In the wake of news that America is seeing a sharp decline in those who call themselves Christian, discussion seems to be centered in two areas: why the faith is not relevant today, and the value of organized religion to our society. Lots of the commenters I’ve read claim this represents a new age of reason. Religion, after all, is for the uneducated, huddled masses who need something to cling to, right? Now that we have iphones and Netflix and can fly anywhere in the world in a day, who needs all that superstitious nonsense, anyway? And haven’t we heard from Jon Stewart, political commentators, and bloggers ad nauseum about the true definition of an American Christian. Bigoted, racist, misogynist, greedy…not a label most millenials would seek out, to be sure. So the conversation turns to possible solutions. After all, organized religion is a cornerstone of our society, and maybe we won’t like what it looks like around here when it’s gone. But it seems to me that making a decision on faith because it will strengthen your family or community is misguided and a little silly. You make a decision like that because somewhere in your spirit or your mind or your heart or your bones, you believe it’s true.
When you ask a typical Confirmation class why they’re taking the step to commit to faith, common answers range from “because I want the party/gifts,” to “my mother said I had to,” to “I don’t know.” This kind of response is typical of teens but this same vague, lukewarm interest in faith now follows many of us well into adulthood. We are sorely missing an encounter with Jesus.
Christianity was designed to be simple and catchy. Someone has an encounter with Jesus, and it changes them. Someone else sees that change or experiences their goodness and they want to know the Source of that Joy. And on, and on. It’s a pretty simple blueprint, and amazingly successful when you think of it, but we have at times really messed this up as a Church and as individuals.
I am a Christian in part because of the authentic, gregarious, generous, real Christians I’ve met. Their peace, their joy, their kindness is something I want in my life, and it’s made me want to find our more about the Source. I have come to know that their goodness is Christ living inside of them, and in fact if I’ve ever done anything kind for you…ever…I can’t take the credit because it really was Christ in me who acted. And it’s an exciting, challenging, bewildering, amazing way to live (when I pay attention, which sadly is not always). Jesus is not boring and He does not disappoint.
So, what should our response be, if any, to the news that American Christianity is on the decline? Maybe there’s nothing to be done. After all, the call to evangelization is not about spreading goodness; literally my agnostic and atheist friends are some of the best people I’ve ever met. But if someone is seeking and we have something good, like a relationship with God, we should share it in the least annoying way possible. Christians should live as though they believe what they profess; we should step up our game with pure, authentic kindness. Self-righteous sanctimony will not build up our church, and people generally won’t respond to the “because I told you so” church argument, nor should they. They’ll know we are Christians by our love.
Maybe these poll results are an invitation to Christians to question what it is we actually believe, because it does matter and people do equate our actions with our beliefs. We can go through our whole lives without asking the big questions or wrestling with the answers. We can attend weekly Mass, wear the label ‘Catholic’ or ‘Christian’ without ever delving into whether what we believe is true, and many do. It’s the struggle that brings authentic peace, and it’s a real relationship with Jesus that makes a Christian. One thing’s for sure, and it’s something we’re promised: If we seek, we will find, and what we find will change everything.
Maybe it’s time to find out.