Come and See: January 16, 2011
In the course of my day on Friday I had numerous occasions to say that I was from Zion UCC in Arendtsville. It was something that I started to notice after awhile. It happened at the hospital and several times at Green Acres. One instance was when I was walking down the hall at Green Acres with someone who had come up the stairs with me. He asked me if I was the pastor at the Arendtsville church. I said “Yes, and you have the advantage of me since I don’t know who you are.” It turned out that he was a member who had not been here for quite a while and we’d never met. I asked him about his father who he was visiting and invited him to come church and keep me informed about what was going on in his family. Another instance was with the custodian who was cleaning in the TV room where I was sitting with Paul Claus and several residents. Such a funny conversation was going on that he joined and we started talking and it turned that he was from Arendtsville. I invited him to come to church.
I’m not saying that those opportunities don’t come up often, but it just seemed as though there was a real cluster of them. And we have been talking about evangelism in adult Sunday School. And now we are confronted with a story of call from the gospel of John. Throughout the season of epiphany this is the theme. Jesus is baptized, begins his public ministry and starts collecting disciples. These disciples then collect other disciples. Andrew hears John speak and is so excited that he hunts up his brother to tell him the news, “we have found the Messiah.” The movement following Jesus experienced exponential, or ever increasing growth, in its earliest days.
The reasons for this are pretty basic. First of all, there was Jesus in the flesh, the Lamb of God, for all to see. His disciples, in recruiting others, didn’t have to just try and describe Jesus or describe their experience of Jesus. They could say to people, “if you don’t believe me come and hear for yourself. He’s speaking today down by the Lake, tomorrow in the town square.” Jesus himself could invite people to “come and see.”
Second, his message was brand new. And so was the movement. Isn’t there always more excitement about joining something brand new than something that’s been around forever? That’s why brand new churches in brand new buildings initially attract far more members and grow at a more rapid pace than do established churches.
Third, the Jesus movement grew up among people who were oppressed by the Roman occupation. They were looking for someone to lead them out of this bondage and towards freedom. They didn’t have a whole lot to lose.
Last, even if most people could not read, they had at least heard the scriptures read or told to them. They knew the stories of their Jewish faith. They were expecting a messiah and that expectation was at the very heart of their faith.
As followers of Jesus in 2011–followers who have been commanded to go and make other followers of Jesus– we would have to say that the four basic reasons for growth of the early Jesus movement are not going to hold true today.
First: we don’t have Jesus in the flesh. We have this crazy collection we call the Body of Christ from which people need to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Our words, our actions, our understanding of Jesus is what the unchurched will know of him. And as I’ve often said, the real miracle is that Christianity has survived the Church for over 2000 years. We are a real mixed bag.
Second, the message is no longer brand new. I think it is still just as exciting but we have a problem that Andrew and Peter and all the early disciples did not have. Thye could talk about what Jesus was going to do for the world and the ways in which things would change. Our problem is that we’ve been Christians for 2000 years and to our eyes the world looks as dysfunctional ever. Consider that a mere 20 years after Jesus’ death, one of Paul’s most pressing problems was to keep the early Christians from discouragement over the fact that Jesus had not yet returned. 2000 years later we ourselves struggle to believe in his return and encourage others in that belief.
Third, most of the unchurched around us are by and large satisfied with their lives. We’re not an oppressed people struggling with a foreign occupying power. We have jobs, homes, savings accounts and our children are healthy, fed and educated. What’s a messiah going to do for us that we can’t do for ourselves?
Last, even those of us who are Christians do not know the scriptures as well as did our parents and grandparents. We don’t know our Bibles well enough to talk to an unchurched friend about scripture, let alone to search scripture for a prophetic revelation about the Messiah.
Now, I realize that the gospel is supposed to be good news, not bad news. But I am going to compound the bad news by forcing us all to look at some statistics.
Big Picture Statistics about our Mainline Protestant Churches, from Unbinding the Gospel by Martha Reese, chapter 3.
- Have the mainline denominations lost members? Yes. There were 179 million Americans in 1960. 26 million of them were members of the 7 mainline Protestant denominations: American Baptist Churches USA, ELCA Lutheran, UCC, Presbyterian USA, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Reformed Church in America, United Methodist Church. So, in 1960 14.4% of the people in the U.S. were members of these Protestant churches. Forty years later, in 2000, these same mainline churches had only 21 million members. (A loss of 20% of our members over 40 years) In those same 40 years our population grew by 100 million. In 2000, mainline church members comprised 7.4% of the population.
As a percentage of the population, mainline church membership decreased almost 50% in 40 years.
2. Is the Protestant presence in the U.S. declining? Yes. Recent research shows that our Protestant majority is fading rapidly and most likely is already gone. From 1972 to 1993 the percentage of American Protestants was steady around 63%. In 2002 the number of American Protestants was 52%. Protestant teaching has affected legislators, judges, teachers, social activists, etc for hundreds of years. For good and bad, Protestant understanding of right and wrong has shaped this country. No one knows the results to come, from this fundamental shift in our population.
3. Is America becoming a less religious country? Yes. More and more children are being raised with no religious faith at all. Only 3% of people born between 1910 and 1919 were raised without religion. Of those same people, now in their late 80s and 90s, the same percentage say “none” when asked about their religious faith. Conversely, although only 4% of baby boomers who grew up in the 50s say they were raised without a religious faith, of that same group 11% now say they no religious preference. For the youngest adults, 13% of people born between 1980 and 1984 were reared with no religion. Already, 27% of them say they have no religious preference. Each generation is less involved with religious life than the one that went before it.
Martha Reese shares these thoughts that I paraphrase here(pp27-28 in Unbinding the Gospel): In 1960 and prior to that time, when the church doors opened the pews filled up. Now, among our co-workers and neighbors are people who have never been to a church. It’s not a matter of going back to church for them—they’ve never been to one in the first place and don’t have the institutional memory of that experience like those of us raised in a church. These folks will not have memories of participating in the Christmas pageant or hearing their grandfather offer the blessing before meals. And as more and more Americans fall into this category, there is less and less opportunity for the “passive absorption” of the Christian message that once could have previously received in this country…by virtue of the overall orientation of our values and knowledge of the Judeo-Christian tradition. So then, Reese declares that our reluctance to do serious evangelism will eventually mean “that we will rob millions of people of the option of being Christian.”
Sharing our faith with others is an urgent business. It is our calling to call others. As a church, making disciples is our primary business. And yes, it is a risky business in which we engage for the stakes are high. The simple invitation to come and see may be all that is needed to transform someone’s life. That lack of an invitation may mean that the Christian message is never heard by someone who desperately needs it.
We will continue this topic next week as we explore another story of call from scripture. I suppose we will also continue this topic for the rest of our Christian lives!