Earlier today, the Pew Research Center released a report on the religious landscape of the United States. People can slice statistics any way they want to (and already have), but the short of it is this: While Christianity still remains the majority religion in the U.S., it is on the decline (78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014). Concurrently, the "Nones"—a group which consists of atheists, agnostics, and a group that I found amusingly labeled as "nothing in particular"—have increased by nearly seven percentage points to make up 22.8% of the population.
The release of the report sparked a Twitter clinic on the five stages of grief. Tweeters denied the results. Some were angry about the numbers and/or the state of America. Others played the bargaining chip of "If we can just get more minorities to join our churches..." There was some depression and acceptance thrown in for good measure. Church leaders and laypeople crunched numbers and made projections. And when the news looked bad for everyone, some resorted to the denominational version of "Oh yeah? My dad can still beat up your dad." In all of this hubbub, the main question that I saw being asked was: How can we change these results?
It was that question about results that got me thinking about Boy Meets World. Or, more accurately, it made me recall something that I read in an interview with BMW star Ben Savage. At one point Savage is asked about an episode that the interviewer thought was a watershed moment as a youth. When the former and present Cory Matthews replied that he remembers the episode yet didn't feel like it was particularly momentous at the time, it leads to this interesting exchange:
Jesse David Fox: That’s interesting. I think the younger version of me would be bummed, like, “Oh no, he doesn’t remember how important it was,” but now I totally get it. As a creative person, you’re doing it because you like creating things.
Ben Savage: You’re not sitting there patting yourself on the back. I was talking to Michael Jacobs [Boys Meets World and Girl Meets World co-creator], and I said, “Are you happy?” and he was like, “If I’m happy, there’s no more show.” Because writers, creative people, are tortured by the constant need to create. So you say to anyone, “Don’t you feel good? You clenched [sic] your career, you won an Oscar. What’s next?”
Fox: You shouldn’t be doing it to win an Oscar; you should be doing it to do it.
Savage: That’s why the people who win Oscars win Oscars, and the people that want to win Oscars don’t. (Occasionally, one will slip through.) Like I know a kid who really, really wants to be successful in Hollywood. But that’s his problem: He wants to be a famous, important person in Hollywood. He has no passion for anything other than to be at parties and rub elbows with celebrities. “I want to be famous” is not gonna work. “I want to tell a great story,” “I want to make people laugh,” “I want to do fart jokes” — at least that’s something.
Replace "people that want to win Oscars" with "people that want to increase church attendance numbers" and I think there is an apt parallel. At this point, I am running headlong against the textbooks in my seminary Church Growth and Development class. There is nothing wrong with wanting your church to grow. The idea of the Great Commission is that we are supposed to take the message of the gospel to the world. Without vision, a people will perish. I get all of that.
Yet our focus ought to be simple. I want to love God with my entire being. I want to love my neighbor as myself. There is a simple and beautiful art to those desires. They form the core of the Christian faith. Yet all the talk of numbers and percentage points make me fear that we are missing that larger point. We are trading the creative heart of the gospel with "I want our church to become HUUUUUGE!" Again, there's hypothetically nothing wrong with churches becoming HUUUUUGE. But if the focus shifts away from the creative passion of following God day to day in favor of the bigness of an exploding congregation then I fear there may be trouble.
Numbers have a way of dehumanizing people. People are freaking out about the Nones, but I'd bet good money that a fair number of them are Christians. They just don't have a place to call home. To take a different scenario: think of how we measure casualties in a disaster. The large death total represents the immense size of the event but comes nowhere close to conveying the personal loss of life that occurs.
Which is why I think all of the talk about how churches can turn the tide of these declining numbers is barking up the wrong tree. Our focus should not be results, but the long obedience of loving God and loving all of our community. Sure, I hope this report will cause our churches to rethink things. We need to. And the silver lining of the decline across the board is that no one gets to think they're doing it right. The results are an Oprah episode of reconsideration. You get to rethink things! You get to rethink things! EEEEEEEVVVERRRRRRRYYYYBODDDDDDDDY GETS TO RETHINK THINGS!
In all seriousness, it is my hope that churches across denominational lines will look at this poll and ask themselves tough questions about how we are living out the gospel. Don't ask about how we can get more people in the pews. Don't ask about what giveaway might attract a massive crowd. Don't look at megachurches and try to Xerox what they do. Just ask how our churches can follow Jesus. Numbers up or down, that is all any of us can do. It's all we should do.
It's super easy for me to sit here and shake my head as I mutter "Look at the institutional church. Screwing things up as it always does." But that would be hypocritical because the church goes where the people take it. And if I am honest with myself, I often take a results-based approach to my faith. Many times my motivation is not to walk humbly with God or to love those around me, but to be a good Christian. If I'm being really honest, the motivation is actually to be seen as a good Christian by others (though, to be honest, some of my theological positions have likely caused many people to jump from that ship).
Yet I can't be a good Christian if that is my goal. Maybe I can look like one. As Ben Savage said with Oscar winners, sometimes people slip through the cracks (which could relate back to churches as well). But it would all be a facade; the look of the genuine article, but a fake underneath. If I am striving towards this result—this picture of a good Christian in my head—rather than following God then I'm going to fail. That failure hurts me and it hurts the church.
All of this—the survey results, the Ben Savage interview, and my own life—intersects with something that the late Fred Craddock once wrote:
“When I was in my late teens, I wanted to be a preacher. When I was in my late twenties, I wanted to be a good preacher. Now that I am older, I want more than anything else to be a Christian. To live simply, to love generously, to speak truthfully, to serve faithfully, and to leave everything else to God.”
In all of this, let each of us and our churches want nothing more than to be Christians: to live simply, love generously, speak truthfully, serve faithfully, and to leave everything else to God.