The past few years have been a time of tremendous change. Imagine if, like the legend of Rip Van Winkle, you had gone to sleep in 2015 and woken up in 2021. After an extended bear-like hibernation you stumble out of bed and start a pot of coffee brewing.
While waiting for the caffeinated beverage to percolate, you go outside to look around. In your suburban neighborhood, people are walking down the street wearing face masks. They’re not criminals but old ladies. On somebody’s car you notice a bumper sticker: “Re-elect Trump for President 2020.” Re-elect? Trump? you think to yourself in disbelief.
Back home, you turn on the TV, and on a political talk show they’re discussing the aftermath of an “insurrection” at the U.S. Capitol where a violent mob broke into the building and tried to abduct the vice president and members of Congress, but fortunately failed in their mission. Next, the discussion turns to “the latest” mass shooting where some crazy person started killing random people in a public place, and the tragic statistic that there’s been more than one such incident per day in the United States so far this year.
After that, the political talking heads begin discussing a police officer who murdered a man by kneeling for nine minutes on his neck, and how it led to an entire summer of massive protests and riots in cities across America. Finally, in a breezy tone as if it’s just part of normal life, they provide an update on a pandemic disease that has killed millions of people during the past year and which seems likely to continue raging, in part because lots of people are refusing to get a widely available vaccine.
You’ve heard enough. You decide that waking up was a bad idea, so you throw out your freshly brewed coffee and crawl back into bed — perhaps for another five years.
Well, we can’t do that in real life, so we have to do the best with the world we find ourselves living in. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo to Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. “So do I,” said the wise wizard, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Fortunately, things tend to be cyclical; our fortunes ebb and flow like the tides. There are good times and bad times — and if we live long enough, we’ll see and experience many examples of both. As it is written in the Book of Ecclesiastes,
“There is a time and season for everything,
for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born and a time to die,
A time to plant and a time to uproot,
A time to kill and a time to heal,
A time to tear down and a time to build,
A time to weep and a time to laugh,
A time to mourn and a time to dance,
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
A time to search and a time to give up,
A time to keep and a time to throw away,
A time to tear and a time to mend,
A time to be silent and a time to speak,
A time to love and a time to hate,
A time for war and a time for peace.” [Ecc. 3:1-8]
One of the many changes that has happened in recent years — and I would say an unfortunate one — is the decline of organized religion in the United States. According to a Gallup poll, in 2020 only 47% of Americans belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 70% at the turn of the millennium. This is the first time in the history of the poll that membership in a religious community has fallen below 50%. Perhaps most strikingly, from 1937, when the poll was first taken, to the year 2000, church membership consistently hovered around 70%. After that, it fell off a cliff.
The same poll also reveals that in the last 20 years, the percentage of Americans who report no identification with any religion — regardless of whether or not they go to church — has grown from 8% to 21% of the population. This means that nearly one-quarter of the public not only has no faith community to help them through hard times, but also apparently has no belief in a benevolent divine order beyond the often unfortunate reality of the material world.
I have some thoughts about why that is. Could it be, perhaps, that so many churches function more as amplifiers of the political culture war that so many people already are disgusted with, rather than as inclusive and uplifting communities that empower people to look to a greater vision and transcend the divisions of our time? Could it be that so many churches either reject modern science (if they’re conservative) or are squeamish about the supernatural (if they’re liberal)? Could it be that so many churches nowadays — whether liberal or conservative — embrace the false gospel of capitalist-inspired individualism, such as “prosperity theology” and the “law of attraction,” instead of comforting people in their distress and providing the kind of generous socioeconomic benefits that we find described as the role of the church in the Book of Acts?
All of these things, I believe, lead to disbelief and nonparticipation in religion — for religion as it is so often presented today is something unsavory, sometimes even vile. The average person does not want to go to church to hear about the supposed evils of abortion and homosexuality, or the anointing by God of Donald Trump as a glorious leader like King Cyrus; nor do they want to go there to hear about how everyone is supposedly a racist, or that if you don’t support the most “woke” progressive activists and their doctrines you should be canceled and disfellowshipped from polite society.
None of these things are supposed to be the purpose of the Christian church, and yet it seems that many churches today are shifting toward these cultural polarities in a quest to remain “relevant.” In an era when church attendance is no longer culturally normative — when there is no longer any peer pressure in the average neighborhood to go to church on Sunday — religious communities need to get people’s attention, to get more clicks on social media, and inspire enough outrage against perceived enemies so that people will take notice that they even exist, and perhaps occasionally grace their pandemic-sparsened pews with a butt that could convert into a donation in the collection plate to enable the church to keep its lights on. Ten years ago it was Christian rock bands as a substitute for outdated theology; now it’s a Christian-flavored culture war between left-wing and right-wing believers.
There are still some churches that resist these trends and try to remain focused on simple but challenging moral teachings and the spiritual meaning of life. Such churches aren’t as flashy and don’t get much media attention, but they do exist, quietly helping their communities and bringing people together who care about God and each other.
If Christians wish to renew our faith and the church, I would suggest that we start by going back to basics. Honesty, decency, integrity. Treating all people the way we would wish to be treated. Standing up for the idea that there is a God — a God who is not a sadistic tyrant, or a genie who grants all our wishes, or a tribal warlord, but instead who is the loving Father of us all, as described by Jesus.
And perhaps most importantly, our faith needs to be more about action than ideology. If we really believe in the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, what we going to do about it? Are we helping the less fortunate in the human family? Are we looking for common ground with those of a different culture or political orientation? Are we seeking to build a better society for everyone — or if this feels like too much of a reach, as it probably does for many of us during the dark times in which we are living — are we at least working to build local or virtual communities where we can live a Christ-inspired life in devoted fellowship with others who choose to join us?
As dark as the times may seem, for society in general and especially for the Christian religion, I believe there is light at the end of the tunnel. The diminishing popularity of Christianity means that a whole new generation will be growing up without really knowing what the faith is all about. That presents an opportunity for Christian leaders to redefine the corrupted message to be focused once again on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is of timeless value, and to save souls from the hopelessness of a world gone mad and to care for their material and spiritual needs, just as the early Christians did in their own time.
Back then, the faith was even less popular — in fact, it could get you killed. It’s important to remember that there’s no guarantee that the majority of people will be Christians, or believers in God at all. All throughout history, the average person has lived for little more than the pleasures of the flesh and put their trust in no power greater than a human army. That is the normal baseline worldview of society — that we live as intelligent animals, try to enjoy ourselves and get what we can through whatever power we have available to us, and then one day we die and rot in the ground.
People who have challenged that worldview and said that there is a higher purpose of life, that there is something more after death and that its quality depends on our moral conduct, have often been in the minority. People of faith are the “leaven in the loaf,” to use an analogy of Jesus [Luke 13:20-21]. We may be a small part of the whole, but our active presence can have a transformative effect on society.
With secularism rising, perhaps churchgoing Christians in the 21st century can feel liberated to stop worrying about trying to be in the majority, and instead can focus on living and sharing our authentic faith to the best of our ability. We don’t need to be cool, or popular, or part of the prevailing cultural trends to make a difference. In fact, by assimilating too much into the mainstream culture, we lose whatever unique value we would otherwise bring to the table. By conforming to the world as it is today, we forfeit our ability to help create the future.
Seasons of renewal always come after times of decline. It’s trendy right now to be angry, cynical, and without religious faith. That’s understandable, in a time when people are deeply divided and society seems to be falling apart. But it’s not always going to be this way. Let’s start creating the kind of Christianity that can help solve the problem, instead of giving up hope for a better world.
Watch on video (starting at 8:13):