Much of the data shared at church conferences focuses around how Americans are minimizing their relationship to the mainline denominations and are increasingly choosing to be unaffiliated religiously. This rightly deserves attention, however if we want to share the gospel effectively, this is not the data that we need to focus on most closely.
People do not make their choices about faith based on whether it is popular to claim a religion, but on whether that faith meets and blesses them in their daily lives. This means that researching how people are living and feeling is far more important to those of us who desire to share the gospel than trends related to religious affiliation. That way we can speak to them in the midst of what they are really experiencing.
Knowing the trends also helps us diagnose ourselves. God walks with us as we experience the context around us, but does not make us impervious to it. Recognizing how we are affected by out context, but are also able to find hope as we experience it gives us a new way to share how meaningful our faith us.
People do not make their choices about faith based on whether it is popular to claim a religion, but on whether that faith meets and blesses them in their daily lives.
For those of us who minister in the United States, now is an especially important time for us to be certain we are taking account of how Americans are feeling. For many people, living in the United States in 2017 feels a bit like being on a bus that is traveling very fast while perilously close to the edge of a cliff. It is one of those nice coach buses, with a bathroom, televisions, and a smooth ride, so if you just keep focused on the inside, everything seems fine. However, if you glance out the window, it can get pretty scary.
Lots of us are looking out the window, and some of us are glued to it, nervously wondering whether our bus will stay on the road and, if it does, whether it has anywhere in particular to go. The result of this is all sorts of negative impacts on our health, relationships, and social structures.
Over the next several weeks, we will be looking at some of these trends and considering what they mean for sharing the gospel.
One of the primary impacts of the transitions we are facing in the United States is increased levels of stress.
Americans in the United States are more stressed than ever. According to the American Psychological Association’s report Stress in America: Coping with Change, published in February 2017, it showed that Americans had moved from a 4.8 to a 5.1 on a ten-point scale dealing with stress. The primary reasons given for this move had to do with:
- The future of the country, especially following the election in November 2016
- The economy
- Mass shootings and violence in the United States
- Terrorism more broadly
The result of this stress is more than just general anxiety. Stress has long been understood to be detrimental to people’s health. This study from Oregon State University found that people who experience three or more major stress events per year or who have long-term sources of stress in their lives, such as caring for a disabled spouse or child, have a shorter lifespan.
…if we want to evangelize well in the United States, we need to take seriously the stress that both we and those we want to share with are experiencing.
Given this link, it is not coincidental that mortality rates are rising in the United States. For the first time since 1999, maximum ages for Americans dropped by .1 year for women and .2 years for men. This is mostly attributable to stress-related illnesses (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc.) and to stress-related actions (drug overdose, suicide, gun violence).
More than just affect those who are already living, there is the possibility that stress is also contributing to a lower birth rate. Sperm counts among western nations, including the United States, have dropped precipitously over the past half-century. While no one is certain exactly why this is happening, higher stress levels may be a factor.
All of this makes it clear that, if we want to evangelize well in the United States, we need to take seriously the stress that both we and those we want to share with are experiencing. Perhaps we can do this in two ways:
- Practice the means of grace. God gives us amazing opportunities to immerse ourselves in His gracious power and presence through the means of grace, such as prayer, reading the Scripture, worship, fasting, and gathering for fellowship and support with other Christians. Practicing these in our personal lives will give us time we sorely need with God to gain the perspective and peace we need as we are bombarded with the negative news that would stress us otherwise. Having the kind of life that handles this stress with grace will be attractive.
- Talk about hope. Stress overwhelms us in part because we are fearful of what will ultimately happen. Will the bus tip over the cliff causing me to either be severely injured or to die? The Christian faith expands our field of vision, helping us see that there is hope even if we do die. Rooted in the hope of the gospel, we can help people move past the fear that binds them in stress.
It used to be evangelists asked people what would happen to them if they were hit by a bus one night. Would their soul go to heaven? Today, most people are fearful of what it means to continue living in a state of perpetual stress on the bus. We need to share with them the gospel that promises God is Emmanuel, with us on the bus, as well as ready to grasp us in love if the bus does crash.