A Little Honesty About the Pew Report

Back in May, the Pew Research Center released a study that showed the percentage of people claiming to be Christians had rapidly decreased over the past several years. Humanists were elated. “See,” they shouted, “we told you religion is dying.” Church leaders wrung their hands and blamed the culture, liberal seminaries, and lukewarm church members for the decline. “The culture has become hostile to the faith,” they told us, “and the weak are falling away.”

A Little Honesty About the Pew Report

I have a little different take on this. I don’t think the Pew study is shocking. I just think the study is honest. I’ve been doing what I do for a long time, and here’s a dirty little secret that no one will tell you: we’ve never had as many Christians or church members as we have claimed. Anybody who works in a church can tell you this. In a typical church, attendance will be half of the total membership, and a “healthy church” will have 80% of those who attend worship involved in Sunday School or Bible Study.

If you serve an older church, one that’s been around for over 50 years or so, you literally won’t be able to find 25% to 50% of the membership. They will have moved, died, or joined another church, but never updated their membership status. The published numbers of church membership and those claiming to be followers of Christ have always been suspect.

There are several reasons for this. For one thing, several years ago, there was a great deal of social pressure to be a “member” of a local church. You didn’t have to attend, participate, or even give. You just had to be a member. As a result, our churches were filled with “members” who never intended to be a part of church life.

Our demographics are different. Populations are changing and churches have been slow (ok, totally failed) to respond in meaningful ways to the needs of the new communities around them.

Now, our culture has changed and there’s no longer any social pressure to be part of a church. Sunday has become just another day in the weekend. People attend entertainment events, ball games, shop, go to the lake or the beach, and never think twice about missing worship. If you ask them, they will tell you point blank, “We don’t go to church anywhere.”

And there you have it—an honest answer. For me, this is the great revelation of the Pew Research study. People are now honest about their spiritual choices. I, for one, welcome the new reality. Now, we know where we stand.

And yes, there’s a great challenge before the local church, but for me, I find great freedom in this new honesty. People are declaring their preferences and from there, it’s a lot easier to start the conversation about Christ, faith, and what matters in life.

The Pew study didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. We may not have wanted to admit it, but we knew it. Churches and church leaders are going to have to make some hard decisions—either become missional or become extinct. The Pew study makes our choice a little easier, a little more obvious.

After all, now that we know what we know, we really don’t have an excuse, do we?

Baltimore and Beyond

A few days ago, Baltimore police arrested a man named Freddie Gray. While in their custody, Mr. Gray died under suspicious circumstances. When he was later taken to the hospital, Mr. Gray was found to have a series of injuries that included his spinal cord being 80% severed. The Baltimore police have admitted mistakes.

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Then, the riots broke out. Stores were burned and looted. Fire fighters and police officers were attacked. Cars were set on fire. On the heels of the riots in Ferguson, MO, it appears we may be on the verge of another summer of riots like we experienced in the sixties.

As Christ followers, how are we to respond to this? What are we to do? Prayer is an obvious answer, but sometimes, prayers have to have feet on them. That is, prayers have to be lived out in our actions.

So what do we do? First, there are a couple of things we don’t do.

One, we reject violence. Violence is rarely, if ever, the answer. The attacks by the rioters will bring a response by the police, which will bring more violence from the rioters. Violence begets violence. It never solves anything. Those defeated will only go underground with their anger, and then it will resurface. It may take years, even generations, but it won’t go away.

Second, we must also reject the “sound bite” responses given by politicians, so-called “experts,” and news commentators. The problem is too complex to be adequately understood in a five-minutes news segment. Not every police officer is a racist and everyone who’s arrested isn’t guilty.

On the other hand, there are several things we must do. First, we have to embrace justice. We cannot sit by and watch lives destroyed by a system that discounts anyone who isn’t of use to the system. What do I mean by that? For a child to be born in the United States of America and not have a chance is just wrong. You and I both know there are children, born in certain places and who live in certain areas of certain towns that, realistically, don’t have a chance. The schools they attend will not prepare them for their future. The streets they live on aren’t safe. The neighborhoods they live in aren’t well served. Christ followers must work for justice for everyone at every level of our society.

Second, we must work to break the poverty cycle that keeps too many of our neighbors trapped. Without a good education, you can’t get a job. If you can’t get a job, you don’t have the money you need. If you don’t have the money you need….and the cycle never ends. Throughout our history, Christians have done some of our best work when we engaged the issue of poverty. The gospel restores dignity to a person. The church brings community to a person and that community provides support and discipline that may be missing in a child’s life who grows up in a broken family.

No, these children aren’t our fault, but they are our responsibility.

Christ calls us to do all of this with love. We often read 1 Corinthians 13 at weddings. Yet Paul didn’t write that passage for weddings, but for everyday living. His description of love lived out is a compelling challenge, but it is the way Jesus Himself responded when He was confronted with in His own life. Love is not only concerned with the victim, but with the aggressor. Both are in need of salvation.

Baltimore didn’t just happen over these past few days. These issues have been seething for years, but no one would do anything. Everyone said it was somebody else’s problem and now everyone has to pay.

The local church has to reengage. Throughout history, when the church has addressed those issues no one else wanted to touch (think Mother Theresa dealing with dying lepers in India), we’ve been at our absolute best. The gospel is for the whole person—mind, body, and soul. The church’s mission has to be to the whole person as well.

Criticism

According to the people who stay up late at night and worry about these things, immediate feedback is a necessary part of learning. If you’re trying to learn a new skill, and do it well, you need to have a way of knowing if you’re doing it right or wrong while you’re doing it.

Criticism. . .we all get it, so how do we deal with it?

First, (and this took me a long time to learn) those critics are sometimes living with a lot of pain, and anger is the only language they know.

I’ve learned to listen to my critics to see if their anger is a mask used to deal with a deep pain. Sometimes, the only way some people can tell you they’re hurting is by attacking us. If we can refrain from being defensive in the moment, we may be able to open a door of care and healing.

Second, even if the criticism is intended to wound me, it still may be correct.

Can you hear the truth, even when it hurts?

When criticism is brought against you, test it.

Is the criticism valid?

Have I been misunderstood?

Sometimes, I have to own the truth of the criticism brought against me. Even more, I need to thank the person for bringing it to me. God has funny ways of crafting me more into the likeness of His Son.

Third, I hope you have friends who will tell you the truth. All of us need brothers and sisters who love us enough to tell us how it really is.

When they bring something to your attention, hold it like gold. The truth may have been hard for them to bring, but they loved you enough to say it anyway. Friends like this are hard to find. Treasure them.

Listen to every criticism. Weigh it. If it’s valid, learn from it.

If it’s not, release it and move on.

But be careful. Not liking the messenger isn’t reason enough not to listen to the truth – even if it’s a hard truth about ourselves.

The 2-Step Process

I’ve been a Southern Baptist all of my life. I’ve never belonged to another denomination.

Southern Baptists don’t do everything right, but we do a lot of things pretty well.

For instance, we do evangelism pretty well. You can’t be around a good Southern Baptist for more than five minutes without hearing about “being born again.

But what you won’t hear as much about is “growing again.” For however well we do in evangelism, we do as poorly in discipleship. And that’s a problem.

We don’t live in a world that’s safe for children. No responsible parent would leave their child alone in our neighborhoods. It’s just not safe. In the same way, it’s not a safe world for baby Christians.

The challenges of our world (from the breakdown of the family to the engagement with different faiths) demand a growing, mature, and vital faith. This means an intentional and determined study of Scripture to know Jesus as fully as we can and apply His teachings to our living.

Every day, we must grow deeper and stronger in what we believe and who we are in Christ. The challenge before us is just too tough for a shallow and immature understanding of Jesus.

Yes, being born again is vitally important, but so is growing again. After all, growing again is the whole point of being born again.