I'm sure I don't have to tell you that our nation is undergoing a major shift in religious belief and participation. According to Gallup, church membership among U.S. adults is now below 50% for the first time since they have been tracking it. According to the latest Pew research study, only 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians, down 12% over the past decade.
The changing religious landscape taking place in our nation can be clearly seen right here in Omaha. And if you want to get a little closer to home, you can clearly see them right here at Holy Cross. In 2006, our average weekly worship attendance was 309. At the end of 2019, it was down to 146. That is more than a 50% decrease in 13 years. You may find it comforting to keep in mind that Holy Cross is not the only congregation experiencing this kind of decline. Almost every congregation is in decline.
Why is this happening? There are many, many answers to that question. Some I find helpful. Some I believe totally miss the mark. One of the most helpful ways I have found of thinking about this question is by reflecting on a different question asked by the philosopher, Charles Taylor, in his book, A Secular Age: “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say the year 1500, in our Western society, while in the year 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?” In other words, 500 years ago, when Martin Luther was alive, everyone believed in God; not to believe in God seemed almost impossible. But now, a mere 500 years later, the situation has reversed; many people now find it almost impossible to believe in God.
Some of the reasons for this change seem obvious. The vast increase in scientific knowledge is no doubt one example. Before scientific explanations, things unknown belonged to the realm of religion. But the more science explained, the less God seemed to do. In fact, many modern people have a hard time thinking that God really does anything. That doesn't mean they don't believe in God; they very well might. But what does it mean to believe in a God who doesn't do anything? Maybe the better question is, “What does it ‘look like’ to believe in a God who doesn't do anything?” I think it looks a lot like what we are seeing in our nation and right here at home: people no longer attending church or belonging to a faith community.
If part of the problem is that people have a hard time seeing God doing anything, then part of the answer is helping them see God at work in the world around them. However, as I listen to people explain why they have a hard time seeing God at work in the world, I more often than not understand where they're coming from. For example, if the way God works in the world is by keeping me safe when I'm driving (I've never been injured in an accident), then either God is giving me special treatment or I've just been lucky, because as we all know, many people do get injured in car accidents. Or if the way God works in the world is by getting people good parking places or helping them find their lost keys, should we be surprised people aren't very impressed with God's work? And I am in complete agreement when I hear people say: “If God caused that hurricane that killed dozens and left hundreds homeless,” or “If God allowed the school shooting to happen,” then “that's not a God I want to believe in.” The God I see revealed in Jesus, does not cause deadly hurricanes, or simply allow children to be shot and killed.
Therein lies a major part of the problem. Many Christians believe that's exactly how God does work. Don't believe me? Tune into any number of “prominent Christian preachers” after some horrendous event, and you will hear them explain exactly how and why God was behind it. However, it is my opinion that many Christians believe such things simply because they haven't really stopped and truly wrestled with what they believe. If you are like me, you were taught as a child to believe that God is all-powerful and fully in control. Maybe that explains why I so often hear even clergy explain something as horrific as the death of a child as simply “part of God's plan.” It's easy to just let ideas like these settle into our thinking without ever taking the time to think through the implications of such beliefs. If these are ways people hear that God is at work, is it any wonder that more and more people are turning away from God?
It's time to change the story! It's time to rethink some of the ways we talk about God. It's time to question some of our ideas about God that we formed as children and haven't reexamined since. It's time to speak up when we hear other Christians say that God sends disease and calamity to “punish sinners.” It's time to stop blaming God for all the bad things that happen. It's time to change the story. That's what we're going to attempt to do this summer here at Holy Cross.
Our summer worship series is “Change the Story: Rethinking Answers to Life's Most Important Questions.” Each week, we will wrestle with a different question and think about how we need to change the story so that our answer better reflects the God revealed in the person and work of Jesus.
Let me say up-front that this is a risky undertaking. First, we all tend to get a little defensive when we're asked to question long and often deeply held beliefs. Second, talking about God and how God works in the world is not like solving a math problem. There is not one indisputable right answer. But far too often we have allowed these risks to keep us from honestly wrestling with these questions. While our reluctance and silence may have helped keep the peace within the walls of our churches, I fear we have caused those outside our churches to lose interest in much of anything we have to say. And let's be brutally honest. Many people who grew up inside our church walls have also lost interest. The stories of God they grew up with have failed to capture their imaginations. But it's not their fault. And there is something we can do about it. It's time to change the story!
Here are the questions and topics we will be wrestling with throughout the series: