It’s NEVER been like this!
Well, the dust is beginning to settle after the recent hoopla about the Pew Research study showing a sharp decline in the number of Christians in America. The various interpretive camps are starting to coalesce around one or two narratives to explain what is happening in ways that are most favorable to them and their point of view. In my camp, the evangelicals, we’ve pretty much agreed on a three-part analysis, namely:
- Other branches of the faith are declining worse than we are. I suppose that “Our bad news is not as bad as your bad news” is always a good way to look at things.
- The people who are leaving evangelicalism are only the nominal believers; this is more of a purging than an actual problem. I had to laugh at this one. Only a Calvinist could say that with a straight face. “The fact that these people left proves they were never here in the first place.”
- This is a sign of the horrible, unprecedented threat to the church that we are facing. The message, essentially, is that we need to batten down the hatches; things are going to get worse.
It is that third point that has left me wondering. I asked myself this question: “Has there ever been a time when the church faced such an amazing upheaval in the political, social and religious world as we’ve been facing for a few decades now? When you think about this it turns out that the answer is yes, there has.
About 500 years ago, more or less, the church went through the Reformation. Concurrent with this change in the religious structure we saw the rise of nation states, the birth of capitalism, the advent of humanist philosophy and a growing sense of individualism. Scientific advances became commonplace. These developed somewhat slower than issues we are facing now primarily because communication was slower than today. On the plus side, our ability to respond is also much quicker for the same reason.
About 500 years before that, once again more or less, we had what has come to be called the Great Schism, the divide of the church into the Roman Catholic and Orthodox halves. Just who is a “true” believer and what we should do about it was a critical discussion. Some 500 years before that, extending over a period of time in that slow-moving world, was the decline and fall of western civilization and the rise of monasticism.
You could probably make the case that every 500 years or so God shakes things up and, for Christians in those times of change, things appear to be frightening. Gloom and doom is easy to accept and in each of these periods there was a lot of it.
Had there been a Pew Research study in the Reformation period the charts would have been a lot simpler. There would have been only two choices and we’d see Catholicism in decline and Protestantism on the rise. If there had been pundits, commentators and bloggers at the time they would have all been pointing fingers at the Pope. They would say that he, unlike his predecessors, presided over a catastrophic failure.
It is true that the Catholic Church had a huge numerical setback. But it is still here. We have no reason to believe that any given camp of the church today is doomed. By the same token we have no reason to be smug that our camp, which is of course the one true church, will survive.
If there is one take-away from the Pew study it is that this is a time for spiritual maturity in the truest sense of the word. It is a time for those in my evangelical camp (or for that matter any other camp) to hold confidently and without fear to those truths we value. It is also a time to engage in respectful listening to other camps with a mind open to be shown that we are wrong in whole or in part. Only the spiritual immature can ever think they can never be wrong and then be shocked that people don’t want to listen to them.