Culture Shift – Longing for More than Nominal Christianity

Has the fire gone out of American Christianity?  If the fire of the church seems to flicker like a weak flame it is because of the absence of the Spirit of God.  The fuel of Christianity is the fire of the Holy Spirit.

Our culture is changing rapidly and some have identified significant threats today’s American culture poses to the Christian faith.  I have considered the impact of the rise of secularization and the growing religious pluralism in our society in previous blog  posts.  An additional threat to Christianity in America is nominalism.

Nominalism

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary “nominal” comes from the root of the word for “name” and means “in name only.”[1]  On the 2010 U.S. census 78% of respondents marked the box “Christian” when they were asked to identify their religious belief – how many of those people are Christian in “name only?”[2]

Clearly American Christians are decreasing in practicing the faith.  Fewer people attend church on a regular basis.  Families are involved in a vast array of secular activities on Sunday mornings.  Christians enjoy coming to church for the programming or to connect with their small group, but many neglect coming to the sanctuary to worship God.

There is a rapid decline of commitment to faith in America.  When someone was asked 50 years ago if they attend church regularly and they responded “yes”, they meant they attended church every Sunday and probably Wednesday as well.  When someone is asked today if they attend church regularly and they say “yes” – they mean once every 3-5 weeks.  Many Americans may associate themselves with a Christian denomination but have not been to church or turned to God in prayer in years.  We have a large population in the U.S. who are Christians “in name only.”  Thirty years from now we will have an entire generation of children who have never been to church or been taught the faith.  The fire has gone out.

How Three Christian Leaders Responded to Nominalism

Wesley

John Wesley

One of John Wesley’s objectives in the 1740s was to rid England of nominal Christianity.[3]  British citizens belonged to the Church of England and attending worship was a matter of expectation.  Worship of God did not necessarily originate out of faith or religious belief.  Worship services were staid, sermons were boring, and the fire of the faith had certainly gone out.

John Wesley was a young, well-educated Anglican clergyman whose heart was strangely warmed in an evangelical conversion experience at Aldersgate.  This movement of the Holy Spirit in his life led him to do something absolutely unheard of at the time.  He walked out of the church and began to preach in the open air – in the market places, fields and near the entrance to the coal mines.

People flocked by thousands to hear Wesley’s preaching and were enthusiastically moved by the Holy Spirit.  This was the beginning of the Methodist revival movement within the Anglican Church that spread like wild fire throughout Great Britain and to North America.  Meanwhile, in the America Colonies, preachers like George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards preached in the new frontier sparking the First Great Awakening of Christianity in America.

Palmer

Phoebe Palmer

Phoebe Palmer was born in 1807 to a Methodist family in New York.  Throughout her life she longed for a deeper experience of the Christian faith.  She married and suffered terrible grief from the loss of children by miscarriage, turning to God in her crises.  Phoebe and her sister began a women’s prayer meeting they entitled  the “Tuesday meeting for the promotion of holiness.”

In time, it attracted men as well as women – including prominent theologians, several Methodist Bishops and other denominational leaders.  Word of these successful prayer meetings inspired similar gatherings around the country, bringing Christians of many denominations together to pray.

At a time when women were not trusted to vote and not allowed to speak in the church, Phoebe became the most influential woman in the largest, fastest-growing religious movement in America.  At her instigation, missions began, camp meetings evangelized, and an estimated 25,000 Americans converted.  She herself would often preach.  Phoebe is considered the founder of the Holiness movement in the United States which began as a renewal movement within the Methodist church; it was a fiery revival within Methodism.   It was a significant part of the Second Great Awakening in American Christianity.

Lanphier

Jeremy Lanphier

In the 1850s Americans were disillusioned with the Christian faith and spiritual things.  Preachers kept telling them the world was going to end and it never happened, so there was growing skepticism.  Agitation over slavery was causing great political unrest and civil war was threatening the country.  There was financial panic over bank failures and unemployment was on the rise.

The Dutch Reformed Church was steadily losing members in New York, largely because of population changes owing to immigration.  Jeremy Lanphier was a lay member of the little church and began a visitation program to reverse the decline.  Church members remained listless.

One day, Jeremy rented a hall on Fulton Street and advertised noon time prayer meetings.  Despite his advertisement, on September 23, 1857, only six people showed up.  But six people were six people. They prayed.  Next week more people came.  Next week there were more.  This prayer meeting grew each week until 10,000 people were gathering for prayer daily in New York City alone.  The prayer meetings spread throughout the United States – Chicago, Louisville KY, Cleveland, and St. Louis.[4]  Lay people led this prayer revival.  It was not a program of the church organized by clergy or denominational leaders.  The focus of the meeting was prayer and it led to the Third Great Awakening in the United States.

These three Great Awakenings in American history were led by ordinary people that God used to start revivals.  They were launched in response to the very things that are threatening Christianity today – rationalism, religious pluralism and nominalism.

Pentecost – The Promise of the Fire

In the first chapter of Acts we find the account of the ascension of Jesus.  Jesus is taken up to heaven, but before he leaves he gives his followers specific instructions.  They are to go to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit.  They have been baptized with water; now they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

The disciples ask Jesus,  “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6 [NRSV]).  What the disciples fail to understand is that God’s kingdom is not a geographical location, a territory or a political realm; it is the rule of God over human hearts.[5]  The kingdom of God has come, it is near, yet it is still not completely fulfilled yet. The kingdom of God is in the process of restoration.  We are in the in between time.

 

The restoration of American hearts to God

If we pray, “Lord, Thy kingdom come,” if we pray to God for the restoration or America to Christianity, what we really must ask for is not a restoration of a geographic area to God but a restoration of American hearts to God.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” (Acts 2:1-2 [NRSV]).

Fire appeared – tongues of flame sat above every person and they could speak in different tongues and understand different languages.  The Holy Spirit empowered them to do what God needed to be done to restore the kingdom of human hearts to God.

When they receive that power in Acts chapter two, there is an evident change.  Once men and women of fear, they are filled with boldness.  Once hiding behind doors that are locked, they unlock the doors and go out into the community to proclaim and witness to a resurrected Messiah.  The early Christians are a people “on fire”, ready to speak out and proclaim Jesus starting in their city, moving out through their nation and then as Christ instructs to the ends of the earth.

Our Response to Culture Shift

How does the story of Pentecost and the stories of the beginnings of the three Great Awakenings of Christianity inform our response to today’s Culture Shift?  What is the faithful Christian’s response?

First, Pray.  Pray and wait for the power of the Holy Spirit to come upon the Church.  Pray for a new and fresh outpouring of the fire of the Holy Spirit in our day.  Pray and wait.  This prayer need not be instructed by the clergy or elite of the church.  This prayer need be lifted up from the grass roots – it should begin with lay people, working people, everyday people out in the world in the streets in businesses coming together with other Christians regardless of denomination affiliation and seek God’s outpouring of the Spirit once again.

The Holy Spirit is what sustains the church, revives the church, restores and renews the church in every age and every generation all throughout the world.  We must not rely on our own power, but on the power of God.  It is God’s power that will move and change the world around us.  It is God’s power that will enable us to be witnesses of love.

Second, Move.  After Jesus ascended to heaven, taken up in a cloud, the disciples stared up into the sky for a long time looking after him.  Stunned, not knowing what to do, the angels standing near them said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11 [NRSV]).

This was not what they expected.  They were alone and on their own.  They did not know what they would do without their Lord and leader; they could not imagine that the promise that was coming was even greater than his physical presence.  The disciples were not to continue to stand there looking after Jesus, they had work to do.  The presence of Jesus will be with them in the spiritual outpouring they are about to experience.  They are to return to the city to be empowered for their prophetic witness.[6]

At Pentecost when the Spirit is poured out God’s presence became an indwelling presence available to every believer.[7]  The fire of God came as a flame that not merely rested over their head but filled their heart with a spiritual fire that fueled their lives, the work, ministry, movement and the founding of the Church.

Three, Revival.  The Christian Church in America is longing, aching, primed and ready for revival.  The next Great Awakening of American Christianity is at hand.  Now is the time for a new movement of the Spirit.  Now is the time for a new outpouring of fire, a new Pentecost.  The response to nominalism is revivalism.  Now is the time for the church to “catch fire!”

Preached by Rev. Jan Jokinen Davis on Sunday, February 15, 2015 at First Rowlett United Methodist Church.

Resources:

[1] Merriam Webster On Line Dictionary,  www.meriamwebster.com.

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

[3] William Abraham, recorded in Perkins School of Theology DMin class notes.

[4] Dan Graves, Jeremy Lanphier Led Prayer Revival, Christianity.com, accessed February 2015. http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1801-1900/jeremy-lanphier-led-prayer-revival-11630507.html

[5] Sacra Pagina, Acts of the Apostles, p. 29.

[6] Sacra Pagina, Acts of the Apostles, p. 30.

[7] William Arthur, Tongues of Fire, p. 15.

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.