The newly released study by Pew Research indicates some concerning trends.
The population of those claiming the Christian faith has declined by 5 million adults in America during the period of 2007-2014 (while other faith groups increased by over 1 million people during that same time period). In fact the data states that nearly 1 in 5 adults have left Christianity after being raised a Christian, yet those unaffiliated with faith have increased by 7 million people. And more than one third of all younger millennials in America are claiming no religious faith whatsoever. The trends are clear and concerning for those committed to the Christian faith.
Why is this?
Before we jump to nuanced demographic explanations and point out exception after exception to these trends (there are many which are full of hope and worth pointing out someday!), let’s first bravely face the giant elephant in the room.
The Christian church is known for what it is against. When the average American thinks of church or of Christians what do they think of? Judgmental, critical, exclusionary, intolerant, and divisive. Think of all the newsreel stories you have seen popularizing a harsh version of issue-based faith. Church, in the eye of the watching public, has often diminished to drawing lines in our culture and political wars to keep the wrong people out and the right people in and make the wrong people feel terribly unaccepted.
If we want to see a change in these trends, we Christians must realize that Jesus did not die on a cross to institute an issue-based system of religion. He died on the cross and rose again to install a grace-based relationship with the loving Creator of all, period.
When Christians and churches and news cycles start caring more about the behaviors that exclude vs. the imprint on all from the God of grace who is available to all who would turn to him, its no wonder people start walking away from church, from faith, and even from God Himself.
This has to get down to earth practical to you and to me. We don’t need to throw away our Biblical values of right and wrong. We don’t. But never, ever forget our job vs. God’s job.
It is not our job to convict the world of sin! If we think that it’s our job or treat people in a way in which we pretend we are the judges of the universe, then we the church are in sin.
It is our job as the church to introduce people to a loving God, who is full of grace and mercy and gentle understanding. We help people form a relationship with a God who will in the right time and by His spirit (not ours) invite people to change.
He’s been gracious with me, asking me to change and grow over twenty years, step by step. He’s never shoved my face into a divisive issue where I may be crossing a line, that’s not how my good Father in heaven treats me, rather He pulls me in close and through friendship and love with Him, He shows me a redeemed way. The church has supported me by modeling what a surrendered faith in Christ looks like, but Christ by His Spirit has changed me, not the church.
We can do better as the church. Let’s become churches who invite people to belong. Let’s become communities who lead people to a God who loves. Let’s let God be the one who convicts. Let’s become friends, just like Christ, to those the religious institutions of our time and His, say have no place in the Kingdom of God. Jesus came to “seek and save those who were lost.” Jesus came for those who were “sick and needed a doctor.” He didn’t come to shame the sick and the lost and create a dividing line of issues that would keep the sick and the lost out. He came so that the world would know they are loved by a God who forgives and a God who restores people into a relationship with Him and onto a path of righteousness.