Can Christians Avoid Demographic Despair?

Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Matthew 16:24 

Who are the nones, and what is important to them? And who are the spiritual but not religious? Contemporary surveys and polls and books and articles probe these demographic terms. You can read comment and opinion on these topics in most newspapers and news sites on the web. As the numbers who fall into these categories increase, many people ask what causes a person to believe that a religious connection is a detriment rather than a benefit to a fulfilling life, and why would someone find the abstract notion of spirituality more satisfying than being part of a religious fellowship? Christians ask specifically why many people reared in Christian families disconnect from Christianity as adults, and why any Christian would find something in yoga or a Buddhist trance that is superior to a relationship with Christ? What is going on in our culture that is driving these choices?

In a recent article, Phillip Goldberg cautions readers that those who claim none and those who claim spiritual but not religious may well have personal connections with any number of religious traditions even though they do not identify with any single religious group. Thus, either none or spiritual but not religious may actually mean that they draw from several religious sources without feeling affiliation or obligation to any religion. Christians looking around for an explanation of the statistics should be aware of this fact.

US Christians have been accustomed to see most Christian children retain their childhood religious connections. I belong to a church where there are numerous four-generation families among the members. Nevertheless, the census of 2010 and recent surveys of a religious nature reveal that numbers and proportions of Christians are declining while the numbers and proportions of people who claim no religious connection are climbing. Generally declining birth rates suggest that the proportional influence of Christianity might decline in the culture purely as a consequence of fewer children in Christian families. What’s more, most Christians believe that the credibility of Christianity is declining along with the demographics.

Christians know another truth rarely discussed in the demographic analysis – many people who self-identify as Christian have exceedingly tenuous connections with the faith. They read the Bible only occasionally and seldom attend worship. They don’t know enough about the Bible to name the first five books, and they aren’t sure if the Bible is relevant to modern life anyway. For all they know, it was Abraham who parted the Red Sea, and the Good Samaritan was probably one of Jesus’ disciples. Even people who claim to be Christian do not necessarily influence the culture with Christian teachings and values.

Christians despairingly conclude from these numbers that church membership will continue to decline. They mournfully engage in assembled hand-wringing. In fact, for some strange reason Christians believe that if they understood these numbers better, they might be able to craft a solution that would reverse the trend.

I don’t think so.

I see an important message in these numbers that has nothing to do with specific demographic categories. The message I see is this: Christians are not recognized as significantly different from any other group or religion, and when they do distinguish themselves, too often they attract attention for not living consistent with the faith they claim. In other words, Christians, including me, are not known for denying self and acting like Christ. We worry and worry that we don’t have the right plan or we don’t have the right process or we don’t have the right location, but none of these things is the problem.

When Christ roamed around Galilee and Judea, people flocked to him. It was like the best spring revival ever. Still, when push came to shove, when political and religious power combined against Christ, it became evident that not many of those people had been truly changed by meeting Christ. A lot of them were like the nine lepers who ran away and never came back to thank Jesus for healing them. They just took what felt good and ran with it. The same thing happens today. Some people meet Christ and are never the same, while others meet Christ and simply add him to their collection of spiritual heroes.

We must not despair about these things. Jesus never promised us that we would overwhelm the world. He promised that he would go with us into the world and give us the words of testimony we need. He promised that when persecution came, whether in the form of dismissive scorn or in the form of horrific torture, he would never abandon us. The book of Revelation makes it very clear that through all of time, the numbers of the faithful will not be the dominant demographic, try though we will to reach the whole world for Christ. John’s blinding vision of the future confirms what Jesus said about how few will find that narrow gate and the rocky path to life. In fact, I am always stunned to read about the people who would rather call down boulders on their head than turn to Christ. We who live in a blessed, fulfilling relationship with Christ simply cannot expect that every person with whom we share our blessings will join us on that road. It does not mean that we stop sharing, but it should mean we stop wringing our hands. It does not mean that we stop praying for everyone in the path of that rockslide, but it does mean that we trust God and his guidance for the outcome.

What can we do about the numbers? Absolutely nothing. Focusing on the numbers will distract us from what we need to do. What then do we do? We can do the one thing Christ asked us to do: Keep sharing the love of Christ. Trust that the Holy Spirit will work in the hearts of those who respond. Make disciples, baptize disciples, and teach the disciples what Jesus taught. How do we do that? “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24

If you think things sometimes look bleak for Christianity in the US, read about Somalia at Living on Tilt the newspaper.

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