In his recent book, His Truth Is Marching On, historian Jon Meacham recalls a childhood story about the late U.S. congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis.
Lewis grew up outside of Troy, Alabama, where the church became a central part of his life. Lewis looked back fondly to his early days when he decided to be a preacher.
Growing up on a farm as a young child, Lewis preached to the chickens. After weeks of trying to save their souls, Lewis recalled becoming very close to his feathery friends.
He spoke about his first nonviolent protest, which included the chickens. When his mom and dad would kill chickens in preparation for dinner, Lewis would protest by not eating dinner those nights. He said it just felt wrong to eat them when he was out there trying to save their souls.
He grew so concerned about his chickens that one day he tried to baptize one. He must have held it under the water a little too long, for the bird died.
The irony was not lost on Lewis. With a little smirk on his face, Lewis said, “In the process of trying to save this chicken, I lost the chicken.”
My colleague, John Pierce, penned a column this week about the departure of many Christians from their evangelical roots. He observed, “Departures from evangelicalism continue largely over its alliance with a political agenda opposed to truth-telling, compassion for those who suffer and equal justice – while excusing or affirming fear-based discrimination and the degradation of people often based on race, ethnicity or religion.”
While many people are leaving behind evangelicalism, others are leaving Christianity altogether. According to Pew Research, U.S. citizens describing themselves as “Christians” have rapidly dropped 12% from 2009 to 2019, while those describing themselves as “atheist” or “agnostic” rose 9% during that same time frame.
Reflecting on these statistics against the backdrop of Lewis’ story, I cannot help but ask, “Is Christianity killing itself in an attempt to ‘save’ the world?” The rapid decline of Christian affiliation in the U.S. appears to parallel a continued allegiance with exclusivity, control and power.
Exclusivity is nothing new to Christianity. Jesus himself spoke about separating the wheat from the chaff (Matthew 3:12) while at other times distinguishing sheep from goats (Matthew 25:31-46).
More so, throughout history, the church perfected the exclusionary practice, separating itself time and time again: East from West, Protestant from Roman Catholic, and the rise of denominationalism within Protestantism.
With each fracture of the church, the church grew more and more accepting of exclusionism. One had to believe and act like another in order to belong.
Which brings us to today. The church is once again fracturing. However, there seems to be a difference in this modern-day divide. It spans the whole of Christianity.
The rise of evangelicalism set into motion a modern-day split between conservative, moderate and progressive Christians. It is not tied to a denomination but reaches across the Christian landscape fracturing the whole.
Only time will tell if Christianity will survive this latest divide.
Another factor in the decline of Christianity is the church’s desire to control belief and behavior. From Constantine to the rise of modern-day fundamentalism, some in the church believe they possess the authority to control the beliefs and behaviors of other Christians and non-Christians.
Fueled with what they conclude as “special revelation” from God, these Christians state their interpretation of Scripture as Gospel when in reality it is fraught with inconsistencies, misinterpretations and misapplications.
For example, most control-based Christians feel as though homosexuality is a sin and same-sex marriage should be outlawed.
In my opinion, their belief is based upon a misreading of the Scriptures and misapplication of passages taken out of context. However, they are free to hold that belief even if I think it is wrong.
They cross a line, however, when they attempt to control the beliefs and behaviors of others based upon their own beliefs. In other words, no one is forcing them to abandon their belief or marry a person of the same sex.
However, they want to force their belief on others. They want to control how people think and act, codifying their religious beliefs in state and federal laws.
Jesus seemed to be the opposite of a control freak. On the contrary, he often stated, “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” Jesus respected the beliefs of old, but he understood God as a divine presence freeing people from the bondage of systems seeking to control them based upon exclusion and rigidity.
Jesus never said, “You shall know the truth and it shall bind you.” On the contrary, he said, “You shall know the truth and it shall set you free” (John 8:32).
Exclusion and control lead to one conclusion: power over others. The type of Christianity that seeks to gain power over other people ignores the precise words of the Great Commission given by Jesus. All authority was given to him, not to us.
Jesus told the disciples, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20).
And what are those commandments?
- Love God.
- Love others.
- Bring good news to the poor.
- Release the captives.
- Recover sight for the blind.
- Let the oppressed go free.
Nowhere in Scripture does Jesus suggest controlling other people on his behalf. Jesus never concludes that disciples should force their beliefs and practices on others. The Lord detested the abuses of religious and political power, instead advocating for humility, mercy and kindness.
The Apostle Paul summed it up best in Philippians 2, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
Only through humility came true transformative power: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
In other words, if Christianity is to survive, the church must succumb once again to death: death to exclusionary theology, death to controlling others, death to earthly powers seducing the faithful.
After the young John Lewis discovered his lifeless chicken drowned by the baptismal waters, he set the bird down gently in the afternoon sun. Feeling sad, he noticed the dead chicken flinch.
Then, all of a sudden, the chicken sprang back to life. Lewis’ despair quickly turned to glee as a resurrection miracle began to cluck before him.
If Christianity stands a chance to survive in the modern-day divide, then we must all return to the cross where death will meet us and resurrection awaits us. It’s within the warmth and love of the son where we can find life.
CEO of Good Faith Media.