So the Pew Study came out. It said Christianity in America, as a whole, is shrinking. Excuse me while I try to find my surprised face as I seem to have misplaced it for this supposedly shocking revelation.
This isn’t news. Confirmation of our suspicions, further evidence of a trend, sure. But news? Nope. And yet, people are up in arms about it. As one of my friends said, “SO MUCH PEARL CLUTCHING.” Both Progressive and Conservative Christianity have published responses to the poll. It seems that both sides are already trying to spin the data. Progressives are pointing out that while conservative evangelical churches are experiencing minimal growth, relative to societal growth they are losing ground. Conservatives are triumphantly saying, “See! We’re right and the saviors of Christianity,” or simply shrugging their shoulders as the shrinking of the church reflects the loss of nominal Christians who weren’t Christians to begin with.
We’re really doing well at working for unity.
In his book A Failure of Nerve Edwin Friedman writes, “It may be said that whatever ‘drives people to drink’ also drive people to data…The relationship established at conferences devoted to technique and data often resemble the pseudo-mutuality of people sharing a ‘binge’; after the party is over, things go right back to ‘normal.'”
In other words, this week the internet will explode as we imbibe the data we’ve been served. Blogs (like this one!) will be written, articles passed around, tweets and subtweets and hashtags, blame – so much blame, and then, after throwing up everything we’ve ingested as part of our data inebriation, things will go back to normal. Nothing will change. We won’t learn anything from this. Each side will continue to do what they’ve always done. No introspection. No self-evaluation of our own reactivity towards such a study. If anything changes it will that we are more entrenched in our own rightness.
Watching this play out over the last couple of days makes me think the most important facts to be learned are not going to be found in the study. The most important facts will be our reaction to the data. The sniping at each other across party lines, the unceasing effort to prove the other wrong, the overly persuasive attempts to convert people to our point of view, and the seeming inability to relate to people we don’t agree with in a significant way.
The fear. The anxiety. The confusion.
It would be better to simply admit that change is happening. Christianity is losing its influence over American culture and we don’t need a study to prove. People are attending church less and less and Pew didn’t need to tell us that. As a culture, we are moving towards something new, and that’s scary. No one knows what the future holds. We can doomsday it, but we don’t know exactly what will happen. So let’s prepare by becoming the kind of people who can adapt and adjust and follow the teachings of Christ from the margins. I don’t think we, the American church, know how to do that well. Maybe that’s what scares us the most. That’s okay. It’s why we are a people of confession. Confession let’s us tell the truth about ourselves so that we can begin to be different in the future.
I get that all this is scary. Isn’t that what drives some people drink? So rather than running to data, let’s run to Jesus. Let’s just trust that despite what any study shows, he’s got this. Let’s trust he really is sitting on the throne and is the Lord of history.
Jesus tells us to fear not. If we trusted him, and if we believed that we did not have reason to fear, don’t you think our response to some study would look a lot different? I do.
Which makes me think, maybe this study reveals more about our trust of Jesus than it does of how many people are sitting in pews on Sunday morning.