The pollsters are finding more people than ever who no longer feel connected to Christianity, even in the nominal way they used to. My Twitter feed introduced me to an interesting explanation of the trend in the Huffington Post: “Four Reasons for Decline of Religion.” It is another attempt to interpret the startling news from the latest Religious Landscape Study by the Pew Research Forum. That report says that Americans are still VERY religious, but it also shows that the percentage of Americans who believe in God, attend religious services and pray daily has declined significantly during the last eight years, especially among adolescents. The blogger gives four reasons for this. They are all about how the “secular” environment is meeting needs better than religion, which may be true if all people do is follow their personal values around, as he purports. But I think there may be something else, too: the nominal Christians who no longer identify with Christianity may have made choices based on the lies people are telling about Jesus and the church. Every reason the blogger submits for the perceived decline is accompanied by a corresponding lie that seems to be helping people make new choices.
See if you think people believe these popular lies and so end up connected to a growing Jesus-free part of the population.
Lie one: “Spirituality” is the replacement for organized religion.
The lie is: If you join up with Jesus-followers you are joining up with a cult. Doing such a thing is infantile, undignified, abnormal and maybe unhealthy psychologically. These days faith is all about “spirituality,” which leaves believing up to your values and turns spirituality into an individual collection of experiences, a commodity or an affinity group. That is the new normal and what the Christians try to get you to believe is abnormal.
The blogger said that “William James, whom some consider the ‘Father of American psychology,’ and psychiatrist Carl Jung, who developed the idea of the extrovert and introvert, were among those who embraced mysticism, or a sense of the Absolute, but had little use for organized religion.” They had good cause to desert the institutional church of their time as they looked for authentic encounter with God. Now their desertion is popular. More Americans than ever are saying that they are “spiritual, but not religious.”
But are they right about Christianity? I think authentic Christians are deeply connected to God within. They have a lot more going than a “sense of the Absolute” (or yes, Hillary, “the Force be with you,” too). They are not just into themselves, but they have a deep inner life built on all sorts of well-tested spiritual disciplines. Even the Christmas story can’t get far without: “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
Lie two: We’re all one human family and tribalism is anti-humanitarian.
The lie is that once you break the tribal taboos of the church (get divorced, have sex with the wrong person, break the Ten Commandments, get on the wrong side of the priest or of some conflict) you are out. Yes, some expressions of the church totally resemble that lie, but Jesus doesn’t. People think if you are one with Jesus you must hate everyone who is not!
The blogger notes that “Historically, loyalty to the tribe and clan has motivated participation in organized religion.” Philosophy and capitalism undermine that. Freud and Durkheim, in particular, philosophized that religion is the glue of the tribe as they studied “lesser” people from their European towers — their thoughts about unenlightened people are influential wherever Eurocentrism rules. At the same time, the global economy has broken down the “historical” tribal membranes and weakened most cultural auto-immune systems. So there is a great economic sameness spreading over the world. I went to Cinemark in Fairbanks, Alaska last week and did not know I was not in my Stroudsburg, PA theatre. As a result, many people apply this sameness to religion and are less inclined to think of people as Christians, Muslims, Hindus or Jews, and more inclined toward thinking of “people of faith” as wearing a similar brand.
But are Christians really just a behind-the-times remnant of some tribalistic, exclusionary past? I think Jesus and Paul connected to people of all faiths and nonfaiths who were seeking or avoiding God. They were not setting up another tribe, although good Christians are as tribal as the best of them. They knew the Holy Spirit would empower individual seekers who would form a tribe from all nations with the same new spiritual DNA. From the beginning of the life of Jesus he was known as ultimately expansive: “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2). He’s the epitome of being humanitarian; no one is left out of the Kingdom of God.
Lie three: Being part of a nontraditional family is the latest improvement in freedom.
It is ironic to think that the never-married, often family-disrespecting Jesus, from the unusual “family” of the Trinity could somehow become the advocate for conservative, male-dominated, “traditional” (read ‘obsolete”) family. It is not true. He assumes family is elemental to creation, but he is not traditional in the least.
Historically, organized religions have relied heavily on the family to raise religious children and recruit new church members. That no longer works so well. The blogger notes that today we have a major restructuring of the family, with fewer than half of U.S. kids living in a traditional family. This change in family structure may be responsible for less successful religious training and recruitment of young people.
That seems very true. Of course the earliest church did not have any of these families with traditional Christian values around, so maybe the church can find its way without relying on them for recruitment. Perhaps now people can all reconnect with the family of God rather than just avoid displeasing Mom by enduring church services. The way much of the church has been for many years, the children of divorced parents, people who never marry, and LGBTQ folks all feel uncomfortable with the over-emphasis on getting a happy home out of following Jesus and with the implicit condemnation that comes with being “other.”
But do people become Christians just because it is part of their “background?” It is possible that the researchers missed something that also creates what we desire: guilt, the need for forgiveness, and the hope for transformation. Being “untraditional,” like many TV shows teach, is the new normal, but it is not the road to happiness, either. Refusing to feel “other,” outside the truth, sinful or guilty is not a solution to actually being those things. Feeling guilty about who we are or where we come from is not necessarily bad; guilt is good for us if it lasts just long enough to get us forgiven and to produce change. Our lack of needing forgiveness is creating what some people are naming an age of psychopaths. Meanwhile, the Christmas story is all about dealing with the possibility that a little, nontraditional, problem-ridden family facing disaster where Christianity first began is where it still thrives best.
Lie four: Institutions cannot be trusted.
The lie is that Christianity is just another institution, that it is “religion” which breaks down into franchises that have different brands but still sell basically the same product. Sure, some Christians have worked the system like any other business or government and have been corrupted by money and power. OK. But the heart of trusting Jesus is hardly “institutional.” Very few people would say “I want to be part of the institutional church.” Neither does Jesus, does he? He is God born in a stable and quickly forced into refugee status, after all. He might use institutions, but he was not born of one.
The blogger noted how the internet age gives us unprecedented access to information about our institutions but doesn’t help us have a conversation about the realities of their darker sides. Confidence in many of our institutions, from business to schools to government, is below historical norms. Confidence in religion, in particular, is at an all-time low, partly because of religious scandals in the Catholic Church and elsewhere.
I am hardly an advocate of blindly following institutions. Does anyone really think that is what Jesus has in mind for his followers? I think Jesus wants to build a church that can do what it should do. I think the church has blown it so bad in the past that it is no surprise that people deconstruct it and take the parts of it they like (like love, community, tolerance, spirituality, art) and cobble together a hypermodern improvement of it. They settle for faux Christianity. Nevertheless, Jesus shows up as real as ever during Advent every year.
He keeps speaking back to the lies, just like he talked back to people who doubted him to his face. “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to…the father of lies”(John 8). I am glad the present trends of our culture are bringing up some good lies to talk about. We need to talk back with respect, hope, love. The blogger du jour I am reacting to is right: a lot of people just don’t get Christianity anymore. But they are still looking for important things. It would be great if they could see that Jesus has always offered what they need.