Pew Forum just released the results of their latest Religious Landscape study. The United States now has more "nones" - adults not affiliated with any religion -than mainline Protestants. Or Catholics. And for the first time, Evangelicals have lost ground to them.
In 1990 the nones were 8.1% of the population; today they're 22.8%. In New York they're 27%. More than one in four.
In 1990, America identified itself as 86% Christian. By 2008 it was 76%. Last year it was 70.6%. For a long time Evangelical churches had bucked the trend. But today, "Twenty-three of twenty-five major evangelical denominations, including the Southern Baptist Convention, are experiencing declining attendance patterns."
Based on this longstanding trend, Pew forecasts that in 35 years the number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world.
For the Church these are disturbing, uncomfortable, disquieting facts. Or at least they should be. But we don't really need the studies to tell us: we can see it and hear it in what our media champions, what our government espouses, but perhaps most of all in the cavernous emptiness of too many of our churches. If, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, "The daily growth of the Church is a proof of the power of the Lord who dwells in it," we're in trouble.
Jesus knew when His hour had come. For churches called to be the body of Christ, in but not of this world, the hour has indeed come in a very real and pressing way. It's time to allow the Spirit to blast us out of our church-as-usual comfort zones, back onto the streets. Perhaps the first step is to believe that, while the Church will endure, the churches have no such guarantee. The church was growing and thriving in first-century Asia Minor, even as it struggled for its life. Revelation had comfort, counsel - and warning, and hope - for seven of them (Ch. 2, 3). Yet today Asia Minor, now Turkey, is 99.8% Muslim. A small Christian population remains, but there is no visible church left in Selcuk (Ephesus), Thyatira or Laodicea, three of the seven Revelation churches. What reason do we have to believe that the same thing could not happen here; that the same kind of thing is not happening here?
Evangelical pastor and journalist John Dickerson says, "We stand at the hinge of a great moving in Christ's church….We are in need of a historic course correction, lest we run aground." Or worse.
Over 30 years ago Scripture scholar Raymond Brown wrote: "Has God really given a blank check so that in every major instance the Spirit will make sure that the church will muddle through?...Is it not true that there have been times in church history when no one opened the door, and the opportunity to answer Christ did not come again?... If in the next two decades the churches do not seize the opportunity…is it not possible, and even likely, that the opportunity will never come again?...Almost by definition the Spirit surprises, but at times the surprise may be that the Spirit lets God's people pay the price of its failures. Surely the OT story makes that suspicion likely.
I have no doubt that the Spirit is at work in our town, and in towns all across the country. Many churches are working more closely with each other, worshiping more with each other, and now evangelizing more with each other. We're taking the Word to the streets. But so far the results haven't been what we had hoped and prayed for. I do not find that the answer is to do more of the same things, or to look in books for something radically new. The answer is to look to The Book, and recapture something radically old.
A local pastor recently said of his wife, whose life was a model of love lived out, that she was the very embodiment of the saying (attributed to Francis of Assisi), "Preach always; when necessary use words." I can think of no higher praise. Her life was a Gospel message. That's sadly not something that can be said of our witness to the world as church. Somewhere along the way we Christians have separated 'Word in word' from 'Word in action.' It wasn't that way for Jesus.
"Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these…" (John 14:11, 12, NIV)
"If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin….If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin…" (John 15:22, 24, NIV)
The Gospel proclaimed in word alone is a Gospel half preached. That's not how Jesus preached it. So the seven churches of Revelation were assessed - and we are assessed - not only on their/our faith but also on the efficacy of their/our works, which include love, labor, patient endurance and service.
We Christians rightly affirm with unusual oneness of mind that we are justified by faith and by faith alone. Absolutely nothing I do can win salvation for me. But what I do or don't do can have an awful lot of bearing on whether someone else is brought to salvation through faith. Jesus certainly didn't need to do works to earn the Father's love; but he did works, because it was the Father's will that He do them, so that none of those the Father had given Him would be lost (cf. John 17). It is the Father's will that we proclaim the good news of the Kingdom in the same ways Jesus did. "As the Father has sent me I am sending you" (John 20:21 NIV). That "as" is a little word that carries a world's worth of meaning.
Consider the sheep and the goats (Mt 25:31-46). What will separate them is not what they said, but what they did. On judgment day, "Our attitude to him, he said, will be revealed in, and so be judged by, our good works of love to the least of his brothers and sisters" (John Stott). If that's so for us, then what about for the church? Ephesus was threatened with extinction if it did not "Repent and do the things you did at first" (Rev. 2:5 NIV). Sardis was told, "I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God" (Rev. 3:2 NIV). What of us and the church that we are? It's not about piling up points: it's about living and preaching as Jesus did.
What am I actually doing if I just "Mr. Spock" or "James 2:16" somebody? If I tell them, Go and be well (maybe even add that I will pray for them) but do "nothing about their physical needs"? Put yourself in the position of one who has grown up on the empty promises of politicians, the media and far too many televangelists. What suspicion of yours have I just confirmed about the real meaning of the Gospel? John Stott shares this chilling, disturbing seeker's-eye view set against judgment day standards:
As far back as 1967 Anglican Evangelicals publicly repented or their tendency to withdraw from the world, confirming that "evangelism and compassionate service belong together in the mission of God." It does. Because that's the full Gospel.
"...Diakonia (service) and martyria (witness) are inseparable twins" (Stott). These twins got separated not long after birth and are in desperate need of being rejoined. Right now. The need is exigent, urgent, immediate, critical, essential if our witness and outreach to Owego is to proclaim the Gospel, the whole Gospel, and nothing but the Gospel.