16 December 2021

Trustworthy, part five: We offer what we have

Final call, I promise! Please answer one or more questions in this brief survey of readers of this blog.  I've had fourteen responses so far, out of the 2,500 visits I get in a typical week. (Granted, most of those visits are only a few seconds long!) 

Those fourteen responses I've received so far are all fascinating and very helpful, but I'd like a few more before I start making wild generalizations.

"I give you a new commandment: Love one another."

Two recent Pew Research studies on American religion gave me some mixed feelings.

Last things first: yesterday, they released a report that they headlined "About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated: Self-identified Christians make up 63% of U.S. population in 2021, down from 75% a decade ago."

Columnist Jennifer Rubin looked at the political implications in today's Washington Post:

New polling data highlight the extent to which Americans are continuing to abandon organized religious institutions. That’s ominous news for the far right, which overwhelming relies on White evangelicals for political power.


Rather than address this problem by expanding their appeal, White evangelical Republicans have panicked and doubled down on their politics of grievance and resentment. Their aim, it seems, is to attract every White evangelical they can find and disable the votes of everyone else.


Democrats and our democratic system cannot simply wait for the demographic wave to save the country from the authoritarian right. Our democracy is in peril now, and the future of democracy in just the next few years is in doubt. Democrats have the numbers on their side, but they won’t have the votes or the counted votes if antidemocratic tactics succeed.

You can probably guess where I'm going! Although I'm all for saving democracy, and I'm very much in agreement with Rubin's "grievance and resentment" diagnosis, it would be a horrible irony if the way to get to the democratic Promised Land is for the church to continue shrinking -- the faster the better. Surely there's another way?? Can't we count on disillusionment with authoritarianism in Christian circles to get us at least part of the way there?

Apparently not, says the other Pew Research study, dated September 15, 2021, and headlined, "More White Americans adopted than shed evangelical label during Trump presidency, especially his supporters." (Link and italics in original.)

Contrary to what some may have expected, a new analysis of Pew Research Center survey data finds that there has been no large-scale departure from evangelicalism among White Americans. In fact, there is solid evidence that White Americans who viewed Trump favorably and did not identify as evangelicals in 2016 were much more likely than White Trump skeptics to begin identifying as born-again or evangelical Protestants by 2020.

Additionally, the surveys do not clearly show that White evangelicals who opposed Trump were significantly more likely than Trump supporters to drop the evangelical label. The data also shows that Trump’s electoral performance among White evangelicals was even stronger in 2020 than in 2016, partially due to increased support among White voters who described themselves as evangelicals throughout this period.

Apparently, the Christian body politic is suffering both shrinkage and polarization at the same time. Should we be alarmed?


On the reduced numbers: People don't leave organized religion simply to be perverse. In deciding to leave, I expect they are using the same capacity to make judgments for themselves that I hope they'd use in the opposite direction if they encountered a sufficiently attractive invitation to a faith community. What are we doing to issue that invitation?

(Since the death of Anne Rice, I was reminded again of her personal encounter with Christian faith, and her subsequent departure from organized Christianity, without abandoning Christ. Maybe her story is shared by millions.)

On polarization and the rise of extremism: I think this is another form of abandonment of the faith community. In this case, however, people are not abandoning it in order to join the ranks of the unaffiliated. Instead (based on what I've seen in some fellowships) they are in a sort of parallel universe furnished with hypnotic repetitions of biblical-sounding cliches and stern warnings about the persecutions to come. I'm exaggerating, but not by much in some cases! This is a form of Christianity, I suppose, but Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, might not be at the center. If you're in one of these fellowships and I'm misrepresenting you, please speak up.

For both the disillusioned and the radicalized, we should make the same invitation. We have no guarantees that we will make a mass impact on either group, but we offer what we have: a trustworthy community that puts Jesus at the center. We promise no false certainties, no presumptuous craggy-faced authority figures, no compulsory happy-talk. We do not bully or shame or bait-and-switch. All we have is Jesus, and our imperfect but persistent efforts to listen to him, to shape our lives and our ethics around him. We promise to be a trustworthy church, and we promise to admit our failures.

I'm not surprised when people are disillusioned by the church. For reasons known only to God, the human institution we call the church was created without divine defenses; it is utterly vulnerable to all the perversions that secular institutions experience. God apparently chose not to inoculate our communities from authoritarianism, corruption, racism, elitism, and plain old stagnation. God did not choose to give us a Bible with a reliable original manuscript and fool-proof interpretations. But God did choose to love us, gave us a gorgeous planet and a global family with lots of recorded experiences of trying to come to terms with being God's people, a Saviour who rose triumphant over the worst that Empire could do to him, and the constant company of the Holy Spirit.

What more do we need?

That last line is not a rhetorical question. Quakers have spent almost 375 years trying to answer that question with the shortest possible list, and we're not the only ones. In this moment of disillusionment and polarization, let's see who else would find this question, this adventure, a way of responding to the witness God has already placed in their hearts.

Here are the previous posts in the "trustworthy church" series:

The survey: What makes a church trustworthy?

Trustworthy, part one: The cost of betrayal

Part two: A colony of heaven

Part three: Choices

Part four: Churches' choices

Related: Trust, the first testimony.

Brandon Filbert and the manger in his heart. "That spiritual manger secretly feeds my soul in what I lack."

David Hoekema in Cairo, on holy books in conversation.

Rowan Williams on why religious liberty matters.

Nora Edinger and Rebecca Kiger visit a racially diverse congregation in Wheeling, West Virginia.

British blues sample: The Cadillac Kings.

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