There has been a lot of response to the Pew survey indicating a decline in people who say they are Christian. A lot of defensiveness. A lot of hand wringing. And some actual reflection on what it all means. After some forty seven years serving the church in various capacities I have my own thoughts. I know, big surprise there. First, the mega-church movement never really produced a large group of people committed to discipleship in Christ. As one mega-church leader remarked a few years ago, "We realized we had created a Rio Grande spirituality: It was a mile wide and a foot deep." He also went on to say that when his leadership made moves to strengthen their discipleship commitment they lost over five thousand members. That's five thousand members.
So what we have is big churches who aren't necessarily creating disciples. In place they have created a kind of self help pop version of Christianity.
Second, there has been a blending of civil religion (read uber patriotism) and Christian teaching. In 1980 a political movement, led by conservatives, created the "Christian Right," which, ironically, helped defeat a born-again Christian because his views were too liberal. In fact, Jimmy Carter simply wanted to implement Christian values that modeled Christ's call to bring good news to the poor.
Third, mainline Protestant churches experiencing sharp decline in membership tried to become all things to all people in hopes of becoming more hip, more culturally attuned. These attempts backfired as the church lost its identity. That is, the church became more interested in preserving its institution over living out Christ's call to love one another. With no exceptions.
Roman Catholic Christianity lost a golden moment that was initiated by Pope John XXIII, when internal resistance to the sweeping changes sought by the Second Vatican Council led to an entrenched exclusiveness that alienated many of its members. Only now are there glimmers of change that might, as Pope John XXIII said, would allow the Holy Spirit to re-energize the Body of Christ.
Of course there are exceptions to these generalizations. Which is why Christianity won't die. The church might die, but Christ's message of love, non-violence and inclusion will live on. That's because we're not in charge. God is.
That is why not all is lost. Recovering the vitality of Christ's message might begin with a renewed understanding of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Remember the story? It's about having compassion for those in need.
A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and was attacked, robbed, beaten and left for dead. Naked. On the side of the road.
A priest (religious leader of the church) passed by and looked away, moving on. A Levite passed by (another leader of the church) and looked away, moving on.
A Samaritan (an enemy, not one of them) passed by and stopped. He cared for the man, bandaged his wounds and took him to a nearby hotel and paid for his stay.
We all think of the Samaritan as the good neighbor, but it is important to know the priest and Levite did what they were supposed to do, lest they rendered themselves unclean and unable do their work until they were cleansed at the Temple.
The lesson can be summed up in this way: The priest and Levite saw the man in need and asked, "What will happen to me if I help him?"
The Samaritan saw the man in need and asked, "What will happen to him if I don't help him?"
Jesus had been asked, "Who is our neighbor?" He told this story and asked, "Which one was the neighbor?"
"Tho one who showed compassion," was the reply. To which Jesus said, and says to us now, "Go and do the same."