"The Stats and the State the Church" – John 17:6-19
[Jesus prayed,] "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.
"Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth."
I wonder if any of you saw the recent article about the state of Christianity and the Church in the United States that’s been making its way around the internet this week? I shared it on Twitter and Facebook yesterday, hoping maybe it might prime the pump of your preparation for worship today.
First of all, the title of the thing is, “Millenials Leaving Church in Droves, Study Says” and the article goes on to site statistic after statistic about the sad, struggling, dire, dying state of the Church in our self-proclaimed “Christian” nation. Statistics like:
+ The percentage of people who identify themselves as Christian has dropped 8% since just 2007.
+ More than 1/3 of Milliennials, those born between 1990 – 1996, according to the study, are unaffiliated with any faith, up 10% since 2007.
+ Which means there are more adults unaffiliated with a faith community (about 23% of the population) than there are Catholics and also more than there are who call themselves Protestants, like you and me.
+ And also, while 85% of people born between 1928 – 1945 call/called themselves Christians, only 56% of that millennial demographic does the same.
(You can read the whole CNN article HERE.)
And this is all hard to read, for several reasons. First of all, it’s not all that new. If you live like many of you and I live from one day to the next – connected to The Church, such as it is – and if you’ve been paying attention you can see, without the surveys and statistics – that things have changed in terms of the power and presence of a connection to the Church in the lives of young people. (I don’t have a survey to back it up, but 99% of my closest friends throughout high school and college were never connected to a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim or otherwise.)
Another reason news like this is hard to hear is that – just by virtue of good journalism and pure scientific research – these reports are necessarily offered up by objective, third party sources. In other words, I always feel like someone outside of the fold is pointing fingers and casting judgment – even if they are just reporting the news. You know how you can say all you want about your mom or your dad or your siblings – or your crazy Aunt Sally – but as soon as someone else adds their two cents of criticism or judgment, you’ll defend the honor of your loved ones to the point of death? I think that’s our inclination sometimes when we get the impression that outsiders are criticizing the Church.
And another reason this news about the decline of the Church was hard to hear, again this week – especially as it relates to young people – is because I knew we were set to affirm the baptisms of four of our young people today as part of worship. And I genuinely wonder and worry if they know full-well what they’re committing to today. (…any more than I did way back in 1980-something, when I made my own confirmation, before effectively checking out of my connection to the Church in any real, meaningful way for too many years.) If you believe the statistics, the odds of Mitchell or Annelise or Dane or Macey honoring the commitment they’ll make today – to continue their lives as part of the Church – aren’t great, or even likely. And that’s discouraging.
But then I read, again and again, Jesus’ prayer from John’s Gospel, and it reminded me of what this Christian walk is really supposed to be about for believers. I think the movement of God’s love and grace and mercy in the world, has always been most inspiring and most compelling when it is revealed in small, humble, intimate, ways. Whether it was a baby in a manger, the healing of a leper, the forgiveness of a woman, the turning over of the tables in the temple, or that crucifixion at Calvary, the movement of God’s love and grace and mercy has always been a movement by and for the outsider and the minority. It has always been unpopular and out of the ordinary and counter-cultural and against the grain and downright rebellious in the face of the world around it. And when it’s not those things, I wonder if maybe we aren’t suppose to question its motives and mission in hard and holy ways.
So…I read another great article this week, one written in response to the statistics, that pointed out that while some Christians pine for the heyday of the church – like the window of time from the 1940’s to the 1960’s, for instance, when anywhere from 91% to a whopping 93% of Americans identified themselves as Christian – they might just be fooling themselves or delusional about what that really meant for the state of things in the Church or our country or out there in the world, for that matter.
After all, those were the same days, remember, when, among other things, black people couldn’t vote or sit in the front of the bus; gay and lesbian people couldn’t be gay or lesbian people, let alone feel like faithful Christians, in any official, open, faithful way in the eyes of the Church; and of course, women couldn’t lead in most realms of the professional world, let alone serve as Pastors in the Church.
(You can read this article, from SOJO.net HERE.)
So, I guess the news is grim for the Church, if you look at the statistics from just one perspective – and if the success of Christianity is measured like an adolescent popularity contest. But believing in and following Jesus isn’t supposed to be about the numbers. It’s supposed to be about Good News in the face of bad; new life in the face of death; second chances; resurrection; radical grace; faithful risk; abundant mercy; amazing love. It’s supposed to be about the last being first; faith the size of a mustard seed moving mountains; losing your life in order to save it.
And not everyone is attracted to that. Not everyone’s up to the challenge of that. Not everyone sees the power in that. So this Good News, which God means to be for everyone, isn’t always going to be shared or received by the masses.
That’s why Jesus was praying like he prayed today, for his disciples. Jesus was “… not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of” the small number who’d followed him – which had dwindled to eleven or so at the time. He asked for their protection and that they might be bound together – unified as one – for their life and work, presumably because their lives and their work would be hard, and because they were going to need all the help they could get. Jesus knew that not being “of the world,” that being over and against the world, even – all of this loving the enemy and welcoming the stranger; forgiving without limits and caring for the least; of being and standing up for the underdog, was hard, holy work and not for the faint of heart.
The cool thing about the Christian life as I see it, isn’t that we have the most members in our congregations; or the most butts in the seats on Sunday morning; or the most popular stance on this or that issue. The cool, compelling, fun and faithful, challenging thing about the Christian life is that we are called to be rebels for the sake of God’s grace in the world – sharing it radically in ways that are hard for some people to swallow or to play along with, even.
So Jesus’ prayer for that first handful of disciples we just heard, is something like my prayer for our handful of confirmands – and for all of us doing our best to walk this walk of faith in a world that thinks we might just be a little bit crazy, or out of touch, or out of date, or outnumbered, or whatever.
The prayer is that we be united and emboldened in our effort to receive and to share God’s love without reservation; that that love be poured out in ways and for others that will surprise them – whether they’re part of what we’re up to or not – and that we’ll rest assured, not in success as the world measures it. But but that we’ll rest assured in God’s kind of victory that loves sinners and welcomes outcasts, with radical grace; God’s kind of victory that lifts up the lowly and comforts the untouchable with amazing love; God’s kind of victory that is more generous than seems rational or wise, sometimes; and God’s kind of victory that creates something out of nothing, that shines light in the darkness, that finds what is lost, and that rises from the dead.