Doing and being church in today’s world is unlike ever before. Nor does it seem to get any easier, to be sure.
After I posted complaints on Facebook about the way I felt my Arkansas Razorback football team was being mistreated earlier this season by the pollsters, my daughter, who has University of Arkansas sympathies but is first and foremost a Georgia Bulldog (where did I go wrong?!), responded by telling me I was whining.
I informed her that there can be a thin line between whining and telling it like it is. I preferred the latter.
So, don’t hear me whining, please. I’m trying to tell it like it is. Figuring out how people feel about church can be, in today’s climate, a daunting task. Reaching people can be even more difficult.
For instance, LifeWay Research, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, recently completed a study that served as support for the denomination’s executive committee.
The committee is looking at whether it should recommend a name change for the convention, some thinking that “Southern” is too provincial.
Indeed, the research, which polled more than 2,000 adults, showed that the term “Southern Baptist” is met with mixed responses, though I doubt it’s simply the name that makes them feel that way.
Do you think that maybe their behavior has something to do with it?
About 53 percent of Americans hold a favorable impression of Southern Baptists, but 40 percent are unfavorable.
More than a third of the respondents said a Southern Baptist church “was not for them.” Half of young adults between 18 and 29 reacted negatively and said they would not consider joining a Southern Baptist church, and the negative numbers go up for respondents with a college education.
Methodists came out better. About 62 percent of adults had favorable views of United Methodists. Catholics came in second at 59 percent.
Least favorable were Mormons and Muslims. However – and this is a big however – before Methodists get too cocky, it was also pointed out that they, the second largest Protestant denomination in America, have seen a steady drop in membership for the past 50 years.
So somewhere, somehow, there’s a bit of a disconnect.
It may be found in the overall religious climate.
You see, Baptists are declining too – in baptisms and in growth, two of the main determiners for success.
So, this study has turned out to be a mixed bag with a mixed message. It says to me that, in our present time and culture, people just don’t take church for granted anymore. In truth, more and more people aren’t taking church at all.
That is not to say that Christianity is less appealing than before. It is to say that more and more Jesus followers see less of a need to live out their faith by embracing the church.
It could be that our past sins are catching up to us.
This is what I mean: Most of us older than 50 grew up in a church that emphasized affirmation of faith (or walking the aisle), getting right with God by asking Jesus into our hearts, trusting that by doing so we gained a guarantee of heaven (“once saved, always saved”).
In other words, Christian faith was personal, and our sole desire was to introduce Jesus to others so he could be personal for them as well. In short, we didn’t want our friends to go to hell.
Today’s younger folk find greater value in service to others, so it is natural for them to emphasize that side of Jesus’ ministry that encourages us to give ourselves to “the least of these.”
In their minds, that can be done just as effectively, and perhaps with much less baggage, outside the context of the church.
Of course, it is my belief that it can be done best within the direction of the local congregation, but still, there’s the rub.
Believing that, and convincing others of it, are two different things.
We face a huge challenge. The people we want so desperately to embrace are not all that certain they want to be included by the likes of us.
It falls to us to live out our faith in such a way that they see Christ in us. Nothing else will get the job done.