There is an article on Yahoo News today about “Why Churches Are Declining in the U.S.” . I hate articles like that. They act like it’s a done deal, that it’s rational, that everyone knows it.
For myself, it can’t be a done deal. It’s not rational. At least one of us doesn’t know it. It may be denial. It may be tradition, or it may be stubbornness, but it’s not. God is real. I believe that Jesus was real, but I am sure that God is. There may be one God with many names. There may be many “gods” but One Godhead. I don’t know.
What I do know is that God , G-d if you prefer to highlight the Mystery, exists. In 1917, Professor Rudolf Otto went to Harvard University and gave a series of lectures in the midst of a world that believed in science as it understood it at the time — a world that would soon have its first ever World War.
The results of those lectures is a book called, “The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational “. In that book and the lectures it came from, Otto says there is something beyond us, something he called “the numinous” which is in every culture which in not “rational”, but not “irrational” either. It is Wholly Other. It is bigger than us, it’s unfathomable and we feel small in front of it.it’s we stand in awe of it when we meet it. For Otto, it is The Holy, mysterious tremendum (tremendous mystery). For most people, including myself, it is called God.
Yahweh, Allah, G-d, El Shadai, I Am Who I Am, Spirit — they are the same One Thing and many people experience it. When people feel a call to ministry or a sense of religious yearning or a sense of God in the world, this is what they feel/experience. It is the Source of all good things created in the universe. It is Truth and Love and Healing and Reality and Peace, and every other good thing you can imagine or feel.
Now, regarding Jesus. I will acknowledge that I have never met the historical person “Jesus” or “Yeshua” as they would have called him in Israel at the time. Also, “Christ” is not his last name, not the name on the mailbox out front of his house. “Christ” is a term for “Messiah” or “One who saves” people.
Finally, if you notice anything about the gospels, it seems that the four writers couldn’t keep their stories straight. Each writes from their own perspective much like an traffic report seen from different corners of an intersection. That doesn’t mean (though it could) they are liars. It just means that they remember different things and/ or were telling their stories to different people they wanted to connect with.
We still do that: To Woody Guthrie, “Jesus was a man who lived throughout the land, a hard working man and brave”. To others, he is the reason for Christmas, and our love of innocence. To others, he is “My savior God… How great thou art”.
I will not tell you that Jesus isn’t a myth, a made up story of a guy. I can’t prove that, though I believe he existed and he taught and he was born and died and somewhere in there he changed the world with his teachings and (yes, I believe) his resurrection after death. Could I prove that he existed in history just like I think of him? No, so I won’t pretend.
Having said that, if he was a lie, he was a heck of a lie. He said and did the strangest things. If he is a lie, then Gandhi was wrong, and Martin Luther King was wrong, and the Bishop who is running the Poor People’s Campaign is wrong. Each based their methods and tactics on Jesus’ words. Every pacifist who believes in humanity is a follower of Jesus’ words, as was St. Francis who did things that were just as strange and just as powerful and charismatic (thousands of followers in a very short time) as Jesus.
Does Jesus save people from their sins? Does he bring peace to unforgiving hearts and massively drunken failures, or slave traders? There are millions of people who will tell you their “experience of strength and hope” in meetings all around the world. The author of Amazing Grace was a slave trader who stopped his ways because he believed in Jesus.
Saving Jesus didn’t make sense to the early church or Saul by saving Saul’s life after Saul tried to kill Christians. Sacrificial Suffering still doesn’t make sense to a lot of people, but if you choose to sacrifice for your beliefs, it seems to work fairly well, fairly often.
So, with all this, why does Christianity seem to be fading in the American landscape? Why are people not going to church? Why are young people, especially, not going to a church near them? That’s easy. If Jesus were alive today, he’d hate the most popular, biggest selling, most powerful churches in America — the ones everyone knows about because they see them on TV and in the news.
Evangelical churches, for whatever they believe about mercy and sacrifice, show up on TV hating dead gay people and disrupting their funerals. They showed up in the media as supporters of Trump’s Fascism and love for power. Even Jimi Hendrix who died of heroin overdose knew better than that. Hendrix said, “When the power of love is more important than the love of power, the world will know peace”.
Fred Phelps, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Joel Osteen — hugely powerful people and very well known in the press missed that concept or certainly act like it. Their pastors fly around in private jets and refuse to house people flooded out of their homes (Joel Osteen). They scream about how gay folks are the end of the world, and then are caught having sex with their pool boys (Jerry Falwell, Jr.) They bilk their flocks out of millions. They cry about the end of the world, and then they support people who want to bring it about!
Anyone with a brain in their head would see that those famous and loud people wouldn’t know Jesus if he sat in their front pew. The idea that people aren’t coming to church because of the non-Christians they see on tv — all the time! — actually gives me hope. It means people are rejecting hate, they are rejecting brutality, they are rejecting money for money’s sake and power for power’s sake. Jesus did that too! Jesus wasn’t rich, and wasn’t particularly powerful during his own life, actively rejecting both of those things.
Do the statistics look bad for the churches in your neighborhood? Yes, of course they do! Are churches — especially little ones — dying? All the time. Liberal ones? Well, by comparison, they are not mega-churches, but they don’t often have greedy power-mad pastors in them either. I’ll take that trade any time.
Finally, there’s the COVID factor. Church attendance is down because of a pandemic. If those churches were full and people didn’t use reasonable precautions, there’d be a lot of dead people in those congregations. Regardless of your feelings about resurrection, most people don’t want those around them to die. So, yes, they’re not going to have great attendance. If people attended and died, attendance would be down. If people didn’t attend and didn’t die, attendance would be down (as it is).
What the church has, in this age of rudeness and not knowing each other, is ways to know and get along with other people. It has ways of caring for the hungry and the homeless and the angry and the uneducated and even the CEO’s of the world.
Jesus is offering what the world needs more of — love, peace, a way to work out your differences, a place to practice pro-social skills or social skills at all. The church can be a way to meet people you would never meet otherwise — people not like you, but people you would like.
The church offers, with it’s teachings, a way to raise children and keep them safe, and believe in themselves. Where did they get these teachings? Jesus in some way or another.
The church has what the world needs and the world has a lot of needs. By “church” I mean the ones I know of. And, while I believe in Jesus, I’m sure that good synagogues and good mosques offer the same quality of community that we offer. I Am Who I Am knows all of them and visits quite frequently, I’m sure.
The church of Fascism or hate or anger or strict adherence for parishioners but not for clergy shouldn’t be famous or growing. The non-welcoming church, the drastic church, the screaming in anger church, aren’t churches of Jesus, regardless of what it says on their sign. They’re just not.
So, yes, church attendance is down, but it’s not for any reason like people imply. Christianity is not fading because it has nothing to offer or is hocus-locus wishful thinking. Bad churches are fading as they should. Good churches meet people’s needs and offer a way to make life better. Sadly, both say “Christ” or “Jesus” on their front door right now. But if you’re looking for kindness, caring, community, a place to think about what might be right or wrong, I swear, the church is the place for that. If you walk in the door and that’s not what they are selling, you’re in the wrong place. Trust yourself, as most church trust you.
The church can’t die. It still has things to do here on earth. I somewhere between “encourage” you and “beg” you to find out for yourself. May the Lord bless you and keep you. Amen.
Resisting with Peace,