Christianity's Decline: Grace Climbs

 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39

Is this scripture true? Nothing can separate us from the love of God? But. . .what if we separate ourselves, opt out, self-defer, ignore if not deny God’s love. . .is that not a reality of separation?

*            *            

I acknowledge that I’m too sure of myself. I tend to believe I’ve got answers if only folks would ask me questions. Thankfully, life has a way of humbling me and keeping my feet on the ground which is never fun.

This past spring I spent more energy than ever creating programming for young adults who would be home for the summer. I planned the coolest stuff. I created and organized and publicized and waited. Then, to my surprise, only a few came. I was broken. It wasn’t like I was trying to pull college kids off the street. I was trying to reach folks with whom I already had a strong relationship. Previously, not more than a few years before, these young adults and I had experienced great moments of faith, epiphinal conversations, and spiritual euphorias with thoughtful and deep debate about God. I was not trying to attract people who did not know me! I was not trying to connect with the unknown, but reconnect with known, meaningful relationships based on faithfulness. And the number of participants was definitely lower than my dreams.

So I approached a college sophomore for insight. “What’s up? Why aren’t more people interested? Are my ideas lame?”

And the answer set me back. “Tim, it’s just not a thing anymore.”

“What? What’s not a thing? Fellowship is not a thing? Church is not a thing? God is not a thing?” And under my breath so that he couldn’t hear me, “I’m not a thing . . . any more?”

 His words were telling, and true. “It’s just not a thing anymore.”

A few weeks later I took a different college sophomore to lunch. We had good TexMex and great conversation as I caught up on his life. He had changed schools and I asked if he established new friendships. He told me of one and together they attended a church and enjoyed a lot of similarities. He also mentioned trying to connect with a fraternity; but he overheard the current actives making fun of his friend. They mocked anybody who “needed” God. That fraternity did not recruit that day.

This very week I had coffee with a college sophomore and I heard her say, “Tim, I’m not really religious anymore. I don’t need God like my family does.” Does that suggest that those of us who claim to faith are simply “needy” people who create a deity to fulfill ourselves or give us purpose? “I believe in a spiritual power but don’t cling to a specific manifestation and I certainly don’t need organized religion.” (I wonder, “How is that private spiritual development going for ya?”) I understand that you believe in a higher power but not the specifics of how that higher power is realized, but why isn’t Jesus enough? How can you look for more than what Christ has to offer? My young friend, did she “opt out” of a relationship with God’s love?

Looking back, there was a time when a vast majority of America believed in God and saw church as cultural expectation. I wish I could say the shift came slowly, but it was swift. I felt it happening all around me. America adopted a “live and let live” ideology while God (and church) became optional, certainly not necessary and potentially irrelevant. “Do what makes you happy. Take it or leave it.” This became apparent in the people who left the church but equally obvious in the folks who still aligned with the church, but attended with less and less and less and less regularity. Is America “opting out” of a relationship with God’s love?

I also felt the shift from apathy to obsolete. “It’s just not a thing anymore.” Even among the most devout, the priority of spiritual development took a back seat to. . .well. . .everything.

Travel (as if there are not churches in vacation spots.)

Sports (well, it is a religion of its own.)

Family time, (as if family time at a church is not quality time.)

Relaxing time, (because the week is so busy and church only adds to the race.)

Work, sleep, (whatever.)

(Let’s press the pause button. Am I overreacting? Is this about my self-esteem? Maybe my identity is wrapped up in humanity’s applause, and conversely, humanity’s rejection. Ouch! On some basic level, I’m probably insecure because whatever it is that I have to offer, my community is finding irrelevant and that says something about me! Am I pouting like a drama queen because I got stood up? Maybe I’m just pessimistic. Back to other observations.)

You know what else is not a thing? Church weddings. The trend is toward event locations, specifically barn-chic . . . which is cool no doubt! But it is also telling. (Before I tell you this next part, I need to assure you that I understand and I don’t judge. It’s just complicated.) More and more I find myself doing weddings for a beloved church kid I have known for a long time and they fall in love with someone who does not embrace the Christian faith. I bet 25% of the weddings I currently officiate ask me if I would be offended to respect the values of the non-believing partner and perform a “generic” service. I’m no longer surprised with a culture of self-deferring from God.

Recently, our society has become increasingly antagonistic toward organized faith. It’s easy to see in our entertainment, specifically comedy but also drama. It seems like more and more plots on the screen have churches that house the villains, the small-minded, the outdated, the aggressive and the passive aggressive. 

Unfortunately, the faith culture has been lumped together with a political culture and they are not the same; yet suffer a similar judgement. The word “conservative” is impossible to adequately define. It polarizes and divides. Christianity does not have the same agenda as democracy and the linking of the two is horribly problematic.

People of faith have made big mistakes. They have caused a great deal of pain and the entire church suffers condemnation. Additionally, there are outspoken, crazy-minded Christians who distort what it means to be loving and the church struggles to repair a bad reputation. I don’t even blame folks for wanting to separate themselves from a church which can cause so much harm. For those who do, is Romans 8 relevant?

As much as we want to believe we value diversity; we segregate ourselves when it comes to worship. That has always been easy to see in race and culture but now I see it in age demographics and economic status. Example: Young adults look for other young adults. If they look around and see only gray hair, they assume they will not spiritually relate. Age is valued over doctrine. Why are parents of youth and children less likely to make organized worship a non-negotiable for their children?

Economic similarity is valued over diversity. This is about all of us. We all look around for people like us in order to be comfortable. The religious leaders we seek look like us, think like us and act like us. We fail to appreciate differences, especially theological stances. We can’t sit in a pew with folks who interpret the Bible differently or pray differently or sing different styles. We say we value diversity but we don’t act on it. Consequently, we are homogeneous and suffer the ramifications of it.

I shudder to think, “How long in the future will it be where people of faith, in America, will be ashamed to walk in a church due to its negative image? Has it already happened for some?” I have a deep fear in my gut that our children will be mocked by their peers for making God and church a “thing.” I don’t think I’m over-reacting. Church is, or at least on the way, becoming uncool.

How much negativity can the church endure without a majority viewing the church as obsolete? The result is clear. The decline is undeniable. Out of desperation, we in the church have been trying to be shiny-er, dance faster, exude charisma, be funny or at least more entertaining. We wonder if putting a drum set to a hymn makes the text more meaningful. We add lighting and video clips to align ourselves with contemporary forms of expression. We avoid saying anything that will challenge for fear that we will offend. Sometimes, our culture responds when the expectations are lowered and sometimes it is popular to raise demands. The church balances between the two and does not do it well. And I’m right in the middle of it, perpetuating it, longing to be fruitful for the Kingdom.

And with complete arrogance, I fall into the trap of thinking I have the answers. I believe that I am capable of creating the coolest stuff ever in the history of humanity. And then, life humbles me and I realize that I know nothing. I don’t even understand it. I can’t imagine why something that is so important to me went from culturally desired, to apathetic, to not a thing, to completely un-cool. And I wonder, “What happens to the church, (what happens to me,) when our culture no longer desires a Christian perspective no matter how it is packaged?”

I’ve worried about this, prayed about this and struggled with this. I’m left with only this.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ will never be irrelevant.

Love will always need to be inspired.

Middle school kids will always need to be reminded they are perfect and loved. “Quit comparing yourselves to others, longing to be something else and neglect to see your value.”

High School students will always need to be assured they are not alone. “God gave you birth and breath and has a purpose in mind for you beyond humanity’s expectation. God is yours to ignore or embrace.”

Young adults will always need to hear of the prodigal son. “You can go back home.”

The more we separate the haves and the have nots, the Rich Young Ruler must be shared.

As long as there are people who are hungry, thirsty, sick, naked or in prison, the story of the sheep and goats must not only be told, but lived.

As long are there are people who are abused, discarded, diminished or demeaned, the parable of the Good Samaritan must be inspired and acted upon.

As long as there are the broken, those in despair, as long as people struggle in dark spaces with no vision of the future, the songs of hope must be sung about a God of restoration who see a future we can not and offers an alternative to our temporal vision.

As long as people hurt each other, forgiveness will never be irrelevant. And no one or nothing on this planet exemplifies forgiveness better than Jesus Christ in the way he lived and the way he died.

Grace will have an audience even if the audience remains unaware of its need for it.

The life Jesus lived, the lessons Jesus taught, the love Jesus shared will forever transform.

Christ is more than a history lesson. He is salvation right now as we live upon this earth as well as in heaven when we pass from this earth.

Romans 8 expresses truth. Nothing, absolutely nothing separates us from the love of God, not even our chosen separation. The church may decline; however, the prevenient grace of God climbs and pours over us regardless of our acceptance or rejection! God’s grace is upon us, following us, chasing us and waiting for us to turn around and bathe in it. “You are not alone, even though you may strive to be!”

Last summer, though the number of participants was dismal, the spiritual experience was profound. In the midst of our small young adult crowd, Bren came up to me. “Tim, I have been attending events with you for over a decade, and this was by far the most spiritually profound for me.” Christ showed up. It was sooooo good. I am humbled to be a part of a great experience. Only my ego was measuring the number of attendees. Jesus did not, does not and will not.

The realities of living in a post-Christian culture are daunting but it doesn’t really change anything. I still need to unite with faithful people, weekly, to remind myself who I am and how I desire to live in this messed-up world. It will always be a privilege to share Christ anytime, anywhere and for anybody.

Hebrews 10:23-25 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

*This story is enhanced if you continue with “Social Media ~ Spiritual Medium.”*

In the opening welcome and introduction to this website, I shared the Scripture that inspired this online adventure, I Tim 6:20. This text is also the origination of the name; “Sacred Chatter.” However, my intent is not to be a singular voice. I invite your voice to be a part of the “chat” and I base this on another of my favorite Scriptures: Hebrews 10:24. “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” I am considering how I can provoke love and good deeds in places beyond where I live. This is my attempt to enter into a Hebrews 10 conversation with you over social media.digitally. Now, I am interested in your feedback. Consider what provoking you can provide with your own Sacred Chatter.

What’s important to you? What really matters?

Add your voice in Sacred Chatter.

Love is ours to provoke. Good deeds are ours to sew.

That the wisdom of Hebrews 10 may flourish and grow.

Email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, they’re potential mediums for the Hebrews 10 plan.

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  45. Rob

    In the current climate my faith hasn’t wavered it has gotten stronger. The problem I see is now “the world” is requiring us to see differences rather than similarities. Part of the problem with “the Church” is that when it starts taking sides is where I have a problem. In my meager understanding, Jesus didn’t care about where you came from or what station you were or your past. He loved and that was it. I have always felt that faith was a bridge to our differences not the thing that pushed us apart. Conservatism isn’t political. I don’t like a lot of change in my life even though it is necessary for growth. My children didn’t “grow up in the church” like I did. Although through the grace of God they have found some faith in the midst of the evil in world. Evil is rampant. True democracy is basically mob rule. If you have a thing and enough people want to take it from you then they can. That is real democracy, at least in my opinion. Unfortunately being conservative has been associated with a political party but the ideas aren’t really political. We have laws in this country that protect the individual. The reason Christianity is becoming less “cool”, is that individual choice is being taken away. We are being herded into the mob and chastised, in some cases, violently. If we don’t go along with the crowd we are targeted. Conservatism, conservationism come from the word conserve which means to protect. We need to protect the ability to worship. The tide is pushing us out to sea. The people who founded this country while flawed, were quite brilliant, This country was founded as a Constitutional Republic. We have rights as individuals. If we don’t protect ourselves as individuals we are going to drown. We have to protect our individual right to choose (even when we don’t like some people’s choices) because if we don’t, the mob (pure democracy without law) will take everything away. Those that have the mob mentality don’t even understand they are doing it to themselves. They won’t understand until “Big Brother” is standing over everything. I invite you to re-read Orwell’s 1984. Quite astonishing considering it was published in 1949. God bless you for this. I have to admit trying to articulate my thoughts like this is difficult. On social media if I don’t agree with people I am labeled a racist or a whatever. I am tired of being told what I can think or feel. Faith is being tested, make no mistake.

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  46. vicki smith

    Well written and expressed Tim. You are becoming so wise in life. I especially loved what you were left with — the take-a-ways. This one: Grace will have an audience even if the audience remains unaware of its need for it. And, this one: God’s grace is upon us, following us, chasing us and waiting for us to turn around and bathe in it. “You are not alone, even though you may strive to be!” Thank goodness God does not give up on us.

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  47. Susan Bennett

    I love what you are saying Tim. I see these things in my kids every day who were raised in the church. But I let them see how very important church , God and the Bible are to me. They watch me every Sunday view church , they watch me every day take time to be silent and read the scriptures and they respond to what I am doing. I do it for me but they are watching and listening.

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  48. Julie Clifford

    Thank you Tim for this forum to share thoughts, concerns, aspirations. I share all your concerns for our churches. During the pandemic the needle has moved so far I’m not sure we will be able to locate it well on the other side. I wonder daily about how things will look once we have a vaccine and life becomes more ‘normal ‘again. I agree though there will be no shortage of the need to share the gospel and grace of Jesus Christ. Church ministry will likely be very different. We actually have the opportunity, or the perfect excuse to turn over the Apple cart and really address some key issues. Diversity and inclusion. We have the chance to blend our cultures and learn new ways to serve and receive grace. Let’s make that lemonade and serve all who thirst for His word.

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  49. Earline

    I recognize the content of this message in your sermon on the 40th Celebration of CRUMC. So good—so relevant to today. My deepest concern is the falling away from the church as I watch some of my grandchildren do as they move into adulthood. Trying to grasp onto hope, I think maybe it is just a “phase”, and they will get back to church life as they recognize their spiritual need for help raising their own children

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  50. Danielle

    Something else I wonder with regard to the “post Christian world” is about teaching our children. As a young(ish) adult, I feel strongly that I don’t want to force my children to subscribe to my beliefs, but I want to invite them and let them decide for themselves. Am I doing enough to encourage that thought process? No. But I’m trying, and I’m trying to continue to build and facilitate that community for my family. There’s a reason we’ve found a home here.

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  51. Kathryn Strempke

    It’s interesting you say Christianity does not have the same agenda as democracy when talking about the church in the U.S. I would have said Christianity does not have the same agenda as free enterprise. Democracy is about spreading power out in a horizontal line, not in a “top-down” vertical line. Democracy means sharing power. The U.S. is not only in the throes of whether church “is a thing,” it is also in the midst of deciding whether democracy “is a thing.” I wonder if those same young people who are not coming to church also aren’t participating in government – from voting to running for office – because it’s just not “a thing.”
    Sharing power is a Christian value. “YOU are the light of the world,” is what Jesus said to the apostles and says to us. “Whatever you ask in my name will be done,” is another unbelievable promise from Jesus. Plus, “You will do greater things than I when the Spirit comes.” We are to share in the power of love, healing, and giving.
    Free enterprise/capitalism, on the other hand, is also “a thing” in the U.S., and it is the American “thing” which does not share an agenda with the church. Capitalism is about making a buck, selling something to someone else – whether it’s good for them or not – and solely concentrating on MY
    making it in the world, not somebody else. When Paul’s “those who do not work should not eat” gets practiced more often than “whatever you do to the least of these,” then there is a conflict in the church about which way we should lead the society. Hence we do not end up leading, and the church’s divisiveness leads to cultural division because we can’t even agree what we want our society to value.

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