Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Religious Revival?

The latest issue of The Christian Century (Feb 6, 2013)  includes an interview with Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, who has just written a book called God is Alive and Well. It includes some good news for people who care about religion in America. Based upon a tracking project from 2008 that included 350,000 interviews a year about faith and belief, Newport says that there are signs that the United Sates may be "on the cusp of a religious renaissance."

Now for the harder news: within this potential context for growth, Newport is asked specifically about mainline Protestants. His response:
For any group to grow, whether it's a country or a church, you have to have more people coming in than going out. For example, the Catholic Church holds its own in terms of percentage of the American population because of the immigration of Hispanics. But there is no massive immigration of Protestants. Second, there has been no evidence that they have been able to evangelize effectively. And third, one way you grow is to have high fertility rates. Mormons are doing that well because their theology encourages big families. But Presbyterians, for example, have fewer children on average [than other Americans.] So if you look at all the ways that churches could grow, the mainline Protestants haven't been able to hit the nail on the head with any of them.
What to do? My experience as a pastor does tell me that people are spiritually hungry. The parish I serve does not tend to do evangelism well with people who are unchurched, but we do quite well with people who have been malchurched. And I think there is a rather large mission field out there in that group!

At a recent gathering of our vestry we shared stories about how we came to be at St. Francis and only three of the sixteen people in the room had grown up as Episcopalians. Many felt almost immediately "at home" when they finally discovered the well kept secret that is The Episcopal Church. How did they come to be here? Almost to a person, because someone said to them, "come and see..."

While we as a nation are even now seeking to create a more just immigration policy, I think it would be naive to think that the policy that emerges will bring more mainline Protestants to our shores. And as a parent of two boys, I think there are good and practical reasons for smaller families than the ones many of us grew up in.

So that leaves evangelism, a word that does not role off the tongues of most mainliners, and particularly Episcopalians. Yet the Greek root of the word is the same as gospel. It means "good news."  We need to learn again how to be a people who "go and tell" that good news.

At its core, evangelism is (as D.T. Niles once put it) "one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread." Perhaps that is where we begin (again) - as witnesses to what we have seen and heard. Not force-feeding anyone to believe as we believe, or frightening people with eternal darkness if they do not join our church. Rather, to simply bear witness to the love of God we have experienced in Jesus Christ: and yes, sometimes that means with words. To live more fully from that  experience of love that transforms and heals broken lives, a love that calls us to discipleship.

If we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, and eaten the bread of life that fills our hungry hearts; how can we possibly keep silent about that?

No comments:

Post a Comment