Sometimes my life seems like a constant string of reevaluating opinions and attitudes and stupid things I say. Sometimes they’re things that I’ve been taught and never really thought too hard about. Sometimes they’re things that seem obvious on the surface, but there’s a lot going on underneath that I ignore. Sometimes it’s not that I’m wrong, it’s just that I’m just arrogant and graceless and went too far in what I said.
I’m not sure where this falls on the spectrum, but for the past few days, I’ve been thinking more and more about the Pew Research study (supposedly showing the decline of American Christianity) and the spins that various media outlets are giving it. The popular consensus seems to be the one that Ed Stetzer puts forward: that committed, or “convictional” Christians aren’t going anywhere, while “nominal Christians” (Christians in name only), or Default Christians as I put it in a recent post, aren’t checking the box any more. That’s basically what I said, and I likely wouldn’t have bothered saying it if I’d already known the number of much “larger” names saying the same thing.
In a nutshell, I said that it was a good thing. I said that nominal Christians shouldn’t be called Christians anyway. Then I went another step further to say that there are still a lot of nominal or default Christians in our pews that should basically go home and stop pretending. I said that if they did, then our churches would be more free to follow Jesus. I compared them to the fat of the church. Sometimes I’m an ass.
It’s not that I’m entirely wrong in what I said (I don’t think). Having pews full of marginal and uncommitted people who aren’t willing to commit to following Christ—becoming “real” Christians—does “weigh our churches down” and leave a less effective witness. I’ve been convinced, though, that my attitude towards it is unChristlike.
A big part of that was a reevaluation of Jesus’ “outreach” program, particularly as referenced in Matthew 9:11 —
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
and, lest there be any confusion about exactly what kind of people these Pharisees meant, Matthew 11:19 —
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
Those passages are nothing new to most Christians. I’ve heard them a million times. I’ve quoted them and taught from them. I think about them as I think about the people that to all of the obvious things that we assume people outside of the Church do… those filthy “non-Christians”… the sweaty unchurched. I think about Jesus going into bars and building relationships and teaching them grace. I think of it as an example or a metaphor for us going out into “the world” to “reach people” for Jesus.
The thing is, that’s not what happened.
By simple arrangement of geography and priorities, Jesus rarely, if ever, hung out with the “unchurched.” If we want to look for examples of outreach to the Gentiles, we need to look at Paul and the post-ascension apostles. Jesus, in his own words, came to seek and save the lost sheep of Israel. The tax-collectors, the drunkards, the whores and the sinners, they were Jews. They were people that knew God, born and raised in the synagogues, but lived contradictory lifestyles. They were backsliders. They were the nominals. They were the default Jews.
I don’t know what went on behind closed doors. I don’t know what Jesus looked like at their feasts and parties, and I’m not going to presume to. I do know that Jesus wasn’t rejoicing over them leaving. He certainly wasn’t coming down on them with God’s own thunder for their “sinfulness”. He loved them. He spent time with them. He was Jesus to them.
So much of the time my grace runs out at the door of the church. When I look at nominals as a pastor, especially long-term nominals, I get frustrated. I have a get-in-or-get-out mentality. I want to pour my effort into the people that seem to be “getting it,” and not waste it on the people that don’t. I want them to drop their crap and commit so that I can lead them. I’ll give all sorts of room for non-Christians to be messy. It’s expected. Sinners gonna sin. When it comes to people that have claimed the Savior, though, I have different expectations, and I don’t know what to do when my expectations aren’t met, so most of the time I ignore them. If I don’t ignore them, I want to preach at them so they’ll stop frustrating and embarrassing me.
Because it’s about me. My frustration. My embarrassment on God’s behalf.
Apparently Jesus has a lot more grace for nominals than most of us do. Maybe instead of wanting to clear them out so that the faithful can move forward to reaching the unchurched, we should be “coming to seek and save the lost sheep of Christianity.” Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what that would look like. I do know that it probably looks like something that could get a “good Christian” a bad name or a pastor a reputation for lackadaisical faith.
I know that there are plenty of times that scripture calls out the “lukewarm,” and Jesus calls for extreme commitment, but there’s something else going on too. It’s something I need to learn and explore. I know I’m going to tend to waffle around between extremes, but a pursuit of Christlikeness means continually adjusting my aim. Right now, I feel like God is reminding me of something important.
Jesus, friend of nominals, loves them. I can’t throw them under the bus.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the passing of Default Christianity. At least I hope so. It’s been hanging on for so long it’s hard to believe that it can ever die. I want to be at the funeral just so I can take a good, hard look in the casket. Default Christianity showed up at a family reunion one day, ate the food, slept on the couch, and after a while everyone just assumed that it must be someone’s cousin that no one recognized. It showed up year after year until we believed that it was part of the family. It learned the family stories and picked up the family way of talking, but the truth is that it was never part of the family.
Recent news reports have been citing a Pew Research Study that says, among other things, that in America Atheism and Agnosticism are on the rise and Christianity is on the downturn to the tune of 8% over the past seven years. The percentage of people surveyed that identify themselves as Christian has fallen from ~79% to ~71%. “Christianity is in sharp decline,” they say. Christians see this and are running around with their hands in the air—here’s proof positive that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Atheists are rejoicing—people are coming to their senses. Christianity in the West is dying. They’re putting religion to death!
Is it, though? Those numbers are saying something very different to me.
I don’t believe that 8% drop represents the loss of a single point of Christianity. In fact, I think that the 71% is still an incredibly soft number. Look at it this way: If we’re walking around town, and seven out of ten people are actually committed Christians, our world looks pretty good. If seven out of ten people were Christian, I’d be incredibly excited. I’d also wonder what I was doing here as a pastor. Everything I preached would be preaching to the choir.
Honestly, though, I think it’s obvious to everyone that seven years ago, eight out of ten Americans were not Christian. Today, I think it’s pretty clear that seven out of ten Americans aren’t followers of Jesus Christ. In fact, I’d be pretty surprised if seven out of ten people in our churches are Christian. Christianity isn’t dying. If there’s a decline, it’s not anything new. What’s happening is that the number of people who say they’re Christians is declining, and that’s a very different thing. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a good thing.
I’d be pretty surprised if seven out of ten people in our CHURCHES are Christian.
So what’s going on? Shocked, SHOCKED we are to find that gambling is going on here. The dirty little secret of American Christianity is being revealed: Many Christians aren’t Christian. The big numbers were great for making ourselves feel better, or giving weight to our political arguments, or the vague prestige of being the “dominant” religion, but deep down, I think we all knew they weren’t real. At least everyone that didn’t think that coming to church on Christmas Eve and—if pressed—saying that Christmas is about Jesus, and having neither of those things make a tangible impact on your life made you a Christian knew.
The truth is that much of that 79% were Christian by default. They weren’t anything else and they didn’t feel like they weren’t Christian, so they checked the box. It was like a more-true-than-not-true answer that cost them nothing. Their parents said they were Christian. Their neighbors said that they were Christian. Their politicians said they were Christian. They didn’t look any different, so they must be Christian.
They aren’t checking the box anymore, and that scares us.
Where some people once saw prestige and membership in a dominant club, they now see more prestige in being areligious. There’s not the same social pressure to be a “believer”. These are people that are going to jump on the popularity train whichever way it’s going. They’re not “Christian” anymore, but nothing has really changed. I don’t think they’re really atheist, either, just popularist.
Other people are just becoming more and more willing to actually define what they believe. They were default Christians because that was all there was for them. They either weren’t able because they didn’t see a viable alternative, or they hadn’t really thought through what they said they believed. When they dug in, they found that what they said they believed didn’t line up with what they lived out, or what they wanted to believe, and they said so.
I really believe that those are the 8% that have dropped. I also think we need to see at least another 20% go.
We shouldn’t be afraid when we see these numbers drop; we should be rejoicing. There’s three big reasons for this. The first is that, if we’re people of truth, we want to see the numbers reflect reality. Artificially inflated numbers should bother us. In fact, WE should be the first ones calling them out. The second is that, if the numbers keep going the direction they are, it means that the Church might soon be free to be the Church. Without being weighed down by vague cultural expectations, or people that want to be along for the ride without any of the cost, we can follow Christ. Cultural Christianity—Christianity by default—has been an anchor that keeps the church stagnant and uncommitted, even irrelevant.
The transforming power and presence of Jesus Christ isn’t going anywhere, nor are the people who have experienced that transformation. The third reason is wrapped up in that. When the numbers line up with reality, we can see clearly the multitudes who really need to know Christ. There are so many people—Default Christians—that we pass by on the streets and church picnics and ignore. We think they’re “saved” or whatever, in the group. We lament that they aren’t doing their part or that they aren’t living up to our expectations, but we never stop to consider that even though they check the box, they still have yet to know Jesus. These are the unreached people in our pews.
Maybe if they’re out of our pews we might be moved to reach them.
So let’s let Default Christianity die. It was nice while it lasted, and definitely convenient, but its time has passed. Over and over again, the Church has found that convenient Christianity has been cancerous. Maybe we should be looking at those numbers not as a sign of overall health and strength of our faith, but more like BMI. There is a point where the higher number is just showing fat.