On a recent Sunday morning I sat in church barely awake. It was my fault. I’d been up late having an endless discussion with a friend, a discussion that I won’t go into. I give credit to our preacher. He has a way of bringing new meaning to what I’ve been listening to all my life. From a more humane approach towards homosexuality to his pain filled explanation for why he no longer believed in a literal Hell. But this Sunday would be different. He looked sullen though determined as he made a statement I had not expected. He said, “Religion is dying. For the first time in modern history the world’s faiths have not only began to stagnate, but are beginning to decline.” There was a moment of silence, but I have to admit that I was intrigued and shamelessly excited for a moment to hear more. But what followed was disappointing. The remedy seemed to me a guarded one, and far too typical with an overwhelmingly dissatisfying effect that church politics usually has. I knew from conversations I’ve had with my pastor what he had in his homiletic arsenal, but he settled with the church-safe. “Young people find us to be boring. They find no value in church, and what it has to offer.”
I am familiar with church politics. My family, going back as far as anyone can remember, has been driven to be involved in their church’s operations, usually as board members and Sunday school teachers. One thing that has vexed me is the reality that most people in the South that attend church regularly are unprepared for anything that steps outside of tradition. Preachers have to take care with what they allow themselves to say in their sermons. The past two hundred years have revealed startling information that would have turned religion on its head if it had been shared with its followers. I do not want to go into that now, but careful reading of the bible and other books written by the growing number of theological scholars along with historians of antiquity are good sources for what has been skillfully kept from congregations in most parts of the world. I’m speaking of Christianity, since this is my background, but this trend seems to be consistent everywhere. It’s for this reason that my preacher’s sudden statement of the steady decline of religion was not backed up by anything more than what is evident such as the dwindling number of young people that attend church or involve themselves in other ways. I semi-consciously made myself open to being receptive to the reasons for religion’s decline as they made themselves evident.
Let me just say that I do not believe that the decline of religion is due to young people being less involved. If they are dropping away from Christianity, or their respective religion, I see that as a symptom of how religion has failed to embrace Jesus’ message of love and offers too great an emphasis on the super-natural among other things that are rarely explained. Is it difficult to understand that a young person would need to have been raised in the church to find supernatural events genuinely plausible or even an adult? I was well into my twenty’s when I had my first serious George Carlin or Bill Maher moment; when a person finally says, “Now let me get this straight…..”. I find that moment of doubt to be nearly as precious as the first time I realized that I was paying attention in church.
The data is irrefutable. The world’s religions are beginning to decline. Church membership is very slowly shrinking, though hardly noticeable in the United States, but far more apparent in Europe. These European churches are easily seen from high-speed rail along each nation’s less populated countryside, noticeably empty and in ill repair.
Other than the emphasis on the benevolent super-natural there is the pervading message of doom clearly spelled out in the Book of Revelation that fundamentalist Christians claim belief. Back when Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ ‘Left Behind’ series was gaining popularity, I believed their books were a reflection of what was to come. Being familiar with Revelations helped me understand the story from one novel to the next. The theme was consistently negative, and meant to frighten the reader into being an obedient follower of whatever the bible dictated. It would be accurate to say that the reader could find what they were looking for depending on their devotion and expectations. Both of these factors gradually changed for me as I learned more about the origin of John’s mysterious book to the seven very young churches of the first and second centuries.
My family’s devotion to Christianity gave me the valuable experience of growing with and speaking to a wide variety of people within the faith with still varying beliefs. In conversation the elements of anticipation, expectation, and fear prevailed. Many of the people I met anxiously looked forward to being caught up into the clouds with Jesus during his Second Coming, but also expecting that most people would be stuck here to suffer through the Tribulation. Even as I was sure that my destiny awaited me in the clouds, I feared for those that would be left behind. What an odd expectation for a child, but I believed it until just a few years ago.
Inevitably, a person that believes in the Book of Revelations as being prophetic must also expect great horrors to occur before Jesus will reign here on Earth. The goal being to be with Jesus and eventually to be in God’s physical presence requires the events made clear in the bible; rumors of war, pestilence, disease, starvation, and anything else that can be imagined that may kill us. This is a very odd series of horrors to be looked upon with glad expectation. The mentality is akin to being told that you’re going to win the lottery, but first everything you love has to be subject to destruction and you may be grievously injured. Many are so zealous for this approach to being with God that they yell “bring it on” with smiles on their faces.
New adherents are often discouraged from being a part of Christianity knowing this long-taught expectation and approach to having a final audience with God. Couple this with newly revealed information that has been kept from us for centuries, and we face the unfortunate obstacles that cripple not only the Christian faith, but the paths to God that most religious people follow. This includes Islam; the religion that is basically a mix of Judaism, Christianity and what lengths Arabic tribes will go to in their quest for water.
Do the religions of the Western hemisphere require a degree of pessimism? The argument set before you is that they do. Is this a message that encourages converts or retains those sitting in church pews on Sunday morning? How could it?
Where does a message of hope and love fit in? Many take comfort in the words of Jesus. I presume not to tell you what Jesus actually said. To know that takes a special devotion to the historical Jesus, Jewish culture, bible literacy and a healthy ability to tell the difference between irrational politics and reason.
Many Christians are optimistic that our religion can survive, but recognize that it must be redefined. I want to believe Christians can shed the elements of fear, and that those that are overtly zealous can eventually recognize how destructive the “God, guns, and country” message is to Christianity’s future. Those of us that want to change the direction of this beloved religion need to act soon, and if successful, those that are neurologically challenged may be overwhelmed with peer pressure and follow us into a real Kingdom of God that Jesus taught would one day come. One of my favorite saying attributed to Jesus is not in the bible, but I’ll offer it for those that believe in optimism and reject pessimism as a necessary element in our faith.
From The Gospel of Thomas:
The kingdom of heaven is within you, and all around you.
Heath Skaggs is a blogger for We Occupy Jesus. When he’s not disassembling lightsabers, he enjoys discussing theology, philosophy, and the reasons why Batman is indeed a superhero despite his lack of DNA mutations. If you disagree with him, he will settle all disputes through left-handed arm wrestling challenges.