USA Today reports that most religious groups have lost ground, that is membership numbers, over the past 18 years. Basing their article on the recently released American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), USA Today reports that, “The percentage. (sic) of people who call themselves in some way Christian has dropped more than 11% in a generation.” This is despite the fact that there are 50 million more people in America than 18 years ago.
Sadly, many people are going to hear this and bemoan the losing of a Christian America. Regrettably, too many people are going to be so caught up in their political agendas that they miss what this means for real Christianity. Unfortunately, so many people are going to view this as Christians losing the fight for a Christian nation that they will forget God never asked us to produce a Christian nation. He asked us to get the message of forgiveness and freedom to one more person.
With that in mind, this doesn’t mean we’re losing the battle. Rather, it means the fields are more white than they’ve been in a long time. There are more people who aren’t religious. That means there are more people who are going to be recognizing something is missing, even if they aren’t going to be completely up front about it.
I remember the story of two shoe salesmen who were sent into a tribal country to try to expand sales. The first called home and said, “I’ve got bad news. We’ve made a big mistake. Nobody here wears shoes. I’m coming home.” The second one called back and said, “I’ve got great news. Nobody here wears shoes. Everyone is a potential customer. Send more shoes.”
Which salesman are you? Do you read this article and think, “Well, what’s the point? Nobody wants to hear.”? Or do you think, “Wow, we’ve got work to do. We have more prospects than ever.”?
Jesus said, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16). What we are learning here is this doesn’t necessarily mean go to Africa, Asia, or India (though there is definitely need for that). For many of us who will never travel to those foreign lands, we need to learn this means go next door and teach the gospel.
Let’s quit being sociological about why people are less religious and just get evangelistic with the good news Jesus offers. Some of those 50 million people are looking for something to give them forgiveness and freedom. Let’s get out and give it to them.
One statement was made in the article that gave me pause and presented a concern. Kendall Harmon, theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, expressed one thought for why there is the drop. He said, “I see kids today who have no vocabulary of faith, and neither do many of their parents.” He presented an example of some parents who brought a yellow pad of their teenage son’s religious questions. One question was, “What is that guy doing hanging up there on a plus sign?” This was a teenager.
Is that just a plight for Episcopalians? Or should we worry about that as well?
Sadly, this is not simply a religious concern. This is a cultural concern. There was a time when most people in Western culture had the same background (this was true despite the divergent nationalities). Other than the completely uneducated, a reference could be made to something in Homer, Virgil, Milton, or the Bible and everyone would know what was being said. Probably some of you are wondering who Homer, Virgil, and Milton even are. There used to be a real, shared cultural background. People had read the classics. They had read the documents that formed our country. They knew and shared more than a language but shared a cultural background that made communicating ideas and even having a cross-generational conversation easier.
Today, we have lost that in our culture. Our shared culture is found on television. We can make references to Jack Bauer and Jack Shepherd and more people will know what we are talking about than if we speak of John Adams or John Hancock. Though John Adams had a recent miniseries on HBO which makes him a little more familiar.
This is finding its way into religious culture as well. There was a time when we could talk about Joseph, David, Peter, Paul, Mary and everyone would know who and what we were talking about. That doesn’t seem to be the case any more. However, this is not for lack of these stories being taught in Bible class. Our children get a healthy dose of Bible stories in their classes. Yet, it seems more and more forget what is told them in there.
What is the answer? We have to remember that it is not the local congregation’s responsibility to get these stories into the hearts of our children. We parents need to do that. We need to pass on a generational legacy of faith. We need to pass on a vocabulary of faith. The Bible stories, the foundational teachings, the great Biblical principles must be part of our daily conversation with our children.
I know it is an Old Covenant teaching, but the principle remains true in the New as well.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” — Deuteronomy 6:5-7
As Lois and Eunice passed on their faith to their grandson and son, we must pass on a generational legacy of faith to our children. We need to pass on that vocabulary of faith, which is more than just using the right words and having the correct definitions of often misused words. It means having a good, fundamental background in the Bible, its stories, and its teachings to be able to have good conversations about what it means for our lives.
By the way, do you know who Lois and Eunice are? If you do, great. If you don’t, you see the point I’m making. Check out II Timothy 1:5.
The fields are truly white for harvest at home and out in the neighborhood. Let’s not despair; let’s get to work.