Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mid-May of this year, the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life released findings from a recent survey that indicates a decline in the number of Americans claiming Christian affiliation, especially among Mainline Protestants and Catholics.
When the report was first released, reactions among those I know varied widely, from alarm, to those who met the findings with resignation and acceptance, or frankly as old news. As a divinity school student, preparing for perhaps a lifetime of full-time Christian service to the church, I have wondered at my curious position as someone apparently hoping against the odds. Am I tying myself to the bow of a sinking ship?
Maybe I’m naïve still, don’t know what I’m getting into. Perhaps my relative youthfulness and still-fresh love for the church makes me a little brash and lacking in “wisdom.” After all, it’s likely that the church I commit to serve today may not look the same 40 or 50 years from now. But neither will I, and does anyone really know what they’re getting into at the beginning of a lifetime commitment? The face of the church may be changing, but must it mean such change is unlovely? Can’t a changing face be beautiful in its shifting forms?
One of the questions I ponder in response to the decline of Christians here is whether the changing face of American Christianity is perhaps more cosmetic, than anything truly shifting at the core of the church. To borrow language from this week’s gospel, maybe there are winds, and the night seems dark. Maybe this boat feels so small against the waves, thrashed by voices and forces from the outside. We look at one another, count one another, and we seem so few. Can we survive? And if we don’t?
But we will. We must. And maybe what keeps me from despair or reconsidering my vocation is the knowledge that hope himself sleeps in the stern – that at the core of Christianity, despite its changing faces, is an abiding presence who truly abides, though we may not, and with him a story of continuity through the ages – of a church who has weathered more ominous storms than this one.
Among us is the one who said, “Lo, I am with you always, even till the end of the age.” The one who said, “Upon my rock I will build this church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” The boat may be smaller, the number of disciples fewer, and on some days, it seems that Jesus sleeps. But the presence of the living Christ is still among us, waiting for us to awaken him so that he might offer peace and rebuke for our little faith.
As I consider the current condition of the church in America, and what the Pew Research findings might mean, I can’t help but think of the Psalmist who says,
They saw the deeds of the LORD, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. (107:24-25)
While Christianity blossoms and flourishes in the Global South and other regions of the world, is there a sense in which these findings and even this decline in our numbers are an unbidden gift to the American church? What the church needs is not Americans per se, but faithful disciples, wherever they may be found. Perhaps the storm winds blowing are actually the wind of the Spirit, raging fresh in surprising ways.
The risk we as the American church take if we embrace these findings as devastation and not as gift, is that, in the words of the Psalmist, our courage may melt away in our calamity. (107:26)
What we need is courage – the courage to be faithful, courage that may at first seem accusatory and presumptuous: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Does he not care? Perhaps it’s that the Spirit with the Son have conspired on our behalf, to prompt us to wake him, even prompt us to be awakened ourselves, for it is we who sleep most deeply in our comfortable American expression of Christianity. Such a first daring question could lead to another: “Teacher… You are our Teacher. What are you teaching us?”
What we could stand to learn is that while such news from Pew Research – the kind of news which might only increase in years to come – is at first glance disappointing, we are not victims, and there is more to the church than the American expression of it. While our numbers decline, such unpopularity could be an invitation to repentance, to lives of deeper Christian practice, and greater dependence upon a grace which is costly and requiring of us as disciples. Perhaps we might even be drawn toward humility and greater reception of the gifts of the global church, such that our local expressions can be enlivened and our communing with one another full.
As one yearning to withstand the temptations to cynicism and despair, this is my hope – that together, we can embrace these storms as the changing winds of the Spirit, who may once again hover over the waters of our deeps to create something new in our midst. And that in such embracing, we may beat back a loss of heart and muster the courage to awaken the hope sleeping in our stern, the hope who can restore us to peace and flourishing, even if it means a changing face.