Pastoral Reflections Rev. Mark Keefer, pastor, Garwin United Methodist Church Garwin, Iowa
October 26, 2012
There was a newspaper article the other day about the decline of religion in America. It seems every other year or so, this topic jumps into the news. Once you start reading the article, you find that a creative copy editor has caught your attention with an eye-catching title. Further reading of the article revealed that, in spite of the decline, about 73% of the American public still labels itself as Christian. That is a 5% drop since five years ago, and that equates to about 15.6 million people who have somehow become disillusioned with the faith. That’s a significant number of folks. On the other side of the equation was the increase (4.3%) in those unaffiliated with religion (atheists, agnostics, ‘others’). What’s to blame for this? Or better yet, might we ask - ‘Who’s to blame?’ I asked that question as I was looking in the mirror, and wondered if the problem might be that guy. What’s he been doing lately to affect the growth of, and confidence in, the faith? What hasn’t he been doing? I was unsettled by that article. I wanted to pen a letter to the editor that would set the record straight. But the article was full of ‘facts’ and statistics. Who am I to argue against bona fide statistics? (I hate statistics, but I’m not the first. Mark Twain wrote over a century ago that, “…there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics!”) I wonder if there were statisticians 2,000 years ago, collecting data about people’s likes, dislikes, and their disappointments? If there were, would they have found similar percentages in both the faithful and the disillusioned/unaffiliated people? I’m betting they would have. After all, from the writing of the last book of the Old Testament until the arrival of Christ was something around 600 years. It seems like being disillusioned could be understandable. That’s a bunch of generations waiting for a prophecy to arrive. And then, after Christ’s ascension and promise that He would return, some writers of the New Testament epistles were of the opinion that His return would be within their lifetimes. It seems like loss of faith would be understandable. That didn’t happen. In fact, the church grew – and it grew even in the face of extreme persecution. How could they do that, and we can’t? – or, at least, we aren’t. The answer might lie in the teaching that, as Christians, we should be mindful that while we are in the world, we need to be cautious not to become so well-adjusted to the culture that we fit into it without even thinking. Our Christian teaching focuses on two things: Love God; and care for others as you yourself would want to be cared for. Could the reason for millions of people falling away from the faith be rooted in the Christians’ willingness to talk a good game, but not be willing to get into the game? Remember that being ‘Christian’ means being a ‘little Christ.’ If we are willing to go by the title of Christian, but aren’t willing to exemplify the call, why would others want to either join with us or stay with us? I borrow a paraphrase from Jesus’ half-brother, James: “…talking a good game is self-deceived, [you blow] hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.” (James 2:26-27, The Message) The church, and religion, will always have an influence on the world. The percentages can and will always fluctuate. Consider the large number of spontaneous prayer groups that arose, and how there was an increase in church attendance, immediately following the horrific events of 9/11/2001. For all the fear and uncertainty that was expressed in those weeks and months following 9/11, many of the wanderers/unaffiliated had an innate compulsion – an urge – to turn to God. (They might deny the need they had. But it’s there. A creation always has a part of the creator in it.) People needed consolation. They needed comfort and reassurance. But time went by, and the prayer groups ended, church attendance decreased to the pre-event levels. People returned to their routines – Christians included. Too many went back to being a part of the world – returning to caring for self, and not thinking of others. Perhaps that is why people question religion. It’s why I question, “Who’s to blame?” It reminds me of that person I saw in the mirror the other day. I wonder if he’s doing his part? Could you take a moment to check your mirror? Ask that person what part they are playing to strengthen the faith.
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