The news has spread far and wide. It’s been discussed in Newsweek, debated in faith publications, chewed on in sermons and Sunday School classes across the country. According to the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey, the number of people claiming to be Christian has dropped 10 percent. Those identifying themselves as agnostic or atheist have risen. It seems a seismic shift is happening, according to the research.
The conclusions are unavoidable. Americans are becoming less faithful, less religious, less connected to the denominational affiliations of their parents. Times are changing. Our faith institutions are fraying. The power of the church is slipping away.
It’s bothersome to many Christians, I think, because we know how it used to be. Church used to be the place where things happened. Where doctors, lawyers, politicians mingled. Where you could meet your spouse, find a social group, connect with business partners. Where the movers and shakers served on the church board and people fought over who would run Vacation Bible School and the Sanctuary Guild. And which church you attended said a lot about your standing in the community. Yes, there was power in the church because the church had power in the world.
But times are changing. Things are shifting. The church’s pull in politics and culture is ebbing. Our days as the hub of power in society are numbered.
And I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.
We have been raised in a society where it has long been assumed that religion and power go together. And that notion goes a long way back. All the way back to the fourth century when a young general named Constantine took an obscure little faith called Christianity and made it into a state religion. He built beautiful churches and put bishops on the payroll. Christianity quickly came to stand for the authority of the state and the voice of the empire. The church was power.
But before that, it was very different. Christians were virtually powerless. They were a tiny offshoot of Judaism, a fringe group, who got no time off for their holidays. No tax breaks to build churches. They were harassed for their faith, targeted by politicians, thrown in prison for being seditious and anti-social. Tacitus wrote that Christians practiced a “most mischievous superstition.” They were brushed off, mocked, attacked and persecuted for the first 300 years of their existence.
Christianity was born having no power in the world and Christians weren’t bothered by that. They weren’t bothered by being powerless because the power of this world didn’t matter. They weren’t bothered by being powerless because the powerless were the ones they were to serve. The hungry, the thirsty, the naked, sick, imprisoned – the ones powerless like their own Lord Jesus had been. Their own Lord Jesus, who had refused the conventional power of the world, who was Lord not because he led a military coup or ran for office or ascended the social ladder. Their Lord Jesus gave his life for the powerless and he taught his followers that real power was found in faithfulness, forgiveness, love and sacrifice.
Perhaps as the church “loses” power in the world, it will remember who it is. It will remember that its call is not to have power. It is not to have the biggest congregations or the largest bank account or the most massive building project. Our call is to be faithful. It is to be with the powerless, those on the margins, in the shelters, on the streets, at the edges of the world so we can remember where the true power in the world is—and the real power of God.