I don't have cable TV in my home any longer, which I find to be a good thing for a number of reasons, but it also means I miss out on some topics in current debate. I was at my parents' house last week, and the O'Reilly Factor was on, with Dennis Miller as the guest. He and O'Reilly were talking about a recent survey which describes a decline in the percentage of Christians in America over the last seven years. They weren't talking about the reasons for the decline, but rather a strategy for Christians to deal with growing secularism in a society which is increasingly opposed to Christian interests and values.
“If I was a Christian, would I lay low? Yeah, I would.”
-- Dennis Miller (O'Reilly Factor, May 15, 2015)
There are a couple things in this that trouble me, but not the numbers mentioned in the survey. Mainline Protestant denominations (United Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, American Baptist) and Catholics have each declined by more than 3%, accompanied by a 6.7% increase in Americans who describe themselves as Agnostic or “nothing in particular.” What might be surprising to hear, coming from a Christian, is that I consider this good news.
Jesus is not about numbers or a culturally dominant ideology. He isn't about controlling society by drawing people into a cultural belief system. Jesus is about self-denial. He calls men and women to turn away from what the world considers important, pick up a cross, and follow him. His words are accepted by the few, not the many. There is no correspondence between Jesus' call and a cultural majority. We are not seeing a decline in the numbers of people who have given everything up to follow Christ. We are seeing a decline in those who have adopted a certain cultural stance. It is a mere idea, a story about Jesus that we grew up singing about at Christmas. It was once taught in schools, acknowledged widely in business. It is an idea that brings comfort to many, relief from guilt to others, a mandate to charge ahead with the things we want from life, assuming that God's will for us is nothing other than our own quest for happiness. It is a relief for the masses, this belief that we will realize the promise of heaven no matter how we've lived our lives here on earth, because we cling to the absolute promise that Jesus paid the price for all the bad things we've ever done, as well as the ones we're still cooking up to do in the future.
Good riddance to all of that. Jesus doesn't want any part of it.
The problem with a scaled-back, cultural Christianity is that it is a comfortable stopping point. If you think that being a Christian is about enabling you to pursue your own dreams, you may not find your way to the narrow road that Jesus marked out. You won't see the need. You can go to church, hear a heartwarming tale about God coming to earth as a baby, something about a virgin birth, and mentally assent, all the while thinking it's probably best to keep your thoughts to yourself. In stopping there, you may never journey beyond, to know the Jesus who had no tolerance for the superficial, cultural religiosity of his day. His opinions haven't changed in the last 2000 years, by the way. With the demise of cultural Christianity comes the opportunity to proclaim the new life that Jesus offers to those who count the cost and follow him. It throws Christian faith into stark relief with everyday American life. It reveals not only the cost of following Christ but also a transforming holiness in the lives of those who actually do so. When cultural Christianity is gone, we have an opportunity to challenge the status quo, not roll along with it. With its demise goes a lot of bizarre, unloving and hypocritical behavior in the name of Jesus that has little or nothing to do with him.
In Matthew 7:21-22, Jesus identifies a type of Christianity that includes an acknowledgment of who he is but doesn't lead to the heaven many are hoping for. The distinguishing identifier is how we live our lives. It's not a matter of doing good things in his name, Jesus makes clear. It is about doing hard things. It's about turning from our will and adopting God's. Miller's advice for Christians to lay low is, while seemingly prudent, at odds with what it means to follow Jesus. You can't truly follow him and lay low. He isn't calling people to mentally assent to a creed, he is calling people to deny themselves, pick up their cross and follow him. That might mean negative consequences, in a secular culture. It more or less assumes it. That's part of our calling. If you find yourself blending in, you may not be on his path at all.
The Pew survey's numbers are not surprising. Mainline Protestant denominations are dying out in part because they cater to an aging population, with music and liturgy from a bygone day that doesn't appeal to younger people. It might be the same with Catholicism, I can't say for sure. The overall number of evangelicals declined less than one percent over the last seven years, and that's within the margin of error for the survey. I agree that the percentage of people who self-identify as Christians is decreasing. I agree, with Miller and O'Reilly, that it will spell harder times for Christians in years ahead. The difference is, I happen to think this is how it is meant to be.