|Hope Depression Hope
by Dan Kimball
I know for a fact that there are wonderful, wonderful things that God is doing through the church at large. The Spirit of God is moving in churches and lives are being changed, marriages helped out, and people are learning what it means to walk in the ways of Jesus. Poverty and AIDS are now being addressed as the church is awakening to the biblical mandate to be helping the needy and taking stands for justice locally and globally. So there is so much good happening and this gives me such great hope.
I am aware of the good things happening, being a Christian and as someone in church leadership who gets to see this and hear about what churches all across the country are doing.
At the same time, there is a growing amount of people outside of the church who don't hear about all the good the church is doing. I know some say this shouldn't be a concern, as Christianity is doing fine in America since the percentage of people in churches is remaining relatively the same. But to me, the bigger picture is not being thought of.
This past week, I was with a professor who is a sociologist and who studies and writes about church leadership and growth issues. He shared that the reason church statistics regarding attendance may be staying around the same level is because those in the churches are living longer. There are now a ton of old churches with elderly folks living longer which keeps that statistic up. He also shared how the already Christians in churches who have babies also keeps the percentage leveled out.
What isn't happening however is the growth of the church from people outside the church coming in. We aren't keeping up on the population growth at large. I was reading that the church has leveled out in attendance over the past 15 years but at the same time our national population has grown by around 50 million people. So we can celebrate that churches are remaining relatively the same attendance-wise, but now there are more than 50 million people who aren't part of the church. I know statistics are hard to trust, but I have heard this enough from a variety of different sources so it probably is something likely to be true.
The other thing brought to my attention is that as we see the growing megachurch, when looked at closer, many of them (but not all) are growing primarily from transfer growth from other churches. When a church has a dynamic communicator, or good band or children's ministry etc. people will then switch from other churches. Or in larger churches you hear of who have a lot of younger people in them, when you explore them there usually is a nearby Christian college or university and because of the dynamic communicator or music, the church draws in masses of Christian students from the local Christian college. The sociologist made another interesting observation when he shared that when examined, many suburban conservative megachurches that grow, do so from those with a Catholic church background.
So with all that - I keep finding myself fascinated with how Christians and the church come across and are known to the increasing amount of people who are now outside the church. Of course, it has been on my mind writing the They Like Jesus but not the Church book and currently wrapping up the writing of the follow up one to that. But for example:
I walked into our local bookstore 2 weeks ago and there is a display set up with new books as the central part of the entry area. On the very top of the display, highlighted the most on the display and the book which got the primary focal attention was the book "Letter to a Christian Nation" by Sam Harris. Sam is the one who wrote "End of Faith" which was a NY Times bestseller and it basically stated all religion of any kind is a bad thing as it contributes to violence, wars etc. This book was a follow up to that. I opened it in the book store to read why he wrote this follow up book. He said:
"Thousands of people have written to tell me that I am wrong not to believe in God. The most hostile of these communications have come from Christians. This is ironic, as Christians generally imagine that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own. The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christís love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism. While we may want to ascribe this to human nature, it is clear that such hatred draws considerable support from the Bible. How do I know this? The most disturbed of my correspondents always cite chapter and verse."
So out of all the religions who he criticized in the book, Christians are the ones who respond back with the most "hostile" and "hatred" while they cite chapter and verse. I looked at the New York Times best selling list at the store to see where this book was at, and it was #12 the week I was there. That means a lot of people are reading what he is writing here.
Last week I am reading Rolling Stone magazine on-line and read an article about a major youth ministry that was profiled in the latest issue. In bold letters it quotes the leader of the Christian organization saying "I want an attacking church!". On another web site there are photos of this youth ministry organization's stage show where they show people in army fatigues running around the stage simulating war. I fully know that quotes can be taken out of context and I don't know much about this ministry - so I assume it is something about the spiritual battle metaphor they are using and focusing on that. But to the outside and people reading this in Rolling Stone magazine who don't understand that metaphor, it sure sounds very odd.
I can get depressed thinking about all this - but I normally then come out of the depressed emotions with energy. The energy returns as I so desire to be aggressive and prayerful about the mission to those outside the church in explaining and living out the gospel of Jesus and giving an apology and an apologetic about what the message of Jesus and Christianity is. So as sad as some of this is, it also brings me energy and hope to see it changed.
It also gives me hope that in the midst of an overall aging and non-growing church at large, that Christians recognizing this will see past minor doctrinal differences and denominational differences and instead of putting energy and emotion into fighting one another, we will link up together more. It will be horribly sad if in 30 years or 40 years the church of America is a tiny thing, and we are still fighting each other about whether one is a Calvinist or Arminian or whether you preach verse by verse or preach topically etc.
I do believe doctrine is very important, and I am going to post next on what I personally feel are the critical and essential doctrines to unite around that I believe the Scriptures make clear. But I do have hope that our hearts can unite over the gospel, the core doctrines of faith and the mission of Jesus. I do have hope that we won't be known as Christians who are described as "hateful" or to be seen to "cite verses" with anger as Sam Harris experienced ironically from only the Christians who sent him letters and emails. Followers of Jesus need to love and partner with each other all the more, especially in times like these.
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