I believe the recently released date from the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), and the story told in the March 9 edition of USA Today, tells a story so compelling that missional Christians must not ignore what is really happening to millions of people in the U.S. We have clearly moved from a deeply religious culture, firmly rooted in some expression of historic Catholic and Protestant faith, to a society that is rapidly moving away from any kind of "deep personal commitment." Barry Kosmin, one of the authors of this ARIS report suggests religion is more of a "fashion statement" for many Americans than anything remotely related to everyday spiritual reality. I think this is a correct analysis. We who believe in the Great Commission had best take serious note of all these developments.
Some religion is growing, at least in certain regions in America. There you find religious adherence and practice that is on the increase. In Texas, for instance, Roman Catholicism is growing faster than the bishops can handle. The same is true in South Carolina. But in New England the Catholic Church is slowly fading away as a cultural relic of the past, declining by 15% in only 18 years. Young adults are choosing to opt out and their parents and grandparents have moved South. These young adults may still claim, nominally at least, to be Catholic but they are not baptizing their children or having sacramental weddings. In my area attendance at confession is almost non-existent, with the exception of a few more traditional parishes that still emphasize it and get a larger response.
One ex-Catholic, a 21 year-old philosophy student in Boston, says that he is quite typical among his peers. When religion comes up, he says, "everyone at the table will start mocking it. I don't know anyone religious and hardly anyone 'spiritual.'" I think this sums up a trend that is obvious.
At the same time my friends who work with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a para-church evangelistic ministry on college campuses, say that they are seeing a slight increase in conversions over the past two or three years. Could this become a new trend? God alone knows but we should all foster this hope with our efforts and dollars and then pray for it purposefully.
The primary gap in the culture wars, say authors Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, is what they term a "piety gap." Kosmin says this "piety gap" is "about gay marriage and abortion and stem cells and the family. If a personal God says, 'Thou shalt not,' or 'Thou shalt' . . . you'd take it very seriously. Meanwhile, three in ten people aren't listening to that God." Keysar adds, confirming what I have also experienced personally, "There's more clarity at the two extremes and the mishmash is in the middle."
The problem here is really quite simple. Much of the visible church, even the evangelical church, lives in this "mishmash." We are tired of the culture wars (I include myself in this group) and we are not sure that mission and kingdom ministry matters anymore (I am not in this group). Mark Silk, director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, sees in all these numbers "an emergence of a soft evangelicalism—E-lite—that owes a lot to evangelical styles of worship and a basic approach to church." But Silk adds, "E-lite is more a matter of aesthetic and style and a considerable softening of the edges in doctrine, politics and social values." There can be no serious question that his analysis is spot on.
Rev. Kendall Harmon, an Episcopalian who is committed to the gospel of grace, tells a story that sums all of this up very powerfully. He interviewed a family in his office that brought along a yellow pad with some of their teenage son's questions. The one that underscored the amazing reality of how far we have moved away from a cultural awareness of the meaning of Christ and Christian faith sums it up powerfully. The teen asked: "What is that guy doing hanging up there on the plus sign?"
I can't think of a more powerful testimony to the need for a fresh vision and power for mission on this day, Good Friday, 2009. While some traditional folks argue about baseball teams playing games this afternoon, between noon and 3 p.m., the church doesn't seem to realize that millions of people have no earthly idea what the cross means at all.
A faithful and awakened church will know this truth and then concur, with real integrity, with Paul when he said: "May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Galatians 6:14).
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The question from that teen is sobering– to say the least. We should listen to his question and take the implications of it very, very seriously. Even in what is sometimes described as the “Christian” West, we do not necessarily live in a culture anymore which has Christianity as a *subtext,* much less as the central story.
Preachers, in your sermons, carefully *define* your terms. Define sin. Define judgment. Define redemption. The same goes for lay Christians, as we share the Gospel with those whom God brings across our paths. We cannot assume that non-Christians understand the terms which we use. We must define them, if the Gospel is to be truly understood, and hopefully, accepted in a life-and-world -transforming way.