Several months ago a Pew Research study sparked what almost seemed like shouts of glee from those who were eager to declare the impending death of Christianity in America.
According to the report, Millennials are leaving the Church in droves and, the theory went, if the next generation isn’t there to fill the pews, the future of the Church in America is bleak.
Which makes sense.
Not surprisingly, many Church leaders were quick to denounce such ominous conclusions as nothing but Chicken Little nonsense or at worst, they argued, the report more or less revealed an important separating of the wheat (real Christians) from the chaff (nominal Christians).
The future of the Church, we were told, is safe and secure.
To a certain extent I did and still do agree with those who cautioned that the death of the Church is not quite as near as the Pew Study might lead us to believe. Although I think some of the deflection amounted to No True Scotsman arguments, declining numbers don’t necessarily equate to death. Though, they should certainly cause the Church to pause and ask some serious questions about itself and its future.
After the initial shock wore off, I couldn’t help but think back on that debate when I heard about Jerry Falwell Jr.’s words to the students of Liberty University at the close of a recent chapel service. After revealing he was carrying a gun in his back pocket, Falwell declared, “I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them.”
Falwell then encouraged his students to get their own concealed carry permit (via a free school sponsored course) so that together they could “teach [those Muslims] a lesson if they ever show up here.”
His words were met with rapturous support by the student body.
As I sat in stunned silence, my inner Star Wars nerd couldn’t help but channel the words of Padmé Amidala.
So this is how Christianity dies…with thunderous applause.
For a while now, declining Church attendance, the rise of the nones, and an increasingly secular society have all seemed like the biggest threats to the future of Christianity in America.
But that is not where the existential danger comes from.
The future of Christianity in this country isn’t threatened by shifting demographics.
The Christian faith in America is on life support because far too many of us have simply stopped living like Jesus.
Christianity is facing an existential crisis in America not because our pews aren’t quite as packed as they used to be, but because – through an embrace of violence, hatred towards Muslims, callous rejection of refugees, demonization of the LGBT community, and a whole host of starkly anti-Christian actions – we’ve allowed the gospel of Jesus to be supplanted with sanctified and extreme right wing politics.
It’s no secret that American Christianity has been hijacked by the political right since at least the days of the Moral Majority. But in recent months and years we’ve witnessed a full-frontal assault on the particular and peculiar values that define the Christian life.
For example, the way of Jesus is a way of peace and a sometimes unfathomable commitment to nonviolence, but American preachers can now carry an instrument of death into a space dedicated to the proclamation of life and be met with boisterous applause.
The way of Jesus is one of radical inclusion where new paths are blazed to welcome in those shunned by dogma and religious authority, but the identity of Christianity in America has become all but synonymous with the list of those who aren’t truly welcomed within our doors.
The way of Jesus demands we care for the sick as if we were caring for Christ himself, but we’ve gone out of our way to try to deny healthcare to anyone we’ve decided hasn’t earned it.
The way of Jesus finds good even in those of other faiths, but we’ve made hating and ostracizing Muslims one of our top priorities.
The way of Jesus places caring for the stranger at the center of salvation itself, but in our fear we’ve closed our hearts and our borders to immigrants and refugees in need, leaving them to drown in the open sea, wither in the desert, and fall victim to unspeakable evil in their homeland.
There are manifold explanations for how we got here, but at its root, authentic Christianity is being eradicated in America because the way of Jesus has been replaced by a list of ideas which, once agreed to, apparently liberate us from actually living like Jesus.
We say we believe in the Bible and God and that Jesus rose from the dead, but once we claim our certificate of orthodoxy we seem to think we’ve been freed from the obligations of grace, from the cost of discipleship, from the way of Jesus that is defined not simply by the ideas in our head but the actions of our lives.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
The way of Jesus is not simply a sales pitch meant to convince us to agree to a list of doctrines in order to avoid hell.
It’s a call to a particular and peculiar way of life.
We can believe all the “right” things, but orthodoxy does not emancipate us from orthopraxy. Rather, it demands we live out the radical, revolutionary, and world changing faith we’ve embraced.
Sadly, we live in a strange place and time where it seems that publicly assenting to the right dogma is some sort of sanctified Get Out Of Living Like Jesus Card.™ This is why Jerry Falwell Jr. can carry a gun into sacred space and call for the death of his enemies even though Jesus unequivocally declared “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” and “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Despite the glaring incongruity, Falwell’s students can applaud and his admirers defend his pseudo-righteous call to “self-defense” because because he’s already confessed his assent to the core list of right ideas. Anything he says or does beyond that is of marginal consequence – even if it directly contracts the life and teaching of Jesus.
This is the sad, cheap state of Christianity in America.
It’s Christianity without discipleship, Christianity without the cross, Christianity without Jesus Christ living and incarnate.
It no longer matters if we actually live like Jesus, so long as we agree that Christian dogma is true.
Thankfully, Christianity will almost certainly never completely die off in America (and is no doubt thriving in unexpected and isolated pockets of our country), but Christianity as a particular and peculiar way of life directly reflective of Jesus of Nazareth sure seems to be on life support.
And unless more Christians are willing to speak out and denounce the demonic theology being proclaimed in the name of Jesus, we might as well go ahead and pull the plug.
Because regardless of shifting demographics, without authentic discipleship, the future of Christianity in America looks hopeless.