- particularly within our young adults. When the folks from the Pew Research Center were talking to the participants of the survey, they would ask those that claimed to be “unaffiliated“ how they felt about religion in general. And nearly 40% of that group claimed that religion was still very important or somewhat important to them.
It would seem that there is a big change happening among the culture of “nominal Christianity”, or those lost of cultural Christianity.
Now, for my soap box moment. Some of you might disagree with me here.
Back in that Golden-Era of the church, we had people that claimed Christianity because they saw the benefit of the title and the practice of the Christian people but they didn’t necessarily take on the faith. They came to church out of social opportunity or expectation. They were Christian simply because their parents were Christian and told them they were too. Or perhaps they saw it as civic responsibility.
Back in the early days of the American Colonies, before the separation of church and state. You had to be baptized into the Christian church in order to be a citizen of the US. And for decades and centuries this idea of the Christian identity and civic responsibility were entangled. But now, we are seeing a shift towards people claiming the Christian faith again, rather than simply reaching for the Christian title.
The people of the US are cleansing their own church rosters. With so many more opportunities in our communities: social, civically… so many more ways to be in service to others, the Church is becoming yet one more option, rather than THE option.
So, when you look around you, you see brothers and sisters in Christ that are choosing to be here in worship. That’s a very good thing.
But what happens when you live in a culture, where faith isn’t assumed?
It means that Christians have a heck of a lot more responsibility to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.
It means that evangelism is not something that will just happen- but we have to pursue it.
It means that caring for and loving our neighbor isn’t something we can leave to someone else, we have to do it.
It means that people don’t necessarily get what church is about/ what fellowship is about, so we need to show them.
In our Scripture lesson from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, he talks about being renewed day by day in the midst of hardship. When Paul writes to the Corinthians he takes things like love, the need for fellowship, and the movements of the Holy Spirit very seriously. You know why? Because the people in Corinth were growing a church that required them to emanate the love of Christ and exemplify a radical trust in God because they were fish swimming up stream. They were outsiders in what we would call a very secular society.
Right before our passage today, in verses 8-10, Paul said this:
“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed, perplexed, but not in despair, persecuted, but not abandoned, struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”
Paul was encouraging the church fellowship in Corinth to emanate Jesus to the people – to grow love. Even in the midst of feeling pressed and perplexed by the culture around them.
When we look at the decline of the Christian church on National Religion Landscape, do you feel a little pinched or perplexed? Do you ever just wish that everyone just simply knew the love of Christ and why church fellowship was important? How much easier would it be if we were just born with a magnet in us drawing us to the love of God through the church?
Then we would all have great attendance numbers!
One of the many bloggers responding to this study, Pastor Erik said
“Sometimes I think that we tie our attendance to God’s faithfulness. We believe that God approved of the church more when it was full 50 years ago. And now God is frowning at us because we couldn’t freeze time, because the world changed around us and we weren’t sure how to deal with it.”
Maybe as the church considers how to respond to the decline, it would be good for us to remember that a shrinking church doesn’t mean a shrinking God. In the same way that a packed house on Sunday mornings with offering plates that are over flowing, doesn’t equal a God that is increasing.
It would be a very brave thing for us to acknowledge that God’s work in this world has very little to do with numbers and percentages and quantitative data… and everything to do with creating a real relationship with Christ.
The Good News for us today is that God is really good at bringing about life from death. God is really good at renewing the world day by day. God is the expert at resurrection and transformation.
So maybe, just maybe, if we are brave and bold we can look at this data as hopeful news, trusting in our God to be steadfast in his promise and bring forth resurrection.
And as Paul would say… and as David said… “In the midst of affliction, they still gather and give thanks.” (Psalm 116:13)