Getting back to Christian Basics

bargraphBy Joe LaGuardia

There has been much discussion over a recent study from the Pew Research Center.  It reveals a rise of people of no faith (“the unaffiliated”) and the demise of Christianity in our nation.

The percentage of “unaffiliated” people rose from 16% to over 23% in the last seven years, while the percentage of Christians has steadily decreased.

Some say the decline is a result of the lack of institutional loyalty, while others blame a loss of “traditional values” in the public sector.  Many argue that these trends are regional and the statistics should be taken with a grain of salt: Christianity represents the largest religion in the world, and it is actually growing in continents located in the southern hemisphere of our planet.  Christianity is flourishing, just not the way we westerners are accustomed.

Diagnosticians like Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, see it differently: He contends that Christianity is not dying, but “jettisoning” a type of faith too liberal to be called as such, one that promotes atheism in disguise.

“We do not have more atheists in America; we have more honest atheists in America,” he wrote.

Also, the percentage of evangelical Christians, who tend to be more conservative, are stable if not in decline.  The number of evangelicals only decreased by less than 1%, which seems to support Moore’s assessment.

The devil, as they say, is in the details.  For one, evangelicals have remained steady not because of growth (decline is decline whether it is 1% or 3%), but because evangelicals retain more children than other Christian subcultures.

Second, a growing population of immigrants and minorities, who err on the side of conservatism, helps fill pews otherwise empty in evangelical churches.

Third, more mainline churches now consider themselves “evangelical,” as denominations fracture over liberal and conservative fault lines.

Fourth, studies show that growing churches tend to be evangelical megachurches with founding pastors.  Saying that the decline of mainline churches is due to theological liberalism is actually beside the point because all small churches are declining rapidly, not to mention that the Southern Baptist Convention has experienced decline in the past decade.

No matter who is providing an assessment on the Pew Research results, I think that the truth is somewhere in the middle.  I agree with Moore that Christians who are, in his words, “almost-Christian,” have rarely helped Christ’s cause in our nation.  I just disagree with Moore’s caricature of theology as the reason for decline.

mosaicChristian liberalism did not add to the faith’s decline; rather, it failed to bring out the best of what Christianity had to offer in the last century of our nation’s history.  In the first four centuries of the Christian church, the population of Christians grew from a few hundred people to millions–as many as half the population of the Roman Empire by some estimates.  Christianity grew not because is was more traditional or conservative, but because Christians readily adapted to a culture in need of radical hospitality.

According to Roman pagan philosophers, Christianity’s hospitality was too liberal to take seriously: Churches were egalitarian in outreach and leadership.  They did not enjoy prestige or privilege.  They included people normally marginalized in the ancient world–a liberal value if there ever was one.

Christians in the first century did not refuse to provide pizzas or wedding cakes to people; rather, Christians opened their doors to all people, and it often got them in trouble with the authorities.

The wave of Christian decline shouldn’t cause Christians of different theologies to turn on each other.  A large percentage of Americans view all Christians, no matter the denomination, as hostile, exclusive, prejudiced, and out of touch with the rest of the world.  This is the reason for decline.

We Christians have a choice to make.  We can circle the wagons and blame each other for our faith’s decline or we can take a look at our own failures.  It is time to overcome our differences, and develop a fuller outreach program that is surprisingly inclusive, vibrant, creative, and grace filled in a culture that longs for the type of belonging only churches can provide.

With “Nones” on the rise, church needs to transcend political discord to spead Gospel

Over the last week, politicians have been clamoring to move the GOP forward after losing the While House.  Stories abound on how they lost ground with young people who voted overwhelmingly for President Obama.  That caught my attention because it seems that this is the very demographic least likely to attend church.

I’ll leave the politics to the politicians; but, when it comes to the church, Christians need to be concerned.  A recent Pew Research poll found the number of “nones” (people who do not associate with organized religion) rose from 14% to nearly 20% in the last five years.  A third of adults who follow this trend are under the age of 30; and, worse still, 88% do not want to look for a religion to call home.

Upon closer inspection, however, the very same poll provides the church with avenues of hope–of spreading the Gospel message–even in the least expect places.

For one, a majority of nones may not consider themselves religious, but they do consider themselves spiritual.  I don’t know about you, but I think that the church should have a monopoly on all things spiritual.  We should lead the way in spiritual experience by putting a name and face to the Source of that experience, just like Paul did by naming that unnamed god in Athens (Acts 17:16-34).

But that simple message has been clouded by our political bickering even in the church.  While so many “nones” believe they are spiritual, just as many–if not more–feel a “deep connection with nature and the earth.”  So, spirituality is tied to an ever-growing concern for creation and the individuals who live in that creation no matter how different those individuals may be.

Many segments of the church, however, have fallen into the temptation of believing that creation care and the shaping of social legislation is a purely political concern.  This politicizing of God’s creation–and the people involved in legislation–is an immediate distraction in reaching the nones.  The nones see such culture wars as a war on their very personhood and values.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t think individual churches need to compromise their values or their reading of the Bible–Christians are just as diverse on these issues as are those in society–but I do think that our rhetoric related to creation and local communities needs to change.

Concerning ourselves with a more nuanced understanding of all things “spiritual” will provide us with an evangelistic–and evangelical–avenue of hope towards reaching the nones out of compassion rather than condemnation.

Another avenue of hope is in broadening the church’s message that prayer and miracles are most compatible with a compassionate Christianity.  Just as the number of “nones” is on the rise, so too are people who pray and believe in miracles.

Again, you’d think that the church had a monopoly on these two areas of spiritual connectedness, but it seems that more people find Oprah to be a source of inspiration for prayer than the prayer-filled sacred spaces of our churches.  How in the world the church lost young people to self-help books and celebrities in the cultural election on prayer is beyond me.

Our failure in reaching the “nones” is not as bleak as I suspect.  We already have what it takes to make connections with folks who have given up on church, now we only need to learn to how to speak their language when it comes to spirituality, prayer, creation and people care, and the miraculous when it comes to outreach and collaboration.

If we are too busy fighting one another and participating in culture wars that birth vitriolic rhetoric, then we will continue to lose the hearts, minds, and ears of the nones for years to come.  Only when we make an intentional effort to reach out with compassion and a search for common ground, will we gain ground for Christ.