When the Pharisees learned that the Sadducees could not argue with Jesus’ answers to them, the Pharisees met together. One Pharisee, who was an expert on the law of Moses, asked Jesus this question to test him: “Teacher, which command in the law is the most important?” Jesus answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and most important command. And the second command is like the first: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ All the law and the writings of the prophets depend on these two commands.” Matthew 22:34-40
One Sunday in Oxford, a man visits a church building to collect something for his partner who works during the week in a creative arts project at the church. He arrives as the morning congregation is leaving and recognizes the minister, whom he knows. Surprised, he asks, “What are all these people doing here? I didn’t know churches were open on Sundays!”
These stories depict a British culture in which the Christian story is unknown and churches are alien institutions whose rhythms of life don’t intrude on most members of society. A few years ago, neither would have been believable, but today there are numerous signs that the era of Christendom is fading in the West. In his book The Secret Servant, Daniel Silva observes an old stone church in stately Amsterdam. He writes, “It’s a church without faithful in a city without God.” It could be said of many cities in Europe. In Great Britain, only 4 percent of the children are involved in church. If the Church of Scotland continues to shrink at the present rate, it will be extinct in 2033.
But that can’t be the case in America, right? Isn’t he church in America still a thriving centerpiece of our culture?
Actually, all Protestant churches, whether mainline or evangelical, have been in decline since 1955. They all made a small rally in 1974, but have been in slow decline ever since. Over the past ten years, the Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans Episcopalians, American Baptists and UCCers have lost thousands upon thousands of members. And the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's second largest denomination and a long-time indicator of church growth, reports a national decline in membership for the fourth year in a row. According to the National Council of Churches 2012 yearbook, the direction of membership decline remains very stable. That’s a polite way of saying that churches which have been declining in membership in recent years have continued to decline.
At the same time, Christianity is still the largest worldwide faith practice. People go to church and are transformed by the communities. People connect to God, their neighbor, and their personal faith. Religions live within this dual reality. Churches have always lived in some sort of dual reality – trying to understand how to be faithful in the midst of the dominant culture.
Many of us feel a sense of loss — a grief over what no longer exists and a sense of discouragement about the church. Our sanctuaries are not as full as they used to be. Some of our neighboring churches that used to be the bedrock of the town are closing their doors. Denominational identity is unsatisfying. Church programs that once worked are now ineffective. In this time of loss and change, we can feel anxiety, anger, desperation, and a rush for answers or programs or people who will take away our pain and take us back to the time when life was better and easier. We want the one program that will revitalize our church, bring in new members, and put money in the offering plate. We want the denomination to do something. But none of them seem able to do what we want or need.
In terms of the American religious landscape, we can see that many people are pulling away from religions that promote hatred, violence, intolerance, and bigotry. Especially when it comes to Christianity, many people do not want to associate with a religion that is seen as chauvinistic, closed, and superstitious. And the concept of God is actually being questioned by more people. Research shows that more Americans have retreated into our minds and closed ourselves off to belief in a transcendent God. Where once, we may have seen ourselves as part of a seamless cloth, a tight knot social body, we are now becoming just a collection of individuals with individual experiences, individual perceptions, and individual constructions of reality. This means, if we want to make sense of our chaotic, harmful world, less people rely on outside forces like God. Social and political arrangements are no longer givens. There is no God-given social order. If the world is going to be ordered, we need to do it ourselves.
It’s not just atheists and agnostics who believe this. Some social critics argue that Christians have become disenchanted. Americans worship a scaled-down God and a pre-shrunk religion that can be rejected without consequence. God is just too easy to ignore these days.
Let me highlight two trends to make my case here. Trend number one is the increase of civil religion. Civil Religion says, “There is a God who created the world, looks down on America with a big smile, has blessed us more than any other nation, and thinks our values are one with his values (I’m being intentionally sexist here). The God of civil religion wants to expand our influence around the world, wants us to be good to our friends but helps us defeat our enemies, and expects us to love our country as a way of loving God. Particular to American civil religion is the belief that the highest moral authority is the individual. My personal happiness is the highest good. The good of the individual always trumps the good of the community. President Obama has tried to redefine American civil religion in some ways -- to broaden it. Consider his Second Inaugural address. He called Americans to action.
“Serve the poor, have hope in the future, renew your hearts. Make new the nation’s ancient covenant of justice and equality in this uncertain world. Create a new American future.”President Obama’s public God is a pluralist in step with our times; a personal spirit, the relational presence of inclusion, community, empathy, justice, and service. Civil religion presents a God who can function in the public square to bind Americans together with a larger sense of meaning and purpose.
A second trend is called Moral Therapeutic Deism. The term was invented by sociologists who study the religious commitments of today’s youth. Researchers wondered why most of today’s youth – the so called “Millennials,” in their teens and 20’s – find it so easy to shrug off faith. They identified a religious trend they called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The belief system goes something like this: There is a God who created the world, looks down on us from heaven with a smile. God wants to bless us, wants us to be good to ourselves and kind to others. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about one’s self. God does not need to be involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. The bottom line: feel good, be happy and secure, and know peace by playing nice with other people.
It doesn’t sound bad. That’s the point. It’s actually not just a teenage phenomenon. Moral Therapeutic Deism is preached from some of America’s most popular pulpits. Consider the words of TV preacher Joel Osteen in his book Your Best Life Now:
“You can hold your head up high and walk with confidence knowing that God loves you unconditionally. His love for you is based on what you are, not on what you do. He created you as a unique individual— there has never been, nor will there ever be, another person exactly like you, even if you are a twin— and He sees you as His special masterpiece! … You may feel unqualified, insecure, or overwhelmed by life; you may feel weak, fearful, and insignificant, but God sees you as a victor!”Those are all Osteen’s words, including the God-is-a-He language.
I don’t mean to sound too judge-y here. I believe some of this stuff. My point is to raise the question – how did we get here? Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God, say, 500 years ago in Western society, while in 2014, many people find this not only easy, but even inescapable? How did American religion become a faith of humanists? When did we all become such skeptics? We live in an age and time where there is no longer one true faith evident in all times and places. Our religion sometimes feels more like a leisure pursuit than something vital; “You play golf, I go to church. To each his or her own.” Believer and unbeliever are in the same exact predicament. Christian faith is at a loss as we watch the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence. We have lost something and there is no going back to find it.
And I’m just wondering, what’s the point? What’s the point of faith? What’s the point of coming here to worship as often as you do? What’s the point of doing what we do here unless our religion fills us, directs us, and sustains us, and marks us?
Here is the challenge. For all its niceness and politeness, for all its empowerment and self-help inspiration, Moral Therapeutic Deism cannot withstand “shipwreck.” “Shipwreck” is H. Richard Niebuhr’s term for the shattering of self that often happens when life hits the rocks. If the only purpose of religion is to help us feel good and do nice things, then religion is irrelevant when life hits the rocks. In times of shipwreck, feeling good about ourselves and being nice are unthinkable. If this is all religion is for, then shipwreck naturally convinces us that God is either make-believe or impotent.
So, I’m wondering what it would take for our faith and practice here at Christ Congregational Church to help us and our neighbors explore the boundaries of the religious landscape, especially as feelings of living in a wasteland intensify. What do we really, I mean really, need? Because we are still figuring out how to live a life of faith within this emerging world. How can we navigate these uncertain times and move forward with our story of hope, even in the midst of life’s shipwrecks?
1. We need to focus on experience over intellect. Don’t get me wrong. We still need intellect. But even more than intellect, we continue to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, and to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world. That’s the point of the greatest commandment in Matthew’s Gospel, right? Love God first. Love neighbors second. Less ego and individualism and more honoring the sanctity of every single human being. We realize that if part of our human family suffers, we all suffer, even if it’s our enemy. Especially when it’s our enemy. Faith practice can thrive when we treat everybody, without exception, with absolute compassionate justice, equity and respect. Churches are relevant when we restore compassion to the center of morality and religion and insist that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate.
2. We need to remember that Christians are not called to avoid suffering. We are actually called to move towards it. When Christian communities embody the rhythmic dying-and-rising cycle of nature, we participate in a process of transformation that leads to new birth. We affirm that Christ does not merely glue our shattered selves back together; Christ makes us new. Resurrection is our defining hope and our persistent song.
3. Most of all, we cannot, we must not, keep doing things just because they are familiar and traditional. It’s not just that the church has changed. Or the culture has changed. The whole context has changed. It is time to open our eyes and see our surroundings with new understanding. Our response to the changing religious scene cannot be to burrow, ostrich-like, into the sand of familiar church culture. It also means we can’t afford to focus on the things that usually take up most of our time. How many times have we focused on complaints?
- The music in church is too loud or too soft.
- The preaching is too emotional or too academic.
- The pastor is too unavailable or too hands-on.
- The building is too ornate or too bland.
- The liturgy is too crusty or too unusual.
- The ethnic mix is too homogenous or too diverse.
- The mission is to inward-focused or too outward-focused.
- The congregation is too big or too small.
- The sermons are too long or… no that’s it – they’re too long.
These times insist that we focus on a different set of questions.
- How can we do ministry from the center to the margins?
- What does it mean to me a church of immigrants, exiles and pilgrims in a culture where we no longer feel at home?
- Can we renounce privilege in favor of plurality?
- Can we be one community among equals?
- Instead of trying to control society, can we become witnesses once more?
- Can we tell our story and live out its implications, allowing people to rediscover our transforming faith on their own?
- Most importantly, what does it mean to move from maintenance to mission, from institution to movement?
This is the place where we can learn about the deep value of love and forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption, the renewal of families and the power of neighborhood organizations. This is the place where we can learn about worship and recognize that something deeper is needed in our life. This is a place where our spirits can be rooted as we experience the relentless stress of a global community. This is the place where we learn to build a sense of community and break down the isolation and polarization of life in D.C. This is the place where we support each other as we experience the demise Christendom and affirm the liberating decision to be a Christian. This is our opportunity to be the church that God intended us to be: the caring, creative, counter-cultural, critical, and Christ-following people who bear witness to new life. If you are ready for adventure, this is a great time to be a member of the church. We face an exciting time that can help our congregational enter into the changing times and the new life that is coming with it.
James K. A. Smith, How (not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor
Harry Kiely & Ira Zepp, One Nation, Many Gods: Confronting the Idols of American Empire