I spend considerable time staying up on current events, reading news and blogs, and generally trying to figure out where our country is headed. My wife is probably right that I spend too much time doing it because I can get pretty wrapped up in it.
Last week the reputable Pew Research Center published a survey ostensibly showing that Christianity is slipping fast in America. The numbers bear this out. According to Pew, Americans identifying themselves as Christians slipped from 78.4 in 2007 to 70.6 in 2014, just seven years later. Pew notes that every major denomination (Evangelical, Catholic, and Mainline Protestant) saw reduced numbers, and the only increase was in the non-affiliated category.
For a lot of us, this isn’t really news. Those of us that do attend church have seen a decrease in Sunday worshipers, a decrease in young children and teens attending children and youth programs, and honestly, a decrease in tithing significantly affecting church budgets.
That all being said, what is striking to me as a tail-end Baby Boomer is how Christianity is no longer the dominate factor in American culture. I honestly never thought I’d see that day in my lifetime, but a country founded on Judeo-Christian ethics has seemingly abandoned them in favor of moral relativism and a tolerance movement that is tolerant of everything but Christianity.
So what does that mean for Christians and the church? Opinions vary considerably.
One response to the Pew survey was by the Christians right saying the survey actually didn’t show the church slipping, but instead it really showed who were “real” Christians, clarifying the numbers for the truly faithful. Personally I thought that was a stretch, trying to make lemonade out of lemons.
Franklin Graham – Billy’s son – is advocating Christians stand up to our declining culture and fight back – in love and gentleness – by standing up for our civil rights and fighting those who would shout us down. His point is well taken given how Christianity seemingly has dried up in Canada and Western Europe where the same declined happened while most Christians sat on the sidelines and watched. Most evangelicals are calling for a revival such as the ones that have taken place throughout history to bring the people back to God and the church.
On the other hand, Jesus tells us that nothing will stand against His church, so some advocate being calm and letting things run their course. Yet others believe the time has come to review our Biblical stances and have them fall more in line with societal norms; several denominations have made significant theological shifts on the issues of homosexuality, gay marriage, and tolerance of what was traditionally called sin.
To gain perspective on what we should do I think it is instructive to look back at the first century church and the origins of our faith.
Jesus, the disciples, Paul, and other church fathers lived in a time when the Good News and later Christianity was highly persecuted. Their faith was not the dominate force in culture, and in fact was seen as completely contrary to societal norms. Yet, these early church leaders were able to impact their cultures even while being persecuted, marginalized, and ostracized. What can we learn from them as we begin to see our influence in America slip?
First and foremost the early church believed in the supernatural power of God and understood that their job was to love God and love each other while it was the Holy Spirit’s job to convict and convert. I sometimes think the church has gotten away from that understanding. Many Christians seem angry, judgmental, and honestly negatively aggressive toward those with whom they disagree. That is not what Jesus taught us.
To share the Good News is to truly love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and not judge others while holding our own beliefs regarding Biblical rights and wrongs. What does this look like? Let’s use gay marriage as the example.
In our church we have an openly gay couple that attend. In fact, the two sing in the choir. Jesus would tell us to love those two people. In fact, Jesus would tell us that if anyone needs to hear the word of God it is them so they should be welcomed into the church. Yet, Jesus would tell us that we cannot affirm their lifestyle, showing us in the story of the adulteress woman how to handle such a situation (I do not condemn you either, but go and sin no more. John 8:1-30).
When asked recently what I thought about these two people, I said that my job is to love them not judge them and that their relationship issue is between them and God not me and them. Where that changes is if they want me to change my views on the subject regarding the Biblical stance on homosexuality, which I won’t. But neither will I condemn them through my own judgment because I understand that once I was an enemy of God’s, too, reveling in my sin. Yet God stuck with me and forgave me when I came around. I pray the same for this couple. In the mean time I want to show them the Jesus I know – uncompromising but loving, forgiving, merciful, and full of grace.
So would I bake a cake for a gay wedding? No, I’d suffer the consequences of not being involved in that the same way I would fight for the rights of the Jewish baker not to bake a birthday cake for neo-Nazis celebrating Adolf Hitler’s birthday, and the rights of the African-American baker not to bake a cake to celebrate the founding of the Klu Klux Klan. It is right to stand up for what you believe, but the Bible is clear that there may be consequences for doing so and that we should gladly pay that cost. As Paul put it, “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8)
The second thing we learn from the first century church is Jesus intended it to be a light in the darkness – its job was to influence the culture around them not the other way around. While books have been written on this subject, suffice it to say that God’s plan was for believers to be a positive influence while surrounded by not just unbelief, but by Satan himself who is the prince of this world. There are stunning examples of this throughout history, the most striking to me being the Christians that stayed to care for those dying of the plague when everyone else abandoned the victims knowing anyone who got close also would die of the disease…which every Christian did. That is the love that Jesus said would change the world.
I often am concerned that the church is not being that light in the world and instead of Christians influencing the culture it is the other way around. We see this when churches and whole denominations abandon God’s word and embrace the world and its norms. Here’s why that is so wrong.
Romans 12 tells us not to be conformed to the pattern of this world because this world is run by Satan who has blinded people to the truth (John 12:31, 2 Corinthians 4:4). It is clear instruction that finds its origin in God telling us that His ways are not our ways and for us not to lean on our own understanding. (Isaiah 55:8, Proverbs 3:5). None of this is rocket science, but it does take an incredible amount of faith to withstand the tug of the world. In fact, it takes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to be alive in you to resist!
For the first century church and beyond it meant persecution up to and including martyrdom and death! That was a price they were willing to pay, believing so firmly in their eternity with Jesus and the importance of holding to God’s word. Christians in today’s American Christian lose their mind when the government (Caesar) fines a bakery for not baking a cake for a gay wedding. If we cannot withstand that small amount of persecution, how in the world can we withstand what scripture says is coming?
We are admonished not to lose our “saltiness” (Matthew 5:13), meaning we are to “season” the world around us by being different. To be Christ-like we need to love when others hate; we need to have grace and mercy when others condemn; we need to forgive when others persecute. In short, we need to be Jesus Freaks in a world that Pew says is rejecting our God and His ways.
There will be a cost for this, but I am more concerned about being able to face Jesus the day I die and being told, “Well done,” than whatever I may face here on Earth by showing love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and humility in the face of persecution and ridicule.
Unfortunately, according to Pew, not every American Christian feels the same way. I know this blog is a little longer than usual, but we’re kind of at a crossroads that must be addressed. Where will you stand in the coming days of America’s Christian decline? Will you side with those seeking the world’s approval or will you choose the road to the cross and stick by Jesus regardless of the consequences?
We are not the first to come to this intersection. Heed the words of Joshua who led the Israelites across the Jordan into the Promised Land, “But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15) I’m with Joshua and Jesus.