The news I’m referring to is a recent study by the Pew Research Center. In a nutshell, it tells us what we’ve suspected for a while: Christianity in the United States is on the decline. Some evangelicals say the news is not as bad for them as it is for Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, but whatever. Fewer people choose to self-identify as Christians.
Those who say this isn’t such bad news see it differently. Phyllis Tickle reminds us that we are in a tectonic shift, societally speaking. Another article I read said that while the numbers reflect a decline, we were already living with the reality that the numbers describe. It’s a bit like removing someone from the membership roll at church – our number of members goes down, but if we have not seen this person in a decade and he or she has not participated in any way in the life of the church, it’s a number loss but not a presence loss. (And yes, we will still do that person’s funeral at the church.)
The Pew report came out this week. Last weekend, a few folks from our congregation observed a focus group about spirituality and religion of millenials in our particular social and physical context. That was eye-opening, and depressing. Of those twenty-three who participated in that particular panel, one identified as Christian. A few claimed “spiritual but not religious”. Some were indifferent about Christianity and religion in general. A few were outright hostile. Once we have the report from the focus group, I hope to do a blog series responding to some of things said by participants. Stay tuned for that.
But the Pew report and the focus group have gotten me into a good theological/existential funk. All the great thinking in the world, and all the hard thinking I’ve done this week, have not made a dent in the funk. Here’s why: I love my faith and it is central to my life, and I am deeply saddened that for so many this thing that is beautiful and life-giving to me is met with apathy or hostility by others. It’s just hard when someone trashes that which is beloved to you. I don’t pretend the Christianity has all the answers or that the church always does the right thing. The news has not undermined my faith. God certainly does not need me to defend Him/Her. But the feelings of loss and grief are real.
I met with my spiritual director and we talked about this. She asked me, “Do you think you have any control over the findings in the Pew study or the comments of millenials?” “No.” I cannot stop this Great Emergence, this tidal societal shift; I can’t convince a millenial who would not leave his child in a room with a Christian (yes, that was said) that he’s wrong or ignorant. I’m not certain it’s my job to do that. So my spiritual director asked me what I thought I could do.
There’s a wonderful story in Gail Godwin’s Father Melancholy’s Daughter about a woman who is visiting a monastery for a week who is assigned to help one of the monks with the laundry every morning. As the morning draws to an end, she sees all the piles of laundry left to do and begins to panic that it won’t all get done. The monk watches her, and finally asks her what’s wrong. “We’ll never get the laundry done in time!” He assures her that that is not what is required. What is required is that they do their assigned task in the assigned time every day, whether or not it gets finished.
That’s my take on dealing with my angst. I cannot “save” Christianity. Not my job. (Not your job, either.) What I can do is be faithful to the God I love, to the Christ who has called me, to the Spirit who moves me to people I am to help and learn from. That’s about it.
Hang in there, everyone. God isn’t done yet.