Should we really expect Christianity to be popular? That’s the question I have been thinking about. For many years now we all hear the stats, see articles, hear people talk about the “decline of the church.” The decline has to do with the membership in the institutional church – an organizational metric. Some might even say that this extends to the decline of the influence that the institutional church has on the wider culture.
And while numbers show the decline to be real in terms of membership, I still have to wonder – are we making a false assumption. Are we assuming that just because the church has had larger membership rolls and a large influence on the culture at large in the last 100 or so years, that this is the norm over the course of the last 2000 years? Or are we succumbing to a common human error – that we assume what we have experienced in our own lifetimes is the norm that we measure everything else against.
Are we forgetting that most churches in the US were small in membership numbers in the early 1900’s before the two world wars? The spike in membership happened in response to the World Wars and the devastation they wrought, the uncertainty they created, the search for meaning in the midst of death, etc.
Are we assuming that because entire towns in certain places had everyone as a member of the local church (this was certainly the case in Medieval Europe) that all those people were there because they cared about faith? There are literally stories about people being members of a church because it was good for business, people didn’t want to be seen as a troublemaker, people didn’t bother to fight the expectation and the social pressure that went with it, and more. And let’s not forget the fact that back in the day, there were actual punishments and social ostracism for people who went against the church. Far better to just play along and voice the creeds rather than go a different way and suffer the consequences.
But let’s get back to our current context and time. Regardless of the cultural influence of the church, the social aspect of the church, and what the official beliefs of any given church might be, there is something that we need to deal with – the mismatch of what is said and how it is lived out. Of course I’m coming at this from a particular lens, which makes me biased. I’m not talking about people being perfect in living out the faith either. That’s literally impossible. No one measures up to that. And I’m not even talking about a specific belief either. I’m talking about something else.
More often than not, this challenge comes in how we see Jesus – or rather how we perceive other people seeing Jesus. We have our own lens related to Jesus and his teachings and what it means to faithfully follow. And other people have a different way of seeing Jesus. We have difficulty seeing Jesus the way that these other people do. But I’m willing to bet those other people would have a similar difficulty in seeing Jesus the way we do. But I’m also willing to bet they see their way as perfectly congruent with what it means to follow Jesus.
This isn’t just a challenge for faith. It’s a challenge of human existence. How many examples could there possibly be of people not understanding how others interact with the world? Too numerous to count.
But let’s stick to faith here. Even those who interacted with Jesus (as recorded in the Bible) when he walked the earth didn’t understand what he was asking of them. There were those who literally turned away from Jesus. And the Gospels present Jesus as both popular and unpopular. He was popular with the crowds who sought out healing (but I wonder if they were there for more than that). He was unpopular with pretty much anyone in positions of authority (whether religious or secular). He was unpopular in whole towns (Gerasene townspeople begged him to leave after he cured the demoniac there, and his own hometown tried to throw him off a cliff because of his sermon).
I think we make a bad assumption when we assume that Christianity will be popular. What do I mean by this? I’m not talking about the institutional church here, although that can be in the mix. Rather I’m talking about the actual faith – the beliefs and the living it out. Sure Christianity is the largest religion in the world as far as number of people who claim to be Christian. But what does it mean to be a Christian? Is it just being a member of a church? Or does that mean baptisms? Or somehow claiming Jesus? Or what? The answers vary depending on who you ask.
When it comes down to it, faith has to do with being a disciple. Discipleship is about following Jesus. Following Jesus is about looking at Jesus, listening to what he says, and then applying those things and doing them. That’s a simple explanation. It’s not about getting it 100% right. The belief drives the action. And while we don’t earn anything from our actions, the actions are important because they are the expression of what we believe – what we do will always be congruent with the core of what we actually believe. Our stated beliefs aren’t always what we actually believe, which is why action doesn’t always match up with what we claim to believe.
So much of Christianity actually goes against the human inclinations of individualism. What Jesus teaches is not popular, even among his followers. Try loving your enemies and see how that goes. We like to claim that we love our enemies, but then there is the practical application of that – the living it out. We’re really good at either outright ignoring this or excusing our own behavior or thoughts towards those we deem to be an enemy. Just listen to American Christians words when it comes to those they perceive to be political enemies – doesn’t matter if we are talking about Donald Trump or Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi or Marjorie Taylor Green, etc.
That’s just one example – and a mild one at that. Jesus has plenty of other unpopular beliefs that he calls on his followers to live into. Just look at Jesus talking about money. Or about care of the poor. Or the stranger. Or possessions. Or forgiveness. Or mercy. Or…the list goes on and on.
Too often we twist Jesus into a figure we prefer, rather than taking him for who he is. We either soften Jesus or we make him a law and order guy. We want to see Jesus as like us, thinking like us, believing what we believe, rather than being challenged by him for what we believe and how it contrasts with what he taught. We have a habit of subjugating Jesus into a supporting character in our personal lives who is brought out the box we have made for him when it’s convenient for us, rather than seeing him as God. We make Jesus into our own image and likeness, rather than the other way around.
All of this reveals an ugly truth that try to bury deep within ourselves – the actual creeds that we adhere to and are guided by. These creeds can be summarized by the following phrases – Me first, the ends justify the means, might makes right, the strong survive.
Christianity, the actual following of what Jesus says and calls on followers to do, is unpopular. It is unpopular because at its core, it is in direct conflict with those other creeds. How else can I possibly make sense of cities that spend resources to bulldoze homeless encampments? It’s far easier to do that and essentially move the “problem” somewhere else and make it someone else’s problem rather than take responsibility and act with compassion, see the humanity, and have an eye towards trying to understand the systems that make homelessness possible in a wealthy society.
How else can I possibly make sense of how so many view immigrants as a “problem” to blame and scapegoat – throw people on a bus or plane and ship them off somewhere else and make them someone else’s problem, rather than see the humanity and address why people would leave their home and risk their lives to come here and how our policies may have contributed to the problem.
Of course I’m presenting these two issues in rather simplistic terms too. Homelessness and immigration are extremely complex issues with no easy answers. But is that any different than the issues that Jesus was addressing? Human relations are messy and complicated after all. Dealing with money and what it actually signifies, and means is not easy. Caring for the poor and outcast has never been easy and rarely if ever are there nice answers. Even Jesus said that the poor will always be with us. He didn’t offer that as an excuse, but rather to show how complex poverty is and that there are plenty of things and systems in place that will ensure that poverty will continue.
For me, all of this points to Christianity should not ever be assumed to be the popular way to live or address challenges. We’ve made a terrible assumption about that for centuries, fooled by membership numbers, buildings, influence, and so much more. Because comparing all of those things with actually living what Jesus said, we’re pretty far from hitting the mark.