Culture Shift – A Growing Religious Pluralism

American culture is changing rapidly.  In addition to the increasing secularization of our society, religious pluralism is another significant threat to Christianity.  A growing number of followers of other religious traditions surround us including Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.  How is the faithful Christian to respond?

wheresjesus

Where’s Jesus?

Several people have capitalized on the popularity of the old Where’s Waldo books and published Where’s Jesus? books.  You have to find the image of Jesus in the sea of people. Sometimes I feel like that when I look at our society.  As people become busier, care less about religion, and as other faith traditions grow in popularity it seems as if we have misplaced Jesus.

Religious Pluralism in America Today

According to the most recent Pew Forum Research Report, those who profess the Christian faith in America are on a sharp decline.[1]  The number of people who have “no religion” or identify themselves to be atheist/agnostic is on a sharp rise.

When people move to the United States they bring their faith traditions with them.  Many new residents come from other faith traditions, especially Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist.  This increase combined with a decrease of Christians means that Christianity is on the decline.

Consequently our neighborhoods are changing and will continue to change.  We will encounter more and more people of different faith traditions.  This trend is predicted to continue.  Over the next thirty years in America, Christianity is expected to continue this decline while atheism and other faith traditions are predicted to rise.

Christians (including Roman Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Mormons) are the largest religious group in America (78%), followed by those reporting no religion (which includes those who consider themselves atheists and agnostics), the third largest religious group is Jewish, followed by Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu.[2]

Buddhism in America is on the rise, reporting a large increase in converts since 1990.  The popularity of Zen Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, meditation and cultural practices continues to grow.  With 1.5 Million Buddhists reported, it is now America’s third largest religion. [3]

According to Pew Report, the Muslim faith is predicted to increase in North America especially in Canada (where it is estimated to triple) but also the United States (where it is expected to double) in the next 30 years.[4]

The population of Hindus in America is steadily increasing.  Interestingly, this is particularly true in North Texas as people move from Asia for high technology jobs.  Census numbers show that from 2000 to 2010, the Asian Indian population in Texas’ Collin County more than tripled.  The Dallas Morning News highlighted the construction of a new $7.5 Million Hindu temple in Frisco, Texas dedicated to the monkey god Karya Siddhi Hanuman.[5]

These statistics illustrate the reality of our changing cultural landscape.  In America, we recognize that we live in a society where “churches are shrinking and the Gospel is falling on deaf ears.”[6]  Every day we notice we are surrounded more and more by persons of other cultures and different religious traditions.  The question for the faithful Christian is “how are we going to respond?”

Paul a Missionary to Rome

Paul was a missionary.  Paul encountered gentiles with a pantheon of foreign gods – the Romans worshipped twelve gods and goddesses.   Rome was a metropolitan city with many cultures colliding and mingling.  In Paul’s sermons in the book of Acts his preaching has an urgency of evangelism – he wants to introduce people to Jesus Christ.  Paul preaches monotheism – one God.  Jesus is God incarnate – the Messiah and risen Lord of all.  Paul was clear about where he placed Jesus.  Not under or beneath or alongside other gods, but above.

Think Like a Missionary

Even though our predominantly Christian culture is now shrinking does not mean it is all bad.  Christians have an opportunity to be missionaries in our own context.  We can think like a missionary every day.  We have the opportunity to live out the gospel and to share the gospel with others.  For centuries missionaries have worked alongside non-believers and made honest friendships, waiting patiently for opportunities to share their faith.

How can we turn this seeming threat of religious pluralism into an opportunity?

First – Welcome others as Christ Has Welcomed You

The news coverage highlighting local Christians protesting for Muslims to go home and get out of our country is unbelievable and reprehensible.  I was shocked to see Christians on television protesting at a local civic center thinking this was a good idea or something Jesus would do.  Christians must let love speak – practicing the greatest commandment to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.

With Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists increasing as our neighbors we have a wonderful opportunity to practice what Jesus taught and love our Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu neighbors.  Be interested in their differences and engage in inner-faith dialogue.  Invite them to dinner.  Welcome them and their children.  Our first opportunity is to welcome others as Christ has welcomed us.

Second –Reclaim a Robust Christology

Last year I had an extremely interesting conversation with our seventh grade youth.  All of the children had a Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu friend at school.  All of them had engaged in friendly conversations at school about their respective faiths, holiday traditions and practices.  The overriding response of our youth was – “I didn’t know enough about my own faith to explain what Christians believe.”

They asked me questions like, “Why don’t we fast, my friend fasts for Ramadan?”  “Why don’t we pray throughout the day, my friend prays several times a day?”  “My friend says Christians believe in three gods, I tried, but I couldn’t explain the Trinity.”  “I didn’t know how to explain to them about Jesus.”

Even though they had spent years in Sunday school and gone through Confirmation, they confessed their inability to discuss the Christian faith with non-Christians.

I find many adults ill-equipped to confidently discuss the basics of the Christian faith.  Surrounded by other religions we need to be able to explain and articulate what we believe.  More than ever we are called to proclaim a strong and robust Christological understanding of the incarnation, resurrection and Trinitarian theology.

Jesus Buddha Mohammed

Some people like to show Jesus standing alongside of Buddha, Muhammed and Moses.  Jesus is not just another prophet, teacher or holy man.  We may believe in the same God, but when it comes to the worship of God our understanding is quite different because Christians worship a triune God – one God experienced in three ways – God the Father, God the Son Jesus Christ and God the Holy Spirit.  When we gather to pray, baptize, sing and send one another out we do so in the name of the Trinitarian God.  This is resolutely not understood and clearly rejected by the other religious faiths.[7]

Jesus Christ is the Son of God and our risen Lord.  Christians have the opportunity to claim a robust, vibrant, rich and full understanding of God.  “The encounter with Islam makes manifest how unique and rich our vision of God truly is.”[8]

Believers have a fresh opportunity to embrace the fullness and distinctiveness of the Christian tradition and reclaim it for this generation.  We must be clear on why we think Christian belief is true and why it matters.  We must have robust doctrines and theology within our local church, not a deficit of understanding or weak faith.

Third – Seek Christian Unity

Most of my ministry career I have seen deep divisions between Christians – the Catholics don’t agree with the Baptists, the Methodists disagree with the Calvinists, the non-denominationals are in competition with the main line Christian traditions.  In many towns the churches don’t speak to one another, work together or even pray together.  Mostly they compete against one another for members.  That must stop.

Christians have differences in doctrine, polity, ordination, sacramentology and the interpretation of scripture.  Instead of focusing on our differences we must focus on what we share in common. We must hold strong to our common belief in Jesus as the Son of God, Lord of all, Messiah and Savior of the world.  We are strong as we are united.

Jesus is not Misplaced, Jesus is Risen

Amidst the growing number of non-believers and religious pluralism – Jesus seems misplaced.  There were three women who couldn’t find Jesus one day — Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James.  They arrived at the tomb early on Sunday morning and Jesus was missing.  Gone.   Jesus wasn’t there where they expected to see him because he was risen.

Jesus is not misplaced, nor threatened by our American culture shift.  Jesus is our risen Lord,  powerful, mighty, merciful, loving, sitting at the right hand of God, Prince of Peace and Lord of heaven.

From Sermon preached by Rev. Jan Jokinen Davis at First Rowlett United Methodist Church on Sunday, February 8, 2015.  www.firstrowlett.org/media/audio.

Resources:

[1] Pew Forum, Pew Research – Religion and Public Life Project, Religious Landscape Survey (Pew Forum for Religious Life, 2010), http://religions.pewforum.org/reports.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jane Lampman, American Buddhism on the Rise (The Christian Science Monitor: September 2006).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Eden Stiffman, Construction of $7.5 million Karya Siddhi Hanuman temple to serve growing Hindu community, The Dallas Morning News, August 2013.  http://www.dallasnews.com/news/community-news/frisco/headlines.

[6] Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks – The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986) p. 6.

[7] William Abraham, from class notes from Evangelism and the Modern Culture discussion on his paper “God” in Christianity and Islam: are they the same “God”?

[8] William  Abraham, Shaking Hands with the Devil-The Intersection of Terrorism and Theology (Dallas, TX: Highland Loch Press, 2013), p. 5.

Culture Shift – The Rising Secular Tide

The current post-modern culture shift threatens Christianity as we know it. What are the problems and challenges posed by the rising tide of atheism and secularism?  How can Christians faithfully respond?  Where can we find opportunities?

A Rising Tide

I have heard that you should not turn your back on a rising tide.  My husband and I were at the North Carolina shore visiting family.  Planning to enjoy a day at the beach, we chose our position near the water, securing our umbrella and our beach chairs, spreading a blanket and planting my beach bag.  We left our things and enjoyed a lengthy walk along the shoreline, down to the pier and the light house.

Returning towards our spot on the beach, we noticed several items drifting in and out of the waves as they gently broke upon the sandy shore.  Someone’s umbrella was being tossed around in the ocean.  Someone’s beach chairs were being carried out to sea and pummeled by waves.  The extensive contents of someone’s cute beach bag were scattered all over the sand.

It did not take long to recognize that it was our umbrella, our beach chairs, our blanket and my cute beach bag.  Everything was strewn about the shore and covered with water.  The rising tide had covered our well selected spot on the beach and begun to carry our things out into the ocean.

The Progress of Secularism

For Christians today in Western Europe and North America, the rising tide of secularism can feel somewhat like that.  It seemed like we had established our place in this culture.  Christians enjoyed a prominent position for centuries.  We planted our things and felt secure.

We recognized the secular tide was rising, but when we turn our backs we find ourselves surprised by the progress it has made.  What Christians have established and depended on in this world seem to be upend in the coast line, pummeled by the waves on the secular shore.   Don’t turn your back on a rising tide.

Problems and Challenges of the Secular Culture

What are the major culture shifts currently experienced in post-modern North America and Western Europe?[1]

  • Atheism.  Those who identify themselves as having no religion, atheist, agnostic, deist or theist is on a sharp rise.  Atheists point to the history of religion and identify centuries of suffering, violence, war, corruption and hypocrisy – the world has tried religion and it has failed to save or improve us, therefore let’s try reason now.   There is an increasing confidence in technology and scientific discovery to save us – we are a generation that does not need God. 
  • Distrust of Institutions and Authority.  Our post-modern culture has become increasingly distrustful of large organizations and that includes organized religion.  Questioning authority is a priority – and that includes the authority of scripture and the development of the biblical canon.
  • Rationality.  The post modern world relies on rationality and scientific proofs for the validity of everything.  All beliefs are subject to scrutiny and criticism.  Religion’s claim to truth is tested in the public world of facts where science operates.[2]  On a popular Atheist website, the author asks the question “What do Atheists think about Christians?”  He responds, “What do I think of someone who believes that supernatural entities (e.g., gods, demons, angels, etc.) exist and have an important role in human affairs? I think they are wrong. Specifically, I think they are making a mistake by believing rather extraordinary things without sufficient evidence. By definition, this makes such beliefs irrational. The individuals who hold such beliefs may be quite intelligent, but these specific beliefs are not rational.”[3]
  • Privatization of Religion.  Our culture has separated the public from the private.  Individuals make decisions about faith and religion in an increasingly private way and do not discuss their faith life with others.  For the practicing Christian that means keeping our faith to ourselves and not discussing anything about religion in the public arena.
  • Moral Relativism.  Post-modern culture suggests that morality is determined by the individual.  I decide what is moral for me; you decide what is moral for you.  As long as people do not judge one another everything works okay.  One person should not impose their idea of morality on another.  Tolerance of differing moral views is the norm.[4]

Popular Cultural Expressions Portray the Church Negatively

You will notice these post-modern themes in nearly all of today’s movies, television shows and bestselling books.  In popular cultural expressions the church or Christians are often portrayed in a negative light.  Beyond thinking that religious belief is foolishness, post modern secularists are wary that Christians have made the world worse.  The rising tide of secularism contains more than concern or criticism, but a virulent attack on Christianity – undermining basic beliefs.

Paul Was a Missionary – So Are We

For the first time in Western Christian history we are missionaries in our own culture.  When I grew up in my small home town church we collected funds to send missionaries to faraway lands and share the gospel.  Now we have the unique opportunity in a growing secular, atheist and pluralist nation to be missionaries in our own back yard.

As missionary, Paul traveled to lands to tell the message of Jesus Christ.   Paul traveled to Corinth in the Roman province of Achaia.  Corinth was one of the most important cities of ancient Greece.  A large, modern, industrious city, Corinth was highly populated and filled with ethnic diversity.  It was known for its worldliness and immorality.  As a missionary, Paul brought his message to Corinth (Acts 18:1-11) in 51 C.E. and evangelized a small group of Christians.  Paul stayed with them about eighteen months teaching and preaching about Jesus and the message of the cross.  After he left them and went to Ephesus, he wrote them a letter.

Rugged Cross

Paul’s Message Is about the Cross

In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul establishes his message about the cross.  Paul has been raised to respect profound Greek learning, the rhetoric of Aristotle, the support of truths with logical argument.  Yet, the message of a crucified God that came to save the world – baffles human reason.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18 [NRSV]).

Who can understand this foolishness?  An anointed Messiah, the Son of the all mighty, all powerful God of the universe empties himself of divinity to experience the messiness and weakness of human existence.  God almighty creator of all things chooses to enter the world through the womb of a poor girl named Mary, born in a feeding trough for animals and raised by two simple, uneducated teenagers.

Who can comprehend a fully divine savior who empties himself of divinity to become fully human and experience humanity in all its messiness and meanness?  Who can understand a divine Messiah who spends time with outcasts, eats with sinners, and reaches out to the poor and the marginalized?

This divine king Paul preaches about lives his life as a poor, homeless, itinerant preacher.  This mighty powerful Savior of humanity rides into Jerusalem meek and humble on a donkey.  This powerful God dies the death of a criminal – executed on a cross a symbol of shame and torture – to save us.  What kind of God is this?

The message of the gospel may seem like foolishness, but it has power all its own.

Fresh Opportunities to Approach the Tide 

How will we approach the rising secular tide of post-modern culture?  By taking the message of the cross straight into the approaching waves.  The secular, post-modern world will hear anew the powerful, incomprehensible, beautiful message of Jesus Christ. We may consider secularism a threat to our Christian existence, or we may recognize that the threat is actually an opportunity.

  1. Think like a missionary. As missionaries the first thing we must do is understand the culture and learn its language just as if we were going to another country.  We must not be afraid of the culture, but learn about it, study it and be prepared to interact with it.  This is an era of evangelism that begins with relationships.  Paul went into cities and towns as a tent-maker.  He worked alongside of people and made relationships with them.  He did not rely on preaching in the synagogue or from a pulpit to reach people.  Those of you who work alongside those who do not believe in Christ have the same opportunity to be missionaries in today’s context.  That begins by building genuine authentic relationships.  Additionally it means keeping clear boundaries with the morality of secular culture and being clear about how we are to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in the world.
  2. Live a life that speaks the Gospel. What non-believers notice the most about Christians is their behavior.  How you live your life everyday is what is most important.  Live a life for the world to see – your coworker, your neighbor, people you shop alongside in the grocery store and who you exercise next to at the fitness center.  When others see your love it points them to the love of the one in whom you believe – the love of Jesus Christ.  John Wesley called that conspicuous sanctity – when we come to the Holy Spirit and allow God to mold us and improve us, we cannot help but shine as lights in the world – lights that point to Christ.  The time you spend seeking God in prayer and pouring over the scripture every morning will stay with you all day – others will see your light.
  3. When you have opportunity to share – share your story. Many of us have had so few opportunities to speak with non-Christians that when a non-believer asks us questions we don’t know what to say.  Share Your Stories.  Tell the story of Jesus.  The story of Jesus is simple and has a power all its own.  What Paul and the early apostles did and what missionaries have done throughout the centuries of Christianity is tell the story of Jesus.  Share your faith story.  You have experienced God in your life – you have experience the Holy Spirit’s presence.  You have had God’s promises fulfilled in your life.  You have had prayers that were prayed and answered.

Closing

The secular tide will continue to rise in America.  We can be afraid of it, complain about it, run away from it, put our heads in the sand, and move our sacred things to higher ground, or we can jump in, go for a swim, bringing the anchor of our faith along with us while shining the bright light of Jesus Christ into dark secular waters.

Preached by Rev. Jan Jokinen Davis at First Rowlett UMC on Sunday February 1, 2015.  The Culture Shift sermon series was inspired by Doctor of Ministry Course taught by Dr. Billy Abraham “Evangelism and the Modern Culture” Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

Resources:

[1] William Abraham, Evangelism and the Modern Culture class lecture, Doctor of Ministry Course Perkins School of  Theology SMU, January 2015.

[2] Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks – The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986) p. 6.

[3] Atheist Revolution.  What do Atheists think about Christians?  http://www.atheistrev.com/2009

[4] Ibid, Abraham.

[5] Ibid, Newbigin, p. 3.

[6] Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament 1 Corinthians 1.  http://www.biblestudytools.com