With all the problems that the people in the United States is facing, there is one more. It seems there are no alternatives for how to live differently. There is no political, social or economic change that will make things better. Even the church seems to have its hands tied.
There are a lot of voices bemoaning the decline of the church in the United States. Usually this is in relation to the drop in membership among Catholic and Mainline Protestant congregations, as well as the rise in the “nones,” meaning those who claim “none” when asked what their religious affiliation is. It is also seeing an uptick in adherents to non-Christian religions. All this was reported in great detail in the 2015 Pew publication “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.”
These changes are being driven largely by generational differences, as older generations that were members of congregations are not replacing themselves with their children or grandchildren. At the same time, unaffiliated people are replacing themselves with their children and grandchildren by passing along their ambivalence toward religion to their children.
This information needs to be held together with findings from a 2016 survey done by Lifeway Research. This survey showed that those who are unaffiliated with a specific religion are not therefore anti-church. Surveying people who had not attended a local church for any reason other than a special event (e.g., wedding or funeral) or a major holiday (i.e., Christmas, Easter, or Mother’s Day) in at least the past six months. They found that 79% of their respondents were open to having a conversation about faith with someone they trusted.
The reason that people were not coming to faith is not because they were resistant to the possibility of doing so, but because Christians were unwilling to talk about their faith with others.
Why, then, are the churches losing members if people are open to at least discussing faith with their friends? Lifeway also found that only about a third (35 percent) said someone has ever explained the benefits of being a Christian to them. The reason that people were not coming to faith is not because they were resistant to the possibility of doing so, but because Christians were unwilling to talk about their faith with others.
This leads to a different lens for considering any decline in the church. Behind the decline in numbers is a more serious decline in the ability for the church to share the gospel well and to offer an alternative way of living. This has serious repercussions for the larger culture.
We have already seen how Americans are beset by stress, incivility, and disparity. Worse, there are no obvious ways out of these traps provided by the culture. People simply assume that violent interaction is the next logical step we will take in dealing with each other. Some have even been lured into endorsing this violence by being radicalized through groups that use violence as their primary tool.
Hope gives us the ability to state with assurance that we are better than the evils that beset us.
The church, even in its diminished state, offers the best hope for providing an alternative way of living. It can offer a life of hope that recognizes the struggles people are facing, but does not allow those struggles to become an excuse for destroying ourselves internally with stress or destroying others with rudeness and violence. Hope gives us the ability to state with assurance that we are better than the evils that beset us. We can be gracious even when assaulted with incivility. We can endure our pains and continue to work toward a better world for everyone.
The church is made up of every tribe, tongue, race and ethnicity, and it is spread through nearly every hamlet, town, village, and city in the United States. If the people of the church were to articulate their hope and then enact it with each other, living in a gracious way toward each other so that they provided a concrete picture of what it looks like to deal with the stress, incivility, and disparity of the world without giving way to anger and violence, that would provide the larger culture a legitimate alternative to the only route they think is open to them.
This sort of alternative way of living is not something ethereal or academic. It involves following the sort of advice John the Baptist gave in Luke 3:10-14:
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. 11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” 13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. 14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
…in a world where we believe stress, rudeness, and violence are all we have left, the simple acts of being content, avoiding mistreating others, and sharing are a powerful antidote.
This may seem overly simple, but in a world where we believe stress, rudeness, and violence are all we have left, the simple acts of being content, avoiding mistreating others, and sharing are a powerful antidote. The church has the goodness given to it to be this. However, it needs to learn to articulate that goodness and then have the courage to share it internally and with others.