Thursday, June 4, 2015
What do the numbers say. . . and what do they not say. . .
I will leave it to others to parse the details and explain what is behind the numbers. For now let me simply say that this does not really say much at all about the health or vitality of Christianity in America. Numbers are only numbers and they are the results of self-reporting.
Let me say that hidden behind some of the numbers is the movement of those always on the fringe of the faith to just outside the fringe. Whether you call these the de-churched, the un-churched, or the not really converted or those not fully catechized, this is an indicator of the failure to catechize and the failure to fully convert (that is fully integrate the person into the life of the church). These have always been marginal Christians. I am not saying that we should write them off but that they were never solid in the first place. Whether they chose to remain on the fringe or we failed to fully bring them in, this does not say much about the overall health and vitality of Christianity in America. It does say something about those who desire to be anonymous Christians or congregations where people are allowed to simply drift in and out without much pastoral care.
Since this snapshot is fully supported by decades of research showing the significant and serious decline in the denominations, congregations, and membership of the so-called American Mainline Protestant churches, this is a big problem for those who think the health of Christianity and its future lies with liberal, non-doctrinal, Christianity. This should continue to discredit those denominations who hover on the liberal edge of social change, who treat the Scriptures as more fiction than fact, and who have replaced the voice of the Gospel with tolerance, diversity, and equal justice. Christianity's future was never here and never will be.
The relative stability of the Evangelical segment of American Christianity is deceiving. The membership shifts from church to church, the growth among some congregations is matched by declines in others, and the constant remodeling of the faith by some segments of Evangelicalism may mask a weakness not identified in the numbers. Further we are seeing some Evangelicals begin to follow the path of the Mainlines in distancing the content of the faith from fact and Scripture and a willingness to embrace the politically correct positions of the social change movement (such as gay marriage). Should this continue, no one can really predict the future for Evangelicals.
The numbers that hold the greatest weight are those in which there is doctrinal certainty, Scriptural infallibility, catholicity of liturgy and worship, vitality of preaching and teaching, and the refusal to be bullied into social positions in conflict with God's Word. Wherever you find this, and you cannot narrowly define this to one or more denominations, the faith is vibrant, healthy, and growing. This should be the focus of our attention as we seek to maintain faithfulness in doctrine and practice, speak faithfully and forcefully in witness to the world, and serve sacrificially and joyfully as instruments of Christ's love to the hurting.
The health of Christianity cannot strictly be defined by numbers. That said, the manipulation of Christianity by social agendas, so-called scientific viewpoints on history and fact, and a faith designed to appeal more to reason and sentiment has not done anything to help the church grow or slow its decline. Just the opposite, it has hastened the departure of those not fully indoctrinated or inculturated (is that a word?) into the faith and the life of the church.
But there is one thing we Lutherans of the Missouri stripe ought to take as a warning shot across the bow. Pew does not know what to do with us and so it has labeled us Evangelicals -- let us hope and pray we do not let this become prophetic or the catholic and evangelical faith of the Lutheran Confessions will become merely a footnote in history and the Reformation will have been betrayed by those who claim its legacy today.